Wise Words of Du Bois

February 23, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Since Du Bois began each chapter of The Souls of Black Folk with a hymn or song, it may also be appropriate to preface this post with Mahalia Jackson's “How I Got Over”.

As we approach the end of Black History Month, it is worth our time to investigate the voice of W. E. B. Du Bois. He was a writer and activist as well as one of the founders of the NAACP. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, Du Bois always found success in the classroom. After graduating as his high school's valedictorian, he attended Fisk University, Harvard and the University of Berlin. His introduction to southern life, while he attended Fisk University in Tennessee, served to open his eyes to the differences in black life between the north and south. His keen observation skills and cautious approach allowed Du Bois to understand and describe a complexity of issues affecting this split. He eloquently explains some of the reasons for the differences in his book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. The quotations below, taken from that text, demonstrate his keen observations, talented writing skills and desire for equality. Texts like this helped to explain the black experience to those who grew up white, with privilege or in other countries. In other words, these chapters identified problems that weaken and destroy society. Though they relate to slavery and its effects, he applies his keen observation to a society in the midst of any deep divide. His ability to translate such complex narratives led to understanding, civil discourse and progress. Many thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois for the eloquence and vision of these words.

All citations that follow are taken from his 1903 text: The Souls of Black Folk.

“So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of 'swift' and 'slow' in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?”

“And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, - all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, - who is good? Not that men are ignorant, - what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

“The white man, as well as the Negro, is bound and barred by the color-line, and many a scheme of friendliness between the two has dropped still-born because some busybody has forced the color-question to the front and brought the tremendous force of unwritten law against the innovators.... It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither alone will bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent.”

“I freely acknowledge that it is possible, and sometimes best, that a partially undeveloped people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good, until such time as they can start and fight the world's battles alone. I have already pointed out how sorely in need of such economic and spiritual guidance the emancipated Negro was, and I am quite willing to admit that if the representatives of the best white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding power in the South to-day the conditions indicated would be fairly well fulfilled. But the point I have insisted upon, and now emphasize it again, is that the best opinion of the South to-day is not the ruling opinion. That to leave the Negro helpless and without a ballot to-day is to leave him, not to the guidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of the worst; that this is no truer of the South than of the North, - of the North than of Europe: in any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.”

“It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty.”

“The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.... Patience, Humility, Manners and Taste, common schools and kindergartens, industrial and technical schools, literature and tolerance, - all these spring from knowledge and culture, the children of the university. So must men and nations build, not otherwise, not upside down.”

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Love Letters

February 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.” - Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden

I think that it would be ideal to have somewhere between 96 and 3 words for love. Certainly, one does not seem enough. It is much like the word nature, which contains so much. When discussing literature, we spend so much time just trying to figure out what type of love we are talking about...what type of love the characters demonstrate. Moreover, we use the same word to say that we love something as silly as ice cream, and something as serious as a lost loved one. The following love letters fit the week's theme, which celebrates St. Valentine. They are an exchange between Nathaniel Hawthorne and his future wife Sophia Peabody. They married in 1842 and had three children and a long marriage. Though both were known to be quiet and reclusive, these letters prove of an intense and passionate relationship.

Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to Sophia as his “Dove” and said that she was his sole companion. He continues, “I need no other - there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” After their first child was born, Nathaniel Hawthorne also felt a different kind of love and he voices this profound responsibility of fatherhood. He writes, “I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it.”

We wish you health, happiness and love. Contemplate and celebrate the many meanings of love this week!

Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody, December 5, 1839

Dearest, – I wish I had the gift of making rhymes, for methinks there is poetry in my head and hear since I have been in love with you. You are a Poem. Of what sort, then? Epic? Mercy on me, no! A sonnet? No; for that is too labored and artificial. You are a sort of sweet, simple, gay pathetic ballad, which Nature is singing, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, and sometimes with intermingled smiles and tears.


Sophia Peabody to Nathaniel Hawthorne, December 31, 1839

Best Beloved, – I send you some allumettes wherewith to kindle the taper. There are very few but my second finger could no longer perform extra duty. These will serve till the wounded one be healed, however. How beautiful it is to provide even the slightest convenience for you, dearest! I cannot tell you how much I love you, in this back-handed style. My love is not in this attitude, - it rather bends forwards to meet you.

What a year this has been to us! My definition of Beauty is, that it is love, and therefore includes both truth and good. But those only who love as we do can feel the significance and force of this.

My ideas will not flow in these crooked strokes. God be with you. I am very well, and have walked far in Danvers this cold morning. I am full of the glory of the day. God bless you this night of the old year. It has proved the year of our nativity. Has not the old earth passed away from us? - are not all things new?

