Random finds (2018, week 46) — On the cult of busyness, history as a “guide to life,” and “War Is Done!”
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, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity.
This week: Busyness as status symbol; why the public future of the past is now firmly in historians’ hands; Siegfried Sassoon and the final hours of World War I; why Elena Ferrante doesn’t like the classification of human beings into winners and losers; measuring what matters; small pieces loosely joined together in Istanbul; Jimmy Nelson’s Homage to Humanity; beautiful architecture by Abraham John Architects; and, finally, ‘some’ Einstein.
The cult of busyness
This hasn’t always been the case, though. In earlier societies, such as the 19th century, which Thorstein Veblen describes in Theory of the Leisure Class, the wealthy saw idleness as an ideal. Today, however, we praise being overworked and see busy individuals as possessing rare and desirable characteristics, such as competence and ambition. To respond philosophically, we need only return to the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who described boredom as a prequel to creation: “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”
“Kierkegaard is known for his philosophical account of boredom, which is often associated with idleness. If busyness is the opposite of idleness, perhaps he can diagnose busyness also,” Aho and Evans write.
“Kierkegaard’s work emphasizes indeterminate experiences — experiences that are not about some particular object or thing. Kierkegaard’s discussion of anxiety is perhaps the best known example of this sort of experience. For him, anxiety is always about the indeterminacy of future possibilities. It is not worrying about some specific thing, such as embarrassing oneself on the first day of school.
With this feature of Kierkegaard’s philosophy in hand, we can now consider his understanding of boredom and busyness.”
For Kierkegaard, a person is not bored by some particular experience but they are bored by their inability to pay attention to and glean meaning from those experiences. “Boredom rests upon the nothing that interlaces existence,” he writes under a pseudonym in Either/Or. “The solution to boredom that Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author proposes is a method called ‘rotation of crops.’ This method involves changing the way one approaches experiences by approaching them as occasions for imaginative reflection rather than as those experiences are,” Aho and Evans write.
Kierkegaard’s view of boredom is crucial for his understanding of busyness. In Works of Love, he uses an agricultural metaphor to describe the latter:
‘’… the busy people sow and harvest and again sow and harvest (busyness harvests over and over again), […] the busy people store the barns full of what they harvested and rest upon their gains — alas, […] the person who truly wills the good in the same span of time does not see even the smallest fruit of his labors and he becomes the object of ridicule as someone who does not know how to sow, as someone who labors in vain and is merely shadowboxing …’’
“This passage can be read in light of Kierkegaard’s account of boredom. Like the bored person who rotates their crops, the busy person is described by way of an agricultural metaphor: sowing and harvesting and sowing again. And the bored person and busy person’s similarities do not stop there. The busy person is also experiencing something indeterminate, and is, like the bored person, worse off for doing so,” Aho and Evans argue.
“For Kierkegaard, busy people are experiencing something indeterminate because their activities are not directed towards some particular good. The busy person may seem busy with some specific activity. In the case of the agricultural example in the passage above, the busy person appears busy with sowing and harvesting. The busy person sows and harvests and rests upon these gains. But what is the purpose of this rest? Only to begin once more, for ‘busyness harvests over and over again.’ There is nothing gained by the cycle other than rest from the labor it requires. Since there is nothing definite gained by this busyness, we can characterize it as involving something indefinite — just like anxiety and boredom.”
“Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing … We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.” — Seneca in On the Shortness of Life
“In light of Kierkegaard’s discussion of busyness from ‘Works of Love,’ the rotation of crops may not appear to be an attractive strategy. Crop rotation requires constantly seeing the actual world as an occasion for imagination. It thus […] requires constant activity, and it is incompatible with meaningful, enduring commitments. If this is the case, this ‘aesthetic’ solution to boredom found advanced by Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author [of ‘Either/Or’] may merely be another form of busyness.”
How then might people escape busyness?, Aho and Evans wonder.
“Kierkegaard’s discussion of busyness in ‘Works of Love’ may provide a clue. By contrast with the busy people who harvest repeatedly, the person who wills the good has no immediate gains to rest on. Their action — unlike that of the busy people — is in pursuit of something meaningful, even though they receive no apparent reward for it,” Aho and Evans write.
