“WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?” Samuel Morse telegraphed to his business partner Alfred Vail. It was 24 May 1844 and Washington hosted Morse while Baltimore played the part for Vail. There were earlier messages, of course. ‘The first’ telegraph message was likely a long, solid tone. But this message, chosen from the Old Testament by the daughter of a friend of Morse, have become ‘the first telegram.’ It simply rings better than a meaningless buzz.
Speaking of meaningless buzz, thank you for reading my blog today. It’s an example, if not a good one, of how technology has continued to produce better and better communication between farther and farther distances. Well, not always better. When people mutter ‘What hath God wrought?’ as they’re reading my blog it is done with a less resonant air. But it does allow me to send this sentence’s dual construction from the comfort of my own living room to the comfort of your lap. It has led some to interesting questions, statements and rounded out the careers of several (thousand) academics. The rapid expansion of communication can be measured in graduate students’ tears, sweat and blood. Saul Bellow, even though he is everything but a graduate student, summarized “We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.” To some this is not much of a surprise. For those who blog obsessively, and perhaps it is fair to put me in that category, is there even a question about its veracity? There are the words, the ideas that are roughly communicated from these fingertips to you and then they are interpreted. Sometimes accurately, sometimes inaccurately but the actual truth of the objects are concealed by the words. Their ‘nature’ could be anything. When I write aardvark I could be, in fact, intending to write zebra. Who knows, truly, whether I have a knack for interesting creations. Perhaps everything I’ve ever said on this blog is a lie. That’d be interesting. Point being the ideas, no matter their accuracy or quality of transmission, dominate the landscape.
Albert Hirschman, who died late last year, was, according to the New York Review of Books obituary, “one of the most interesting and unusual thinkers of the last century. An anti-utopian reformer with a keen eye for detail, Hirschman insisted on the complexity of social life and human nature. He opposed intransigence in all its forms.” His bibliography is extensive. That he has, in death, proved Vidal’s prediction that American public intellectuals will be seen off with a “that’s that” is mildly frustrating. It is for him that I now write this blogpost and hope that you, dear reader, take some time to purchase a few of his books. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970) is largely considered, in the circles that his work appears organically, as the most important. It explores two ways to respond to relationships. Unsurprisingly, these two ways were either by leaving for the territories or by making a racket (“Exit” and “Voice” respectively). Then he threw in the next dimension: loyalty. Presumably, if you are loyal you will not exit but fascinating instances occur when people leave on account of their loyalty. So then peoples’ actions are classified according to whether they’ve exited, loyally or not, or voiced their opinions, loyally or not. Of his essays the Hiding Hand is often cited as being influential, but to me seems to reiterate concepts I find obvious but, no doubt, that is more of a testament to his insight rather than mine. His contested opinion has become ‘common sense’ within a generation. If only I could be half as lucky.
Edit: I found an interesting blogpost about how revolutionary Hirschman was. He published in the midst of an era when theory was ‘king.’ He replied, essentially, that theory was rubbish.
The point of these two thinkers is that as we’re driven farther and farther away from the events that are written about–the more and more our experiences are ‘mediated’ by other organizations, images and ideas–then we should be skeptical of the ‘big’ ideas. Hirschman is the precept in action. In his analysis of the remarkable switch that took place between the ‘right’ and ‘left,’ Rival Views of Market Society, he confronts the rather odd reality that the Edmund Burke’s of today would never agree with the Edmund Burke. The former believe markets are an effective bulwark against disruptive social change. There are less revolutions when everyone is eating well and making money. Take Atlanta, for instance, during the 60s the civil rights leaders said it was the one city that was ‘too busy to hate.’ The latter, the Irish fellow, was deeply skeptical of markets. He saw them as destroyers of the older, aristocratic order. In that sense he was absolutely right. Likewise the revolutionaries of France would, in all likelihood, behead the people who have become their supposed progeny. To them the market was going to the aristocracy’s coffers and emptying them out. He takes a perverse delight in showing how pliable these so-called ‘principles’ are and how replaceable they are to the wider political traditions.
For that reason I find him deeply but not dully conservative. Though, of course, others have identified him as another duly but not dully elected member of the European–moderate left–intelligentsia. I think he simply enjoyed being an example of his philosophy in practice. He confounds easy labels except perhaps ‘contrarian.’