Small Thoughts on “Big Ideas”

Neil Gabler’s recent piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, “The Elusive Big Idea,” captured the attention of myself and several of my friends in a way that I haven’t seen an article do for some time. The piece has been discussed widely elsewhere on the blogosphere; in it, Gabler laments the decline of “big ideas” in American life – and with it the rise of a “post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”

Throughout the past week – when I wasn’t listening to bad pop music while making copies of Freie Deutsche Jugend documents at German archives – I was engaged in correspondence with two friends from Oxford on the validity of Gabler’s thesis, and what future “big ideas” might look like in the next 10-15 years in America or the Atlantic World. Yesterday, with the friend-of-a-friend arriving in Berlin to spend a few days, we made our way out to the spectacular Tempelhof Park, a former Berlin airport that, having fallen out of use, was transformed into a huge park. Walking by kite-flyers, people setting up local gardens, and people biking and running down the runways, we sat on the grass, opened up some beers, and, in between catching up, discussed some of the ideas brought up by the piece. Did technological progress count as a “big idea”? One friend with greater ambitions to belletristics than I lamented the decline of the sentence since Henry James and Proust. This observation, in turn, reminded me of what someone else had noted in correspondence: almost every time she tried to write some fiction on her own, she felt like she was slipping away from the beginning of an ambitious novel, and somehow writing her own life in fictionalized format.

Summers in Tempelhof = Great

What is to be done? I have a few ideas myself, but in this short piece – more a collection of observations and arguments than a single-argument essay – I thought I’d try to synthesize some of my own thoughts, as well as the most compelling arguments and observations I’ve heard in correspondence and conversation, as well as in my own reading, the last couple of days. Overall I would tend to agree with Gabler’s observation on the decline of a “big ideas” culture. There are, I think, some ways we might pull ourselves out of it, which I’ll allude to briefly at the end of this piece.

One recurring theme in many of the exchanges I had with friends this week had to do with what Christopher Lasch, one of whose books I began to read this week with great pleasure, called the rise of a confessional tone in American conversation and ideas since the 1960s. In Lasch’s view, part of the problem has to do with a turn to extreme individualism that, for complex reasons, and as other historians have documented, took place in the late 1960s. In medicine, you could see this in the increased popularity of psychotherapy not as a response to discrete moments of difficulty in life (the death of a parent or child, a divorce, losing a limb) but rather as a perpetual treatment – the idea that by talking endlessly about oneself to a therapist trained to sponge up your life, you’d finally become healthy. In the realm of economics and ideology, the same period saw the rise of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, who glorified the market of efficiency-maximizing individuals and Promethean entrepreneurs as their brand of utopia. If only we read the thousand-page screeds of these prophets, we, too, could become successful. Christian culture in the United States changed quite a bit as mainline churches (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran) declined in membership relative to the rise of a more individualized personal faith in the form of born-again evangelicalism. All of these processes and others took place at the same time as the advertising industry became more sophisticated to create a mind-numbing celebrity culture that celebrated individuals (not values or institutions), and which has had a deleterious effect on American culture. Just as a newly born-again Christian might wash himself of his transgressions in his or her pre-born again life, celebrities were subject to a media barrage of probing their sex lives, which then prompted “tell-all” interviews. In short, the shift was towards a more individualistic, more confessional public culture.

Ayn Rand, Goddess of Narcisissm

One might only add that it wasn’t always this way. Lasch argues – here I will have to defer judgment to historians of the period – that it was not unheard of for strangers in 19th-century London and Paris parks to strike up conversation with one another and enjoy conversation for twenty to thirty minutes, before politely leaving and continuing their stroll. With the rise of a confessional tone in conversation, however, these kinds of polite, interesting – but not very personal – conversations become less common. We tend to define our friendships and intimacy less by the amount of time we spend with people, and more by how much we have confessed to friends. True, the characters in a book like Anna Karenina have their own tormented inner lives, but the problem of the affair between Anna and Vronsky, or Anna’s desire to be away from Karenin, isn’t one that the characters think can be solved by talking it out, or by pouring out the entire details of their life to one another. There are moments of extreme contrition, like when Karenin forgives Vronsky for the affair as he thinks that Anna is dying. But as far as Lasch’s contention goes, I think it is notable that Karenin, struggling with the pain of his wife having left him and the accompanying humiliation, seeks out not a shrink but Lidia Ivanovna, a religious woman who falls in love with Karenin, and later convinces him to rely on mystics and crank soothsayers as the way to relieve his suffering.

