There is a scholar, call him Mr X, who received his training within the academy, but who found it wasn’t enough. He wanted more: to move outside of his wonky circle of colleagues, to engage the public, to communicate ideas in a manner that was artful as well as illuminating.
While his peers wrote difficult books and debated obscure issues at their meetings, Mr X took part in the communication revolution that was bringing academic ideas into greater contact with the wider world. He wrote shorter pieces for broader audiences, telling one colleague “Publish small works often and you will dominate all of literature.” So when Mr X was offered a position far away from his bustling city home, he took it, feeling that his community was no longer defined by geography but by ideas, communicated through the new social technologies.
The new social technologies wern’t blogs or Web 2.0 applications, but the pamphlet and the salon. Mr X is not Steven Jay Gould or PZ Myers but Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, an 18th century French explorer and polymath who led a geodetic expedition to Lapland in 1736.
Maupertuis is usually remembered as the scholar who described the actual shape of the earth by measuring a degree of arc at high latitude. In so doing, he helped settle a dispute with French cartographer Jacques Cassini over whether the earth was prolate (that is, longer along its N-S axis), or oblate (longer along its diameter at the equator). Cassini believed that the earth was prolate like a lemon. Maupertuis, following in the footsteps of Newton, helped prove that it was oblate like a jelly donut.
Yet as Mary Terrall points out in her book The Man Who Flattened The Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences of the Enlightenment, Maupertuis’s most interesting work takes place back home as he tries to make a name for himself in this new theater of conversation, a world that connects elite academies and educated polite society.
As I read about the radical effects of social technology on academic writing and reputation today, I wonder: how much of this is really new? Perhaps the boundaries between elite institutions and general public have always been squishier than we’ve made them out to be. Blogs and twitter feeds feel so new, so world changing, because they have in fact changed the world we live in, the way we communicate with friends, peers, and random passers-by. Yet it’s bound to feel like this. The flood feels strongest when you’re standing in the middle of the stream. The story of Maupertuis makes me think that it is a seasonal event, a spring flood that returns with some regularity, the latest iteration of social technology (and sociable science writing) that probably dates to the printing press. Vive le café.
I downloaded the album XX this morning from Itunes. I’d heard bits and pieces of it over the past few months as it trickled through the estuaries of popular culture into my living room: AT&T commercials, HBO shows, and finally an interview with the lead singers Romy Croft and Oliver Sim on National Public Radio.
The shy, breathy duets of Croft and Sim sounded to me like Everything But the Girl. Lead guitarist Baria Querishi’s spare treble notes brought memories of New Order, the Cure, and Roxy Music. The XX looked new, but they sounded old, twenty-somethings channeling the spirits of the Second British Invasion. I felt conflicted at the end of it all: the music compelled attention, but at the same time, seemed derivative.
“Derivative” cuts deep, worse perhaps than “awful.” After all, there are gentler explanations for awful. It could mean that an artist is pushing through too many conventions, going farther than an audience is willing to follow. In this sense, today’s awful holds the promise of being tomorrow’s brilliant. Derivative, however, lives without hope. It can only been seen as an attempt at novelty that has fallen short, a poorly disguised act of mimicry.
Or are there other explanations for derivative? Though I heard other bands playing through XX, the label derivative didn’t really match my experience of listening to it. I like the album. I found myself listening to it again. It was in my head as I left the house. I turned it on when I got back home. Would I really be so patient with an album that was a complete knock off?
At some unconscious level, then, the XX provided something new.
Seen with the dispassion of distance, of course, there is no such thing as new. Music, like any other human expression, is forged in the crucible of culture. It cannot escape the conditions of its creation – whether you want to call it borrowing, inspiring, or mimicking. Originality in this sense is a myth. Everything grows from a source. “Nothing comes from nothing” says Parmenides (and Fraulein Maria).
Yet maybe the label derivative is born out of our emotional experience, rather than rational analysis, of art. In this sense, the sounds of older influences within new music are not just a product of the artist’s cultural borrowing, but of our own psychological interpreting. Perhaps, in other words, we are not cognitively prepared to experience things as new. How did I first experience other artists? My first encounters almost always followed the same pattern. I heard the old influences first: other bands that inhabited new music. And I can generalize further. All of my new experiences – music, trips abroad, new foods – come with reminders, comparisons, analogies with the old – the already known.
