Geography is destiny, at least during the summer. Our founding fathers, in their inscrutable wisdom, decided to build the capitol of their new republic in a swamp on the Potomac river. That was several decades before the emergence of the great (if now largely forgotten) school of thought that traced all the variations in human culture back to differences in climate and topsoil. "Lands, no matter how distant from one another they may be, whenever their climates are similar, are destined to be scenes of analogous historical developments," wrote the great German anthropogeographer Friedrich Ratzel in the 1890s.
You don’t see often see reductionism quite so robust, nowadays. But while trudging through the fetid armpit that is downtown Washington during July, I have to wonder if some ingenious interpretation of American history might not be worked out on the basis of Ratzelian theory.
If so, one could predict that Florida might, over time, prove to exercise a disproportionate influence on national government. (See the 2000 election.) The "spiritual impulses of the intellect and will of man," as Ratzel put it, are conditioned by the environment. Hence, the teaming mass of white-guys-in-ties who run the place might tend to behave with the viciousness of swamp rats. (See Karl Rove.)
A pattern seems to be emerging. Either that, or the heat is getting to me. Tempting as it may be to continue with this plausible and/or demented analysis, it might be better to drop it -- and instead to follow up on some developments, oversights and stray tangents from recent columns.
Microcosmographia Academica, as noted last Thursday, is both a product of British university politics of 100 years ago and a guidebook to life in large organizations that has stood the test of time remarkably well. The author, F.M. Cornford, declined to revise or update the work. It might be worth someone’s while to prepare an annotated edition one day, just to clarify some of the contemporary references and classical allusions. But if you overlook certain passages that haven't worn well with time -- the one on academic presses, for example, is now only half-accurate -- Cornford's treatise holds up very well.
And yet someone has, it seems, tried to retool the book for the 21st century. Microcosmographia Academica Americana, by Hugh Sockett, a professor of education at George Mason University, is available from the online publisher Lulu. Presented as a memorandum to a new assistant professor at Freedonia University (FU), the text explains that academe is now "a house divided between aspirations as a Corporation and a Republic."
It might be interesting to meet the dewy-eyed innocent who only learns this at the start of the tenure process. I started reading this opuscule in hopes that some element of irony might be in play, as it certainly was in the original. But Sockett's sense of humor owes less to the Cambridge dons than it does to talk radio: "Intellectual autonomy, like academic freedom, is an enigma inside a chimera, i.e. hogwash. So, if you want tenure, learn never to say what you really think, just concentrate on being politically correct and subjugate your independent spirit. Never make a politically incorrect remark, even in jest, or the po-faced PC police will have you ostracized before you can say politically challenged."
At a few points, the author does manage a passable pastische of Cornford's original. More often, though, Microcosmographia Academica Americana -- with its swarm of character sketches of faculty members such as Lazzee, Pickee, Hippee, and Messee -- reads like notes for a campus novel....one perhaps better left unwritten.
But as the saying goes. "For those who like that sort of thing, it is the sort of thing they will like." By the way, for a copy of Cornford's work in PDF, go here.
Late last month, this column attempted to launch a meme. The effort did not exactly set the blogosphere on fire -- though it did have one very interesting consequence. There is a lot of loose talk about "interdisciplinary research" nowadays -- but some may actually be spawned, however indirectly, by the first question posed by the meme.
It asked readers to imagine going into a library in the year 2015. What work of scholarship would you most want to find had been in the intervening 10 years?
By far the most interesting answer came from Michael Drout, a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass. Drout said he would look up "the results of my insane 'Manuscripts and Sheep DNA Project,'" in which genomic analysis of Anglo-Saxon documents would reveal "which piece of parchment came from which sheep and, furthermore, which sheep were related to each other."
This will have been "a multi-disciplinary effort that included mathematicians, biologists, paleographers, historians and literary scholars -- and people who knew a lot about sheep." The upshot would be the ability to trace the links among monastic scriptorums (the copy-shops of the middle ages).
Reading the future literature, Drout would note that his project eventually "paid huge and controversial literary and historical dividends when it demonstrated that yes, there was a 'royal writing office' (they were using sheep from the same herd for their materials), and that the Beowulf manuscript has a leaf that came from the same sheep as a leaf from the Blickling homily manuscript."
Initial discussion at Drout's blog suggested that his readers thought this was a pretty cool idea, even if he was joking. But he wasn't. His only reservation was that it might not be practical -- either because archives wouldn't want their parchment sampled, or because it there might be biotechnological obstacles.
It turns out that such hurdles could prove surmountable, and that there might be some interest in the whole idea. There is a lot of loose talk about "interdisciplinary research" nowadays, but Drout's project would count as the real deal. Check out his proposal.
Now Drout is concerned about becoming known as "the Crazy Sheep DNA Guy." That's understandable. But at least no puns are involved -- as has come to pass with "the McLememe." (That expression was not anticipated, though with hindsight it does seem kind of inevitable.)
A couple of months ago, after I confessed to reading reference books for pleasure, someone at a literary blog worked herself into a nice little simulacrum of huffiness that there was no mention of a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Know-It-All, published last year by Simon and Schuster.
Well, that's the price you pay for spending too much time reading old books. A large percentage of the hip, the hot, and the happening just flies right by you, winging its speedy way to the remainder tables.
Jacobs, who spent one year reading the Britannica, was engaged in a stunt, rather like those competitive hot-dog eating guys you see on TV sometimes -- ingesting without digesting, without savoring, without chewing. And a book about the exploit sounds about as appealing as a chance to watch the meal resurface.
An encyclopedia afficionado's education has nothing to do with the glutton's version of the will-to-power. Rather, it's a lot more aimless. You surrender to the cross-reference, with a faith that the networks among entries will slowly reveal more of the world than you might ever know otherwise.
No writer has ever caught the mood of it quite like Jorge Luis Borges, in his fiction and his essays alike (if that is a distinction worth keeping). I'm thinking in particular of the passage in his story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" just after the narrator has discovered volume XI of the First Encyclopedia of Tlön. It is a gateway, almost literally, to another world:
"Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmer of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy."
But you also learn to appreciate the odd bits, the pieces that don't really fit into a larger pattern. A few days ago, for example, I came across the entry "Hackenschmidt, George (1878-1968)" in the third edition of The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy (published this year by Routledge).
The name rang no bell at all. I figured he would turn out to be the editor of Wittgenstein's collected dry-cleaning receipts, or something like that. But in fact, Hackenschmidt was an Estonian wrestler who "came to prominence in 1896 when he picked up a milkman's horse and walked around with it on his shoulders," and who routinely trained by hoisting enormous bags of cement on his back. Between 1898 and 1911, he won 3000 consecutive wrestling matches.
The entry does not reveal just what happened in 1911. But with the start of the First World War, Hackenschmidt was taken prisoner by the Germans. In captivity, he developed "a system of philosophy based on the values of spirituality, vegetarianism, and self-control."
One page earlier in the encyclopedia, someone had tried to explain Jurgen Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action in a single paragraph. Should Hackenschmidt be called a thinker in the same sense as Habermas? Does he really deserve to have an entry in an encyclopedia of philosophy? I don't really know -- but can't help being a little glad that he does.