Departments

Argument

Argument has rules. Argument is not a game – the rules are more in spirit than in letter – but there are rules. Certain moves – certain appeals – appeals to personal experience, to scripture, to studies and statistics, even to logic – break the rules and make argument impossible. Of course these are all useful instruments of judgment. But judgment and argument are different things. Judgment ends argument, but arguments do not want to end.

“Arguments want?” Arguments want what we want. Sometimes we argue selfishly, to win. Sometimes we argue selflessly, to keep the conversation going. But mostly we argue precisely to prevent judgment: to reassure ourselves that some matter is open to question, that equivocation is not irresponsible.

Argument has rules, but agreeing to definitions is not one of them. That is putting the cart before the horse. Definitions are liquid: when they meet, they mix. These triboluminescent encounters are what argument is for. All the valid moves in argument – making a distinction, putting in context, elaborating, unpacking – these are all ways to make definitions meet, merge, and mature. Definitions are always at the center of arguments because shaping definitions is what arguments are for.

Argument is harder than it looks. In large part this is because, while contradictions, fallacies, and biases break the rules, pointing them out is a far worse offense. Argument at the level of fallacies and biases is boring. Argument about argument is not argument. Whatever the point at stake, the opponents are in the same old ring, trading the same old jabs and blocks.

Argument is not a way of deciding. It is a way of not deciding, of doing something else instead: learning, wondering, waiting. You know it is the real thing when it is unpredictable – irreducible – and, therefore, nontrivial. More than anything else, argument wants surprise.

Knots

Are knots technology? Knots were never invented: like fires, knots happen naturally. But unlike fire they cannot not be made useful by propagation: they have to be translated. Like language, knots are immaterial, passed on by example and subject to regional variation. Unlike language, knots are finite – there are only so many – and eternal – the same knots recur worlds and ages apart.

Like tools, knots are useful and increase our power over nature; but unlike tools, we carry them in our heads, not our hands. When they parallel tools, it is on a different level of abstraction. The trucker’s hitch is an image in cord of a block and tackle. It is no more a tool than a picture of a tool is – and yet it has the power of a tool.

Knots are a form of mathematics, but math with a difference. Arithmetic has a history of progress: but before history began, knots already embodied the highest level of mathematical abstraction. Knot theory is a twentieth century invention. Only in the twentieth century, only after thousands of years of development, did exoteric mathematics finally equal the mathematics esoteric in knots.

Knots are magic. With a piece of cord and a sequence of gestures we produce direct results in matter. “The rabbit jumps out of the hole, runs around the tree, and jumps back down the hole”: what is this but an incantation? Reasoning from knots, we get magic; reasoning from tools, we get technology. Technology works, magic doesn’t; nonetheless, the existence of knots violates the order of nature that technology presumes.

Animals

The facts of life cannot be hidden from people whom live among animals. Birth and death are as open and current among them as weather. Human beings cannot learn much from one another; we conceal too much in shame and pride. The short and unreserved lives of animals are the true parables. They enact life back to us on a scale we can grasp. The horse, the cow, the dog, the cat, the chicken (like the llama, the camel, and others) – these are the truly ancient sages.

Sometime in the nineteenth century it became possible for masses of people to live away from animals. Deprived of its foundation in the shared witness of animal life – left untethered – culture became a castle in air.

Victorian prudery came first. Bowdler only becomes possible once he may suppose readers who do not know the way of a dog with a bitch. But his overthrowers were equally unworldly. Freud could only have lived in the city. (Animals, despite their undivided minds, are as neurotic as people.)

But Freud’s city was still a city of horses. When the automobile replaced the horse and left animals with zoos and field trips for their habitats, pathology became derangement. It was the analogies that the observation of animals implicitly afforded us that made reasoning about life possible. We have lost the animals, but we still need the analogies; so we grub them where we can. The machine served until it threatened to master – to remake us in its image, machines, not people. The net may yet make nodes of us.

(Of course analogy is not explanation, but a real explanation would have to explain us all, human and animal: developing a theory of human nature and trying to work animals into it parenthetically is a dead end every time.)

I invite the accusation of anthropomorphism; so be it. The dangers of anthropomorphism are abstract; the dangers of anthropocentrism are practical. It is not a question of dominion; it is a question of definition. We are the rule, not the exception: since we can no longer learn it by observation, we must be told, and trust.

Generations

Why should generations be interesting? There are two questions here, because generations have two kinds of interest. They have historical interest: a succession of generations from Lost to Greatest to Silent to Boomer to X to Millennial. And they have personal interest: the generation in the first person, what separates us from our parents and divides us from our children – “my generation,” “our generation.”

As a unit of historical analysis the generation is worse than useless. The biologist’s refutation of race applies: since variability within a generation equals or exceeds the variation supposed to divide generations, generations are supposititious.

Of course generations really are different. Every generation has its own distinctive patterns of behavior – but distinctive is not the same as characteristic. Nothing is more distinctive of a generation than its common names – but, remember, the fact that some names are common does not mean that most people have common names.

The generation is unreal, but unreal is not absurd; unreal things can exist formally, like lines on a map. The generation is likewise formal: consensual, not demonstrable. But why this consensus?

It is a pleasure to be sorted into a particular generation because being sorted, if it is not discriminatory, is inherently pleasant. Advertisers know this. They know that offering to tell “Which X are you?” or “What kind of X are you?” tempts you, for all x.

And something loves to displace the faults of human nature to contingent aspects of it. Sentences that begin by naming “these days”, “this country”, or “our society,” generally become intelligible only once they are universalized, and referred to human beings as such. The generation provides another means for such displacements. Then such awful questions as “Why are we here?” can be rephrased in cozier terms like “My generation has no sense of purpose.”

What is it that we share when we share a generation?

Sharing a generation is the least two people can have in common (who have anything in common at all): thus we are most attached to our generation when we have few other attachments. Those who have something more definite to be loyal to – nation, religion, community, cause – they would never number their generation among the things that define them. And, inversely, those who expect their generation to define them tend to lack particular loyalties.

Sharing a generation is the weakest hold two people can have on each other, who have any hold on each other at all. It is because it is so weak that is so hard to shake off. Say: my generation is my blind spot. I think there is nothing so utterly mysterious to me as my own generation. Because I must draw lovers and friends from it, I want to believe it is better than it is, and when it disappoints me, I see mystery rather than accepting the fact of disappointment.

If it is to take hold at all, generational solidarity takes hold in childhood. Sometimes I would have to explain and defend to adults the things that I and my friends did – defend them to members of other generations. At these times I did not feel as if I were speaking for myself: I felt like an ambassador, charged with a heavy responsibility and answerable to my peers. Suddenly I was not only included, but important. Under threat of scorn from another generation people who would not otherwise speak to me leaped to my defense; people who hardly spoke at all surprised me with the capacity to form complete, reasonable, and persuasive sentences on my behalf.

To embrace the undemanding solidarity of the generation, to build life and work around this experience of inclusion and importance, is understandable. We writers are most susceptible. The generation is our fallback – once we have, for fear of prejudice, abstained from everything else. The temptation is always present: why speak for yourself, when you can speak for your generation? Why stand alone, when you can recruit their implicit support behind everything you say, or make, or do? Why be objective when at last, after everything, you could have them all on your side?