Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brooks on Gladwell: Not Quite

I'm about halfway through Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which has been a breezy but fascinating read (any book whose argument hinges on Canadian hockey players is bound to suck in a Canuck). I'll comment more fully on the book when I'm done (over at What I'm Reading), but given David Brooks' column on Gladwell today, I wanted to make one clarification.

Brooks' generally appreciates Gladwell's emphasis on the role that social forces and other cultural "conditions" play in success. In Gladwell's account, there are no "self-made men," so to speak. There are those who inhabit a kind of perfect storm of opportunity that gives them an advantage. Thus Bill Gates' goes on to found Microsoft in no small part because he attended an elite private school in the late 70s which had its own computer terminal (in a time of mammoth mainframes). This, along with other factors, provided opportunity for extensive practice (10,000 hours is a magic number of "mastery" in the book) which then puts Gates ahead of the curve as other opportunities arise.

Gladwell's argument or analysis has a Rawlsian political edge to it: society should create egalitarian structures of opportunity. While I don't think Gladwell cites (or even reads) Rawls, he does suggest policy makers imagine a kind of "original position" where we don't know where we stand within a society. Wouldn't we all pick those configurations which broaden opportunity?

But Brooks then seems to "overread" Gladwell. Though affirming the importance of these cultural, even biological, conditions (I'm eagerly awaiting Brooks' new book on neuroscience), he makes this criticism:
Gladwell’s social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky. But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn’t fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity’s outliers.
But that's not true of Gladwell. He doesn't reduce success to luck; he recognizes that there is a threshold of ability that must be in place in order for "luck" to work. For instance, you won't win a Nobel prize if you have an IQ under 120. But on the other hand, having an IQ over 120 does not make you more likely to win a Nobel. In other words, once you get to the 120 threshold, IQ no longer becomes a significant predictor. At that point, other forces of opportunity take over. While Brooks hails the importance of "personal initiative," Gladwell's account of the genius Chris Langan shows that one has to have the opportunity--the good luck--to become the kind of person who has such "initiative." In short, Brooks has underestimated Gladwell's account.

Mr. Johnson's Critical Wisdom

Apropos the last post, consider Adam Gopnik's recent summary of Samuel Johnson's "philosophy" of criticism:
No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.
Johnson has no illusions about criticism’s ability to fix or cure. Critics are to writers not as doctors are to patients but as bearded ladies are to trapeze artists—another, sadder act in the same big show.

On the "Uses" of Literature

Having just finished another rendition of my course on "Philosophy of Language and Interpretation," this time around I found myself more and more fascinated by Wittgenstein (and a later disciple, Robert Brandom). In particular, I was struck by how fruitful Wittgenstein's account of meaning as "use" could be for thinking about literature and poetry. While my primary training is in phenomenology--specifically the train of thought that runs from Edmund Husserl through Heidegger to Jacques Derrida--I found this "semiotic" stream less provocative than Wittgenstein's "pragmatism."

So I was intrigued to read a recent piece in the Chronicle Review which raised some similar concerns. Though Rita Felski ends by commending phenomenology for the study of literature (which I still think is valuable), in the middle of her argument is a claim that warrants some Wittgensteinian unpacking:
What literary studies sorely needs, in other words, is a nonutilitarian understanding of use. To talk about the uses of literature is to insist that those uses are plural and diverse. We need to surrender, once and for all, the quixotic pursuit of a single concept that can explain why literature matters.

Read the entire article.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Goodbye "Holiday" Feasting, Hello Advent?

A couple of weeks ago my home institution announced the latest way the economic downturn would affect us: they canceled the annual Christmas banquet for faculty and staff. Given budget shortfalls and belt-tightening that has happened across the college, this made good sense to everyone I talked to. And today on NPR's "All Things Considered," Jenny Gold reported that this was a growing trend across industry in the US this year. As she opened:
You may not have to worry about the awkward encounter with your boss at the office holiday bash this year. Scores of U.S. businesses plan to forgo their annual holiday party as a response to the slumping economy. That means no top-shelf scotch, no co-workers getting down on the dance floor, no heaping platters of hors d'oeuvres.
(Alas, the annual Christmas banquet at Calvin College has never included any of these things, except for the awkward encounters with top-level administrators.)

But these cancelations might be their own kind of gift. Indeed, they might provide an opportunity to remember that Advent is, in fact, a penitential season. As I pointed out last year, the Christian liturgical year is in tension with the Hallmark calendar. While "the holiday season"--with its parties, feasting, and consumer indulgence--ramps up around Thanksgiving (or earlier!), Advent is a season of expectant waiting and penitential reflection on why we need the Savior we await. As Joseph Bottum rightly notes in his lament, "The End of Advent,"
What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal. There’s a flicker of rose on the third Sunday—Gaudete!, that day’s Mass begins: Rejoice!—but then it’s back to the dark purple that is the mark of the season in liturgical churches. And what those somber vestments symbolize is the deeply penitential design of Advent. Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.
The cancelation of the corporate Christmas party in the opening weeks of December might be a tiny opportunity to participate in this discipline, which looks forward to the inbreaking of the Feast. Granted, our economic situation isn't likely to change much in Christmastide, but perhaps our Advent denials can store up for a brief Christmastide abundance.