Hannah LeGrand (and Dante) on sloth, thoughtlessness, intellect and reason 

At Comment Magazine, an essay by Hannah LeGrand on “thoughtlessness, sloth, and the call to think.”

It is well worth reading and reflecting on. LeGrand begins with Hannah Arendt’s famous account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. This is best remembered for Arendt’s observation on the “banality of evil”, and LeGrand takes this for a starting point:

The story that the world anticipated hearing from the trial, and indeed, the story Arendt herself expected to find, was the story of a villain, the final act in a grand and horrifying life of evil. However, presented with Eichmann in the flesh, Arendt found no trace of such a narrative. Eichmann was not Iago. His testimony had none of the drama or torment of Macbeth. He had no grand evil motives. Indeed, he seemed to have no real motives at all. He insisted that he had just followed orders. He was striking exactly because of his thoughtlessness.

Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is the most famous text to emerge from this trial, but LeGrand’s essay then follows another of her works: 1971’s The Life of the Mind:

There is something in the act of thinking itself, she argues, regardless of content and conclusions, that constrains evildoing and plays a key role in our ability to make moral judgments. And she ponders a worrisome possibility: What if, in an age of so much stunning advancement, we have somehow forgotten what thinking really means? In seeking to recover the meaning of thinking, Arendt sounds less like a German philosopher and more like a desert father. Her insight into the habit of thinking and why it must be incorporated into a society so prone to thoughtlessness is as contemporary as ever.

This leads to the core of the essay:

For Kant, reason and intellect are two distinct aspects of our mental life. The intellect, on the one hand, is driven by our need to know and, accordingly, is properly concerned with those things that can be known—sturdy and graspable truth. It is our intellect that drives our science and makes our technology possible.

Arendt worries that in the modern age, while we have been wildly successful in the use of our intellects and our knowledge about the world has grown more rapidly than ever before, the work of reason has been dangerously neglected. For reason, on the other hand, is never fully satisfied in the realm of what can be grasped. While our intellect drives our need to know, reason equips us with an “urgent desire to think,” an inclination to cast our minds far beyond the capacity of our intellect, to push farther and deeper.

While it is tempting to think that such a grand gesture should produce even grander results, we shouldn’t mistake this activity of thinking for an elevated science. Nothing can be built on what cannot be grasped, and when I have finished thinking I have nothing tangible to show for all my mind’s wanderings. For Arendt, the activity of thinking is more like a conversation with a friend than mapping the human genome. If our intellect is building a house, then thinking is cleaning the kitchen. It is daily work. As Arendt writes, “The need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of ‘wise men’; it can be satisfied only through thinking and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew.”

Once we begin to understand this distinction between the intellect’s knowing and reason’s thinking, then we can also begin to see that the thoughtlessness which concerns Arendt is not mere ignorance. For Arendt, it was not that Eichmann did not know what he was doing. It was that he did not think about what he was doing. The thoughtlessness that allows evil to flourish cannot be dispelled with new facts or better information, and the society that has forgotten how to think needs to do more than inform its citizens. Instead, like stretching unused muscles, it must relearn the daily habits of thinking. Like rekindling old friendships, it must nurture thoughtfulness as a disposition toward the world.

This distinction between the knowing that is acquiring new facts and new information,  and the use of reason, is worth reflecting on. One can sometimes marvel that any first year physics undergraduate “knows more” than Newton (and is unlikely to be into alchemy) or indeed a Psychology 101 student “knows more” than Freud (and is unlikely to be into the dodgier bits of Freudianism). Of course, they have more information, and this information is verified more extensively.

This discussion of Arendt leads into one of Aquinas, via a consideration of sloth, which is far more than mere laziness:

 

 

However, as Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points out in her book Glittering Vices, the vice of sloth is really more than mere resistance to work or exertion. First articulated in the monastic tradition, sloth originally refers to the weariness solitary desert monks would feel with their commitment to the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, is the “noonday demon,” which seizes the monks, making them despair in their calling and long for their old lives in the city. One aspect of this despair was often an apathy toward monastic duties, and so it is not hard to see the fruits of this vice reflected in our modern understanding of sloth as rather harmless opposition to a strong work ethic. However, the roots of this noonday demon were much more serious.

Aquinas opposes sloth not to work but to charity, which, as Aquinas writes in his Summa theologiae, is “a kind of friendship of man for God,” which aims for “the fellowship of everlasting happiness.” Sloth, for Aquinas, is not primarily a sorrowing in our work, but a sorrowing over our friendship with God.

The vice of sloth when understood in this way is at once something serious and baffling, for it picks out a human aversion to the spiritual good in us. It names, as DeYoung writes in her essay “Acedia’s Resistance to the Demands of Love,” “the overwhelming urge to stay with the comfortable and the known rather than risk change, even if it promises improvement.” Sloth is not simply becoming weary of doing good works. Rather, sloth is remaining complacent in the present and the status quo. It is preferring to accept a lackluster life rather than responding to the demands of a relationship with God.

