Overweening Generalist

Saturday, October 5, 2013

I Didn't Build This Blog

In the Blizzard of Memes, you can't see what hit you. Metaphors land softly in the snow of your neural fluids only dimly noted, at best. Other cleaning systems, born by fluids electrically discharging, move the thought-stuff out of your system, and what remains...remains. Other memes are noted...as "memes" because, well, here you are: noting them. But what's inside?

And what's forgotten?

When Obama made a now-famous speech in his campaign against Romney (who ironically invented Obamacare), he riffed on "You didn't build that." I immediately recognized this riff as being probably stolen (watch my loaded words here!), or borrowed from Elizabeth Warren. I'd read or heard or saw Warren give a variation, well-fleshed-out, years earlier. But she didn't build that.

I just finished reading the Wikipedia article on "You Didn't Build That." I thought it was a decent Wiki, although as I read it I found - as I usually do - that I'd wanted it to link to...something older. Because Elizabeth Warren didn't build "You didn't build that." (But I've always believed she had long internalized the conceptual framework of the idea; and I think it gets near to the heart of our central tragedy in Unistat that hardly anyone understands that conceptual framework. When Obama used the idea, I had the strong feeling he had not fully internalized that conceptual framework; he was merely riffing and playing his role.) Let me explain. Try to...

The Wikipedia link above? If you clicked on it and only skimmed it for two seconds? All the iterations that article has gone through? The contributors? They didn't build that. Jimmy Wales didn't build it. The infrastructure of the Internet? The infrastructure that supports that infrastructure? The history of architecture, design, craftsmanship, planning, industrial works, mathematical, chemical, and physical ideas? As the Jewish comedian said, "Don't get me started!"

I assume you're reading this in some sort of environment. My guess is, you're "indoors." (I find it taxes my imagination to visualize anyone reading OG outside, walking down a street, on a mobile device, but  who knows?) Anyway, indoors or out: look away from the screen for 30 seconds or three breaths and note your surroundings. Did you build that? As I look around this cramped, book-packed room, I find I assembled most of it. The bones - walls, ceiling, the wiring inside the walls, the paint, those little screws that hold the plate on around the light switch on the wall...I most definitely did not build that.

(I was thinking just now of tough guy and revolutionary Modernist Ezra Pound, who, barely scraping by but going out of his way and tirelessly taking pains and efforts toward making sure that rich lady patrons of the arts knew about Pound's friends, the relatively unknown Joyce, cummings, Hemingway, Frost, Eliot, on and on...and that those soon-to-be "important" artists were going to be supported, subsidized, receive notice. Meanwhile, Pound the poet-revolutionary made his own furniture and got by on a bowl of soup. He could look on the serviceable chair with pride. Did he build that?)

In 1919, a writer writing about a very, very old idea:

The now dead inventor of the steam engine could not have produced his ingenious invention except by using the living powers of other dead men - except by using the material and spiritual or mental wealth created by those who had gone before. In the inventor's intellectual equipment there was actively present the kinetic use-value of 'bound-up-time,' enabling him to discover the laws of heat, water, and steam; and he employed both the potential and kinetic use-values of mechanical instruments, methods of work, and scientific knowledge of his time and generation - use-values of wealth created by the genius and toil of by-gone generations.
-pp.121-122, Manhood of Humanity, Alfred Korzybski

Who knows to what degree this idea has sunk in. I know that when I first encountered it it felt totally revolutionary. And yet, I found I kept forgetting it. Growing up in Unistat you very easily become brainwashed to believe without reservation, that everything someone has, they..."made that." For what it's worth, I now find the idea completely preposterous and feel embarrassment when I remember how naive I'd been to believe it. (And I'm embarrassed that so many of Us still believe it.)

I'd encounter the idea articulated by Korzybksi (NB: he didn't build that) again and again and it was wondrous and seemed "truer" than what my conditioning led me to work with. It seemed very much like when I learned as a young boy that the sun didn't "set" but instead we were on a much smaller body, revolving away from the sun. I knew intellectually this was true, but my natural, naive experience of the sun moving and not us...held. It took practice to get over this. Now when the sun "sets" I can feel us moving on Earth, from my relatively inertial standpoint.

"We" can be utterly profoundly liberating as a concept internalized. Or so I assert.

You can take in history in an embodied way that seems to me qualitatively richer than what was dished to you by cultural conditioning. And, to take a Poet out of context, this "makes all the difference."

"We" goes back a long time, to the most inchoate use of tools by our deepest ancestors.

