Tagged: intellectual history

The Universal Roots of Fantasyland

Intellectual history and cultural criticism always teeters on the brink of totalism. So it was when Christopher Hitchens was forced to defend the hyperbolic subtitle of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The complaint was always the same: everything, really? Or when Neil Postman downplayed the early tremors of the internet in his 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death. Email couldn’t be anything more than another movement towards entertainment and celebrity. So it is no surprise that Ken Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Wrong: A 500-Year History is open to similar charges.

Andersen’s thesis is easily digestible: we built a country on fantasies. From the earliest charismatic stirrings of the Puritans to the patent medicines of the 19th century, through to the counterculture of the 1960s, and now with an incoherent insult comedian and showman as president, America has thrived on inventing wild, fantastical narratives that coalesce into movements. Andersen’s detailed analysis is breathtaking as he pulls together everything from linguistic drift to the psychology of magical thinking to justify his thesis.

Yet his thesis might be too narrow. It is not a uniquely American phenomenon. When Andersen mentions cosplay, he fails to identify its Japanese contributions, including the word itself. In the California Gold Rush, he sees economic fantasies driving a generation to unmoor themselves from their merely average lives. Yet the conquistadores had sought to enrich themselves, God, and country while Americans were forming their shining cities on hills. And in mid-19th-century Europe, while the Americans panned in the Sierra, romanticism was throwing off the oppressive yoke of Enlightenment rationality as the West became increasingly exposed to enigmatic Asian cultures. By the 20th century, Weimar Berlin was a hotbed of cultural fantasies that dovetailed with the rise of Nazism and a fantastical theory of race, German volk culture, and Indo-European mysticism. In India, film has been the starting point for many politicians. The religion of Marxism led to Heroic Realism as the stained glass of the Communist cathedrals.

Is America unique or is it simply human nature to strive for what has not yet existed and, in so doing, create and live in alternative fictions that transcend the mundanity of ordinary reality? If the latter, then Andersen’s thesis still stands but not as a singular evolution. Cultural change is driven by equal parts fantasy and reality. Exploration and expansion was paired with fantastical justifications from religious and literary sources. The growth of an entertainment industry was two-thirds market-driven commerce and one-third creativity. The development of the World Wide Web was originally to exchange scientific information but was exchanging porn from nearly the moment it began.

To be fair, Chapter 32 (America Versus the Godless Civilized Word: Why Are We So Exceptional), provides an argument for the exceptionalism of America at least in terms of religiosity. The pervasiveness of religious belief in America is unlike nearly all other developed nations, and the variation and creativity of those beliefs seems to defy economic and social science predictions about how religions shape modern life across nations. In opposition, however, is a following chapter on postmodernism in academia that again shows how a net wider than America is needed to explain anti-rationalist trends. From Foucault and Continental philosophy we see the trend towards fantasy; Anglo-American analytical philosophy has determinedly moved towards probabilistic formulations of epistemology and more and more scientism.

So what is the explanation of irrationality, whether uniquely American or more universal? In Fantasyland Andersen pins the blame on the persistence of intense religiosity in America. Why America alone remains a mystery, but the consequence is that the adolescent transition from belief in fairytales never occurs and there is a bleed-over effect into the acceptance of alternative formulations of reality:

The UC Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik studies the minds of small children and sees them as little geniuses, models of creativity and innovation. “They live twenty-four/seven in these crazy pretend worlds,” she says. “They have a zillion different imaginary friends.” While at some level, they “know the difference between imagination and reality…it’s just they’d rather live in imaginary worlds than in real ones. Who could blame them?” But what happens when that set of mental habits persists into adulthood too generally and inappropriately? A monster under the bed is true for her, the stuffed animal that talks is true for him, speaking in tongues and homeopathy and vaccines that cause autism and Trilateral Commission conspiracies are true for them.

This analysis extends the umbrella of religious theories built around instincts for perceiving purposeful action to an unceasing escalation of imaginary realities to buttress these personified habits of mind. It’s a strange preoccupation for many of us, though we can be accused of being coastal elites (or worse) just for entertaining such thoughts.

Fantasyland doesn’t end on a positive note but I think the broader thesis just might. We are all so programmed, I might claim. Things slip and slide, politics see and saw, but there seems to be a gradual unfolding of more rights and more opportunity for the many. Theocracy has always lurked in the basement of the American soul, but the atavistic fever dream has been eroded by a cosmopolitan engagement with the world. Those who long for utopia get down to the business of non-zero-sum interactions with a broader clientele and drift away, their certitude fogging until it lifts and a more conscientious idealization of what is and what can be takes over.