It is interesting, as a sort of accompaniment to this essay, to consider Dante’s treatment of Sloth in Canto 18 of the Purgatorio. The Columbia University “Digital Dante” commentary linked to above focuses on the poetics of this canto which discussion of Love, and particularly distinctions between Dante’s previous stance that Love is a force that cannot be opposed – and can become attached to unworthy or actively harmful objects of affection – to a more mature one with a subtle role for Free Will. 


The slothful purge their sin by the opposite of what they indulged in in life – unrelenting speed. The commentary suggests that the compressed treatment of Sloth – the whole terrace within Purgatory being disposed of in half a canto – is a structural reflection of the purgation of sloth. In the commentary, one gets the sense that the depiction of slothful is very much secondary to the opening discussion of Love. However, reading LeGrand, especially her sections on Aquinas, I wonder if the slothful are more central to the discussion of Love than the commentary might suggest.

“Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us” Jeffrey Bilbro on the happy loser

I am not (yet) familiar with the work of Wendell Berry, though I think I am going to make it my business to be. Berry is the inspiration of this wonderful essay by Jeffery Bilbro . As Bilbro tweets:

This is one of those pieces that “read the whole thing” applies to, in spades. While Berry is obviously the inspiration for this piece, and quotes from him serve as the connective tissue of the argument, it is not really a piece “about” Berry:

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

In one of those odd synchronous coincidences, I read Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” just last Friday, and here he pops up in this piece, in a quote from Berry.

Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy… I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday, but I’m happy. I read that the French novelist Jean Giono … said in 1954, 1954, “I’ve been happy for the last 30 or 40 years.” Well, you know what happened in the 30 or 40 years before 1954. I just love him for that… . That just turned me upside-down when I read that. Well, what a great thing that is. Suppose you’re supremely happy for just five minutes, that just destroys everybody who’s trying to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing.

This article is not a call to quietist arms, so to speak:

Subversive happiness is not quietist or passive. Berry has himself participated in sit-ins and protests and has penned his share of manifestos, but he doesn’t rest his hopes on these tactics. Indeed, happiness provides a very different motivation for our work than does optimism or pessimism. Happiness leads us to do good work because it is good; because it brings joy; because it deserves our attention and energy.

Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us.

This reminds me of the famous accounts of medieval craftsmen labouring over statuary which would stand hundreds of feet above them, and devoting as much attention to the backs of these statues as the faces. What Bilbro conveys to me – and which, I presume, is a main theme of Berry (though I better read him to be able to pontificate more!) is the sheer subversion – in the true, proper sense – of this stance on life. Reminds me too of a passage from “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria”  by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way

This monastic mission is a deeply subversive one. And it also reminded me of another recent read, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s , “Sun Dancing” about life on Skellig Michael, especially the story of the Culdee Aedh, whose extremism in the name of asceticism – which has disastrous results – is surely a manifestation of “winning” as a summum bonum  There are many many other examples – and perhaps this is an eternal human temptation rather than a specific feature of modernity – but it is one which the world of Likes and Retweets and Going Viral intensifies greatly.

Grumpy thoughts on Book Clubs from 2006 in the SAU Blog

Well, perhaps not that grumpy. The link to the “long list” of One Book books is now broken, I’m afraid. I think I am more benign about this idea now – after all, they weren’t exactly forcing everyone to read the same book, were they? Though the bit quoted about the Bristol One Book project strikes me even more forcefully as the height of parochialism

One Nation unified under a Book Club – Seamus Sweeney considers the “One Book” project in the United States and what it says about American literary tastes

“Print is dead”, pronounced no less an authority than Dr Egon Spengler of the Ghostbusters in 1984, and every so often some futurologist or other pops up to tells us with either enthusiasm or dolefulness that the book will be extinct in a few years. I remember as a child encountering one of my mother’s copies of Readers Digestwhich carried an article on the trends of the eighties, among which was the extinction of the book by 1983. The book has lived on twenty-three years, despite the prognostic authority of Readers Digest, somewhat in the manner of the ordinary citizenry of Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, who delighted in the game Keep To-Morrow Dark:

which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet”.

Defying the punditocracy that was as much a feature of the scene one hundred years ago as it is today.

For something supposedly on its last legs, the book is awfully popular. From Harry Potter to The Da Vinci Code, the stories with the greatest impact, that for better or for worse tell us most about our preoccupations and fears, are still written. It may have moved well beyond its original scope as an online bookseller, but it is surely significant that Amazon, the most successful New Economy retailer, is still known primarily for books. And consider the book club. Let a thousand book clubs bloom – they are all, further evidence of the rude health of the book.

There is something very admirable about the self-organising book club, where a group of friends or workmates get together every month of so to discuss a book all have read, at its best serious minded about literature while sociable and light-hearted. Book clubs are sociable, encourage a certain amount of critical thinking, require little by way of budget except access to books, and are a happy example of small scale cultural activity. They do not need arts administrators and have blossomed without much by way of central planning.