This shift to a more confessional tone haunts many of the problems that friends identified in correspondence apropos the death of “Big Ideas.” One who reads much more contemporary and 20th century fiction than I do lamented the fact that a list of the up-and-coming authors of the last ten years might include figures like David Eggers, Keith Gessen, and Elif Batuman. The point she was making wasn’t so much about the quality of these authors’ writings. Keith Gessen’s recent New Yorker piece on Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, was well-done if it didn’t totally blow me away at the same time, and as a fan of all things Russian and Turkish, I quite enjoyed Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, her account of discovering weird things in Russia and Central Asia while simultaneously trying to find a literary life as a PhD student in literature at Stanford. The real point the correspondent was making was that for many of these authors, literature takes the form of a confession, an autobiography about their own life. Batuman’s creative non-fiction I like quite a bit … but then again, other than not being a tall Turkish-American woman, I share a lot of her interests. Gessen’s debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, was criticized for being too much a novel about people like Gessen and his buddies: Ivy League-educated writer-intellectuals who feel they are not taken enough as budding literary figures.

Batuman: I Like Her, But Emblematic of a Confessional Turn in Letters?

Other friends who are well-plugged in to the world of American letters today report that this problem is compounded at MFA programs. These creative writing programs, which none other than Batuman has criticized, tend to produce, or so I am told, young writers who specialize in confessional novels about the Bosnian-American coming out story, the Portuguese-Muslim story of a young man who falls in love with a Catholic girl, and so on. Fiction, one might argue, became too tied up in identity politics, about the confessional experience of American immigrants and minority groups, and less about good writing. Writing had to be about overcoming the guilt and awkwardness of not being more authentically American, white, or a man – or, if you were a white American man, describing your own guilt about that experience – and the journey to overcome those feelings.

Of course, there were some exceptions, but often times these works seemed successful or clever precisely because they played with this problem in contemporary fiction. I really enjoy the work of Jeffrey Eugenides, for example, and while I loved his Middlesex – the story of a hermaphrodite man of Greek extraction growing up in Detroit – part of what I think I find compelling about it is how it straddles these problems of the ethnic confessional novel. Much of the life of Cal (the protagonist of Middlesex) comes from Eugenides’ own experience of growing up in Greek-American ethnic culture in the Rust Belt, so there you have part of the ethnic novel going on. But the hermaphrodite angle gives the novel some space to escape the gender confessional novel model, and since Middlesex follows Cal growing up, we fortunately escape the problem that MFA novels often pose: ethnic American in their mid-20s comes to terms with the bizarreness of their background and writes about it.

In any event, part of the problem with literature and “big ideas” that many voiced was the lack of a really big book, one that was unafraid to rely on good writing and, in the words of one person who raised this point, “sentences that consistently blow me away.” Those who lamented the lack of big ideas in letters seemed to want a book that was ambitious – not just in structure but in having a constant stream of Jamesian or Proustian sentences that gave you the sense of watching a master at work. Ambitious structure might work as well, but what might be the MFA recipe of clean, solid, workmanlike, but somehow unambitious sentences tied with ethnic, gender, or other kinds of confessions they were not looking for.

Eugenides: Author of the Greek-American Rust Belt Hermaphrodite Novel I Never Thought I Needed Until I Read It

At the same time, one objection that I heard registered against the charge of a lack of Big Ideas was the issue of technology. The same people who could lament the decline of the sentence could respond with great interest to something like Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, a book which argues that with current rates of technology change and progress, we are approaching a point where computer and human intelligence will merge (the Singularity), ushering in an age of light-speed technological change and progress. Authors in this tradition argue that technology will help us overcome the “tyranny of biology” by allowing us to upload our personalities onto computers and live forever as applications inside of ultra-attractive synthetic organic bodies. Energy constraints and food constraints will disappear. And so on and so forth. People skeptical of Gabler’s criticism might argue that the idea of the Singularity – not to mention some of the impressive business and technical breakthroughs of the last fifteen years, from Google to Paypal to Facebook to YouTube – itself constitutes a Big Idea.

I for one welcome the day when I will be able to upload my personality CPU into bodies like this one, on demand