This is a well-demarcated phenomenon, particularly in studies of exploration. Christopher Columbus had never been to Asia, yet found in America all of the things that he expected to see there: cinnamon, Amazons, anthropophagi, and the Great Khan. As Anthony Grafton pointed out in New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery, the New World didn’t look so new to Europeans at first. Columbus went to his grave thinking he had reached Asia. Only over time, as the New World became old so to speak, did it come to be framed as new, as other, as disorienting. The XX began with an old soul. Now it seems fresh. Newness, like cheese, gets stronger with age.
Here’s a teaser from an article I’m writing on Mars. It should be coming out soon. When I sell the rights to Sony Pictures, I’m going to ask that Russell Crowe play Mars. Is there any other logical choice?
Two Visions of Mars
Before he became the Roman god of war, Mars lived a quieter life as the protector of farms, crops, and animals. He was beloved by Romans as the father of Romulus; this made him the celestial father of the Roman people. Mars began to change as the Roman Empire changed. While farmers continued to look to him for protection, so did the imperial legions which left the Italian peninsula on expeditions of conquest.
In the first century BCE, therefore, Mars represented two things at once. He was the giver of life, the guardian of agriculture. He was also the blood-stained warrior, the defender of soldiers marching at the frontiers of the known world. While Romans may have been united in their love of Mars, they looked to him for different reasons.
Despite the change from god to planet, Mars continues to mean different things for different people. On one hand, it is an archive of the past, a planetary laboratory where scientists seek answers about the history of the solar system and the origins of life. On the other, it is the landscape of the future, the next human frontier, the first real step out of our planetary cradle.
In principle, these different visions of Mars – as science laboratory and human frontier – are complementary. On the science side, mission planners have long defended robotic expeditions for their value in paving the way for human exploration. Mariner, Viking, and Pathfinder all found justification as the trailblazers of human missions. Most recently, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory defended its uber-Rover, the Mars Scientific Laboratory, as a mission that will “prove techniques that will contribute to human landing systems”
Advocates of human spaceflight also defend the compatibility of human exploration and science, often on the grounds that humans are more effective in doing science than remotely-operated probes. As Mars Society president Robert Zubrin declares, Martian science “is a job for humans” [Launius & McCurdy, Robots in Space, 21].
In practice, however, the divide over Mars runs deep. Many space scientists express growing frustration with human space flight, which they view as an expensive distraction from scientific exploration. Lower costs, improvements in computer design and miniaturization, and the proven durability of Martian probes have encouraged their faith in robotic science and made arguments for sending astronauts to Mars less compelling.
By contrast, many supporters of human missions to Mars believe that the focus on science and robotic exploration has become too narrow, ignoring the deeper meanings of exploration, its capacity to inspire people today, and shape the societies of tomorrow. For those looking to place boots on Mars, NASA seems to be drifting in a Sargasso Sea of underfunded programs and policy revisions, never able to chart its course for the New World….
The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is a story common to all human cultures. While this story varies from from place to place and era to era, there are deep structural similarities among its forms. So common were these basic structural elements that comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell called the hero story a “monomyth.”
The story has a structure that we recognize in Bible stories and big-screen films alike: a hero departs the comforts of the known world on a quest. She endures physical and emotional trials, gains wisdom, and returns home to impart lessons learned on the journey.
Campbell’s eagerness (following Jung’s) to reduce all stories to basic structures makes me a little uneasy. (Can we really blueprint all human art forms?) But in the case of the hero story, I think he was on to something. The power of the journey story does appear to have almost universal expression and a common lesson also: that we gain knowledge by our encounter with the unknown and its perils.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the monomyth is monolithic. I see two important variants: some heroes gain knowledge in their quest that adds to things they already know (e.g. Moses and Jesus). Others discard their possessions and beliefs in order to find the truth (e.g. Plato’s prisoner of the cave, Siddhārtha Gautama, and St Francis of Assisi).
Since the late 1700s, the latter variant of the hero monomyth — that one must escape civilization in order to find oneself — has gained a strong foothold in the West. Although the idea that civilization corrupts is an old one, it has blossomed with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others.
In its most extreme form, the escape-civilization-to-find-enlightenment myth suggests that the traveler or explorer gains wisdom only when civilization is burned away by extreme experience. As climber Robert Dunn put it in 1907: explorers were “men with the masks of civilization torn off.”
Or as climber David Breashears expressed it a century later:
The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that’s stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they’re incredibly exhausted, and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.
But if the journey does its wisdom-building work by tearing off the mask of civilization, by stripping away artifice, we are left with this question:
What’s underneath the mask?
Dunn and Breashears imply that the true self is revealed: the intense experiences of the journey shear the subject of culture and its trappings. This is a comforting idea at first glance because it presumes that
1) you can find yourself by setting out on an exceptionally difficult adventure.
