breathing in the flood

Having been deprived of internet in my home for nearly three weeks (a pitiful incarnation of Richardson’s Pamela, I have been called!), I rise now like a phoenix from the ashes of virtual disconnect — with a backlog of approx. half a million emails, posts, news items and internet miscellany to now deal with.

Only a quick thought for now, one which has been wandering aimlessly around in my head for a while. We all know that more information is more easily available today than ever before, to more people than ever before. However, I can’t decide whether the ideal modern thinker is closer to the dabbler or the diver. Is he or she someone who paddles across an enormous range of fields, books, ideas, disciplines and thought-worlds, finding common thought-ground with more people than previously possible, because modern channels of information make this so easy? — Or is he or she someone who, precisely because modern channels of information are so vast and rich, can now dive deeply and quickly down into whatever niche interests they may have, and to find more easily, in the depths of their esoteric niches, common thought-ground with fellow divers whom they may never otherwise have met?

Maybe — bad metaphor approaching — there’s something to be said for being a dabbler who breathes from only one oxygen tank; for being someone who has just one, enormous idea, and carries it everywhere with them, into all their areas of intellectual endeavour. What might such a person look like?

Maybe James Scott, a phenomenal anthropologist, social scientist and Southeast Asianist at Yale, whose books are all rich, complex variations on the theme of the resistance of state dominance?

Maybe Auguste Rodin, French sculptor, whose best-known sculptures seem all to have been piecemeal preparations for his single, massive, monumental life work, La Porte de l’Enfer?

Maybe Farish Noor — Malaysian, historian, political scientist, rakish dissident — who once told me that all the history he has ever written has been animated by the single idea that Malaysia has, and has always had, more than one history?

Maybe Borges, who had one idea — or perhaps one clutch of ideas about God, infinity, recursion, truth, lies and the uncertain fictiveness of reality — which he wove again and again and again into literature, sprinkled again and again with his ubiquitous books, labyrinths, mirrors and tigers, until the very form of his oeuvre mimicked that same clutch of ideas, again and again to infinity…

I am, of course, not saying that having one gigantic idea means that these thinkers were good for nothing else. It’s a question of what most occupies them; what they come back to time and again; what animates their endeavours. And what interests me, in the case of such people, is how they find that one oxygen tank — how they come to that idea, and come to perceive its centrality. In a world where it’s possible to drown in the rising tides of information, and to become dissolute in the face of boundless choices, possibilities and knowledge, it’s comforting to know that there are still ways to breathe.


4 responses to “breathing in the flood

  • Robin

    An argument for hedgehogs in a fox’s world! I like the oxygen tank metaphor a lot, because it implies sustenance — even survival. I think dabbling can be fun & rewarding — for both the dabbler and her audience — but it doesn’t nourish like depth does.

    So focus is an oxygen tank and/or a plate full of Brussels sprouts.

    Note to self: live life such that young blogger c. 2079 can plausibly refer to as “rakish dissident.”

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    Maybe — bad metaphor approaching — there’s something to be said for being a dabbler who breathes from only one oxygen tank; for being someone who has just one, enormous idea, and carries it everywhere with them, into all their areas of intellectual endeavour. What might such a person look like?

    Er, well, like a Marxist quite possibly. Which I don’t mean in a bad way, but it is vulnerable to the same critiques of “there are places your approach won’t work, you bearded loon!” &c., surely.

  • Rachel

    @Jonathan – good point: flexibility! I have another, closer-to-home example of the dark side of the monotank dabbler: a country where pretty much all political activity is animated by one idea: racial governance. Though, of course, many Malaysian politicians are very far from being ideal modern thinkers of any sort.

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    I later thought of medieval historians for whom the big idea was of course that somehow it was all God’s will, but then figured that Marxists would do as well as providential theists to make the point. And then was thoroughly taken with the equivalence…

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