Thursday, February 14, 2008


I mentioned two posts ago that I had a big presentation at MRU, the fabulous Major Research University at which I toil away day by day. I was fudgin' actually, since I did not have a presentation, but was rather the impressario for a big meeting with 6 presentations. All went well, as it is wont to do when you fret and worry and obsess about every little detail.

The 6th of these 6 presentations was one which I have seen before by one of my colleagues who overseas student computing services. He has put together a challenging presentation designed, so I would suspect, to jar middle-aged bureaucrats into a deeper encounter with how the tech-native students of today see the world.

One slide in particular struck me, and I trust that the student computing expert, RH, will forgive my brazenly appropriating it for this discussion ...

With reference to my argument in that same post mentioned above concerning Hodgson's argument about the constitutive differences in social outlook between the European high Middle Ages and Islamic early middle period, this slide instantly appeared to present a reversal. (For reference, Hodgson argues that in the Middle Ages, European society was corporative in which every person had a place and Islamic society was contractual in which broadly equal and relatively mobile people could make what they could of the common Islamic compromise of Shariah-mindedness. I argue that we need to start with that counterposition in coming to grips with why Europe exploded in freedom and creativity while the Muslim world ossified into torpor and thick-hidedness, a subject to which I plan to return severally in the future.)

Look at these oppositions ... I'll see tomorrow if I can make this into a little html table that will look so much prettier ...

Stable, physical artifacts <=> dynamic digital assets & databases

Expert gatekeepers <=> communities of practice, dispersion of authority

Working alone <=> sharing, collaborating

Discrete activities <=> recursivity of discovery, remediation, authoring, production, publication

"Stable, expert, alone, discrete" ... the paradigms of a corporatist world in which the person is tied charismatically to where he started out.

"Dynamic, communities, collaborating, recursivity" ... precisely what marked the flat, communitarian approach to religious law and practice in the long middle period of Islam in which religious discourse provided the medium through which those with sufficient initiative to break out of the millennia-long family trap (at least relatively "break out" by reference to their vastly more numerous stationery bretheren and sistern) could wander from place to place and yet still be at home.

Remember rule three ... any force given long enough turns into its opposite ... and then remember that that is a rule which continually turns back on itself.

It was the corporatist view of the person in the Middle Ages, I would argue, that provided the groundwork for the essential Protestant construction of the individual before gawd ... BTW, I know that it is juvenile to misspell god, so perhaps Huckabee will sue me ... and it was this individuation of the penitent before a really mean, nasty gawd that was the groundwork for the Enlightement, and for modernity ... but I get ahead of myself.

Meanwhile, the contractual character of Islamic society, and especially its thinking urban elites combined with its long dualist pattern of urban elite/military conqueror (which Hodgson calls the a'yan/amir complex, and which forms the core of the great historian Ibn Khaldun's 14th-century work) left it vulnerable to the heavier hand of the Turkic and Mongol hordes that slaughtered its cities in the 13th and subsequent centuries. (It is curious that our ever-present post-colonialists like to blame the British for everything ... but it is the Mongols who reduced what are now the 'stans to their decrepitude by a level of slaughter that colonialists could only dream about in drunken clubbish revelries.) It is that heavy hand whose long shadow has prevented the once realatively open society from re-realizing openness in the present period.

Our collaboration-savvy younger generation is awfully earnest ... and as a formerly undoubtedly annoyingly earnest youth, I must beware of complaining ... but there is a penalty for everything in this dialectical world, and the penalty for butter-does-not-melt-in-my-mouth collaboration may be unexpected and higher than one thinks. If youth can think on their feet in the future as fast as they appear to be thinking now ... perhaps, we'll be okay. But conversations about paradigm shifts need to be transparent, and they should avoid enthusiasm. Because history bites back!

All that said, the current challenges facing the species are such that lateral collaboration based on an incipient contractualism is likely to produce solutions to the problems to which a hierarchized and sometimes atomized individuation has mightily contributed here. But, say in China, it is precisely the lateral contractualism and lack of individuation that has led to a terrifying ecological brinksmanship. No simple answers, but thinking in terms of oppositions like this gives the opportunity to understand the unfolding history of our era and its epochal paradigm shifts.

Gotta think this out more clearly, and I will return to it ... but for now, the chicken is ready and I must uncork the wine.

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