2) your problems are the result of your culture rather than your essential nature.
This reminds me a lot of John Locke who also believed that you could neatly separate the original self from one imprinted by civilization. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke argued that human beings begin their journey tabula rasa — as blank slates — waiting to be shaped by experience. The Lockian newborn was a human TiVo pulled from its styrofoam packing, waiting to be filled by sounds and images that would give it its special identity.
I doubt that Dunn or Breashears believe the journey can return the explorer to the perfect self of the infant. I expect they see the perilous journey as a way of re-booting the TiVo rather than wiping it clean, clear out old programming to make space for new material.
The Cult of New Experience
The important point here is this: those who think of the self as something that can be purged of culture, like a psychological master cleanse, tend to weight the power of new experience over the power of reason or ideas, to prefer the bungee jump over the writer’s retreat. In their view, traditional ideas impede our understanding rather than advance it. To access the new, we need to leave our old selves — like a pair of flip-flops — at the door.
Perhaps this obsession with the power of experience explains why so many travelers and explorer seem concerned with having “authentic” experience rather than ones they see as packaged, hybrid, or touristy. In the traveler’s search for the truly different, she must avoid experiences that carry the whiff of world left behind. She avoids the McDonalds in Karachi. She turns down the tour bus to the pyramids. She resists the urge to text-message home from the summit of Everest.
But is our faith in the uber-experience wise? Can we peel away our culture like the rind off an orange? Closer inspection shows how much culture enters the flesh, shapes us, makes us. Humans have an innate form, of course, but its a form that cannot function without an environment. So speaking about one without the other is like asking “Which do plants need more: water or light?”
Before we make pure experience the holy grail of the self-knowledge, then, we need to pay closer attention to the way humans think about these experiences.
First, authentic is a rather squishy concept. Cultures routinely borrow and import what they need from other cultures. For example, in Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert discovers herself in part through her ecstatic encounter with Italy. Italy’s authenticity is expressed through its foods: it is a place of fried zucchini blossoms and sizzling Margarita pizza. Yet the core ingredients of these foods — zucchini and tomatoes — are foreign to Italy. They are both New World species, brought back to Europe and incorporated into Italian cooking in the 19th century. What is authentically Italian experience for Gilbert was, two centuries earlier, suspiciously foreign and non-Italian.
Second, experience itself is never pure, never unmediated (as I wrote about in my recent post about Moscow). Even those experiences which seen so expressly sensory — the joy of food, sex, art — feel different according to our beliefs about them. In his book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Paul Bloom explodes the myth of pure experience:
What matters most is not the world as it appears according to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is. This is true of intellectual pleasures, such as the appreciation of paintings and stories, and also for pleasures that seem simpler, such as the satisfaction of hunger and lust. For a painting, it matters who the artist was; for a story whether it is truth or fiction; for a steak we care about what sort of animal it came from; for sex, we care about who we think our sexual partner really is [xii]
Can we apply Bloom’s analysis of pleasure to the explorer’s experience of pain? Does the ascent up Everest gain meaning because of the pure experience of frostbite and hypoxia? Or does it matter more that the climber is enduring such pain on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain? The mask of civilization is not something that the climber rips away. It’s the reason the climber is there in the first place.
Poets coo about autumn as a gentle season, a time of harvests and golden light. It is Dickinson’s cool orchard where “the berry’s cheeks are plumper” and Keats’ quiet time scattered with grain “drows’d with the fume of poppies.”
But berries and poppies have no place in my autumn, which announces itself to summer like an air-raid siren. Deadlines have arrived for two articles (on Mars and the historiography of exploration). Copy edits for a third are overdue. My book project, drows’d with the fumes of neglect, crawls into a corner to die. Students flutter and spin towards my office like falling leaves. Classes begin in three days.
Wonderful, wonderful posts wait to be written, to be plucked from the golden orchards of science and exploration. They hang unripe, waiting for more fertilizer, or maybe more pesticide.
So no deep thoughts today, just some links that I’ve found:
Roger Launius’s Blog. Launius is a sharp historian who focuses on the history of space exploration. I’m currently reading his book Robots in Space and was excited to see that he has entered the blogosphere. If you want my recommendation of things to read on his site, check out his piece on the popularity of the Apollo Program.
From the Hands of Quacks. Jaipreet Virdi’s history of science blog covers a number of topics, from history of medicine to the challenges of being a grad student. It’s got a nice list of links too.
