Last night, I went to a Montreal celebration for a magazine called FQ. It was staged in the St. James Hotel. I got there early as clueless academics always do. (The term “fashionably late” means nothing to us.) And I found myself standing in the big room surrounded by waiters with silver trays. There is a very clear anthropological convention here: “begin drinking immediately” and I did. What follows is a little feverish.
It is almost impossible to describe the grandeur of the hotel. It was built first as a bank at a time when capital was still not quite certain of itself and felt obliged to turn itself into grandeur. In those days, apparently, we still did not quite believe in banks and would only tip our money into their pool of money with the most lavish and architecturally material of assurances.
Heres the lobby. But the room beyond this lobby is indescribably complicated with every kind of ornament and architectural elaboration. There is an upper balcony that runs, and here “runs” is no mere turn of phrase, from one end of the room, to the other.
I talked briefly to Jeannie Beker, the editor of the FQ. She is one of Canadas unsung marvels. If she were American, we would know her name as well as we do Diane Sawyer’s or Katie Couric’s. But this is Canada and thats ok.
I had a couple of drinks, and stood, as all academics must, on the margin, watching the world carry on with an animation that seems to outstrip anything that ever happens in the “senior common room, even at its most sherry fueled.
And then I had a kind of epiphany which I hesitate to share with you, because it sounds a little screwed up. But never mind, its for science.
The thing that occurred to me, standing in that room surrounded by breathtaking architecture, is that “you could turn all of this into numbers. I am sure that this revelation that comes to some people easily and often. But for an anthropologist who has been raised “without numbers (we are the enfants sauvage of the social sciences, raised without a basic language) it came with a certain head-snapping impact.
It now sounds obvious, on the one hand and addled, on the other, but for some reason I was impressed by the fact that everything in this extraordinarily complicated room could be charted and mapped in relation, in very precise relation, to everything else.
Why? Why should it occur to an anthropology raised without numbers to think about a cultural artifact as numbers. Most of my colleagues would see this as an act of reduction, a vulgar diminishment, a preposterous act in which the extraordinary is made ordinary. What what I recall thinking is this: if you could turn this artifact into numbers, you could compare it to all other cultural artifacts. But of course, you could, but why bother? The history of architecture is nothing if not a labor of comparison, identification, categorization. This field has spend the last couple of hundred years doing precisely this, comparing styles and moments and transformation in architecture and anyone who has done an undergraduate course in this field knows they are pretty good at it.
So what does it matter that it could be “turned into numbers?” I think it’s because the world of contemporary culture has a way of punching through the existing categories of understanding as if these were merely so much dry wall. Routinely, we see our culture add on and do over. (This communication comes to you on a technology, the internet, that did not really exist 10 years ago, in a forum, the blog, that did not really exist 5 years ago.) In our culture, there is always something more that no one in charge of the categories (intellectuals, academics and other observers) anticipated or thought or thought possible.
These days, concepts and categories, as crafted by the chattering classes, are almost always struggling to catch up to the world that comes rushing through the dry wall. The revelation, for anyone who is paying attention to what is happening to contemporary culture, is that this is the work of a capitalism that doesnt know, and doesnt care that it doesnt know, what comes next.
The real observers of the world beyond the dry wall are no longer intellectuals but venture capitalists. These are the people who glimpse the world in the works and must decide whether to pour capital in or not. Its a little like that game that appears on the Letterman show, “Is this something or not something? This is the VC game. (“Ok, I have a proposal for something called Mosiac. Is this something or not something?)
I’ve taught business school students and I have a rough idea how they made the decision, and I thank God they were not trained as anthropologists, who would have, as anthropologists, said, “no, we dont know what this is and we cannot fund it. Happily, HBS graduates and other VCs do not think this way. They plug in the numbers, they see as far as their spread sheets can show them, and they say, “ok, consider yourself liquid. A couple of years later, we had the most extraordinary creation of value in this history of the market place and something called the Internet. People who think about culture for a living could not have seen what was possible and would not, almost surely, have funded it.