The words on the screen you're looking at right now are made of letters, and people helped you learn to read them; they had a breakfast those mornings that they merely assembled...: the phonemes, the sounds, the poetry of language and its resonances. They helped you learn to decode these, as others had done for them.

Countless tinkerers throughout human time added incrementally to the sum totals of technics. The ones who tried a new approach that didn't work, but others took note? This too created value: we now know what doesn't seem to work. Let's go more in this direction. And hey: why not keep notes?

Assembling, let me be clear, is nothing to be sneezed at. It is a creative act. But it seems thoroughly encompassed within building.

You have built much. Probably far more than you realize. You don't realize the many things you have built because of categorical accounting schemes you assumed were true. You have built neural circuitry in other mammals, for one thing...You have played a part in building me. (How? Just think about it. Hint: maybe it has something to do with one of Korzybski's triumvirate "material and spiritual or mental wealth"?)

This laptop I'm using? I built none of it. (But "We" built it all.) The silicon, the plastic, the glass, the mathematics "inside" it? I didn't build that. The router, the insulation on the thingumbob that plugs into the whatsit that gives me the juice? Me no build-a dat ting, no. Let's not even get into the Server, or satellites, or the stuff that goes into the foundation of the building that houses the thing that supports the dealio that runs on the doohickey, artifact, and article that goes into that gadget over there, that thing made of metal but's really some alloy of some sort? Who the hell mined that? But I digress...

My ideas at Overweening Generalist? An absurdly complex agglomeration and concatenation of metaphors and names that I didn't build, but I may have used a form, a syntax, a display, an array of combined ideas that may have spurred something within you. I got that from those who went before me. It's my understanding that almost all knowledge percolates constantly in these fashions. But I didn't build it all ex nihilo, of course. The details seem fabulous but true...

No: It's more like We the culture threw out an ungawdly amount of mindstuff, and some of it stuck inside my head! (I didn't build any of those metaphors, I merely borrowed them, so if you have any complaints, please see The Mgt.) The quasi-hidden form of the desktop? The icons? The people at Blogger? The coders that made Blogger so easy for a dunderhead like myself to use, so I can write this crap so you can read it? Me no build zees zing, neethuh! (The farmers that grew the food that allowed most thinkers and tinkerers and laborers to get off the farm and do weirder things with knowledge, like build engines, roads, algorithms, surgical steel, Etsy?)

WE built it, like Korzybski says. Take what he's saying about the steam engine and just extrapolate, and give yourself credit for doing so, for it's a creative act to do so, and who knows what brilliant and novel ways you're envisioning this idea, but if you make something of this idea (did I do that, just now, today?), give yourself some credit. Just not all the credit.

Because giving yourself all the credit just seems to me...childish. Or, I'll be charitable: child-like. Naive, and, as the Philosopher said, "Human, all-too human." Other times I say: greedy and pretentious and stupid.

There seems very much I have not said here.

Here's Prairie Populist Elizabeth ("Betty") Warren, with a variation on a very very olde idea: Is she right? If not, how is she wrong?


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. It reminds that Tim Leary and the Residents, etc., appeared in the video for "We Built This City on Rock and Roll."

On a parallel note, Allen Ginsberg noted that we have so many more texts available to us today that each poet can select their own tradition to draw upon. Where a poet five hundred years ago had fewer texts to choose from from a smaller variety of cultures, Ginsberg could choose texts for his "tradition" from around the world and throughout history.

michael said...

Danke schoen.

What wonderful semantic tides we can drift on, if we just climb in our well-stocked cozy vessel and let the waves of "building" takes us where they may.

Your Ginsberg idea had been floating around in my head not long ago, regarding some ideas I'd had about Psychogeography. Do you remember where he said that?

My intent with this "build" piece: there's an enormous elephant in the room, but they're not elephants, it turns out: they're gigantic fishes. How to get them out before all is lost? I've decided on a piecemeal approach, and I highly suspect I have some very big fish to fry, and so do "you." I could use some help from "we." Lots of help.

I wonder how unreadable and opaque the piece above may appear to particular readers.

I was not only drawing on Korzybski explicitly, but implicitly: meme theory, the sociology of knowledge, Bucky Fuller, Thomas Paine, RAW and Pound (their respective "Credo"s, for example), and HTML inventor Ted Nelson, one of the most interesting personalities of the early Internet. Nelson had a dreamy, utopian vision of what the Net would be, but there was a bifurcation point, and it went another way. He and other very high-powered computer theorist minds still think his ideas can be resurrected, and much of this is actuated by the Snowden revelations.

