Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Recent Article on Virtuoso Geeks and Something of Alvin Gouldner; On a "Moral Stance" Towards Media

I've mentioned I admire the Geeks but feel quite alienated from their visions, and a lot of that - cut to the chase - has to do with my frankly fuddy-duddy bookish slant. Books of all sorts, on a gleaming vast welter of topics, are my main squeeze. And I'm paranoid about Kindle and associated gadgets. (Come to think of it, my asthma has been acting up again, too. And we're out of fabric softener? Will it ever end?) I feel my Book Culture sliding away in the ever-acceleration of info and technology. Please tell me I'm merely being paranoid, and this time they are decidedly not out to get me? Anyway: The Geeks fascinate me, especially virtuoso ones like the M.I.T. people as featured in this recent article...

As lost in my own Cloud-Cuckooland with my books as I am, I have to admire these types. And my envy of their success is quite great...

In general, I think the renegade Socratic Marxist sociologist Alvin Gouldner was right about the "New Class": it's made up of two parts, and this is from my memory of reading Gouldner:

  • The old "humanist" intellectuals, and they probably go back to the literate priests who kept literacy for themselves. Today they include historians, theologians, poets, literary critics, most social "scientists," musicologists, philosophers...you get the drift. They tend to be politically liberal or "radical"and try to make cultural change through their use of various rhetorics, usually conducted through writing and verbal/oral skills. Their impact has become less and less politically powerful, especially during the Roaring 20th c.
  • The more recent technical intelligentsia, who rose mightily since around 1600. These are the Geeks who use the language of mathematics. They're physical scientists (physicists, chemists, biologists) and technological innovators and maintainers of the technical infrastucture. Throw in doctors, lawyers, and engineers here. Certain types of high-level bureaucrats and C.E.Os who don't own stock in their own company too...They tend to be more conservative, but their impact on society has been radical. The Third Culture types have made a somewhat convivial bridge between the Two Cultures, but to my eyes they are still rooted in the technical intelligentsia.
Both groups compete for funding, the older class making a spectacular loss to the newer tech-intelligentsia, especially since 1945.

Both groups have an overweening sense of entitlement, are jealous of their prerogatives, and, basically, the Platonic Philosopher King Complex holds in both courts. Both groups have together been wrestling with the Old Money class for cultural power. Think of the characters and values of, say, the National Association of Manufacturers, longtime backers of the Republican Party in the U.S.

The major difference, for Gouldner, between the two intellectual groups versus the Old Monied class is the former's insistence on CCD: the Culture of Critical Discourse, which means, among other aspects, that it doesn't matter if you're wearing jeans with holes in them, or you have tattoos, and and Rastafarian hair and it's well-known your father is a drug dealer: if you have a good idea and you're articulate, they will listen. Rational, critical, careful discourse knows nothing of Inherited Privilege. To dismiss any idea because it's not from a wealthy upper classman is the height of idiocy for the New Class. Good ideas can come from anywhere. (All of this a thumbnail sketch from Alvin Gouldner's fascinating and slim 1979 volume, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. )

One more thing that sticks out in my memory of this amazing book (time to read it again!) is this: despite the aforesaid overweening sense of its own entitlements, this New Class (both the old humanist and the new technical intellectuals together) is the best card History has dealt yet.

[Note: I'd give an Amazon link to the Gouldner book, but the prices were ridiculous! Get thee to your local library for it! For people interested in ideas about how intellectuals see themselves, this book is an absolute must-read.]
Regarding a moral stance toward dazzling electronic gadgetry and its social networking possibilities and what it all "does to" our nervous systems: I am like Marshall McLuhan, who personally preferred books and conversation to radio, TV, films, and...everything since. But unlike the Bard of Media Ecology, I love some of the stuff: some TV, a great many movies. I use a cell phone as a portable telephone booth and would rather not talk on it. I love compact discs, but they're on their way out, and I've never downloaded music from Internet, nor do I know how to do MP3s or podcasts.

The Internet would've blown McLuhan's mind, and in many ways MM is one of its Patron Saints. Internet has blown my mind, most assuredly. I don't Tweet or Facebook, although friends and family have urged me to do so. I love email. I could go on and on, but suffice: McLuhan is wildly and erroneously thought of as LIKING all the electronic media he famously wrote about, and nothing could be further from the truth. As Douglas Coupland writes in his recent book on MM, "He hated, loathed, abhorred it." The point is, McLuhan had a professionally amoral stance towards all of it. He thought a moral stance got in the way of understanding it, because in "probing" the new media, there were ideas to mine that, artfully, gave a sort of anthropological perspective on humans. And what did Marshall like more than ideas? (A: probably nothing.)