In The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss talked about the difference between traditional societies and modern ones. The latter, he said, are driven by scientists who are always searching after that “other message, the one not anticipated by the code. I’ve seen HP engineers at work and they are a lot like this. They are not much interested in what is. What interests them is what’s possible. Screw the code, screw the categories, whats on the other side of the dry wall? These days the world is routinely reshaped by scientists and engineers and more actively, entrepreneurs and VCs. These are the ones who move out of what we know into what no one quite gets. VCs are funding in the dark, as it were. They are betting on shadows that our present categories cannot quite illuminate. They are laying down bets on things that might make sense, and, hey presto, with funding, someday do. In other words, capital that once had to turn itself into great architectural declarations of the here and now is now being pressed into service to enable not the here but the horizon, not the now but the next.
This is the world we live in, one constantly transformed not by the playing out of ideas we share and have “signed off on. (Hayek is very good here on the difference between the French notion of individualism and the English one.) We are living in a world that is constantly in a process of becoming and the becoming is not a recitation of what we know but what we can, at the limit, imagine, fund, enable, create, and then live. (Again, we are communicating with a technology that is almost brand new.)
Do intellectuals understand what has happened to them? I think they do. The postmodernist crisis of “representation, the now overwhelming ordinary recitation of the instability of our analytic categories, what is this if not an acknowledgment of the fact that we live in a world where the real constantly outstrips the thought? The people who are supposed to act as the miners lamp on the helmet of contemporary society, what we hear from them mostly, is “we cant see, we cant know, we cant imagine. What we hear from them is mostly, “wet pavement, bridge out, dont go there! And the world, fuelled by the imaginations of entrepreneurs and the capital of venture capitalists barrels on right through the dry wall.
Back to the St. James hotel and that room as numbers. This room is merely intervals, that can be marked off and fixed with ones and zeroes. The creator of a video game creates a virtual world in just this way. This room and every room is a choice of intervals marked on or off. And, yes, of course, architectural history precedes us and it can show how and why certain configurations of marking take shape and press themselves upon the world, shaping the difference between the Rococo and the Renaissance. But this post hoc determination doesn’t serve us as a way of marking a world that is much more fluid and unpredictable. What happens when innovations of the order of the Internet come every few years or so? To think about this world, we will need a much more open conceptual system. To live in a world that changes more quickly, more variously, and more unpredictably, with new speed and power, the old ways of seeing and categorizing will have to go. And then seeing things as numbers may be so much an act of reduction but a way of keeping track, of keeping up.
In a sense, this is, to borrow an image first from Hegel, and then from an early post, really just Minerva taking wing at dusk. This is the moment when the anthropologist understands that his categories can’t keep up with the world. And in this moment of crisis, the qualitative mind looks for quantitative salvation. I think theres a good chance that its only because I am quantitatively innumerate that I imagine there is any help here. Certainly, when I look at the categories, the methods, the intelligence that economics and other numerate arts put at my disposal, my first thought is “what, this is it? We will need some combination of the qualitative and the quantitative to develop the ways of thinking that a truly dynamic world will demand of us. Numbers will have to do things that economists havent yet made them do for those of us who wish to understand the world the keeps coming at us ‘through the dry wall.
Hayek, Friedrich A. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 8. (The quote in question: “The difference between this view, which accounts for most of the order which we find in human affairs as the unforeseen result of individual actions, and the view which traces all discoverable order to deliberate design is the first great contrast between the true individualism of the British thinkers of the eighteenth century and the so-called “individualism” of the Cartesian school.”)
Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1972. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 20. (The quote in question: “The scientist, on the other hand, whether he is an engineer ora physicist, is always on the look out for that other message which might be wrested from an interlocutor in spite of his reticence in pronouncing on questions whose answers have not be rehearsed.” emphasis in original)