Russell Arben Fox, who lives in Wichita, Kansas, and has been thinking about this series I’m writing:
The literature on cities as the vanguards or birthplaces of basic liberal and cosmopolitan insights and practices — pluralism, tolerance, individual rights, civil society, economic specialization, political freedom, trade — is vast. But so is the literature on the qualities and virtues of rural and small town life — participatory democracy, communitarian solidarity, self-governance, authenticity, agrarianism, long-term sustainability. It really isn’t at all difficult to express cities and country life, with their various marginal cases, by way of a couple of broad types: city life is liberal and individualistic and fast-paced and consumption-based and filled with opportunity and risk; country life is conservative and socially restrictive and leisurely-paced and land-based and filled with attachment and “satisficing.” Neither type is fully accurate, of course, but they have their theoretical uses. Do mid-sized cities have a similar use? If only to help us think about environmental and economic and civic and moral problems, so as to give us as human beings — social creatures that we are — a handle on the difficult problem of tipping points: when is a city too small, or too large, to be able to legitimately associate itself with this or that particular end? I don’t know. I don’t know if it might be that, throughout history, the mid-sized city (which, in my mind, is some combination of: 1) geographic isolation (which itself is a technology-dependent judgment), and 2) a population from 100,000 to 500,000 people — but what do I really know about it?) has actually filled some important, unstated, conceptual hole in our social imagination. Then again, maybe there isn’t anything at all unique or worth particular respect when it comes to the mid-sized city — maybe, in terms of their public amenities and urban problems and environmental costs and economic opportunities, they’re just communities stuck midway between either growing/bloating to some sufficient/too-big size, or shrinking/reducing to a more-reasonable/less-productive scale. And, of course, constitutional matters — local empowerment, federal arrangements, and all the rest, come into play here as well. Perhaps a mid-sized city, unlike huge metropolises, can be managed in a way so as to cultivate the sort of practices associated with small town environments, or perhaps they can be developed so as to attract, unlike rural areas, the sort of investments and opportunities that normally require a significant critical mass of people. Or perhaps both such possibilities are pointless goals, utterly inappropriate to the average city which is neither large nor small enough.
In response to this post I wrote, “As I get older I think more and more frequently of the late Bernard Williams’s claim that ‘We suffer from a poverty of concepts.’ In focusing so much of our critical attention on the ideal types of The Urban and The Rural — the country-and-city dichotomy that goes back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, that is, as far back as anything cultural goes — we accept an impoverished analytical vocabulary. This can be seen in the vacuity of the notion of “suburbia”: we attribute that vacuity to people who live in suburbs when the real emptiness is in our own concepts. All those gradations of cultural experience and practice left unacknowledged! We can and should do better.”
I really, really hope Russell — who knows a great deal about the polis and its forms I don’t know — will work on these ideas during his sabbatical.
I’m also reminded of Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos. Nagel — an esteemed philosopher and, yes, an atheist — argues that scientific materialism cannot account for the existence of consciousness. Instead he posits a teleological explanation: the universe possesses an innate tendency to move in that direction. The cosmos wants, as it were, to become aware of itself, which it does through creatures like us. As for the idea that consciousness emerged through natural selection, Nagel simply says that it flies in the face of common sense. Well, science is built on the corpse of notions of what counts as common sense. Meanwhile, Nagel makes no attempt to explain how his teleological principle arose or might operate. It sounds a lot to me like God.
Krauss and Nagel’s views are hardly in the same league as the planet Kolob or the Book of Abraham, but they confirm our inability to rid ourselves of mystical beliefs. We just can’t seem to accept the fact that this is all there is. That’s what really needs to be explained.
“The fact that this is all there is.” The fact.
William Deresiewicz is a fairly well-educated — though not, as it happens, in science or in religion — member of a fairly advanced society, as societies go, of the apex-predator species on one of eight or so planets that circle one of two hundred billion stars that fill one of five hundred billion galaxies in the universe. Assuming — which of course cannot safely be assumed — that there is but one universe. But William Deresiewicz knows as a fact that what he can perceive with his particular sensory configuration is “all there is.”
