where do new ideas come from


I’ve noticed something about life in Connecticut. Things don’t break down here. Everything is in tiptop condition. Every so often you will see a house that looks uncared for, or a garden shed that’s leaning perilously. But usually everything is tickety boo. (That’s how we talk in Connecticut.)

In Connecticut, entropy isn’t allowed. The forces of disorder and randomness must apply to city hall for a permit before entering the state, and they must keep this permit in plain view AT ALL TIMES. Deterioration, when this does occur, is put right, immediately.

There are two kinds of vehicles: the BMWs and Mercedes of the people who live here and the panel trucks and pickups of those who work here. The expensive cars are always perfect. No chipped paint, no cracked wind shields, no dragging bumpers. The trucks, on the other hand, are often pretty badly beaten up.

This is ironic because these trucks carry the anti-entropy shock troops. These are the guys, mostly, who put things right. These vans, these are the vessels that bear anti-entropy into the state every morning and install it somewhere, on a house or in a shed, say, that the state may revel in yet another day of well fired, well sealed, well enameled perfection. As night draws near, these trucks withdraw noisily from the state in a gesture of by-law enforced deference. No, we don’t know where they go. Really, it’s just important that they leave. (New Jersey, could it be?)

Now, I’m a libertarian and this means that I may not write a blistering attack on the tedium of life in the suburbs. And in point of fact, I think this favorite pastime of the intellectuals is a waste of time. Everyone is entitled to live as they want, assuming that they do not infringe on the rights of others in the process. If they want to live with Martha Stewart rectitude, banging! Someone’s got to keep the faith.

But this doesn’t mean that certain ways of living don’t have costs, and my sermon today, brothers and sisters of the congregation, treats the costs of being anti-entropic. There is, I think, something very, very, very wrong with not letting things break down. This is not an aesthetic matter, though there is often something beautiful about decay. It’s not a moral matter, thought there is something especially interesting about societies that use (and sometimes find themselves suspended between) more than one moral compass.

No, this is a matter of creativity. And here’s my theory. I believe that when houses, cars, clothing and gardens break down, something cultural happens. The fine fissures on the object let meaning leak out. No need to call the Nuclear Commission. There is no danger here. The only effect of meanings leakage is that the object in question gives up a little of its cultural definition. And when this happens it consents to our imaginative manipulation in ways it will not do when brand spanking new.

When things break down, cultural codes give up. Cultural ‘types” lose their power over ‘tokens.” And a certain, crazy cultural reengineering becomes possible. We can now work from the diminished token up to types not anticipated by or specified in the cultural code. In short, convention loses a little of its power over the world and we are free to change this world, or at least the specs from which it comes.

I don’t go so far as the “critical” social scientists or the Po Mo camp. I don’t believe these movements of entropy actually allow for the remaking of the world as a world. But I do think that little departures and diminishments allow for the remaking of the world as an idea. (Nothing happens till we pay the costs of introduction and give the world a chance to vote. This is the problem with, the tragic condition of, “critical” social scientists. They forget or refuse the voting part. Revolutions are supposed to carry themselves by the unaided momentum of ineluctable argument.)

Sorry, yes, I was talking about Connecticut. It’s perfect, or close to it. And this makes it a “no fly” zone for new ideas. They come down Long Island sound, these ideas do, headed for the irresistible bouleversement of New York City. They can see my little town, and fatigued from trans-atlantic travel, they might be persuaded to stop here. But no. There is nothing for them to perch upon. Everything is what it is and not another thing. There are no imperfections that would give a new idea purchase, even briefly, on our shore.

I am sure I’ll be fine, but if you don’t hear from me for awhile, it’ll be because I stowed away on one of those panel trucks. Next blogcast, New Jersey!

9 thoughts on “where do new ideas come from

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Lots of interesting ideas in this post, Grant. I find myself focusing on this one: many of us who live in Connecticut see ourselves as “outlaws” of one stripe or another: we live on both sides of the cultural laws and try to make it all work.

    That is, we use this anti-entropic zone as a respite from the cauldron we immerse ourselves in routinely, Manhattan. I love to watch my fellow Metro North travellers as we glide together through the increasingly gritty transition zones of Port Chester, New Rochelle and Mt. Vernon East, before finally hitting the density of Williams Bridge, Fordham and 125th Street. (Some of us start getting the bends about now.) By the time we’ve descended below Park Avenue at 96th street (now officially across the cultural DMZ where literally everything is possible) we’ve all got our “City Selves” on, ready to walk out into the mega-entropo-lopolis for another day of mixing it up. People think New Yorkers walk around with shields up to protect themselves from one another. I experience it as analagous to moving around the Web, permeable but vigilant, accepting “cultural cookies” from various sites but rejecting them from others. Some of those cookies are loaded with great information, others are pure culture-porn. And after interacting with so many “sites” all day, it’s a pleasure to get back to the illusionary stability of the Stamford hills.