Or do they? There are book clubs, and there are Book Clubs. There are those that bear the imprimaturs of the deities of daytime TV – Richard & Judy, Oprah – and which have become possibly the greatest single factor in determining best seller status. Book clubs on a mass scale – as part of arts festivals, or as part of “reading promotion” initiatives – are increasingly being promoted by arts administrators and such.

Although the celebrity book clubs no doubt encourage reading, I can’t help preferring the modesty of the small group of friends. LikeTrinny and Susannah or Supernanny, the celebrity book club seems to make another step in the regulation by the televisual oracles of ordinary, everyday activities that people formerly did for themselves in their own way. Another Chesterton thought – that those who no longer believe in God do not believe in nothing, but believe in everything – springs to mind when one looks at the seeming arbitrariness of those chosen to be oracles. Why should Oprah or Richard’s literary taste be an exemplar?

Even less attractive, at least to temperaments such as mine, is the book club organised on the scale of a town, city, state or some other defined “community”. (Am I the only one who finds it somewhat bullying the way we are all being trammelled into various “communities”? A word supposed to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings of togetherness seems instead to simply reinforce contemporary anomie.) The entire population of Bristol, for instance, have, it seems, been forced to read Around the World in Eighty Days over the last few months as part of something called The Great Reading Adventure:

Between January and March each year, everyone in Bristol is encouraged to read the same book. The book chosen is one that is either set in Bristol, is by a Bristol author, or is about issues that are of interest to people in Bristol. Books so far that have been chosen are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (partially set in Bristol), John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (which allowed debate about environmental issues and GM technology) and Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, which promoted learning and debate about the Second World War.

There’s something about the parochialism and presumption that literature is only of interest when dealing with various “issues” that would turn one off the idea of the book club, let alone the kind of city-wide book club exemplified by the Great Reading Adventure. One wonders who decides on the “issues that are of interest to people in Bristol,” One is rather chilled by the worthiness that sees works of literature as primarily about “allowing debate” (one would imagine debate on GM technology was firmly prohibited until Bristolians were allowed to read Wyndham’s sci-fi opus) and “promoting learning and debate”. Perhaps Bristolian readers can inform us if the experience was more pleasurable than it sounds.

Book promotions of this kind have been going on for some time in the United States. Perusing the enormous list of “One Book” books, one is struck by the literacy of the supposedly philistine United States. Of course, one wonders what percentage of the population actually participate in the promotion, but that could be said of every country. Commentators have often noted the American engagement with the word, unsurprising in the “shining city on a hill”, haunted equally by the Bible and the words of the Framers of the Constitution.

In his Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compiled examples of the devotion to the word of “Typographic America”. Alexis De Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America:

The invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the place.

Dickens, on his 1842 visit to America, wrote to a friend that:

I can give you no conception of my welcome. There never was a King or Emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and waited on by public bodies of all kinds. If I go in a carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home; if I go to the theatre, the whole house rises as one man and the timbers ring out.

Postman’s contention was, of course, that the Age of Typography had been followed by the Age of the Image, less conducive to rational thought and more conducive to emotive manipulation. For all the truth of this proposition, America is still a nation in thrall to the word. While it would be a stretch to claim them as great literary genres, it is instructive that the fundamentally old-fashioned and literary email and the blog are the internet media that have been adopted most enthusiastically. Would-be Presidential candidates, even now, write books outlining their vision for America as part of the attempt to generate buzz.

One presumes that local librarians were the major arbiters of literary judgement. After all, the perennial librarians’ favourite Fahrenheit 451 was chosen for no less than twenty six towns. Over the course of my schooling, English teachers showed Dead Poet’s Society at least thrice, presumably partly because of the noble, heroic and indeed tragic vision of the teaching of English portrayed therein.Fahrenheit 451 is the librarians’ Dead Poet’s Society. The popularity of a certain political persuasion – witness the many towns who read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed – is also evident.

It is not hard to see the appeal of Rosalynn Carter’s First Lady from Plains to the citizens of Colombus, Georgia. Bangor, Maine, also seems keen to read about Maine, with Thoreau’s The Maine Woodsand local boy Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. The list is far from parochial, indeed memoirs from around the world feature. America’s engagement in the Middle East is very evident, with Khaled Hosseini’s Kabul set The Kite Runner second only to To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of the numbers of communities which chose it, and titles like Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent featuring heavily throughout.

The work of Mitch Alborn – whose Tuesdays With Morrie was chosen by nineteen communities from Long Beach to Duluth – exemplifies a certain worthiness about many of the books, a sense that books are primarily about learning Important Life Lessons. One begins to admire those communities that chose the works of David Baldacci and other thriller writers – though the absence of Dan Brown is perhaps something to be celebrated.