However, I’m more skeptical as to whether the counter-argument of technological progress actually counters Gabler’s main argument. One problem with, say, Kurzweil’s analysis, as well as that of many Silicon Valley partisans, is the assumption that technological advances necessarily bring about social or institutional advances. They mistake technological Big Ideas for Big Ideas with a larger impact on society, culture, or institutions. Unfortunately, many of the commentators who follow in this line of argument have scant experience living outside of Silicon Valley itself – a historically unprecedented environment of innovation and the exchange of ideas that has not really been successfully duplicated elsewhere. They tend to assume that what is exceptional and thrives in a very geographically small area, in a world consisting of perhaps less than 400,000 people, can be extended to all of humanity. And while it is true that innovations like Google and Facebook have, needless to say, become available in, say, Afghanistan, technological innovation and technological advances have not changed the institutions of tribe, Pashtunwali, or institutional corruption in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Facebook may have abetted the Egyptian Revolution, but technological utopians seem to be utterly bereft of suggestions for how it could help Egyptians draft a better constitution, decrease the influence of the Army in civilian institutions, and so on. True Big Ideas like the ones Gabler cites – “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history” – were reflections on society, culture, and institutions that actually changed those institutions and the people embedded with them in a way that technical tools don’t. During the Cold War, for example, Asian peasants could be given fertilizer produced either in Siberia or the Upper Midwest; while the fertilizer, the technology, might have been the same, the real question was which Big Idea vision of modernity in whose service the technology would be placed. Visions of Progress, in other words, have to do with Big Ideas, not technology itself. (While not directly relevant to this piece, Lasch’s 1990 foreword to The Culture of Narcissism has some compelling thoughts on technology and progress.)

There are, of course, plenty of other dynamics that might be affecting a lack of “Big Ideas.” Some of the issues that my correspondence and conversation brought up included: the rise in prominence of the social sciences and natural sciences; along with this rise, a perceived need among cultural élites for Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks-type syntheses of existing research as opposed to truly novel Big Idea writing; the increased specialization of the humanistic academy; the rise of short-form thinking in the form of text-messaging and Twittering as destructive to thought formation; and the ability given to us by smartphones to “check out” or have an “escape hatch” from moments of potential boredom or reflection at any time; and the end of the Cold War as ending one major stimulus for thinkers on a respectable American Right to offer up Big Ideas. Synthesizing all of these dynamics into some grand theory of Big Idea death would be a pretty neat undertaking – but also one better-suited for a book or series of essays, as opposed to this modest blog post.

Malcolm Gladwell tells us how to be successful, but is a nonfiction that consists of synthesizing social science what we want for a "Big Ideas" explosion?

So what might be done to encourage more Big Ideas? One approach I find plausible, and which a friend mentioned in conversation, is suggested by some of the essays in Worlds Made by Words, a collection of essays by Anthony Grafton, who has written prolifically not only as a scholar but also for more general interest audiences. The book’s essays range the gamut, from “classical humanists as Trithemius, that slightly mad German scholar who founded wonderful collections and libraries but then went on to making things up; or Kepler, who communicated with both Protestant friend and Jesuit “foe”; or examples of how the classic tradition has survived, as in the case of Grafton’s own teacher, Arnaldo Momigliano, who had his most productive period while working at the Warburg Institute.”

But as one review of the book eloquently suggests, the really interesting thing about Worlds Made by Words is that it suggests that scholars, thinkers, whatever you want to call them – people who might be capable of generating the next Big Idea – really could only flourish because they were part of literate, intelligent “micro-publics.” They were members of informally constituted networks of thinkers, readers, and critics, like, as Grafton puts it, “Masonry, just without the handshakes.” Examples might include the world of the New York Intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s – one built around magazines like Partisan Review and Dissent, but also, to some extent, more mainstream publications like The New Yorker and academic institutions like Columbia. Another example of such a world that I would be keen to investigate more is that of trans-Atlantic historians around the late 1960s and early 1970s. There existed then, it seems, a really rich community of thinkers between Oxford, London, Princeton, and Chicago. It was a world defined by the Warburg Institute and characterized by what Grafton has described as a “slow-food scholarship” of great books that took 6-7 years to write, but which were eagerly consumed, commented on, and mimicked between a still-great British university system and leading American institutions. Nostalgia may cloud my gaze, but when I speak to, or read the works of, people who came from that world, it seems somehow richer, more communal, more inspiring than some of the historiographical circles I have known, or heard about in early 21st-century America and Europe.

Still looking for further "World Made by Words" after Terrace Club ...

It’s neither possible nor desirable to create clones of the 20th century “worlds made by words” that Grafton writes about. The economics behind the political magazines of the New York Intellectuals has changed too much, and with cuts apace in British higher education, and more likely to come in the USA as part of a reckoning with student loan debt and state finances, we may have to look elsewhere for the micro-publics that might be our generation’s “worlds made by words.” I’ve found some of these micro-publics in the friends, correspondents and conversants whose thoughts helped form this piece. And I have fond memories of places at Princeton and Oxford – the “smoking room” of Terrace Club, and long evenings of wining and dining friends in my Oxford kitchen – that came close to producing the sense of community that might be essential for more Big Ideas. Finding ways to continue to generate those evenings and conversations – but also the free time and discipline to write and share commentary with friends on your ideas – will have to be a priority. It’s in the challenge of finding those micro-publics while staying happy, healthy, and employed that the real test for my friends and I will lie.


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