Tom Wolfe

Wolfe

This little blog is supposed to be an intersection of Anthropology and Economics but too often I treat these as incommensurate worlds that must run like railroad tracks in parallel without hope of intersection. 

Very well. Here’s another way to make the difference. Anthropologists trade in indignation. Economists do not.

Trade in indignation? Anthropology is now deeply preoccupied with the production of indignation. To take an undergraduate course in anthropology is to be inducted into the arts and science of indignation. To take a graduate degree is to be made an officer of indignation, appointed by the court of scholarly opinion to hold forth loudly and often in defense of any idea, group or institution that appears to suffer affront.  Economists, on the other hand, are dispassionate to be point of being bloodless and entertain, apparently, a glassy indifference to what the world will.

So if you have to choose one, blindly, in that evolutionary way, which is better? The anthropologist’s indignation? Or the economist’s calm? I am shocked (shocked!) you should have to ask such a question. Clearly, unmistakably, calm is better. Because calm does not anticipate itself. It does not require anything to be true. When confronted with reality, it does not prostletize. Glassy as in transparent, the light of the world can actually penetrate this academy. 

Anthropology shares its affliction with many people in the humanities and the social sciences. Tom Wolfe, in a recent interview, treats indignation as the great affliction of the intellectual. He says,

An intellectual feeds on indignation and really can’t get by without it. (p. 8)

One of the problems with indignation is that it eventually gives way to self absorption.  When one investigates the world in order to be outraged by it, discourse turns inward.  Academic deliberation becomes, to steal a term from Gitlin, a kind of identity scholarship.  It is not about the world, it is about the investigator.  Postmodernism was especially troubled by this tendency.  Every book and article, whatever it’s title or topic, ended up being about the plucky little investigator carrying on in the face of epistemological difficulties that would crush an ordinary mortal.  Author, author! 

Tom Wolfe is good on this theme as well.  He says the "psychological novel [] is mainly the novel of yourself at home…  Your own experience is the only valid experience that you can draw from." 

The novel will become a worthy but unpopular pursuit unless the novelists get outside their own lives, depart their comfortable little studies, … and do what writers did in the great period of American literature, which was the first half of the twentieth century.  Everybody from Stephen Crane to John Steinbeck quite intentionally went outside of his own experience. (p. 35)

Wolfe says that he is a "chronicler," someone who "keeps tabs on what is happening in society, in the sense of social mores as a well as just "society" with a small s."  This is precisely the way an anthropologist or sociologist could make him or herself useful. 

Useful?  What an antique idea.  Social scientists, many of them, are too busy posturing, turning their scholarship into acts of identity construction, to do anything so ordinary, so coarse, so banal as making themselves useful.  Good thing, perhaps.  I have a very strong feeling that many of them are not fit for the real world, and could not make themselves useful even if they really wanted to.  (Finally, this is a evolutionary process of self selection where the incompetent remove themselves from harm’s way, there to nurse wounded self esteem with the septic salve called tenure.)

This should be good news for economists.  With anthropologists engaged in amateur dramatics, the field is wide open.  Steven Levitt has stepped up and offered novel and illuminating approaches.  But generally, economists police their disciplinary limitations every bit as assiduously as anthropologists do, and won’t come out to play.

Opportunity goes neglected.  A contemporary world filled with its eddies of innovation and sudden, unapologetic dynamism that makes January 2000 now almost impossible to restore from memory.  Imagine.  6 years.  Substantial parts of the world are unrecognizable.  Who is standing this watch?  Who is there to chronicle what is happening to us? 

Tell me it’s more than Tom Wolfe.  He is a wonder.  Our Dickens, our Balzac, our Zola.   That much is clear.  But he cannot be enough.  But as long as the economists continue to ask the wrong questions and anthropologists to supply the wrong answers, Wolfe’s the man. 

References

Cole, Bruce. 2006. A conversation with Tom Wolfe. Humanities. May/June, pp. 6-9, 35-37.

Gitlin, Todd.  1993. The Rise of Identity Politics.  Dissent.  Spring.  pp. 172-177.

McCracken, Grant. 2004.  Dr. O’Neill, may I present Dr. Boudreaux?  This Blog Sits at… May 31, 2004. here.

Wolfe, Tom.  1998.  A Man in Full.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

13 thoughts on “Tom Wolfe”

  1. Grant,

    I can see what you’re trying to say re: economists vs anthropologists, but would like to offer up the example of the Nobel prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, whose books such as The Argumentative Indian, I believe, sit on that very intersection of economics and anthropology (or at least understanding society/culture) etc.

    best,
    niti

  2. Niti, thanks for the corrective. I don’t know Sen’s working nearly well enough, and he has now moved way up on my netbkx list. Thanks, Grant

  3. Economists have their own sources of indignation, but their rhetorical stance is to present these as dispassionately as possible. Economists hate waste, which they define as a situation where some people could be made better off (by their own lights) without hurting others (by their own lights). They call such waste “inefficiency.” This enables them to combine their loosely utilitarian philosophical stance with their preferred identity as scientists, purveyors of instrumental rationality.

