From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture—Introduction (b)

It’s this simple: we negotiate structures, large and small, thousands of times a day, and throughout our lives. Let us (re-)count the ways. No list can do it justice, but even a brief list will begin to show us that negotiations of structure are everywhere.
Packing the car          
Taking notes
Milking cows               
“Dialing” a phone number
Shucking corn                           
Watching a sixty minute show
Peeling potatoes                       
Surfing the web
Washing rice                             
Eating a Twinkie™
Coffee with cream                     
Coffee without cream
First Class                                 

We are, as I like to say, structure-negotiating animals. One of my students, Barrett Day, recently reminded me that we are also structure-creating animals. We create the mazes we then need to negotiate. Consider a few timely, springtime examples.
                         Commencement ceremonies 
                                Order of events (receptions, baccalaureate, PBK)
                                Order of degrees (BA, BS)
                                Alphabetical listing of degrees 
                         Seven game playoff series (Stanley Cup, NBA) 
                               2-2-1-1-1 (home/away) 
                               2-3-2 (home/away)
                         Degree requirements (Beloit College)
                               31 units
                               3 Divisions…and IDST
                               Requirements within majors
[c] Historicized structure RF
Why Bother? 
We are always creating and negotiating structures, but you might ask the question that I suspect is percolating, right beneath your screen-reading, morning tea drinking demeanor right now. You might well be thinking…so what?  So I drive down the highway and go certain speeds. So a feather and a rock fall at the same rate...if I am in a vacuum. Why should you care whether or not you can name the structures that (taking my word for it) you must negotiate every day?

As for my reply, let’s start small. Life will be more interesting, perhaps, and you might make better decisions. For example, as time goes on, some of you readers will pair up. If you do, you will negotiate structures, both economic and legal. For academics, combining book collections can be a daunting challenge. But marriage laws (or Supreme Court hearings), social mores, and tax codes are nothing compared to the big structural question tied to linking lives together—which family, what holiday? Some people (they don’t have partners yet) think the equation is simple. We'll be with your family on Thanksgiving or Moon Festival or Passover or Independence Day. O.k.? Then we'll be with my family on Christmas or Hannukah or Ramadan or Kwanzaa or Lunar New Year—this year.  Next year? Reverse, repeat. Simple, right?

Good luck.
[d] Macro structure RF
I will go so far as to say that you are likely to make better decisions (although this is not guaranteed) by looking carefully at those features that are structural before proceeding to decide now to “negotiate” them. At the very least, you will have a new analytical tool for comparison when you read stories of family conflict and misery in The New Yorker.

But let’s get a little bigger. Let’s assume that you don’t consider highway speed or family vacations (or holiday misery) serious enough for study of these structural concepts. Let's ratchet things up a little bit. Then how about the stock market and presidential elections? Immigration? Health care? Geology? All structural...all of the time.

Not big enough? O.k., let’s get biggest of all. Let’s assume that even the financial and political health of your country is not enough to interest you, nor is the fate of the jetstream and international air travel (if you remember a little volcano that shut down the world two springs ago). Let's say that you are only interested in the big questions. 

You are…a philosopher
[e] Structured language (R-L) RF

Well, questions don’t get a lot bigger than those surrounding free will and determinism. Structure…and history. Many pages of astutely argued text—from Plato to Tolstoy to Steven Pinker—have been spent on the question of whether we shape our lives or they are shaped for us by outside factors (I call them "structures"). Many more hundreds of thousands of pages of text have also been spent addressing these issues in sloppy and shamefully derivative ways that would embarrass these thinkers. The point is that we can't stop thinking about it—deeply or derivatively.

       Do we control our destiny?
       Are we automatons?

And the sloppiest “answer” of all: “It’s a bit of both.”  Oh, please. Well, yes. My students know that this answer is one of my biggest pet peeves. A little of both? Oh, that's deep. Let me catch my breath before I respond. Free will? Controlling forces?

OMG, GOP, NCAA, WTF*, and NCAA—it's a bit of both! Not just one; not just the other. A bit of both.
*World Tennis Federation 
[f] Nature, structure RF
Wow. Well, here is the kind of breaking news that CNN should run under its streaming coverage all day long: Everything is “a bit of both.” Everything. As the Princeton philosopher Kwame Appiah answers when asked about his philosophical work, “Everything is always more complicated than you thought.[1] 

Of course it's a bit of both. I wish to go a good deal further. Will rigorous thinking about structure, history, and culture solve the problem of free will?  Am I making such a claim?  