There’s a lack of American classics from before the nineteen-sixties, Twain, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald featuring (there’s something very apt about those places which read The Great Gatsby – St Paul, Minnesota, Long Island and Scranton, Pennsylvania) but no Hemingway or Henry James, or Poe, or Education of Henry Adams, orWalden. In terms of the Classics classics there is Sophocles. Unsurprisingly enough, the play is Antigone – almost too obvious as kindling for discussions on the state versus the individual andcomparisons between Creon and President Bush. There’s no Proust, Joyce or Mann. And no Roth (Joseph, Philip or Henry). An engagement with contemporary literature is admirable, but there’s a deracinated feel to the list, a sense that those choosing the books were above all anxious to be “relevant” and up-to-date.

There is an absence of works of outright humour. No Waugh or Wodehouse. No A Confederacy of Dunces. Not much that could be called subversive, from either the left or right, of the overall earnestness – no Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis, for instance. There are few works which could be called books to be read for pure pleasure. Treasure Island, read in Pikes Peak, Colorado, Enfield, Connecticut, and Peabody, Minnesota and the works of Alexander McCall Smith (Precious Ramotswe’s excellent detective agency has inspired the citizens of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Mobile, Alabama) are the ones which spring to mind most.

The America that emerges from the One Book list is serious-minded, worthy, somewhat earnest, but interested in the world around it, concerned about the military engagement that has made Iraqi place names all too familiar to American families. The list is testimony to the sprawling diversity of the vast country that, for all the vigorous vulgarity of its pop culture, still retains a vigorous literacy.

Management Secrets of the Manhattan Project: The Dabbler, July 16 2015

As featured on the BBC website… I am well aware of the moral issues pointed out by the the third commentator here. Perhaps the somewhat arch tone passed him by, and the mockery of management guides such as The 48 Laws of Power mining history for boardroom-friendly insights. Reading Leslie Groves’ autobiography, no doubt full of omissions and half-truths and evasions, I was struck also by the quantity of organisational know-how (in every sense of the phrase “quantity of organisational know-how” you can think of) And perhaps the canonisation of Oppenheimer and demonisation of Groves slightly annoys me. And could a man described thus be all bad:

First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates. However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.

The whole thing is here

The Art of War, ascribed to Sun Tzu who may or may not have existed, was not written as a guide to advancing up the management structure of insurance companies, but it is now a staple of management literature. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power enlisted a whole host of historical figures, from Joseph Duveen to Madame de Pompadour, in the cause of imparting hints on rising up corporate ladders. “Change management” gurus endlessly cite Heraclitus and Marcus Aurelius out of any context. It is surprising that a more recent example of management genius has not become more cited than it is.

The atomic age began at 5.30 am on  July 16th 1945, at Alamogardo, New Mexico, with the Trinity Test, the first successfull detonation of an atomic bomb. Three weeks later, Hiroshima would experience the second detonation. The Trinity Test is indelibly associated with the famous footage of Robert Oppenheimer looking tragic and solemn, and  declaring that in the immediate  aftermath of the test, he thought of the words of the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”.

Oppenheimer is invariably the focus of much of the discourse around the atomic bomb’s development, but the overall project was directed by Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

In artistic treatments of the birth of the bomb, Oppenheimer is cast as Faust, or Prometheus, with Groves  as Mephistopheles or simply an uptight bureaucrat. This is the mode of James Thackara’s “America’s Children”, of John Adam’s opera “Dr Atomic”, of the Paul Newman/Dwight Schulz vehicle “Shadow Makers”. While perhaps artistically satisfying, and hinting at perennial themes about the hubris and nemesis of human achievement, this tends to obscure that what was initially known by the codename Development of Substitute Materials and later the Manhattan Project (as the Corps of Engineers component was part of the Manhattan Engineering District was a gigantic technical problem that became an enormous moral and political one.

A different Oppenheimer emerges from  Stephen Walker’s Shockwave, an account of the days from Trinity to Hiroshima. Immediately after the success of Trinity, “his old friend Isidor Rabi watched him as he strode across the camp. Something in Oppenheimer’s bearing chilled his flesh. ‘I’ll never forget the way he walked,’ he said later. ‘It was like High Noon – I think it’s the best I could describe it – this kind of strut. He’d done it.’ Gone was the fragile self-doubt, replaced by something quite different: the intoxicating certainties of power.” Later, after learning from Groves that there had been a “successful combat drop” of one of Los Alamos’ “units”, ie that the bombing of Hiroshima had occured – Oppenheimer entered the lab’s weekly colloquium of scientists: “like a prizefighter he clasped his hands together over his head in the classic boxer’s victory salute.”

As Peter Hennessy points out in his introduction to The Secret State, his scholarly study of the elaborate network of bunkers and security installations drawn up by Whitehall in response to the nuclear threat of the Cold War, the men and women who worked on nuclear war were not parodic Dr Strangeloves but ordinary enough human beings. When it comes to considering the existence of nuclear weapons, wringing our hands and saying how unimaginable it all is and how much we’d like to vomit (a la Martin Amis in “Thinkability”) is not a long term policy.