Reading The Slurve this morning — and you do all subscribe to The Slurve, do you not? You are people of wisdom and discernment, are you not? — I found myself meditating on strikeouts and stigmas. If there’s one thing that we at The American Conservative are likely to agree on, it’s that America has become stigma-averse and needs to get back in the stigmatic game, so to speak. And why not start with strikeouts?
As even casual historians of baseball know, for much of the game’s history the strikeout was something to be avoided at all costs. When a batter got two strikes on him, he was expected to shorten his swing, choke up on the bat an inch or two, and just make contact with the pitch. The idea was that if you swing and miss nothing good could happen, whereas if you put the ball in play several good things (from the batter’s point of view) can happen: a base hit, a fielding error, a throwing error, a baserunner advancing on a fielder’s choice. Striking out was stigmatized because it takes these possibilities off the table.
Babe Ruth’s disregard for such prudential thinking was legendary in his day: purists were shocked at his refusal to change his swing with a two-strike count. Yet the Babe’s highest strikeout total for a single season was 93, a total exceeded by 136 players in 2012. (That same year, 1923, he got 205 hits, walked 170 times, and had an OPS of 1.309 — pretty much an average year for him in the 1920s.) Joe DiMaggio eschewed strikeouts so vigorously that until the last years of his career he had more home runs than strikeouts, and finished his career with 361 homers and 369 strikeouts. Adam Dunn strikes out that many times in a year and a half.
Again, all this is well-known. The question — or the first question I’ll ask here, anyway — is whether high strikeout rates are a problem. Was DiMaggio being too careful? Should he have accepted more strikeouts in order to have a chance to hit more homers? In general modern sabermetric analysis is okay with strikeouts, though some people dissent when hitters get into Adam Dunn territory. But the evidence here is not conclusive, and it’s certainly possible to imagine statheads arguing for some corrective plate discipline — especially if umpires keep calling high strikes, which is to say, come closer to respecting the strike zone that’s actually in the rule book.
There’s another issue here, too, an aesthetic one: In my judgment, a game with fewer strikeouts is a far more interesting game. Whether sabermetric canons of batting efficiency support cutting back on strikeouts or not, aesthetic canons — my aesthetic canons, anyway — say: More balls in play means more action and more fun.
So here’s my second question: If batters keep swinging from the heels, and umps keep calling high strikes, and front offices start getting concerned about high strikeout rates, and fans lose interest in watching C. B. Bucknor ring batters up, can a stigma against strikeouts be effectively restored? Hitters have been strikeout libertines for so long now that it’s hard to imagine a more strait-laced ethic reigning again. The last person to hit over 20 home runs and have fewer strikeouts than homers was Barry Bonds, in 2004: 45 homers, 41 strikeouts. It might be impossible to get anyone to see Bonds as a model of rectitude, but let’s try, shall we? And let’s see whether an act that has lost its stigma can regain it. That would be quite encouraging to those of us who share a conservative disposition.
From Jessa Gamble’s essay “Life Without Sleep”:
Around the turn of this millennium, the biological imperative to sleep for a third of every 24-hour period began to seem quaint and unnecessary. Just as the birth control pill had uncoupled sex from reproduction, designer stimulants seemed poised to remove us yet further from the archaic requirements of the animal kingdom….
The question is whether the strangeness of the idea will keep us from accepting it. If society rejects sleep curtailment, it won’t be a biological issue; rather, the resistance will be cultural. The war against sleep is inextricably linked with debates over human enhancement, because an eight-hour consolidated sleep is the ultimate cognitive enhancer. Sleepiness and a lack of mental focus are indistinguishable, and many of the pharmaceutically based cognitive enhancers on the market work to combat both. If only it were possible for the restorative functions that happen during sleep to occur simply during waking hours instead.
From Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here:
I believe that not everything that could be fixed should be fixed — even if the latest technologies make the fixes easier, cheaper, and harder to resist. Sometimes, imperfect is good enough; sometimes, it’s much better than perfect. What worries me most is that, nowadays, the very availability of cheap and diverse digital fixes tells us what needs fixing. It’s quite simple: the more fixes we have, the more problems we see. And yet, in our political, personal, and public lives — much like in our computer systems — not all bugs are bugs; some bugs are features….