Well, yes, I am. 

Although I don't feel compelled to do so, I'm enough of an academic to backtrack just a little and say that breaking down the problems—as we are able to do when assessing negotiations of structures—can help us stay closer to Tolstoy than to pantheistic musings in the local paper (a letter to the editor states that "I think that there is some kind of higher power out there...sort of"). It can help us to understand the changeable (traffic laws) and unchanging (gravity) structures we are always negotiating with our own personalities and cultural dispositions. 
[g] Structured culture RF

Free will? Gravity? Structure, history, and culture will get you a whole lot further down that ol' gravel road, Professor Aquinas.

Big, bigger, biggest: the simple schema of structure, history, and culture can help us refine all of those questions, at all levels. This stuff matters, and this series is going to explore these issues in large and small ways—from structural geology to the NCAA basketball tournament brackets. 

Rhymes and Reasons 
Let’s conclude. When I taught a seminar not long ago called “Structure, History, and Culture,” fifteen students and I had fifty hours to discuss these matters. We also read fifteen books. These two introductory posts have covered about a hundredth of that. What have I had to leave out as I have swept through these highlights? I will point out three areas that, with more time, would be worthy of deeper reflection: areas that, sometime in 2013, when readers encounter "Structure, History, and Culture (157)—Snowmobile Suits," will have a great deal more clarity than now, when it is all rather new. Here is a preview of the complexities I have only hinted at up until now (and to which this series of posts will be dedicated from now on).

[1] Structures change. Every negotiation of structure has the power to reinforce, tweak, erode, or alter—not just on its own, but in concert with others. For example, “graduation” at Beloit College is a structure. It happens every single year. Yet this year’s graduation is not last year’s, and graduation in 2012 is not the same as in 1962…or 1912. It is called "graduation," but the structure has changed in both large and small ways.
[h] PK4 RF

[2] People negotiate structures in pairs and groups. Negotiation of structure is social, and people act as parts of families, corporations, political parties, and nation-states, not just as individuals. It makes the word “negotiation” even more complicated than it seemed before, and even that has not yet brought into play the role of competition within and around structures. Yup. It's complicated.

[3] Finally, structures are not “all the same.”  Bringing cookies to an end-of-year reception at a university in Japan is not the same thing as bringing them to “the same” kind of event in the United States. It is not even close. For one thing, the doughy, soft, home-baked cookies you know will be impressive and seen as heartfelt will not work at all when your colleagues realize that you "were lazy" and didn't even bother to go to the authentic trouble of finding high-end store-bought cookies from one of the best department stores. Baked at home? Please. You have no idea how "lazy" you have been (unless you have ever brought "homemade" cookies to an event in Japan).
[i] So many structures RF

And two concluding images. First, chess. Life is like that—and in a deeper sense than the fact that both are complicated. In life, like chess, every move you make (as the song says) opens up worlds of possibility. P-K4 creates oceans of opportunity.[2] Likewise, every move in one direction closes down other worlds of possibility. Just as P-K4 is not P-K3, and most surely is not P-QB4(!), going straight to graduate school is not taking a corporate job, and neither is the same as working for Teach for America or sandwich artistry. Every move is a cause set in motion. Think about that. To the extent that you really get it, you'll do better—no matter your age—than those who think that life just sorta happens.

Second, Mark Twain. Samuel Clemens (is said to have) said: “history doesn’t repeat itself.”  On the surface, this seems to imply that no structure or action ever stays exactly the same. Interesting, but there is more. Here’s what he (fully) said:

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

This may be the best and most subtle description ever made of structural change, repetition, and culture. If you think about this—I mean really think about it as a way to connect the way you think with with the life you want to live—you will be well on your way to understanding and, indeed, negotiating that elaborate dance of sameness and difference that makes up both the worlds of our dreams and the worlds (structures) in which we live.
***  ***
Check back regularly on Round and Square for this new series of posts. I have so much to say about so many...structural, historical, and cultural...things that we'll have two-dozen posts before Memorial Day (and that is a structural-temporal statement in itself).

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