Just So Disruptive

i-don-t-always-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-buy-companies-but-when-i-do-i-do-it-for-no-reason-925b08The “just so” story is a pejorative for cultural or physical traits that drive an evolutionary explanation. Things are “just so” when the explanation is unfalsifiable and theoretically fitted to current observations. Less controversial and pejorative is the essential character of evolutionary process where there is no doubt that genetic alternatives will mostly fail. The ones that survive this crucible are disruptive to the status quo, sure, but these disruptions tend to be geographically or sexually isolated from the main population anyway, so they are more an expansion than a disruption; little competition is tooth-and-claw, mostly species survive versus the environment, not one another.

Jill Lapore of Harvard subjects business theory to a similar crucible in the New Yorker, questioning Clayton Christensen’s classic argument in The Innovator’s Dilemma that businesses are unwilling to adapt to changing markets because they are making rational business decisions to maximize profits. After analyzing core business cases from Christensen’s books, Lapore concludes that the argument holds little water and that its predictions are both poor and inapplicable to other areas like journalism and college education.

Central to her critique is her analysis of the “just so” nature of disruptive innovation:

Christensen has compared the theory of disruptive innovation to a theory of nature: the theory of evolution. But among the many differences between disruption and evolution is that the advocates of disruption have an affinity for circular arguments. If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation. (“Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it,” the organizers of FailCon, an annual conference, implore, suggesting that, in the era of disruption, innovators face unprecedented challenges. For instance: maybe you made the wrong hires?) When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed. And, when any of these things happen, all of them are only further evidence of disruption.

But her critiques of Christensen are not actually of modern start-up culture and its celebration of disruption and failure (except obliquely and culturally). Instead, Lapore is mostly concerned with steam shovels, 3.5″ disk drives, and mass transit.

And that’s where the evolutionary comparison comes in again. Where multiple experimental tests can be applied to a problem or, as economists put it, a need, minor variation is the standard mechanism (as Lapore asserts). Major variation is the exception and small tweaks like externalizing new businesses (Kresge’s Kmart, etc.) are inconclusive in their effectiveness. But in start-up world, everything is externalized from risks to rewards.

So is there a take-away from the filtered and refined view of innovation and reinvention? Perhaps only that disruption may be best handled through complete externalization of the innovation process; make strategic investments and nurture businesses based on their own market opportunities. The best we may be able to do is play a volume game where we do exactly what the venture capitalist does and accept that only 1 in 10 investments will thrive or excel. We don’t need just so stories then, just a realization that we can’t read the tea leaves of the past as just so stories for the future.

From Smith to Darwin

The notion that all the contingencies of human history can be rendered down into law-like principles is the greatest reflection of the human desire for order and understanding. Adam Smith appears in that mirrored pool alongside Karl Marx and, in his original form, even Charles Darwin. That’s only the beginning: Freud, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hegel, and a host of others are reflected there in varying, and transitory clarity.

Adam Smith is a iconic case, as I discovered reading Adam Smith’s View of History: Consistent or Paradoxical? by James Alvey. The paradoxical component arises from a merger of a belief in the inevitability of commercial society and, at various points in Smith’s intellectual development, a cynicism about the probability of forward progress towards that goal. Ever behind the curtain, however, was the invisible hand represented by a kind of teleological divine presence moving history and economics forward.

The paper uncovers some of the idiosyncrasies of Smith’s economic history:

[T]he burghers felt secure enough to import ‘improved manufactures and expensive luxuries’. The lords now had something beside hospitality for which they could exchange the whole of their agricultural surplus. Previously they had to share, but ‘frivolous and useless’ things, such as ‘a pair of diamond [shoe] buckles’, and ‘trinkets and baubles’, could be consumed by the lords alone. The lords were fascinated with such finely crafted items and wanted to own and vainly display them. As the lords ‘eagerly purchased’ these luxury items they were forced to reduce the number of their dependents and eventually dismiss them entirely.

The lords ultimately have to trade off economic freedom of the artisans in exchange for more diamond shoe buckles. Odd, but perhaps reflective of the excesses of the wealthy in Smith’s era–something that needed explanation.

And what is the connection to Darwin? Darwin, in the automaticity expressed by that invisible hand (and the progress of history), saw a way to explain the natural order of the biological world, and this argument has continued to this day.