Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 8


Summary of Chapter 8: The Role of the Intellectual and the Scientist

Despite the title, this very short chapter is less about a proposed role for “the Intellectual and the Scientist,” than a general bemoaning of the conditions of intellectuals in mid-20th century America. Starting with the ultra-cyberneticist assertion that “the integrity of the channels of internal communication is essential to the welfare of society” (131), Wiener describes the forces which have undermined this internal communication – first off, the growing cost of communication which has led to a decline in small newspapers and publishers, and the growth of a bland movie industry which cares only if its movies will sell widely, not if they are any good. This is also true in radio, tv, and books:

More and more we must accept a standardized inoffensive and insignificant product which, like the white bread of the bakeries, is made rather for its keep­ing and selling properties than for its food value. (132)

This is fundamentally an external handicap of mod­ern communication, but it is paralleled by another which gnaws from within. This is the cancer of creative narrowness and feebleness.

[Presumably by "external handicap" he means this is not an inherent aspect of the technology itself, but of [capitalism]. Any to this "external handicap" is added a "cancer of creative narrowness and feebleness."] He blames the education system; also the lack of the apprentice systems which existed in the past [Braverman would have some choice comments in this regard, but Wiener seems to be referring specifically to communication arts]. So anyway the regular university education is insufficient, and the apprenticeships are gone, so higher degrees like the PhD are increasingly required to gain a basically sufficient training; this leads to careerists pursing scientific and academic careers, resulting in an overall debasement of intellectual production. Once upon a time, apparently, “the artist, the writer, and the scientist should be moved by such an irresistible impulse to create that, even if they were not being paid for their work, they would be willing to pay to get the chance to do it;” [which sounds like a description of the wealthy gentleman scientists of the past] but now these fields have been institutionalized, and careerists pursue these fields for their prestige, rather than out of the  "irresistable impulse.” They produce inferior work, because they are dilettantish and undirected, and don't passionately pursue whatever research they desire; instead big business finds tasks for them.

Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. (134)

This is essentially noise:

In other words, when there is communication with­out need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of be­coming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plummet.

[Of course, how is the worthy communication to be told from the unworthy? This may seem like an attack against the ivory tower; but Wiener, the highly influential MIT professor, is in fact at the height of that tower and is actually criticizing people below him, trying to climb the ladder.]

Wiener spends some paragraphs dismissing the abstract art of his day, which he thinks is an example of banality rather than creativity [and though it is fun and easy to bash on abstract expressionism, to simply dismiss it like this shows the foolishness of Wiener’s attempt to draw a line between worthy and unworthy acts of creation]. He gives some remarks on “beauty,” in a clear reaction to ab-ex:

No school has a monopoly on beauty. Beauty, like order, occurs in many places in this world, but only as a local and temporary fight against the Niagara of increasing entropy. (134)

[Fitting as it is to puncture the arrogant claims of the ab-ex movement to such a monopoly, Wiener himself limits “beauty” to the side of order against entropy; has he thought this through for more than a second?] There is a nice point in which he refers to himself as a "scientific artist" in contrast to a "conventional artist" so he is arguing that all these creative intellectual pursuits are "arts" (135).

What sometimes enrages me and always disappoints and grieves me is the prefer­ence of great schools of learning for the derivative as opposed to the original, for the conventional and thin which can be duplicated in many copies rather than the new and powerful, and for arid correctness and limitation of scope and method rather than for universal newness and beauty, wherever it may be seen. (135)

[What solution does Wiener propose? And doesn’t the behavior he is criticizing, in fact demonstrate the validity of his overall cybernetic theory? Surely bureaucratic institutions operate under the same basic assumptions he does: that they have to maintain order against the evil of chaos. But where else does this "beauty" and "newness" come from? Where does his whole valuation of beauty and newness, and relativity, fit within his essentially conservative scheme of maintaining order against inevitable entropy? Here would be a place for him to talk about the usefulness of entropy and chaos, as something to be brought into order and made productive (aka "the uses of disorder" a la Sennett). But I don't see him doing this here.]



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