Bering in Mind I can’t think of a way of connecting Bering’s research psychology blog to exploration, so I won’t try. I like his pithy writing style and spin on contemporary issues from a variety of perspectives including evolutionary biology. His latest post on polyamory is also well-done in pointing out the widespread use of the naturalistic fallacy in defending human sex behaviors.
Cosmic Variance. A group blog on physics and astrophysics that is hosted by Discover magazine. The posts often give a lot more depth and perspective on astronomical discoveries than regular media outlets provide.
Ok, done. May your autumn be filled with berries and poppies – or poppy derivatives – as your needs dictate.
In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 128 men sailed into the Arctic aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in search of the Northwest Passage. They were never heard from again. The mystery of the search for Franklin took decades to solve. Theories about the causes of the expedition’s demise continue to the present.
The irony of the Franklin expedition is that it accomplished more in failure than it ever could have in success. The disappearance of the party sparked dozens of relief expeditions from Britain and led to a comprehensive survey of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and its native peoples.
For the United States, which entered the search effort in 1850, the rescue of Franklin became the driving force for U.S. exploration of the Arctic, a 60-year effort that established the polar regions as next frontier after the American west.
Last week an expedition organized by Parks Canada found HMS Investigator which set out to find the Franklin party in 1850. In taking up the search for Investigator, Parks Canada made itself a part of the 150 year old legacy of the Franklin search. It also established a place in a much larger lost-explorer theme that became dominant in the 19th century as explorers set out to find other explorers who had gone missing.
Yet in his editorial about the discovery, Canadian Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice is eager to point the different, distinctly modern, uniquely Canadian elements of the Parks Canada search.
First, it was done on the cheap:
This modern-day expedition was typically Canadian: quietly conceived and carried out on a modest budget from an unassuming cluster of 10 orange Mountain Equipment Co-op tents scattered on the rocky shore of Mercy Bay.
Second, the crew was quintessentially Canadian:
The senior marine archaeologist manning the sonar was Calgary-born Ryan Harris. Alongside him were archaeologists Jonathan Moore, who hails from Kingston, Ont., and Thierry Boyer of Montreal. Also present was soft-spoken John Lucas, a Canadian of Inuit ancestry and the senior Parks Canada officer for Aulavik National Park.
With some substitutions of names and technology, this statement sounds a lot like the patriotic boosterism of the British Admiralty or the American Geographical Society 150 years ago.
Ultimately Prentise’s interest in showing this effort as ‘exceptionally’ Canadian make it sound a lot like other efforts in 19th century frontier conquering. While their are the usual nods to the importance of archeology and the history of indigenous peoples, he ends his editorial on the subject that was of highest importance to the Great Powers in the late 1800s: territorial rights.
Most importantly, however, the quest for the Investigator celebrates our Arctic heritage and speaks to the exercise of our sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago today.
Things change, things stay the same.
Writing is lonely work. But it is not always solitary. Despite the isolation that I sometimes feel pounding out text on my laptop, I work in the presence of an audience, or rather, a perceived audience. The perceived audience is a tough crowd usually, tougher than the real one. It is with me as I write this — sitting at the oak table at the Eastham Public Library– watching me.
My perceived audience is made up of three groups: academics who work on the same subject as me (I know their names and see their faces), academics who work in the same or overlapping disciplines (hazier) and everybody else: non-specialists who are interested in the Arctic, or exploration, or who typed in the wrong search term on Google.
In graduate school, I paid attention to the first two groups. In particular, I tried to interpret the reactions of the specialists. Nothing that I wrote, at that point, seemed likely to find its way into the hands of lay readers, so I didn’t trouble myself with them.
Mapping out a graduate essay was like planning a war game: anticipating threats and finding tactical responses. I became adept at different weapon systems. My arsenal included the obscure, the arcane, and the highly theoretical.
This has changed over the last decade as I have started writing and lecturing for a broader audience. The lay audience that once sat at the back of the room has edged closer to the front. This is not simply because they make up a larger percentage of my readership.
It is because they ask the best questions.
For example, last week I was a guest on WNPR’s Where We Live show about exploration. No one who produced or called in to the show was a specialist or an academic. Nor was the host, John Dankosky, an exploration expert (although he’s a whip-smart journalist).
Yet the questions were tough and incisive. “At the beginning of the 21st century, what’s left to explore?” “Do Americans have a special relationship with exploration?”
Dankosky raised one of the best questions after the show was over. “Why do politicians defend human space flight as a jobs program for engineers and astronauts? Aren’t these the windfalls of discovery rather than the heart? Would we defend money given to artists through National Endowments for the Arts as a great way to employ artists?
A very good question.
You can listen to the full show here.