    Many of us make this trek often, some daily, and carry those cookies back to this place where things don’t break down. Permeability, not continual immersion, is a strategy I see in the eyes of my fellow travellers. We’re tired when we head home, but we’ve been given lots to think about since climbing on the 7:15 from South Norwalk.

  2. Grant

    Tom, great post, thanks, so you’ve found a way of smuggling yourself out, the train. Much more dignified than a panel truck. And I’m told that NYC is more interesting than New Jersey. Where did I read this? Somewhere. Thanks for a great post,Grant

  3. Ennis

    You know, New Haven isn’t that far, and is far more … fecund (even for an academic town) then Greenwich. Greenwich is beautiful, but amazingly staggeringly sterile.

  4. Ennis

    Libertarians are allowed to despise the burbs, as a matter of fact, they should since burbs exist only through substantial government subsidy, and take the form that they do only through fairly intrusive zoning designed to stop market oriented activity (commercial activity, smaller plot sizes, multi-family dwellings, people hanging their clothes on clotheslines in order to save money) from occuring.

    The suburbs were also explicitly designed to preserve a notion of America that was orderly, white, and male led. While they are no longer what they started as, they are hardly organic.

  5. Scott McArthur

    Connecticut is where the managers live.
    Management is about maximizing the actual: perfection.
    Creativity is another beast, at home among the entrepreneurs and other marginals.
    Which is why management workers are somewhat obsessed with creativity and how to get it and use it. The laws of scarcity mean that they want what they don’t have. Modern Management consultancy is impossible to imagine without this creativity deficit.
    Connecticut’s sterility is in direct proportion to NYC’s bio activity.
    It is hard to think of these things without judging the managers as inferior but that would be an unproductive thought. Systems require managers and creators and they need to be balanced like bacteria in the gut, the right mix must be there to keep the body healthy.
    What values make a good manager?
    What values make a good creator?

    I think Jane Jacobs had something to say about this. The one point that I remember is that managers (guardians?) must be honest and uncorruptable. Something that Eliot Spitzer has had to reteach them. Does Connecticut contribute to this honesty? Are the laws of Connecticut simply outward manefestations of minds that must be restrained to be “good”?

  6. Wodek Szemberg

    Let us sing with Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in”.

    As I was reading your post about the dearth of cracks in Connecticut, I was reminded of my trip to Cuba. Nothing but cracks there. Havanna is nothing if not a pean to the wonders of entropy.
    Like an aging beauty queen, no longer being able to afford rouge and lipstick, plastic surgery out of the question, Havanna is a still compelling and wonderous and still bespeaks of its past splendors.

    What makes Havanna a dramatic city is because it is full of different narratives….. sexual, historical, ideological. Much can be read into the ruins the litter the city and yet a walk on the Prado is one of the great urban pleasures.

    The irony of it all, as I was walking the different neighbourhoods, I loved all the cracks of that city and I realized that there is a fundamental truth of entropy. Time towers of everything and it demands its due.

    Pretending that this is not so is to submit to the unconquerable fear of death and demise.

    Is that the problem of Connecticut?

  7. Grant

    Ennis, I don’t know, the last time I spend any time with any Yalies, I was very nearly rendered insensate by their self congratulation. It really was something. And say what you will about suburbs, they do produce a lot of talent: probably you, certainly me. (Not to say that either of us has a lot of talent. Well you do.) Thanks, Grant

    Scott, this is where the managers live, and that’s a great way to look at it. Best, Grant

    Wodek, splendid, absolutely splendid, I had hoped we might hear from our man in Havana and now we have. Thanks, Grant

  8. Liz

    Sometime in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Stanford University set out on a campaign to make itself a world-class university. ( The “Red Book” (a long-range study of Stanford’s academic and financial goals) secured a $25 million Ford Foundation grant in 1959, at the time the largest award ever given a university. President J.E. Wallace Sterling, PhD ’38, used the funds as seed money for the PACE campaign (Plan of Action for a Challenging Era). Wally “Wallet” Sterling, as he was known to students, raised $114 million in three years. The money fueled an aggressive faculty recruitment drive that propelled Stanford into the top rank of world universities.)

    The end result? Smug, self-satisfied undergraduates. Disaffected alumni, whose children on the whole are not admitted. An air, on campus and in the environs (also influenced by the Silicon Bubble) that those still standing are Chosen to Be the Best.

    There are a lot of hidden costs to perfection, among them the happy synthesis that comes from making do, from eking out, from improvising because the defective part can’t be replaced.

  9. Timothy Burke


    Head for Waterbury. Move on to Bridgeport. Then rethink this unit called “Connecticut” that you’re talking about.

    I really agree with the general point, but there’s a genteel decay and a non-genteel decay; a decay which is “cultural” in interesting ways and a decay which is simply poverty.

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