Only by unlearning solutionism — that is, by transcending the limits it imposes on our imaginations and by rebelling against its value system — will we understand why attaining technological perfection, without attending to the intricacies of the human condition and accounting for the complex world of practices and traditions, might not be worth the price. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.”
Around 50,000 people live in Wheaton, Illinois; some of them work here, some in Chicago, some in other suburbs. Since I live and work in the older, walkable part of town, I can feel, often, as though I’m living in a small and relatively populous Midwestern city, but such a feeling is largely illusory: Wheaton is just part of the great conurbation of Chicagoland, and no genuine boundaries separate it from the other suburbs that surround it.
Soon I’ll be moving to Waco, Texas, which is much more of a stand-alone city than Wheaton is, and about three times as large, but not part of a conurbation except in a fairly tenuous sense of the term. (Dallas is 90 miles to the north, Austin 90 miles to the south.) If I buy a house in town, as I expect to do, then will I be moving to the city, as Tim Keller counsels me to do, or will I be moving away from the city in the sense that he uses the term? “Cultural trends tend to be generated in the city and flow outward to the rest of society,” Keller says; so what cultural trends are likely to emerge from Waco?
Kathy Keller says her sons love not only New York but “all cities. London, Hong Kong, Berlin, Singapore all excite them.” So how would they feel about Waco? My guess is that they’d feel a good deal more comfortable in Wheaton, with its 40-minute commuter-train ride to the Loop. It seems to me that when the Kellers say “the city” they mean “the world’s very largest cities, the ones where wealth and power are most dramatically concentrated.”
The Roman historian Tacitus, in the fifth book of his histories, describes “the last days of a famous city,” Jerusalem, including the destruction of its Temple. How large a city was Jerusalem in those days? “I have heard,” he writes, “that the total number of the besieged, of every age and both sexes, amounted to six hundred thousand.” His contemporary, the Jewish historian Josephus, put the population at over a million. But these are absurd numbers. Six hundred thousand people couldn’t have been squeezed inside the walls of first-century Jerusalem even if people had been stacked on one another three-deep. (For a wonderful exhibition of images of Jerusalem throughout its history, please see this page, from which the image at the head of this post is taken.)
Ancient reckoning of such matters can be very strange. Josephus writes elsewhere that in Galilee alone there were 204 distinct villages, the smallest of which had more than 15,000 inhabitants. This would have given the whole of first-century Israel a population roughly comparable to that of Great Britain today — an obviously nonsensical idea. Magen Broshi, an Israeli archaeologist who has written extensively on these matters, thinks that at the time of the city’s destruction it could have held no more than 80,000 people. (In the time of David, Broshi concludes, fewer than 2000 people lived in Jerusalem.)
Broshi’s work is thorough and careful but inevitably involves a good deal of guesswork, guesswork being a necessary feature of much urban history. Scholars believe that ancient Athens may have held as many as 250,000 people, about 30,000 of whom were citizens; no European cities in the Middle Ages were nearly as large. Paris in the fourteenth century might have been about as large as first-century Jerusalem, and like the Israelite city, it stuffed the people into a very small space. It would have been possible to walk from the eastern wall of the city to the western one in about 20 minutes. As can be seen in the passage from Juvenal I quoted earlier, people huddled together within city walls for protection. The gates were locked against intruders; the closeness of neighbors enabled them to “sleep secure.”
It was, by modern western standards, a shockingly crowded and incessantly noisy world, as scholars have only recently come to understand. A whole large family would sleep in the same room, though not all through the night: it was common, Roger Ekirch has shown in his book At Day’s Close, for people to wake for a couple of hours in the middle of the night and then go back to bed for a “second sleep.” Bruce R. Smith’s extraordinary study The Acoustic World of Early Modern England explains just how cacophonous the world was for many of our ancestors half-a-millennium ago: even deep night, in the cities, would have been filled with constant noises.
The fascinating thing is this: for most people, the crowding and the noise appear to have been comforting. Christopher has written of the family as a “haven in a heartless world,” but for much of human history the city — the tiny, walled, immensely congested city — seems to have fit that description.