I'm more or less a piece with him on this. And I often wonder just how weird this "makes" me, because McLuhan was a very wonderfully weird guy. We have different politics, and I actually like-unto-love some of the 20th century media that (supposedly) is re-tribalizing us in the Global Village, whilst always beating a hasty retreat back to my books.

Back to the marvelous Geeks:

Here's the Wiki about the M.I.T. Media Lab.

Something recent (as of the above date) from the Media Lab that seems to argue for a Jonah Lehrer (-ish?) Fourth Culture going on there (10 mins):

Here's a video about the M.I.T. Media Lab (note the 8 other equally freaky science-fiction-y vids available after this one):


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I am hoping that book culture will not slide away, even as the technology of reading changes. When I read a Project Gutenberg book on my laptop or my cellular phone, I am reading something that originally was printed in a book. When I read a Project Gutenberg version of a classical author, I am reading something originally written in Greek or Latin on a scroll, later copied into a codex -- created by hand, but an object you would recognize as a "book." Later these codex manuscripts were converted into printed books, and now these books are available in digital versions. (All of the versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh that have come down to us were originally written on clay tablets!) The method for the transmission of the texts has changed, but I don't worry that books will go away. If anything, technology has made it easier to keep texts from vanishing; many classical authors have been lost, because only a few copies were ever created.

michael said...

Tom: of course you're spot-on (I've been emailing some Brits lately) with the history of the book. And I envy your sober-mindedness towards The Changes.

What I was groping towards was the (non-sexual) fetishistic oh-so-non-Buddhist attachment to the physicality of the book with a cover and printed pages on "paper." I admit here to being a bit psychologically unbalanced, and therefore feel a vague but slowly growing THREAT to my world of books. I have tried reading for pleasure for long periods on my laptop, and it ain't working. I don't like it. Perhaps I will, in an euphemistic "older age" get used to it. But as of the date above, my guess would be that in 2030, if I make it and the Gutenbergesque version of The Book has gone Dodo: I will be there, reading the falling-apart copies of what I would call "real books" while you would be reveling in the microchipped gadget that you attach right behind your ear, and allows the voice of Sir Ian McKellan to read you The Odyssey.

Or wherever this Thing goes. (I'm mostly joking here to deflect my admitted neurosis.) Pardon!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I like books as objects, too. A book that's been autographed by a favorite writer, or which has sat on your various bookshelves for decades (as you move from place to place) is an object that you have a personal relationship with. It's not the same thing as a PDF. Perhaps the ability to exchange e-mail with authors is a partial compensation for the classic autographing encounter.

For that matter, I badly miss LPs, which were large enough to have works of art on them that you could actually see. I guess that proves I'm old.

michael said...

The heft and tactility of the book, even the various odors that accompany them, marginalia from some brilliant freak who felt compelled to tell a stranger what he thought of some passage about some obscure idea written by an obscure author about a slightly less-obscure writer: that I bought at a used-book stand for 50 cents outside a farmer's market I happened upon while walking my dog...the do-it-yourself array of colors and textures that a wall of books does for a room, the peculiar navigability of a the physical Gutenberg-ish book, etc, etc, etc. I got a lot of <-----these ideas from, umm...books. Along these lines I'm a footnote to Basbanes, Birkerts, and McLuhan.

HOWEVER: vive la differance! (sp?): I like that all of you have OPTIONS outside the Gutenbergian book. Have a blast!

Perhaps I need to be sufficiently seduced away from my fetish, and now I'm channeling my inner Kurzweil: for a mere three cents, I will be able to buy Ulysses by James joyce in Hologram Format: I sit on my couch, press play, and a few few feet away, actors dressed as Stephen Dedalus, Haines, and Stately, plump Buck Mulligan in what looks like the actual Martello Tower, act out the first chapter, while the text appears to the side. I can get up and walk around them and they're as "real" as...Oh! I'm overcome with this! I press PAUSE to gather to my wits...the idea that the cost of this has gone down to 3 cents! Oh? Here's a button that gives me access to over 100 annotations and the Internet links to all kinds of writing on Ulysses...Hold on! Here's Hugh Kenner's gigantic holographic face looking me in the eye and telling me the significance of the fact that the first sentence in Ulysses is 22 words long!

Etc...I think that sort of thing would be seductive, and I fully expect it to happen. Or something like it. Maybe not by the 2016 Election, but who knows with the pace of change?

Eric Wagner said...

Did Kenner comment on the number of words in the first sentence of Ulysses? I've wondered where Bob Wilson got that.

I teach at a high school that dislikes books. All the students have iPads. The school no longer has a library; the shelves sit there empty."Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang". The president of the school told me, "You don't need all these books" when he saw my classroom.

Thank you for another great post.