Your Sophie

- These letters can be found in: Forever Yours: Letters of Love. St. Martin's Press, 1991.

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Fracturing Millennials Reveal Flaws in Generational Political Narrative

February 9, 2018

Thanks to Carter Vance, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

The idea of the “generational conflict”, written in sociopolitical terms, is a notion at once ancient and modern. One can go back to the writings of Plato and find tropes which sound curiously similar to the proverbial old man ranting at about the indolent youth invading his front lawn. At the same time, the habit affixing labels (“Boomer”, “Gen X”, etc.) and a set of supposed personality characteristics to subsequent cohorts is a relatively recent phenomenon. The notion that people who grow up in the same time period would share more in common with each other than with those who came before them is a fundamentally modern notion. In a time before the industrial revolution massively altered the structure of the economy, most careers would be passed down within families, with each generation for the most part reproducing what their parents had done.

Of course, there were always exceptions to this rule of, for instance, poor individuals who, through luck or skill, ended up in a much different place than where they began. But, the notion that a son would not continue in the trade of his father would have been eccentric at best and a betrayal of duty at worst. The cutting of old ties and the emphasis on individual achievement forged by the dawn of capitalism had the paradoxical effect of sweeping up full generations into epoch-defining economic changes. Demand for particular skills, or just a willingness to work in a particular set of conditions, would ebb and flow over time, rather than being fixed to family names. This, along with the increasing interconnection of economies and cultures at the national and international scale, meant that trends in fashion and job-destroying commodity busts would both be experienced by wide swaths of the population as defining events.

At the same time, the notion of a “generation” did not become fully operational until the era of mass media communication. This gave rise to the second major shared aspect of generational experience: popular culture. Of course, it is not strictly speaking true that every Baby Boomer attended Woodstock or loved The Beatles, but the shared sentiment that they did, and more specifically that they embraced a set of values reflected in this art, came to be retrospective social adhesive. This world of shared experience, of both artistic creation and news events, would have been impossible to achieve without the technology to expose everyone within a “generation”, or at least a wide swath, to such things. It was also with this expansion of media consumption that the notion of a “generational divide” between parents and child, as exemplified by films such as Rebel Without a Cause, began to gain more purchase as a shorthand for a particular kind of social dislocation. It is this image, an irreconcilable split over essential values and worldviews across an age gap, that gives “Greatest Generation”, for instance, a meaning beyond the purely temporal. As much as such terminology flattens out a whole wealth of contradictions and conflicts across various lines within the people it gathers together, it also allows a kind of narrative to be fashioned of global changes over time.

Encountering “generational” writing in the present moment, the standard litany of clichés which accompany writing about millennials from their elders are so well-worn at this point that to critique them as a sign of lazy thinking feels redundant. For every column denouncing the “snowflakes” on campus or the need to hand-hold us fragile young people in the workplace, there is another which counters these claims directly. My point here is to not relitigate the case against a particular set of generational stereotypes, but rather to question if this entire framework for looking at the lives of young people today is not faulty. Though the notion of a “generation” as a contained, relatively homogenous sociopolitical unit sharing a set of experiences, values and aspirations was likely always an overstretched concept, this is particularly true of millennials.

The most obvious fact speaking to our fracturing is that millennials are the most demographically diverse cohort in the history of North America, and therefore come to the table of the social world with much different concerns and experiences. Attempts to describe a singular “millennial” are therefore strained to the point of futility. Beyond this, the increasing social recognition of a wide variety of identities related to gender and sexuality further complicates the picture. This is even before we recognize that this generation has grown up in a cultural environment which is both increasingly global and niche-oriented. “Media” no longer means simply the kind of mass broadcast networks which it once did, but rather a more diverse range of outlets serving particular interests, tastes and views. Though this has been primarily talked about in terms of a negative phenomenon as facilitating increasing epistemic closure in political terms, it is important to note its virtues as well. A greater diversity of means through which to transmit messages into the popular consciousness has meant that injustices previously ignored have come to light, and that communities which have faced historical oppression have been able to come together and find a voice more easily. Whether for good or for ill, this generation does not necessarily share common media reference points with the rest of our cohort in the way Boomers can seemingly all recall listening to Hendrix on the hi-fi or watching the moon landing on TV. In short, the defining condition of being young in this moment is that of notionally infinite choice, both in terms of what we will consume, and how we will define ourselves in relation to the world.