But some, it appears, could not reconcile themselves to it. Diana Webb in her book Privacy and Solitude: The Medieval Discovery of Personal Space argues, convincingly, that many people, men and women alike, sought monastic life less from piety than from a desperate need to find refuge from all the racket.
The book of Revelation describes the size of the New Jerusalem: “And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement.” (How nice that angels measure the same as we do.) A cubit is about 18 inches, so the walls would be around 200 feet high; according to Herodotus, a stadion is about 600 feet, which would make each wall of the city a little less than 1400 miles long. That’s a big city. How lovely that a river runs through it, and a large garden park lies at its center.
I won’t be posting for the next couple of days, so let me just add one more thought about the issues Noah, Rod, and I were discussing last night. When you listen to people explain why they get involved in extreme sexual experiences — whether on the stage or in private — they often sound exactly like ultra-marathoners or long-distance swimmers, people obsessed with discovering the outer limits of their bodies’ ability to perform. But whether they’re in public or not, it is indeed performance that such people are pursuing: they seek an arena in which they are both actor and audience, observed and observer, while others serve as mere instruments to enable the self-testing. All these endeavors strike me as incredibly lonely.
“Sex Without Love”
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health — just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
Noah Millman usually delights and instructs me, but this time he confuses me. (Please read his post, and then Rod’s post to which he responds, before continuing.)
What I don’t know, from reading [Rod’s] commentary on the piece, is how the experience of reading it changed him.
Well, maybe it didn’t change Rod. Should it have changed Rod? If so, why? I read it, and I don’t think it changed me. It made me feel really sorry for Emily Witt, who seemed to know that the acts she observed — and indeed the acts of her own life — call for a moral response but equally knew that she didn’t have one to give. She didn’t even know what to say or think when she was told quite directly that her own behavior was grossly damaging other people’s lives — though she did seem to discern that this failure is in some way connected to the blankness with which she responds to the sexual performances she observes in San Francisco. (Otherwise why put both sets of experiences in the same essay?)
And yet, he had a visceral reaction to a bunch of freaky Friscans flying their freak flag. Why? What’s his stake?
Is “flying their freak flag” an adequate description of what Princess Donna does to other women, and what people pay for the privilege of watching? I wonder if Noah isn’t benefiting here — and also when he refers to Princess Donna and her audience “behaving in pretty civilized ways” — from his polite declining to specify any of the acts that Witt describes. It’s at least worth noting that when the Marquis de Sade narrated similar acts he did so with the express intention of repudiating civilization. It seems to me that when you call such behavior — I include the acts and the observation of them in this — “civilized” you have reduced the content of civilization to a single element: consent.
But this would mean, among other things, either than self-degradation isn’t uncivilized or that there is no such thing as self-degradation. I strongly disagree with both of those points. I think the people who act as Princess Donna does and as Penny and Ramon and the others do are pursuing, consciously or not, absolute degradation, and are publicly debasing sexuality in the process. They are immensely destructive to themselves and to others; they becloud the image of God in which they were made. I do not believe that it is possible to be more uncivilized than they are, though one might be equally uncivilized in different ways.
As a sociological report on all this, Witt’s essay is well done, though her own lack of moral formation and moral imagination means that the only contrasts she can perceive are among different kinds of lifestyle choices, “the exfoliated, burnished sheen of the extremely healthy” Googlers versus the intimates of Princess Donna. Twice — “A Greek chorus of the homeless and mentally ill”; “a side street haunted by drug addicts and the mentally ill just south of the Tenderloin” — she verges on noticing that there might be more meaningful contrasts, that there might be people who aren’t making lifestyle choices of any kind, whether the day-spa variety or the anal-fisting variety, but she quickly veers away. Witt is an acute observer with no moral compass at all, and I find both her inability to orient herself ethically and her rather placid acceptance of that non-orientation disturbing. I read her essay with care but wish I had never seen it.
I do a good deal of lecturing in my classes, but most of my lectures are to some degree improvised and circumstantial. When I walk into a classroom where students have just read a work of literature that’s new to them, most of my excitement comes not from the opportunity to tell them what I know but from curiosity: What do they want to know?
