Questioning the Assumption.

This post will be a little irregular because I’d like to address something directly.  Rather than use words to collude with me and hide what I’m really trying to say in a poem, I’d like to expressly put my finger on the matter and open up discussion about the matter.  There is a tendency, it seems to me, to question why people are in the arts?  I haven’t heard this work the other way.  Why are you in the sciences? or vocational education?  Those questions aren’t often raised, if ever.  As a person who is not self-proclaimed arsty-fartsy, but who has the titled charged upon me as if it’s treason, I’m concerned at the fact that many people make the overriding assumption that I’m incapable of logic.  Friends have given me lectures on money (because I don’t know how that works, even though I’ve worked my entire time throughout school, except this year).  And I’ve had friends tell me that art is more of a something-something to be had on the side.  But I find this logic to be fundamentally wrong.

Why do we insist upon creating this Bodleian library effect; ne’er the twain shall meet.  Why do we assume that science(s) and art(s) do not mix?  The two have been so fundamentally linked throughout history, and we suddenly have this period in time where the arts can only consist of twerking in a bearsuit or telling women that their sexual autonomy means nothing because the lines are clearly blurred;  these things make money.  I’d like to outrightly say that we’re all a little obsessed with numbers, but I think that’s unfair to numbers.  Just because we, as a human race, are obsessed with them doesn’t mean they are guilty.  They are the tools we have misused to build up a protective wall around our societal structures.  As any mathematician , I’m sure, will tell you, there is an inexplicable beauty about numbers.  That intrinsic beauty needs to be recognized in a greater way.  If we misuse the tools, they’ll still be there.  I should clarify, I don’t believe numbers belong to a sort of Parmenidean principle. I am just attempting to open up the possibility that we give numbers agency beyond their ability to articulate what we like: empirical facts and figures.  We want precision: GIVE US A NUMBER.  We want money: GIVE US A (GREAT) NUMBER.  Aside from this caricature of society’s response to numbers, numbers are exceedingly helpful, and I’m grateful for the many minds that have contributed to our knowledge.

I can’t lie, I am a knowledge lover; I want to know.  And this knowledge isn’t exclusive to some sort of ‘art’ realm conception of the world.  I’ve read Adam Smith.  I’ve read Sir James Steuart (who, I’m sure, many people have never heard of, care about his Mercantilism, or the fact that it spurred Smith’s free-trade arguments).  How about Marx?   I have been and am deeply interested in scientific concepts and medicine.  All of these interests are relevant to me and my life.

What confuses me, is the notion that this sort of love of knowledge deserves to be shamed.  We don’t shame the banker for wanting to make a lot of money; he’s commended.  We don’t shame people for making the money they do, but we do shame people for going into debt to study something that isn’t (but should be by now) quite so clearly defined.   But why doesn’t the banker know about the slave-trade?  Why doesn’t the banker know that the tradition in which he works was disastrous for SO many other peoples?  Why is the accumulation of wealth idolized?  The material form of wealth seems to induce all kinds of mysticisms and occult devotions.

In the late-eighteenth century, people were not sure how to relate ‘scientific fact’.   And there was a method of expressing facts collected (in the age of Empire) called the minute particular, in which “[s]entimental writing explicitly anchors what is being expressed in the sensory experience, judgement, agency, or desires of the human subject.  Authority lies in the authenticity of somebody’s felt experience.” (Pratt).    The minute particular attempted to verbally engage someone who could not witness what the observer had seen with the sensory and emotional experience of the first-hand.  By moving away from this attempt to share through shared sense and intellectual empathy, thinkers championed empiricism to provide more accurate accounts of the New World. Empirical evidence is the attempt to numerically express sensory perceptions.  We can see x amount of this. Even more worthy of note, when we add y amount of substance p to x amount of substance q, the solution A can cure disease W.  These are all relations of tactility, sight, smell, &c., perceptions that are hidden but  still part of the process.

I think we need to remember this.  We are sensory-based beings.  We touch, we feel, we smell, we (may) see, we taste.  We need to remember that numbers are really just a compact way of expressing a lot.  Here, I am giving numbers back their agency.  They aren’t a sign-post in the realm of scientific discovery and integrity.  They express more than we would like to give them credit.

Bruno Latour hits upon this point in his study of the history of science, “I was struck, in a study of a biology laboratory, by the way in which many aspects of the laboratory practice could be ordered by looking not at the scientists’ brains (I was forbidden access!), at the cognitive structures (nothing special), nor at the paradigms (the same for thirty years), but at the transformation of rats and chemicals into paper.”  (Latour).   What Latour refers to here is that the information that is understood by the physical acts of experimenting by human bodies and brains upon other living objects was all neatly reduced to words on paper.  This process allows another being to read and glean a particular type of information from what they understand from the words without having to do the same experiment, have the same expensive equipment, sleepless nights, and direct drip of caffeine.    Latour defines this as a “strategy of deflation.”  “The deflating strategy,” he writes, “leads us into a worse kind of mysticism if the researcher who deals with prints and images has to believe in the power of signs and symbols isolated from anything else.” (Latour).  This problem should not be taken for granted, but it should be respected and acknowledged because we cannot consider our knowledge to be Godlike or all-encompassing because we somehow find our way back into structures that promote the symbolic sign of the number, and increasing numbers yet, without really considering what lies beneath.

Increasing your wealth at the expense of what you love to do is a privileged position to take,
Increasing your wealth at the expense of other people.
Increasing your wealth over someone else’s life.
Increasing your wealth over.

The reduction has its consequences beyond the immediate goals of science or the arts.  The reduction affects us all in immediate and longterm goals.  So, instead of attempting to create monolithic institutions of difference that reinforce the bastardization of the number, our humanity, sensory perceptions, and empathy we should find alternative approaches to navigating our world, and even, perhaps, concede that history is not only worthy of a saturday afternoon in the library.

Thank you.

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