Much more could be written on this, but I would close with the thought that the main option which is not available to us is that of security, in both economic and social terms. If we do all indeed swim in what Umberto Eco has defined as “liquid modernity”, taught to view all things as impermanent and flexible, it is my generation that was born into it. The variety of individual and group attachments, to artifacts of popular culture or internet ephemera, for instance, that we develop are something of a cheap substitute for the kind of shared meaning we believe defined life before our time. The attraction of young people to politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who promise a renewal of both common purpose and social security, testifies to this desire. Much of what is viewed by those above us as signs of some sort of generational psychosis are in fact very rational responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have learned to be as fluid as the world around us, not because we necessarily want to, but because it is demanded of us.

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William James and the Stream

February 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

"Let us call the resting-places the 'substantive parts,' and the places of flight the 'transitive parts,' of the stream of thought. It then appears that the main end of our thinking is at all times the attainment of some other substantive part than the one from which we have just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another." - William James, Principles of Psychology

William James's famous depiction of human thought as a continuous stream is now a mainstream idea. HMU's January Quarterly Discussion focused on this metaphor. We investigated its "resting places" and "places of flight". Why, or how, does one come to recognize any thought? James says that we have many thoughts of which we are both aware and unaware. These thoughts compose our stream of consciousness. Humans encounter a staggering amount of data everyday and parse it into the noisy stream, combined with reminders, memories, song lyrics, and interests (just to name a few other things that we carry).

One thing that strikes me as important is that James does not clearly define any terms in this chapter. Rather, he invokes the power of metaphor to universally describe thought. The accessibility of a stream is clear in ways that a scientific definition may not be. At the same time, though, James also notes the inherent flaws of language. He is quick to claim that language cannot accurately depict all reality. Rather, he says, "language works against our perception of the truth." In other words, perception is subjective. The subject defines experience in language that is also defined by the subject. An object, something external to the subject, can be defined only through the subject's access to it. And repeated experiences lead us to a level of "sameness".

"Sameness" allows humans the ability to recognize forms. An orange, for example, is round, orange and citrusy. Language allows sameness, but also limits us from having absolutely equivalent experiences with that orange. We know that an orange has a recognizable form, but it may carry different connotations for each of us. This additional baggage is personal, and not necessarily transmitted in the thought of orange itself. However, James claims that we can continually expand our understanding of an object. He writes, "Experience is remoulding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date.... Every brain-state is partly determined by the nature of this entire past succession." (152) In other words, our thoughts exist in a continual stream. As we interact with each thought, the thought develops its own unique parts.

So, while "sameness" allows us to converse with others about an object, personal influence is in part always lost. For example, imagine an orange sitting on the table. Investigate your preconceived notions of orange. Does the color please you? Do you like the flavor and taste? Does it make you think of summer or winter, a particular vacation, dessert or juice? We have almost instantaneous associations that may be what we are thinking when we speak. For example, I grew up with an orange tree. So, after this conversation and after thinking about what defines an object itself, I realized that when I say the word orange, I mentally recall the experience and smell of picking oranges. Therefore, while the communicable thought remains only that the orange is on the table, I am sensing much more than my words contain. Orange is the object of thought, but not the full thought itself. James continues that "[t]he next point to make clear is that, however complex the object may be, the thought of it is one undivided state of consciousness." So, for me, an orange is also experiential in a way that language does not immediately transmit. Imagining that everyone functions in a similar manner, makes it difficult to grasp how humans arrive at any verifiable "sameness".

I wonder what causes us to say anything? What focuses our attention on a single thought? It was suggested that the stream of thought is substantive and also transitive. The substantive section represents objects of interest. These objects exist in time and places for us, as we must associate them with some experience or definition. However, the transitive subset of the stream is composed of things that have yet to enter our consciousness. For whatever reason, these objects avoid our consciousness, and, as a result, they cannot be expressed in any sort of time-part. They literally do not yet exist in any functional or communicable way, though they may exist within the stream.

I am astounded at how difficult a discussion of simple thought is. Representing our personal definition of an orange, even, can be problematic. Extend this into philosophical ideas and intangible notions, and it is a wonder we can communicate at all. This is reinforced by the fact that thought can be traced through hundreds of years of philosophy. James is, in part, responding to those previous thinkers when he rebuts the idea that thought is composed of single, static conclusions. Rather, he reinforces complexity by allowing that each idea is connected to a massive flow of data.

I am ever-so-grateful to those who discussed James's work with me. His stream of consciousness idea has profound implications for communication and is well worth reading. I truly appreciate others' time and efforts in clarifying difficult points.

Our next Quarterly Discussion will focus on two translation. Join us! Email for more information.

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