But recent psychological research suggests there may be other benefits too. Helping others can result in helping oneself. “Pursuing particular goods — like striving to help the particular people you see, as Kierkegaard recommends elsewhere in ‘Works of Love’ — might thus provide us with the specificity we need to escape indeterminacy and the phenomena like anxiety, boredom, and busyness that accompany it.”
See also Why boredom is good and Bertrand Russel’s 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness in last week’s Random finds.
History as a “guide to life”
Public debate is afflicted by short-term thinking. How did history abdicate its role of inspiring the longer view?
“It has long been fashionable to say that the globe is shrinking. In the wake of the telegraph, the steamship and the railway, thinkers from the late 19th century onwards often wrote of space and time being annihilated by new technologies. In our current age of jet travel and the internet, we often hear that the world is flat, and that we live in a global village,” David Armitage and Jo Guldi write in Bonfire of the humanities. “Time has also been compressed. Timespans ranging from a few months to a few years determine most formal planning and decision-making — by corporations, governments, non-governmental organisations and international bodies. Quarterly reporting by companies; electoral cycles of 18 months to seven years; planning horizons of one to five years: these are the usual temporal boundaries of our hot, crowded, and flattened little world. In the 1980s, this myopic vision found a name: short-termism. Short-termism has no defenders. Everyone seems to be against it, and yet proponents of alternatives are also in short supply.”
One prominent opponent of short-termism is Stewart Brand, founder in the 1960s of the Whole Earth Catalog. “The Long Now Foundation does look to the past, for example with its ‘de-extinction’ project, Revive and Restore, to bring defunct species back to life using genomic technology. But Brand’s most imaginative solution to short-termism is to look further into the future.” This is also the principal message of the Clock of the Long Now, a slow-moving mechanism being built in a Texas mountain that will run for 10,000 years.
But what Brand and also others have missed, Armitage and Guldi write, is the need to look deeper into the past as well as further into the future.
“The humanities departments of our universities should be the place to go for a long look in the rear-view mirror. After all, universities have been among the most enduring institutions humans have created. […] The mission of the humanities is to transmit questions about value — and to question values — by testing traditions that build up over centuries and millennia. And within the humanities, it is the discipline of history that provides an antidote to short-termism, by giving pointers to the long future derived from knowledge of the deep past.”
But also many historians have turned towards a shorter vision of the past. “A recent survey of some 8,000 history dissertations written in the US since the 1880s has shown that the average period covered in 1900 was about 75 years; by 1975, that had shrunk to about 30. […] Only in the past decade has it rebounded again to somewhere between 75 and 100 years,” Armitage and Guldi write. “Moving to a Short Past, without an eye to action or a tilt towards the future, marked professional skill but also broke historians from their long-developed habit of informing the public sphere. More immediately, the Short Past marked a retreat from what the great French historian Fernand Braudel had called the longue durée (meaning, the long term).
The longue durée informed political decision-making and institution-building in the first half of the 20th century in ways that it would not in the second. The move away from history was partly due to the ascendancy of other forms of academic advice, most notably from economists. But it was also partly self-inflicted, as historians refined their work to make the past unusable for political purposes — at least, the purposes of national and international governance. Long-term narratives still had a hold but they came not from members of history departments but from global think tanks: from demographers deployed by the Club of Rome in the 1970s or by futurologists employed by the RAND Corporation in an age of ‘limits to growth’ and the ‘population bomb.’ Theirs was a ‘dirty’ longue durée, produced more for present purposes than for its critical stance towards contemporary pieties. These non-historians dealt with an impoverished array of historical evidence to draw broad-gauge conclusions about the tendency of progress.”
Fernand Braudel “offered history as the only discipline capable of explaining how immediate events fit into larger, indeed, longer patterns. He charged that economists, like many of his fellow historians, concentrated too much on spans of 10, 20, 50 years at most. That was no way to see how critical events emerged from deeper structures. The answer, then, was to work on a different horizon, a history measured in hundreds or even thousands of years: the history of a long, even very long duration.”
But according to Armitage and Guldi, “[t]he opportunity to array the longue durée against endemic short-termism has arrived with a vengeance. The most pressing problems of our time — for example, climate change, crises of global governance, the proliferation of inequality — have no simple solutions because they have such deep roots. But disentangling is what historians do. We are trained to balance different forms of data against each other, to be alert to the complexity of causality, to consider how long-term structures interact with short-term determinants. Where other social scientists value parsimony — the most stripped-down, cleanest explanation or analysis of a problem — historians prefer profligacy, a multiplicity of sources against which to calibrate causation and to foresee the conflicted futures arising from multiple contested pasts.”