 Groves was a kind of genius as much as Oppenheimer; a genius of logistics and organisation. Having restored Managua’s water supply after a devastating 1931 earthquake, and then built the Pentagon, he was the logical choice for managing a project as gigantic and as the Allied atomic bomb project (the British project codenamed “Tube Alloys” was subsumed into the Manhattan Project over time). Of course, thanks to Klaus Fuchs, the Soviets knew about the bomb from before the start.

After the war, Groves received a comeuppance from future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who informed him that he would never lead the Corps of Engineer and presented him with a detailed account of complaints about his arrogance, irascibility, blatant manoeuvring for promotion and power and general disagreeableness. Of course, these may well have been the qualities that made him great. Realising that no project as big would ever come along again, Groves retired from the army in 1948 and after various rather half hearted corporate gigs, wrote his memoir Now It Can Be Told in 1962.

Now It Can Be Told is a compelling read about project management, about how Groves pre-empted (in his account) the bureaucratic wrangles. Groves generally refers to the project by its proper Corps of Engineers’ acronym MED. There is pretty much zero hand wringing about the ethics of whole enterprise, and not much on the science. It is a somewhat straightforwardly-written with a few flashes of wry humour, but above all replete with gems of project management wisdom.

One of the most striking, and most relevant in the age of email and text and other impersonal communications, is that nothing beats the human touch to get things done:

As a matter of fact, we never had much trouble with government regulations and so called “red tape”, probably because whenever we encountered potential difficulties, we did not resort to letter-writing through channels. Instead, a competent officer was always sent immediately to the trouble spot with orders and authority to resolve the problem.

Groves himself applies the in-person-visit treatment to another legendary – and rather “difficult” – World War II figure, “Wild Bill” Donovan of the OSS:

I was astounded to learn how thoroughly unsatisfactory the relationships were between G-2 [military intelligence] and OSS. AS I was leaving at the close of our discussion, Donovan remarked that I was the first general office who had ever come to see him in his officer. He appeared to be quite touched by this and insisted on personally escorting me out of the building and sending me back to my office in his own car, even going so far as to insist on holding the door for me while I got in. Buxton told me afterward that OSS would have supported us fully in any case, but my call ensured the utmost in special treatment for the MED …. Going out of our way to establish initial contacts with other organisations and individuals through calls by senior personnel, instead of by letter or telephone, was common practice in the Manhattan Project.

Groves spends a lot of time on the nature of organisational power: “As I pointed out to Senate committee, ever since the failure of the tribunes of Rome no executive group has ever functioned well.” Interestingly in the light of subsequent events with Eisenhower, in one passage he recounts how then-Undersecretary for War Robert Patterson and General Eisenhower specifically refused to be given secret information: “As General Eisenhower put it, ‘I have so many things to deal with that it puts an undue burden on me to be given any secret information, as I am then forced to think constantly about what is secret and what is not.’ Later, with Senatorial criticism that too much reliance was being placed on Groves, this policy changed, to Patterson and Eisenhower’s regret and Groves’ relief.

Groves’ memoir also covers Project Alsos, the Allied operation to discover how much progress Nazi Germany had made on its atomic bomb project, and an equivalent operation regarding Japan. The latter led to a public relations issue about the destruction of Japanese cyclotrons, which was not what the MED wanted at all. Various miscommunications and misunderstandings became public knowledge (this was November 1945)  and Groves, as well as reflecting on the difficulties of absorbing new and untrained staff, illustrates a basic principle of media management: “The press as a whole seemed quite surprised by this frank and open admission of error. As a result, this incident quickly lost its news value and the clamor soon subsided… the basis truth was demonstrated here again, that honest errors, openly admitted, are sooner forgiven.” Of course, this is coming from a man who had presided over one of the most secretive projects of all time.

Towards the end of his book Groves, in his methodical way, provides a handy list of the reasons why the project succeeded:

First, we had a clearly defined, unmistakable, specific objective. Although at first there was considerable doubt whether we could attain this objective, there was never any doubt about what it was. Consequently the people in responsible positions were able to tailor their every action to its accomplishment.

Second, each part of the project had a specific task. These tasks were carefully allocated and supervised so that the sum of their parts would result in the accomplishment of our overall mission. This system of compartmentalisation had two principal advantages. The most obvious of these was that it simplified the maintenance of security. But over and above that, it required each member of the project to attend strictly to his own business. The result was an operation whose efficiency was without precedent.

Third, there was positive, clear-cut, unquestioned direction of the project at all levels. Authority was invariably delegated with responsibility, and this delegation was absolute and without reservation. Only in this way could the many apparently autonomous organisations working on the many apparently independent tasks be pulled together to achieve our final objective.

