Brooks become a waterfall

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks describes his visit to the global hub of Federal Express in Memphis.

The first thing you notice during the overnight sort is the endless parade of planes stacked up in the night sky. Then there are the swarms of workers who descend upon the planes once they land and strip them of their cargo. Then begins the scramble of the caterpillars — little motorized tugs towing strings of cargo containers pell-mell around the complex and honking out warnings at every intersection.

They’re bringing about 1.3 million envelopes and packages a night to vast sorting arenas with names like the Primary Matrix Area. Inside these stadium-sized rooms there are rows and rows of speeding conveyor belts and rushing envelope trays. Little devices push or tip individual packages into one of the thousands of chutes and slides and ramps. If you stand on a catwalk over the conveyers and look down at the pulsing motion below, you feel that same disorienting, perilous sensation you get on a bridge staring down into a waterfall.

It was the last image that caught my attention: the waterfall. After all, Kant had something to say about waterfalls:

…the high waterfall of some night river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more [end of 110] attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.

Waterfalls were for Kant, and not only Kant, one of the things in nature that demand we reckon with a scale larger than the paltry human one. The sublime was one of the moments in which we find our powers of comprehension tested. The sublime presented a vastness that exploded one’s sense of scale.

There is a little of this in the Brooks quote. The FED EX operation, with its planes stacked over head, all that technology on the ground, 1.3 million packages in transit! To see this from above, Brooks says, is to experience a “disorienting, perilous sensation.” This is a world too large, too dynamic, at once so orderly and disorderly that it threatens our sense of scale. It is in Tambiah’s famous phrase, not just “hard to think.” It sits on the edge of what is thinkable.

As Jack Greene tell us, European intellectuals and visitors were inclined to regard America and the new world in general as the locus of much that was sublime. As Greene says, “awareness of the seeming boundlessness of America penetrated more deeply into European consciousness.”

And of course that’s now utterly over. Nature in America isn’t sublime, any longer. It’s not even “wild.” It is now thoroughly “cowed,” but which I mean, of course, domesticated.

If the sublime operates still in the new world, it is at the FED EX plant in Memphis. And of course FED EX is merely a toy compared to the internet which has 5 – 10 gigabytes coursing through it at any given moment. (1.3 million packages, hah!)

Science will not be outdone. We soothe our sense of outraged scale with reassurances that “6 degrees” bring order to this new world. But a little voice carries on. We stand on the catwalk of contemporary culture and think, “oh!” a cartoon character suffering a blow to the solar plexus.

One little question we can answer. Did Brooks mean to evoke Kant? I think he probably did. He was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago where reading Kant is part of the punishment of everyday life. When I was a graduate student there, there was a joke circulating: “how can you tell an undergraduate from a graduate student? The undergraduate is the one talking to himself.” Thank goodness Brook now talks to the rest of us.

Op-Ed Columnist: Scanning for Success

Kant, Immanuel. 1952. The Critique of Judgement. translator James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 110-111.

Greene, Jack P. 1993. The Intellectual Construction of America: exceptionalism and identity from 1492-1800. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, p. 25.