“The public future of the past is now firmly in historians’ hands. History as a discipline is poised to recover its ancient mission as the guide to life but in a new guise as a critical human science, capable of judging data, incorporating it into complex narratives, and presenting its conclusions in forms accessible to the widest possible range of publics as well to those who make the policies that shape all of our lives. Historians now have more evidence — more data — in more forms available to them than ever before. Using digital materials and the tools to make sense of this data, historians can perform analytical feats that would have required a lifetime of immersion a generation ago.
The return to the longue durée is not just feasible, it is imperative: feasible, because of the resources to hand and the means to make sense of them; imperative, because of the proliferation of big data in every aspect of our lives and the necessity of fighting back critically against those who might wield its powers of shock and awe against us. The world might have shrunk but the collective challenges facing its people have grown only more apparent, in all their complexity. At a time of ever-expanding inequality — within societies, if not between them — when international institutions have reached breaking-point; and when anthropogenic climate change threatens our water and our food, our political stability and even the survival of our species, even the most basic apprehension of our condition demands a scaling-up of our enquiries.”
The History Manifesto (2014), by David Armitage and Jo Guldi, is published by the Cambridge University Press, and is available as a free download here.
“War Is Done!”
“The hands of the clocks reached 10:59 am, the last minute of the war on the Western Front. In that last minute before 11:00, clock-watching men listened to the tick-tick-tick of the watch and the tick-tock of the clock. At Oudenaarde, Philip Clayton had bought mouth organs and handed them out to troops, so that they had something to play when peace arrived. On the River Dender in Belgium, British troops had reportedly attacked a village called Lessines at 10:55, securing a bridgehead at 10:58 and taking the village at 10:59, eventually capturing four officers and 102 other ranks. The pessimist might be able to understand such foolhardiness: the war could resume again soon, maybe within hours, so it was sensible to take as much land and as many prisoners as possible while the enemy were at their weakest. But an attack by Canadian troops near Mons at 10:58 resulted in the death of Private George Lawrence Price. A Liverpool Pals battalion was at the France–Belgium border near Clairfayts when ‘at 10:59 am, Captain R. West, the Staff Captain of the 199th Brigade, rode up with a message to the effect that all hostilities would cease at 11:00.’ Artillery fired their last shells, often with tremendous intensity, right up to the cease-fire. If nothing else, they were disposing of shells so that they didn’t have to transport them back to base or back to Britain. Germans died in fighting near Ath on the verge of the cease-fire. American soldier Henry Gunther died at 10:59 and is considered to be the last soldier to be killed in the war, when he was shot by a machine gun at Chaumont-devant-Damvillers.”
From: “War Is Done!” — The sights and sounds of the final hours of World War I, by Guy Cuthbertson (Lapham’s Quarterly).
World War I Issue
Coverage by Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells, Gertrude Stein, W.E.B. DuBois, H.L. Mencken, and more-plus dramatic images…
Photographs from: The Fading Battlefields of World War I (The Atlantic).
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on — on — and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Siegfried Sassoon, April 1919
And also this …
“Or maybe I don’t understand it. I think of the symbols that identify a winner. Money, above all — that is to say, the possibility of acquiring expensive objects, and a taste for displaying them as proof of your superiority. Or the exercise of power, demonstrating by very subtle means that you are high up in the hierarchy. Or the sort of aristocracy that derives from media fame, a blue blood of celebrity ensuring that you don’t have to earn people’s attention every time — you’re recognised enthusiastically, at first sight. Or the permanent mise-en-scène of happiness: someone who has a lot of money exercises power, enjoys the status of a VIP, and therefore must be happy.
Except that all these symbols of the winner’s position soon reveal themselves to be less than genuine and, above all, precarious. Money, power, fame, glory, happiness — all are quick to show cracks. And every time this image of the winner collapses, and the appearance of victory turns to failure, the idea of the loser collapses, too; that category of people who have no expensive possessions, no power, no fame, only a sense of unhappiness resulting from their impression of having failed.