Maybe the coolest thing about being a teacher is just this: Everything that’s worn and familiar to me is new to my students. I’ve been through the ins and outs of Ulysses dozens of times, which is precisely what makes it fun to be in a room with thirty people who are encountering it for the first time. It’s easy for me to forget that experience — to forget all the ways that book can disorient (and even delight) a reader — unless I make a point not of explaining but of asking: What confused you? Where did you run aground? Was there a point when you were tempted to give up? (And no, I won’t ask you whether you yielded to that temptation.) What do you make of this passage? What about that one?
And it’s wonderful to see how some people discover that they were confused by something they didn’t even realize they were confused by until someone else raised a question — how a question from one student generates quite another question from a different student, how nodes of puzzlement — or excitement, or understanding — form during a class session. I lecture all right, but my lectures arise from where I discover that my students are situated in relation to a text.
When I think about turning all this into a MOOC, my first thought is: How easy that would be. Just write out a lecture and deliver it? Piece of cake — especially in comparison to the hard work of trying to learn a book and its contexts well enough to be ready when people ask those questions you didn’t expect, offer thoughts you hadn’t thought. And those questions and thoughts can change the course not just of a single class session but of the whole semester, as different ways of connecting various works come into play in response to what students want to know.
And my second thought about teaching a MOOC is: How shockingly boring that would be. To stand up there and recite what you’ve prepared beforehand in complete ignorance of and indifferent to the needs, thoughts, and questions of the people in the room before you, and the hundreds or thousands of other people who are watching and listening on their computers — not my idea of a good time.
Of course, many people lecture in just that way. As Nathan Heller comments in the essay I linked to above,
Lecturing can seem a rote endeavor even at its best — so much so that one wonders why the system has survived so long. Actors, musicians, and even standup comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity. Why shouldn’t college teachers do the same? Vladimir Nabokov, a man as uncomfortable with extemporaneity as he was enamored of the public record, once suggested that his lessons at Cornell be recorded and played each term, freeing him for other activities. The basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance; it certainly is not a new thought that effective teaching transcends time and place. Correspondence courses cropped up in the nineteenth century. Educational radio appeared in the twenties and the thirties. The U.K.’s Open University, which used television to transmit lessons to students, enrolled its first students in 1971.
And if you think of lecturing as Nabokov did, why not make a MOOC? But for me it would be a savage diminishment of what I love about teaching. I’d rather find a new line of work.
In the Spring of 2011, when a series of tornados ripped through Mississippi and Alabama, much of the long valley my sister lives in was destroyed. Her house was one of the few in the immediate area that was not ripped from its foundations or reduced to mere splinters. By the following morning local churches and a series of individual volunteers had shown up with food to share and hands ready to work. The kindness of people to one another seemed an affirmation of country life, evidence that it lived up to its great promise.
But what does that tell you? The word “suburb” is used to describe an extraordinarily wide range of places, from the purpose-built super-sized subdivision to, well, Wheaton, Illinois, where I live: a nineteenth-century Midwestern town that Chicago later came out and swallowed up. Or one might consider that Boston is surrounded by “suburbs” that were founded four hundred years ago.
Suburbs are diverse not just in age but also in population density. There are no “empty” suburbs, of course, or else they wouldn’t be suburbs, but while some disperse their people into spacious lots, others pack them in in city-like ways. The lots here in the older part of Wheaton are large enough, it seems to me, but I can easily walk downtown to have a drink at the pub or buy pastries at the bakery or eat various cuisines. It’s like a gently exploded version of a city neighborhood.
It’s too easy to drive, though, as Rod recently noted. Often I do when I really should walk. In the country you have to drive when you want to go anywhere; in a big, dense city people get around on foot and via public transport. Suburbs are in this respect in-between. And in other respects too. Which is why, I suppose, suburbs are never perceived as either divine or demonic. “Nothing too much,” the suburb seems to say, which means that, though its human dramas exist, and are as meaningful as they are anywhere else in the cosmos, they remain largely inaccessible to our myths.
John Cheever is among the few writers to suggest a mythical dimension to suburban life: few other writers would end a story about a middle-aged man’s sexual temptations and his attempt to fight them in the pleasant banlieue of Shady Hill with a sentence like this: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”