Three Modes

Went to hear Paulina Borsook read from her book Cyberselfish, about which more some other time, quite possibly after I've actually read it. During the question period, though, she got into a minor debate with an audience member on the topic of high-tech charity. Her position was that within the main influential hotbeds of high-tech libertarianism -- basically the Valley -- philanthropic activity is at a minimum and is not culturally an important priority. The interlocutor disagreed, citing a couple of reasonably well-known examples. Borsook's reply was that these were the same exact examples everyone who challenged her on this point trotted out, and that it was actually quite difficult to find examples beyond a particular small finite set. She maintained that these were exceptions, rather than the trend; he disagreed; she said that he was entirely entitled to hold that opinion, but she thought he was wrong. And left it at that.

This left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, for reasons I couldn't entirely pin down. I realized only later that it wasn't the subject of the debate that bothered me, but its form. Borsook's final position -- which I think the guy in the audience basically agreed with -- was that this was a question that didn't admit of resolution based on the data points available to them, that they were entering the realm of opinion and interpretation where facts could not quite go. And this seems suspect on evidentiary principles. Historians reach this sort of conclusion all the time, that some broader social statement is or is not the case. If they aren't trapped by the example-or-exception epistemological quagmire that Borsook alluded to, why should she be? It took a bit of pacing and some further thought to come up with a better answer. Put succinctly, in the terminology I worked out in the car on the way back, she's a journalist, not a scholar.

I'd like to suggest that a great deal of human participation in intellectual debate can be assigned to one of three categories: art, journalism, or scholarship. I'm going to be Humpty-Dumpty-esque in this discussion; it's best to pretent that these three terms are random collections of syllables for which I'm providing definitions, rather than well-understood designatory nouns about which I'm making some kind of argument. Also, please understand that none of these categories is ever wholly pure, that they always exist in some sort of mixture. They're just three competing and mutually-exclusive goals that any expression must answer to, never wholly satisfying or ignoring any.

Art is that which answers to some set of intangible standards, which follows first and foremost the demands of the aesthetic. It may bear some relationship to reality, may represent or misrepresent actual people and events, but the point is that the primary standards by which it is created and judged do not include accuracy of representation. Fiction is art, but so is synthetic philosophy, so is theology. When push comes to shove, it's adherence to some abstract code that makes for art. To the artist, truth exists apart from reality.

Journalism is that which represents reality faithfully and specifically. The perfect journalist is invisible and voiceless, presenting an absolutely faithful rendition of some aspect of reality for the reader, or observer, or listener. The journalist gathers data but does not interpret it. Photos from the war zone are journalism, but so is socialist realism, so is biography, so is law. The point of journalism is to be completely accurate in showing the details of whatever it takes for its subject. To the journalist, reality is truth.

Scholarship is that which seeks an accurate description of reality in full generality. The scholar wishes to elide details in the interests of capturing the common summary that explains every detail. The ideal scholar reduces an immensely complicated situation to a scucinct representation that interprets and makes sense of that situation. Physics is scholarship, but so is history, so is psychology. Scholarship answers to reality, but it demands for itself the right to describe reality in terms other than reality's own. To the scholar, truth lies within reality and beneath it.

Any of these three positions, taken alone, is grotesque. But it is definitely possible to situate methodologies (and the people who employ these methodologies) closer to one or another of these poles. Borsook, it is fairly clear to me, is a journalist -- and so was her interlocutor. She goes to events and reports on them; her quest is for the perfect set of details which make an ironclad case for her conclusions. To a scholar, this method of reasoning is repugnant: it amounts to jumping abductively from one example to another. But I'm not sure that a scholarly approach to this problem -- trying to figure out aggregate measures for chracterizing the philanthropy of a social group and to develop instruments for taking those measures -- would satisfy the Borsooks of this world. They could point out, fairly legitimately, that computing the total amount of money given to charity per capita per year, say, is a perfectly useless way of trying to speak about the attitudes of people, of whether they are selfish or not. Go to San Francisco, knock on the door of a VC firm, write down the words that spill from their mouths, the buzzwords and the jargon and the anti-government rants of the humvee drivers, and you will see in a way that no summary could possibly equal.

I think this strong journalistic slant of Borsook's also explains a bit of her hostility towards the bionomic movement, whose drive towards transcending the physical she calls "self-loathing." I quizzed her a bit about people who treat cyberspace as ontologically real, ala John Perry Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, and she took much the same stance, calling them nuts. One way of looking at the matter is that, according to this tripartite logic, these people are artists, artists whose artistic ideals elevate particular ideas that have a strong connection to the mental aspects of reality, but only a very weak connection to its physical aspects. Mutual suspicion is the order of the day. Eric Raymond's recent attack on Borsook (and Michiko Kakutani, of the New York TImes), with its references to the high-minded ideals of Open Source. to "freedom itself," and to the principles underlying the "gift economy" is a prime example. Raymond's argument, like much of his writings on Open Source in general, is a familiar form of utopianism: start with some abstractly justified moral principles and work from there towards the wonderful real-world consequences that just happen to fall out of doing things in accordance with this idealized code of conduct. If one keeps in mind that art, most often, has some real-world embodiment, then Raymond is preaching the gospel of art, and reiterating the artist's "you just don't get it" complaint towards the journalist who notes the inedibility of marble sculpture.

It's a bit of a stretch, I admit. Even after typing up just this much, I can see daylight through some of the holes in the model. But I still like it as a rough characterization, and it ties together some other thoughts I've had (see, for example, "Cynicism and Journalism," "The Critic and the Journalist," and "Copenhagen Controversies," from my Slate page) about the varying natures of various intellectual endeavours. I'm interested to see what will come of shaking this particular tree some more.