Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Grant McCracken is on a Roll

I always like reading his excellent and provocative blog; the balance of anthropology and economics, with an engagement in the realworld, makes it very entertaining.

He has been hitting the spot nicely in the last few days.

In a post on David Brooks' weekend column he discusses the relationship between commerce and culture (a relationship that is a great test of someone's basic orientations). Against Brooks' concern that 'cultural' issues are supplanting 'economic man', McCracken observes:
But notice, most of the irrationality that troubles the political world come from people who are not very good at being economic actors. Most of us suspect that if the countries and cultures of the Middle East had real economies, they would be very much less inclined to take umbrage against slights, real and imagined, inflicted or merely drawn. Certain Middle Eastern countries and cultures appear to live in a perpetual state of status anxiety, a condition exacerbated by the fact that they do not have real economies and the benefits, liberties, and dignities that flow there from.
It was as if the species always over-estimated the constraints that needed to be imposed, and the conformity that needed to be extracted, for a social world to work as a social world. We could read the West as an experiment in the dismantlement in these constraints, and the creation of a market economy as an "eureka moment" in this experiment. The more this market economy established itself, the smaller proved to be the constraint/conformity rule set required for social, cultural, and political order. Once the market economy was fully in place, once this served as the great gyroscope of the social world, individuals and groups were released to rework their cultural definitions. Now a great profusion of cultural invention was now inevitable. This invention may appear to efface the rationality and reasonableness of economic man. I prefer to think it demonstrates what can be accomplished once commerce is made to serve a platform for culture.
This is a delight in variety that I think is very healthy. Which plays a role in his concluding thought:
Certainly, it's true that there are parts of the economics model that require renovations more dramatic than anything ever dreamed of by a University of Chicago economist. But these will come in time. Truly, market societies release forces and powers that now make the world various and inscrutable. But we will come to terms with these mysteries not by displacing economic man, but seeing that he maximizes with a cunning we have yet to fathom.
And then he tackles Bernard-Henri Levy's American Odyssey, dismembered in other ways by Garrison Keillor, for example, in what seems to me a kinder and more understanding fashion (though maybe there is a contradiction there).

First we get:

Bernard-Henri Levy came to America "in the footsteps of Tocqueville" to study what he calls,

[a] crisis of identity. The powerful country in the world does not know what it is, it feels itself in a deep trauma, a deep neurosis. It was interesting to go behind the curtain.

Oh, please. This is the difference between America and France, isn't it? America knows perfectly well that it "does not know what it is," that it cannot know what it is. There are so many groups, driven by so many ideas, subject now to so many regional, ethnic, lifestyle, gender variations that America is a fountain of cultural invention.

Again, the theme of command-orientation, prior definition, against variety expressing itself and remaking its world.

One witty little comment, that places notions of American anti-intellectualism into a context that makes more sense than the one defined by the intellectuals:
(America learned long ago that intellectuals would necessary be the last ones to get the news and took pains fastidiously to ignore them. Only Robert Thompson is still consulted.) A visitor can penetrate the curtain in France, but this would be perhaps the worst place to go looking for national, cultural truths.
(In re Robert Thompson.)

Finally he responds to Larry Summers' resignation as the President of Harvard. Much has been written on this sorry tale, but count on McCracken to find the cultural divide in it.

It's a long and interesting essay; let this excerpt draw you into reading the whole thing:
Harvard has a little Yale, the scholars who occupy the liberal arts, the social sciences and the Yard. These people are largely shut out of, or kept from, Harvard's engagement with the world. Not for them the government posts, the consulting gigs, the television interviews, the world's eager consultation. For most of them the "ambit of influence" is the table they commandeer each day at the Faculty Club, and, outside of academic circles, not much more. (Notice I am using here a rhetorical trope here called "exaggeration".)

I'm sure this rankles but it should not surprise. After all, most scholars in the humanities and social sciences have made Yale's bargain with the universe. They have insisted that they are much too good, too noble, too moral to engage with the world. They have, in sum, cultivated an obscurity of their own. They are now a little like ceremonial creatures of court removed from the world that they might commune with the gods. Not for them the rough and ready pragmatism of the outer rings. As keepers of the nobler view, they are, some of them, just a dubious hat and push cart away from wandering out of the Yard to shout imprecations at startled fellow Cantabridgians. (That pesky trope again.)

This strategy of absenting yourself from the real world has many implications. Some of them are tragic. (The social sciences and humanities are now frightfully out of touch with some of the real compelling intellectual issues of our day. Too bad. They might have been useful.) But here is the important implication for our purposes. If you are surrounded by power but kept from it, if you are made a ceremonial creature, but only that, if you absent yourself from the world, and rewarded with obscurity, if all these things are true, you are in a very bad temper a good deal of the time. The world has done you wrong.

Now, we know what happens to ceremonial creatures when they are wronged. They become obsessed with form. The world may not respond to their will, but they will have their due. They will insist upon a precise acknowledgement of every detail of the ritual regime. In President Summers' case, this means no gratuitous references to the ROTC program, that sterling demonstration of the military-industrial-educational complex. It means no reckless comments about women and science. This too is, forgive me, a "motherhood" issue in the Yard. And it means that the President may not evidence the arrogance of the CEO from the outer ring, nor the swash buckling style we might expect from a man who owes his Harvard position, in part at least, to the fact that he once had a corner office in the corridors of power.

Put his blog on your daily reading list. He cares about everyday life and how it is lived.


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