Monday, June 09, 2008

Picking Winners

Giants win! Swept the hopeless Nats in Washington. Baseball is a zero-sum game (see principle number 1 in the header to this blog) ... I get one, you lose 1. No other way around it. Wins count, losses don't.

Now, of course, there is a lot more to baseball than wins and losses, and the joy of the game is precisely in that non-zero-sum game aspect. But at the end of the day, as the wee Scott McClellan likes to say, it's all about winning. And losing doesn't count.

I assert, contrarily, that in human affairs there is no such thing as a zero-sum game. Sometimes a difficult idea to defend. Look at the Obama-McCain race ... one wins, the other loses, and if McCain wins, we are in big trouble. But even in something as cut and dried as an election, there are so many factors at play that reducing it to one result loses the observer all perspective.

In my personal reading, I am now at the end of Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947), and as we all know, Prussia comes to a terrible end. It is hard not to look at Prussia in 1945 as the losing end of a horrible zero-sum game. Indeed, historiography has long held a singularly black/white view of Prussia.

Clark's strength as a historian is that he resists the black/white, off/on, winner/loser view. In that, he curiously represents another social contradiction often falsely seen, even here, as a zero-sum game. And that contradiction would be the rise of the theory-mongers in the academe and the terrible damage that they have done to thought and research. At least, that is the narrative preferred by many, again myself included in most contexts.

But it is a narrative that fails the moment it becomes universal. Take this as a proof. In looking to fill in a few of the date-type details about which a "social historian" such as Clark is sometimes lax, I managed to pick up 2 of the 3 volumes of a well-regarded and authoritative 60s history of Germany, Hajo Holborn's A History of Modern Germany; the Wikipedia page points out that the incomparable modern historian and biographer of ideas and thinkers, Peter Gay, was his student. This connection is a little ironic in the context which I will argue.

Holborn's book is hard core history for date lovers. It is clipped and chopped, neatly separated by subheads. It is authoritative and reliable, and this sort of reference work is valuable on the shelf of any history-buff. But one does not feel compelled to read the thing from cover to cover because ... and this in itself is an artifact in the changes in intellect over the last several decades ... the constitutive unity of enduring contradiction seems absent from the work. Holborn wants to pick winners and losers.

More to my taste is Clark who lives perpetually in the unresolved contradiction. One does want, from time to time in these social histories, a chapter that delineates the events in order. But this lack is more than amply repaid by the subtlety with which an author like Clark ... or Tim Blanning about whom I have written before ... brings the contours of an era to life. It is not just his persistent focus on the state and the contradictions that underlay it and from which it could never separate itself; it is also the way in which he describes the interplay among forces forged in that contradiction, and yet seemingly immune to the sorts of developments, obvious in hindsight, that might have saved their supporters.

I am going to try to return to the Prussian state in the next few days. What I want to address today is that the theory game that ravaged the humanities over the last three decades is itself also not a zero-sum game. It has, as I argue here, been the proximate cause of the rise of what I am broadly calling social history, and this has been very productive of new understandings. It might drive those who prefer winners and losers to drink because this is history that sees good in evil, and that sees redemption in defeat. But it is history that demands deeper reflection on what it is to be human.

In the literary zone, the "depredations of theory" are a little more difficult to champion, the more so because they had the tendency to draw attention away from the text. That is an unfair statement, as any graduate student will aver, because the new literary movement was precisely the force that opened up the notion of the text, such that genre conventionally defined could burst its boundaries. Literary theory has troubled genre and text, and notwithstanding the pointless obfuscations of the Julia Kristva's of the world, it raised challenges to parsed out traditional criticism that have enriched our ideas of what constitutes work and influence and meaning. As with Holborn, this is not to toss old critics into the trash bin, but rather to note that intellectual dialectic can never stop, even when it backs itself into a corner.

More than anything, my graduate student battles with the theory ninnies made me a part of an eternal evolution ... a punctuated evolution ... in which ideas about ideas, or tellings about tellings, always fall back into themselves the better to reconstitute themselves on the next level whatever that may turn out to be. My best graduate student friend, JS, who has drifted out of my life, called me a conservative formalist at one point. I took that as a high honor, but I think it is wrong now. I think I am a half-breed chameleon ... I want to be present and involved even as I grouse about it all. But you can't be present if nothing is happening, and whatever is happening is that at which you must choose to be present.

A little circular, I guess.

From such struggles we get the revolutionary work of my adviser at Cal, Amin Sweeney especially in his A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World ... about which I really must write something at some point ... and the pleasurable works of Clark and Blanning.

So much intellectual discourse is between the Weltanschauung ... one of my favorite words when I was 19 ... of those who want to pick winners and losers and those who want to live in unresolved contradiction. I am of the latter type, notwithstanding that I always pick the beloved Giants to win any given game.

Photo by Arod of a window on Castro Street.

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