About which...more later...Rocktober.

Anonymous said...

I was quite bemused by this one, it
had me thinking about all of the things I have been involved in over
a long life. Being hands on at the
doing means you leave quite a trail
in the Norns webwork. There were a
lot of others involved as well.
I told someone once my life sounded
like bullshit to me too. Generalism
is like that, you might not master it
all but you can get a grasp on a lot
that seems to bypass the ordinary

When young I got a good dose of
the neolithic scrounger lifestyle
that was all about cooperation,
regard for the next generation and
how if you didn't pay attention
as an individual and as a group
you were doomed.

Cityfolk have a bit of slack in
being able to move away while still
imbedded in the virtual cityhives.
It was the anonymity of the city
and it's seeming ability to ignore
social conseqences that first struck me about it.

On the other hand maybe I couldn't
read the tracks and signs being
left by city activity.

I love digging in the past records
for traces of the original ideas.
Only because what happens next to
them is collective mutation and
odd distortions eventually to be
something else.

Sometimes the find is frustrating,
Archimedes of Syracuse version of
the calculus of Newton and Leibniz
as one example. The Babylonian
batteries is another. Speculating
about a world adopting electricity
that long ago really twists the
tail of history.

You have caused some bit of thought
here. Good work !

Eric Wagner said...

I don't remember where Ginsberg said that. I think I read it in some library in the fall of 1985, either the Scottsdale main library or the ASU library. I got really into the Beats when I got back from Europe. I'd met Ginsberg and Creeley that June. I read McClure's Meat Science Essays and Scratching the Beat Surface. I also went on a Gary Snyder binge, reading all but one of the books he'd written up to that point. (I never finished his Master's Thesis.) I found Snyder intriguing because he came from a counter culture background but he disagreed with Bob Wilson about almost everything.

michael said...


Your lines about living in the city and the consciousness it encourages was about where this "building" thinking went for me next, but you were already there.

It's been an obsessive thought for me and it hasn't resolved, and I don't think it OUGHT to resolve: a rarely-stated aloud notion, but one that seems endemic in our kulch: a variation of the "American dream" which is about getting AWAY from everyone else and...I dunno...homesteading. It's romantic and honorable and fascinating and I've caught myself longing to "be" 4 miles from the nearest neighbor, off the grid, solar, selling power back to PG&E, "self-sustaining" on sales of writing, pot, making ceramic bowls, whatever.

Some people appear to actually carry this off, which I find thrilling.

And yet the myriad aspects of what you call "anonymity of the city" is very resonant to me too, and I "know" these ideas far more intimately. When culture heaps up its riches culled from the culturally creative minds ensconced in the Hive, it leads to tons of kitsch but some staggering beauty and genius. And you can "be" with all the other Everymans and make talk around the Work.

For Euclidean Man in a McLuhan sense, the City is a cornucopia of sights, and doesn't it seem like there are virtuoso watchers in the City? They get so much practice, years and years...and the mentally notes scads and scads. I grew up in the farflung 'burbs of LA, and when I ventured into the City as a kid: complete awe at the sights. Of Otherness, riches and squalor, far more RPMs than I'd ever seen. Complete alteration of consciousness. The suburbs seem to have very little relation to their Sun: the Metropolis.

The reading of tracks and signs being left by the city: why do you think this was? The path of your individuation?

The tension between urban labyrinth and off the grid Thoreauvian solitude: both qualify as endlessly entertaining yet mostly abstract MAPS by which my imagination is fed. Do you like 1940s film noir?

Aye! The ceaseless rifling of pages of detective work in order to get back to "origins": what every Generalist feeds on, eh?

michael said...


I appreciate Snyder and Creeley and McClure but find myself charmed and surprised that you got so much our of them, as I thought I had a "line" (too-too Euclidean) on you, but then you always surprise me with your breadth; I don't know why I'm surprised anymore.

Not long ago I read a memoir by a fine novelist, Jane Vandenburg. There's a sizable section about her friendship with Snyder's wife, as Snyder's wife was dying of cancer. I glimpsed some new vision of Snyder then.

If I ventured to write about my ideas of the clash between RAW and Snyder it would go on too long here...

A couple years ago I was at a poetry reading at Moe's in Berkeley and McLure showed up to read. Place was packed and I sat on a step far in the back and he stood next to me, waiting to go on. I didn't know what to say to him, so it was like this:

Me: Oh wow...hey, man.
McLure (smiling): Hey.