Fourth, the project made maximal use of already existing agencies facilities and services – governmental, industrial, and academic. Since our objective was finite, we did not design our organisation to operate in perpetuity. Consequently, our people were able to devote themselves exclusively to the task in hand, and had no  reason to engage in independent empire-building.

Fifth, and finally, we had the full backing of our government, combined with the nearly infinite potential of American science, engineering and industry, and an almost unlimited supply of people endowed with ingenuity and determination.

 

You can almost hear the yearning nostalgia of Groves for his glory days, the days of “clear cut, unquestioned direction” and “maximal use of already existing agencies.” Clearly war time conditions allowed Groves’ genius to flourish, and the shades of grey of peacetime policy making did not suit him.Now It Can Be Told also reveals only a certain amount of Groves the man. Management is ultimately about people, and while his “people skills” were such that would earn stern reprimands from HR today, he also inspired people to produce their utmost. One of his subordinates, Kenneth Nicholls, perhaps summarised this management genius the best and fills out the picture of Groves’ own memoir:

 

First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates. However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.

 

To Solve Everything, Click Here – Evgeny Morozov

I first came across Evgeny Morozov via the computer history mailing list SIGCIS. In essence, Morozov had written a New Yorker piece which drew heavily on the work of the historian Eden Medina – which in fact was ostensibly a review of her book Cybernetic Revolutionaries – while only mentioning her name once, in passing. This is a somewhat familiar maneouvre in a certain strand of highbrow book reviewing – the book is an occasion for an essay on a topic, with only peripheral mentions of the book itself.

I don’t feel qualified to comment any further on the issues raised in the Morzov-Medina affair. Some time later, I came across his “To Solve Everything, Click Here” – the precís of which, with its concern with “solutionism” and “epochalism”, resonated. Epochalism is perhaps easier to define – the belief that our times are unique. This is often mixed up with the idea that it is “the internet” and “technology” are what makes our times unique. “Solutionism” is slightly less obvious. Here is how Morozov introduces the concept:

Alas, all too often, this never-ending quest to ameliorate – or what the Canadian anthropologist Tania Murray Li, writing in a very different context, has called “the will to improve” – is shortsighted and is only perfunctorily interested in the activity for which improvement is sought. Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evidence processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could  eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.

I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning – where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental and narrow-minded solutions – the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences – to problems that are extremely complex, fluid and contentious. These are the kind of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that “solutionists” have defined them; what’s contentious then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.

 

I find myself agreeing entirely with the above. During the week I attended the CCIO Summer School in Leeds. One presentation was a video talk by Dr Robert Wachter whose report on IT in the NHS will soon be with us. Dr Wachter discussed many of the unintended consequences of electronic health records and eHealth approaches so far; the end of radiology rounds, doctors staying in a computer room doing their work rather than being on the wards, and most poignantly the redefinition of the doctor patient relationship itself (illustrated by a young girl’s picture of a visit to the doctor, who was depicted with his back turned to the girl and her mother, typing away – shades of Cecil Helman’s “technodoctors”)

Passages are excellent, and indeed at times reading Morozov I felt an excitement that at last some of my own ambivalences and qualifications (and enthusiasm) regarding technology were being crystallised. Morozov is as much against technophobia as techno-utopianism – pointing out that both postulate a sort of undifferentiated Technology (such as “the Internet”, as seen in phrases like “the grain of the Internet” and other reifications and indeed personifications of the Internet) with an inherent power. Morozov summarises a vast array of academic literature – the rate in the above quote of one academic namecheck per paragraph is probably lower than most. Therein lies some of the problem – much of the book is a rather relentless account of the work of these academics and various thinkers.

Again, I can’t judge if there are other thinkers and scholars he should be citing and acknowledging more, but in this book (published pre-Medina) his citations are exhaustive (and exhausting)- so much so that a rather annoying rhetorical tic is evident. TechnoUtopian A states X, but X is evidently absurd because Academics B,C and D say so. And Morozov has a verbal tic to match the rhetorical one – his references to “Canadian anthropologist Tania Murray Li” and “Design theorist Michael Dobbins” and many, many more are reminiscent of no less than Dan Brown:

This use of a person’s name preceded by the name of a job, without a preceding article (an anarthrous NP, as we grammarians say when chatting with our own kind in the secretive cabals that we sometimes hold) is odd because occupational descriptions like “fertilizer salesman” aren’t normally used as titles. “Cardinal” is a title; selling fertilizer is merely a job. It is true that noun phrases like fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson are found in newspaper articles (in fact John Cowan points out to me that it is a well-known feature of the style associated with Time magazine), but I have never yet found anyone but Dan Brown using this construction to open a work of fiction. The construction sounds to me like the opening of an obituary rather than an action sequence. It’s not ungrammatical; it just has the wrong feel and style for a novel. (from this Language Log post)

I would argue that, repeated at length, it also has the wrong feel and style for a book length argument, rather than a newspaper piece. Anyway, this is something of a digression.

