On Being Shallow • 8 February 2007

Or How Organized Science (See Also: Organized Religion) Can Make You Dumb

This afternoon I read Dylan Riley against Robert Thurman. (By “against,” what I really mean is “with:” reading R against T means letting each brace the other, shore up each other’s subtexts, or maybe just do reciprocal subversion.) Here’s a small thread twisted together over a sink of dirty dishes.

Riley’s review of 20th century fascist intellectuals in his forthcoming book touches on Ugo Spirito (erstwhile professor of “Corporative Studies” – love that), who wrote that through the development of science and modern division of labor the “abstract individual of enlightenment thought” was replaced by specialized, interdependent human-types: no longer “whole” but “fractured man (sic)… no longer equal, but differentiated in the labor function that he undertakes” (Spirito 1999:67).

Considering Spirito’s doing legitimation work for the Mussolini solution here, taking his project at face value is akin to buying Karl Rove’s diagnosis of America’s late-90s crisis of values. Still, it’s as good a starting point as any for thinking about how the “scientific” division of labor within the academy has alienated researchers from our thinking selves.

Pace Emile Durkheim, who thought that divvying up individuals into roles in the social body (Sooo, I’ll be the organ of pleasureand you get to be the patella) was a good solution to anomie, I worry that division of epistemological labor is an unhappy thing. Whatever it may do for efficiency in some “social whole,” it can make you shallow to take definitions of reality on faith from “experts.”

As I mentioned the other day, academics are turning themselves from intellectuals into technocrats. Rather than taking responsibility for the theories within which we work, we’re taught to labor in narrow literatures, not examining their foundations. Even in the queen of the social sciences, to which I fled after a year of anti-intellectual “knowledge”-production in a related field, I meet new graduate students who speak a single language (rather than the 3-7 of the previous generation), who “just aren’t interested in statistics,” or who “just aren’t theory people.”

The specialization ethic is as much self-protection as sloth, a little like the yogi who “just doesn’t do backbends” though his body permits it and the Christian who “just doesn’t think about the unsaved going to hell,” though her spirituality rests on the idea.

The lack of curiosity feels almost as crushing as lack of perspective. But at least we all have time to watch the game on the weekends.

So in scientific bureaucracies just like religious ones, “busy” people rely on authorities to do either the background work or the inner work. In the limit, one way or another, this makes for the megachurch. Epistemological maladies? Ethical conundrums? We’re you’re one-stop no-hassle service-provider. So you don’t have to wonder.

A lot of belief (and practical, everyday as-if assuming) is inconsequential. Other beliefs, if reexamined or changed, would alter our realities.

Thurman’s life (as seen is his lectures and writing) is an example. He went to join the Cuban revolution, got foiled, and soon after set off for Tibet and took up with the Dalai Lama. He explains his 1960s departure from Harvard (2001:45): “I had studied some Eastern philosophies in college and I liked their ideas as reflected in Thoreau, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Jung, and Hess. I urgently wanted to join my knowledge to my life, to experience whatever turned out to be the ‘real’ reality…. I left the West because; except for the Delphic oracle’s maxim ‘know thyself,’ its authorities all said you could not know reality.”

He wanted to do a little more of the work himself, rather than receiving it. “We are all philosophers,” he adds, “all scientists.”

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