    Economists desperately want to be useful, but despair often at the chances of overcoming political frictions to get the right thing implemented. Supposedly the late George Stigler, Nobel laureate and curmudgeon extrordinaire, used to deride Milton Friedman for being an “actionist,” i.e. someone who thought his advocacy could change policy. While all the returns aren’t in, I think Friedman had the penultimate laugh.

  4. Netbx? That’s my favorite Gedanken Design of the day. Damn. It just comes across so naturally that I had to go check and see if that was a real thing. I buy books, but I have no way to manage my out of whack priorities for reading this!

    BTW, I was just talking about Tom Wolfe today and suggesting that Karim Rashid had supplanted him (among certain culture vultures) as the de facto man in a white suit.

  5. Interesting post – I’d like to note that my undergraduate anthro course was hardly filled with indignation. A healthy value of self-critique and quite a lot of humor at the expense of earlier theorist, but not much indignation. What am I missing?

  6. “But as long as the economists continue to ask the wrong questions and anthropologists to supply the wrong answers . . .”

    To add to this, I think that the majority of economists tackle their (wrong) questions with the wrong methods. Renegade Chicago economist- turned-argumentation-theorist, Deidre McCloskey defined an academic discipline as a pair: (agreed scope, agreed methods). Mainstream economists have both a narrow definition of the scope of the discipline (ignoring, for example, much relevant social phenomena, at least until recently) and a narrow definition of the appropriate methods for studying this scope (dismissing, for example, ethnographic methods).

    On both these dimensions, your typical anthropologist is much more broad-minded than your typical economist. So much so, in fact, that there is even a branch of the social sciences called the sociology of economics, which has explored, for example, the performative and possibly self-fulfilling nature of economic theorizing, as an activity which itself alters the world. I can give you references if you want, Grant.

  7. Interesting comments by yourself, and Wolfe. And very reminiscent of John Raulston Saul’s arguement in Voltaire’s Bastards that the late twentieth-century novel(ist) has become a specialist who no longer connects to the society in which (s)he lives. Indeed, Saul quotes Wolfe as an exception to the rule, a man who used “non-fiction” to tell a socially-relevant tale or two. Not that Saul was/is particularly hopeful that memory will be found again by society…

  8. Of course, much of the fuss that Wolfe and others create about the alleged decline of the novel seems to privilege the word over the image. Movies and TV provide more than enough connection with our reality, so who cares whether novels also do.

  9. Bravo, Grant – even though you have let some of the academic sociologists off the hook too easily by focusing on anthropology as the fountain of indignation. Yes, sociology, where veneration of outsider/provocateur patron saints like C. Wright Mills and Edward Said continues to be passed off as serious scholarship and praxis.

  10. The trouble with Wolke’s argument is that he uses it to justify his claim that he’s a better writer than he really is.

    Wolfe’s a good social critic/observer. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s terrific. His 60s stuff on class/status still reads well.

    But as a novelist, he’s shit. He’s unable to create characters who feel like real people. Rather they’re stick figures upon which he hangs sociological insights. Which means his novels are finally flat and listless.

    But that doesn’t stop him from comparing himself to Dickens and Zola and pissing on writers who are simply better than he is.

    More and more, Wolfe is becoming a crank and a bore. His insights and criticisms don’t go much beyond his yelling at everyone, “Look at me, look at me, I’m a great writer. Really, I am.”

    Give it up, Tom. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up as the next Gore Vidal, the other American writer who wants desperately to be respected for his fiction, not his criticism, and who, in his dotage, is becoming seriously unhinged.

  11. Interesting post Mr. McCracken. However I had always thought of Mr. Wolfe to be the modern epicenter of Elitist Euridite Indignation (with a polished exterior of studied calm poise).

    I once called him the twentieth centuries most likely to be forgotten author. I’m not even completely sure that he exists. There comes a point when one polishes ones exterior that the interior disappears, being wholly subsumed. Tom Wolfe reached that point some time ago.

  12. I prefer Johnny Cash – the man in black over Tom Wolfe – the man in the White Suit. For all the assorted reasons Cash attached to his clothes and ditto for Wolfe.

  13. I ran into Tom Wolfe (sans the white suit) the other day in Richmond. Like yourself, I was intrigued by the dichotomy between The Man in White and The Man in Black.

    Cash’s work is personal, spiritual, autobiographical, almost confessional. Tales of love, god, and murder. His best stuff is typically 1st person: “I fell in to a burning ring of fire”…”Why me Lord?”……”I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”…it’s typically sparse, minimalistic, conveying only the essential truth of any scenario.
    Wolfe, on the other hand is a journalist, an observer, a poetic ethnographer, providing elaborate portraits of systems and the individuals who attempt to influence them. Ego, greed, sex, and power. Dressed in white, but highlighting the decadence and the debauchery of modern life.
    I’d love to hear more thoughts on Cash vs. Wolfe…

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