 

Many reviewers seem to have missed that Morozov is as opposed to techno-scepticism as techno-utopianism. This is a very different book to those of Andrew Keen, for instance. This is possibly because his opposition is confined to sideswipes. Towards the end of the book there is a – to my mind – rather ignorant swipe at Jacques Ellul:

As far as analytical categories go, “Technology” holds as much promise as “the internet”: it’s very hard to reach precision as the cultural bias implied and produced by such terms are too many. Once we move to a lower – that is, more detailed, empircial and analytically precise – level of analysis, we are likely to notice things that may have escaped the attention of French theologians.

The tone of this is a little surprising as earlier in the book Morozov has referred to Ellul more neutrally:

Steven Talbott, a technology critic in the deeply spiritual tradition of Jacques Ellul, correctly observes that “we have invested only certain automatic, mechanical, and computation aspects of our intelligence in the equipment of the digital age, and it is these aspects of ourselves that are in turn reinforced by the external apparatus. In other words, you will see what engineers will insist on calling a ‘positive feedback loop,’ a loop almost guaranteeing one-sidedness in our intelligent functioning.” We ought not to be as pessimistic – the last chapter of this book will show that digital technologies can help awaken us from the ethical and aesthetic slumber we’ve been enjoying for far too long – but the gist of Talbott’s assertion is right: we have to watch for positive feedback loops.

This passage is quite typical of Morozov’s style – the invocation of the authority of another thinker or academic, a rather directive approach to the reader (“we ought not to be as pessimistic”), a tendency to use the very epochalist language he otherwise disdains (“awaken us from the ethical and aesthetic slumber”)

Techno-evangelists and “epochalists” of the Internet-changes-everything school tend to make pronoucements that are hostages to fortune, and good sense. As with Andrew Keen’s books, Morozov’s cataloguing of these follies is at times a fish shoot in a barrel. It reminded me of books on alternative medicine such as Rose Shapiro’s “Suckers” which list various absurdities and evident follies, but don’t consider the more interesting questions – why? Why, in the case of alternative medicine, are people drawn to all this, if it is so ineffective and evidently absurd? Why, in the case of Morozov (or Andrew Keen), are people to make and admire such statements?

Morozov, for instance, makes heavy weather of “lifestreaming”; Microsoft employee Gordon Bell (see, it’s catching) who has collected nearly every detail of his life using a range of technologies is held up as a sort of cautionary tale.

 

Morozov’s rationale, on one level, is not superficial at all – indeed, as pointed out above, it is rather exhaustively referenced. But the weakness of his rhetorical arsenal of weak sarcasm and invoking academic masks a deeper rhetorical weakenss.  The twin bogeys of solutionism and epochalism can be invoked in almost any situation. Loose talk of “the internet” is very common, and Morozov seems ever vigilant to jump on its use as an example of sloppy thinking.

The most extraordinary passages, however, are in the final chapter where Morozov summarises various conceptual art works and design experiments which, for him, provide a way out of solutionism.

There’s the “erratic appliances”, which “Swedish designers decided to build … that start to behave strangely as energy consumption increases. The strangeness is deliberate: it seeks to introduce aspects of risk and indeterminacy into the use of such devices. Thus the behaviour of, say, a toaster will depend on the overall electricity consumption in the apartment; users are thus deliberately forced to make choices.” The same “Swedish designers” have a radio set which changes frequency when the energy consumption goes above a certain level.

There’s the “trio of German designers” who have set out to build what they call “transformational products” such as the Caterpillar – “that seeks to make its owner think about the energy wasted by products in standby mode.”  They also came up with the “Forget Me Not reading lamp. Once switched on, Forget Me Not starts closing like a flower, as it light gradually gets dimmer and more obscure. For the lamp to reopen and shine again, the user needs to touch one of its petals. Thus, the user is in  a constant dialogue with the lamp, hopefully aware of the responsibility to use energy appropriately.

This leads to the work of “media and design theorist Carl diSalvo” who is a proponent of “adversarial design.” Never fear, Carl di Salvo in turn is “drawing on the work of political theorists like Carl Schmitt and Chantal Mouffe.” (FYI – Carl Schmitt was known as “crown jurist of the Third Reich”) and in a very Morozov line, “DiSalvo’s thought is worth studying in depth, if only because it provides the much-needed theoretical scaffolding that turns the disjointed insights of “erratic appliances” and “technological troublemakers” into a paradigmatic program and philosophy of design.”