Maybe the true spectre behind this classification into winners and losers is precisely that, the fear of failure. It was the thing that as a girl I feared most. Failing in school; failing to get a job; failing any test, be it athletics or maths. I put an exhausting amount of effort into everything that had even the appearance of a competition, because I sensed that one failure leads to another, and that that’s where the list of the good and the bad originates. When you end up on the list of the bad, it becomes difficult to cross over on to the list of the good.”
“It took me a long time to understand that those classifications are as cruel as they are arbitrary. They pretend that neither socioeconomic inequalities nor sexual and racial discrimination exist, nor the extremely culpable waste of intelligence that results. We draw up lists of the good and the bad as if the many privileges deriving from chance aren’t there: your place of birth, your family, the inequality of opportunities.
Even today, in this so-called advanced part of the world, the conditions at the point of starting out are too unjust to think of as a competition in which the odds are not stacked. If I could, I would eliminate concepts such as failing, winning and losing, which no longer have any basis. If it were really necessary, I would confine myself to a competition like the caucus race that Alice encounters in Wonderland. Nobody loses, everybody wins and there is no failure.”
In Measuring What Matters, Steve Marshall writes how throughout education we advocate co-operation, collaboration and participation, while at the same we continue to separate and fragment our community efforts through our use of structures for assessment that divide and isolate.
“It’s the same in most industries; shared reward for group or company success is rare. Bonuses are paid opaquely to individuals and executives are rewarded for the achievements of others.
Ten years ago, our kids instinctively knew that the best chances of finding their way was to work together. The same is true today.
If we are going to continually measure ourselves and work in systems that provide differential reward, then let’s at least measure the things that matter; collaboration, sharing, kindness, support of others and participation. This kind of collective effort is essential if we are to face the problems of an ever smaller world effectively and the choice for each of us is clear.
As Margaret Wheatley says simply, ‘We can choose to be in this together. Or not.’’”
“While I waited for my food, I noticed an order of köfte going out of the kitchen…to a diner at the restaurant across the street. When he was finished, the staff at that place bussed the dishes back across the way. Meanwhile, my meal arrived and the köfte were flavorful and tender and juicy, exactly what I wanted…no wonder the place across the street had outsourced their meatballs to this place. I’d noticed the owner, the waiter, and the cook drinking tea, so after I finished, I asked if I could get a tea. The owner nodded and started yelling to a guy at the tea place two door down. A few minutes later, a man bearing a tray with four glasses of tea arrived, dropping one at my table and the other three for the staff. Just then, a server from the place across the street came over to break a 100 lira bill. Me being a big nerd, this all reminds me of Unix and the internet, all of these small pieces loosely joined together to create a well-functioning and joyous experience. There’s only one thing on the menu at Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi, but you can get anything else within yelling distance. I declined dessert … who knows where that would have come from.”
Jimmy Nelson has spent the last 30 years photographing indigenous cultures around the world, culminating in his latest project Homage to Humanity.
“This time, his work has been produced not only in the form of a book, but also digitally, with an app that has the capacity to scan over every photograph in the book, and to bring them to life with interviews and films. This allows people to see the making of the work, and to understand the process behind it.
This new way of bringing people into the closed worlds of these indigenous tribes combines their traditions with our technology. As we increasingly spend more time than ever on our smartphones, Nelson asks us to use them to contemplate the lives of people who have perhaps never handled this technology. ‘It is important that we learn from these people,’ Nelson explains, ‘Hopefully their way of life can help us hold a mirror up to our own.’ And perhaps there is no better mirror than our beloved smartphones.”
Via British Journal of Photography, Portrait of Humanity: Keeping “the other” away is a disaster for our planet.
“In architecture space is time. In architecture light is defines form. In architecture the route surprises. In architecture rough materials convey elegance. In architecture the function is being there. In architecture the shadow reveals the beauty.” — Álvaro Siza + Carlos Castanheira
“At Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, I found Einstein a simple, kindly, almost childlike man, too great for any of the postures of eminence. One did not have to understand his science to feel the power of his mind or the force of his personality. He spoke sadly, yet serenely, as one who had looked into the universe, far past mankind’s small affairs. When I asked him what the world would be like were another atomic bomb to be dropped, he replied wearily, ‘Alas, we will no longer be able to hear the music of Mozart.’” — Yousuf Karsh