DiSalvo “marshals up numerous examples to show what adversarial design looks like in practice; crime maps that, instead of showing the distribution of crimes on a city map, show which city blocks have the most former residents incarerated; browser extensions that add information about military funding to the websites of universities or convert all prices on sites like Amazon into their equivalent in barrels of oil based on current prices.” Two examples are discussed in more depth. One is Spore 1.1

a rubber tree plant bought from the Home Depot retailer with the unconditional guarantee that it can be exchanged for a new plant if it dies in the first year. The plant is connected to an automated watering system that works on a somewhat bizarre principle: Every Friday it checks how the Home Depot’s stock is performing … if the stock performs too poorly, no water is administered to the plant; if it does well, water is administered… The art project was meant to get observers to reflect on the potentially high but invisible costs of unchecked economic growth

The other diSalvo example is the Natural Fuse. At this point, rather than yet more of me summarising Morozov summarising someone else, those interested can look at the link. Suffice it to say that in Morozov’s words:

The Natural Fuse aims to go beyond the reductionism of numbers and give citizens a better understanding of the logic and ethics of carbon offsets. In other words, it seeks to promote narrative imagination.

 

There is nothing wrong with any of these projects  of course (although they do smack to me of the irritatingly vapid “provocative” nature of much conceptual art) but surely Morozov is engaging in some solutionism of his own – “users are thus deliberately forced to make choices”, “seeks to make its owner think “, “the user needs to touch”, “to get observers to reflect”, etc. This is all surely the language of solutionism, and while the Natural Fuse may aim to “go beyond the reductionism of number”, Morozov has a staggeringly reductionist view of the experience of art (and design) The viewer/user of these projects is portrayed (in Morozov’s account) as a rather passive creature pushed into critical reflection and “narrative imagination” just like that!  Critical of the assumptions of so many others (especially when they impinge on human agency and on complexity, here he uncritically repeats the comments of the artists  and designers themselves.

 

Hesuchia – “we strive in order to be at rest”

My last few posts raised the risk that this blog would turn into a series of quotes from Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” (a book I am well aware has many critics) – so now I am going to feature a brief quote from the chapter “The Virtues at Athens”  following on from a discussion of opposing virtues

Hésuchia appears in Pindar (Pythian Odes 8.1) as the name of a goddess; she represents that peacefulness of spirit to which the victor in a contest in entitled when he is at rest afterwards. Respect for her is bound up with the notion that we strive in order to be at rest, rather than in order to struggle ceaselessly from goal to goal, from desire to desire.

The idea that “we strive in order to be at rest” is at odds with much of the spirit of the present day, for which the maxim from Goethe’s Faust “he who unceasingly strives upwards, him alone we can save” could be designed.

Much of the online resources I can find for approaching ancient Greek terms is rooted in Bible study – for hesuchia see here and here and here. The word is evidently translated very often as “silence” and is used in the context of meekness or acceptance in these translations, rather than the “rest that follows striving” MacIntyre discusses.

One of my interests is a sort of typology of silences – we are familiar with terms like “comfortable silence”, “uncomfortable silence”, “awkward silence”, “rich silence”, “eerie silence” and so on. Silence is more than an absence of sound (itself increasingly impossible to find in the modern world)  but is defined by circumstances and context. A silent meadow will strike us as sinister – where is the birdsong? A silent mountain may strike us as awesome or peaceful or perhaps sinister. And so on.

On Sophocles and conflicting virtues: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

On Sophocles and conflicting virtues: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

The ancestor of one of these sets of answers is Plato, for whom as we have seen the virtues are not merely compatible with each other, but the presence of each requires the presence of all. This strong thesis concerning the unity of the virtues is reiterated both by Aristotle and Aquinas, even though they differ from Plato – and each other – in a number of important ways. The presupposition which all three share is that there exists a cosmic order which dictates the place of each virtue in a total harmonious scheme of human life. Truth in the moral sphere consists in the conformity of moral judgment to the order of this scheme.

antigoneandcreon
There is a sharply contrasting modern tradition which holds that the variety and heterogeneity of human goods is such that their pursuit cannot be reconciled in any single moral order and that consequently any social order which either attempts such a reconciliation or  which enforces the hegemony of one set of goods over all other is bound to turn into a strait-jacket and very probably a totalitarian straitjacket for the human condition. This is a view which Sir Isaiah Berlin has urged upon us strenuously, and its ancestry, as we noted earlier, is in Weber’s writings. I take it that this view entails a heterogeneity of the virtues as well as of goods in general and that choice between rival claims in respect of the virtues has the same central place in the moral life for such theories that choice between goods in general does. And where judgments express choices of this kind, we cannot characterise them as either true or false.

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The interest of Sophocles lies in his presentation of a view equally difficult for a Platonist or a Weberian to accept. There are indeed crucial conflicts in which different virtues appear as making rival and incompatible claims upon us. But our solution is tragic in that we have to recognise the authority of both claims. There is an objective moral order, but our perceptions of it are such that we cannot bring rival moral truths into complete harmony with each other and yet the acknowledgement of the moral order and of moral truth makes the kind of choice which a Weber or a Berlin urges upon us out of the question. For to choose does not exempt me from the authority of the claim which  I choose to go against.

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  • After Virtue, Duckworth Second Edition, pp 142-3