Grad School Notebook 1: THE QUESTIONS

Tomorrow is the first day of graduate school for me so probably a good time to ask myself what the point of being here is. In one sense, it’s obvious: it’s a great long-term suspension from having to work jobs I probably won’t like. For a long while, I won’t have to worry about money. It’ll help my credentials. I’ll meet great friends, and learn more than I could ever imagine. The opportunity of a lifetime.

On the other hand, there’s this question that appears on the University of Texas’s general exam for student of political theory:

You propose to do political theory professionally. Unless you are independently wealthy, your ability to do so will depend on the expenditure of other people’s wealth (in the form of tuition, taxes, or patronage) to pay your salary. What reason can you sincerely give for pursuing political theory which is sufficient to justify such expenditure?

In other words, will this venture actually contribute to anything beyond my own self-actualization?

My field of study is political philosophy (well, officially, “political theory,” but that distinction is a question for another time) which is housed in the political science department. This is slightly awkward for political philosophy to be lumped in with political science because many who study the latter lean very heavily on fieldwork and data analysis while the former does not. Descartes didn’t leave his room; Plato ran no regressions. Despite this, the other political theory students and I have spent the past week at a “math camp” with other incomers to the department. (It consisted of a race through Calculus, Statistics, probability, linear algebra, and so forth). I hadn’t taken math (or “maths,” as the Brits are calling it these days) in like 4 years so it was fun to meet old friends like the Chain Rule and Partial Fraction Decomposition. In the afternoon we did programming in R and Latex, which I was hopeless at. But all the same it was a way to get oriented into grad school life quicker.

In political science, and probably in many academic disciplines, it’s the case that 80% of the people reflexively look down on 80% of what others are doing. Doing some math camp was helpful in showing me this hopefully won’t be the rule in my program so far. Many quantitative people know parts of theory better than I do, and we theory people can sometimes do some types of math better than quants. It’s far less clear, however, to know what the aim of political theory is than it is of political science.

During the lunches at math camp we received advice from faculty about starting school. A point that was emphasized over and over was that the difference between this and underground is that we are now supposed to be “knowledge producers” rather than “knowledge consumers.” We are supposed to come up with the new ideas that will “push the field forward” rather than just read and learn interesting things.

The relentless language of production and consumption took even the hasn’t-even-read-Marx me a bit aback. I was hoping to hear a ra-ra about how to turn study into an increase in human progress and understanding rather than how to turn a seminar paper into a dissertation into a job talk into a tenure etc….

During one of those lunch talks I asked the speaker “How often do you think about the public good?” I intended it naively which is to say earnestly but obviously it came off as a bit impertinent given he responded, “you’re right, I’m an asshole.” His real answer was something like: the invention of new statistical methods allows one to answer questions one couldn’t before and these methods can then be applied to subjects like the study of inequality or questions like “why does racism persist?” This is an answer that makes some sense to me, but it also seems a roundabout of a way to proceed. Why not just study inequality or racism directly? This roundaboutness I think is actually similar to a question I’m grappling with in my own studies, except instead of the problem being how the study of mathematical methods informs contemporary political problems, it’s how the study of intellectual history (“the history of ideas”) does.

But first: what does it mean to do new research? It’s much easier to see what this looks like in more data-driven field. Scientists can produce new tests, concrete results, come up with actionable, testable recommendations. But what happens in political theory? What is the dissertation supposed to accomplish? The first dissertation defense I’ll attend this week is an intriguing (to me) paper on liberal theory. But I sort of roll my eyes at its promise to deliver “fresh readings of five central figures in philosophy.” Not because I doubted that the author has found something new and interesting about those five authors but because delivering a “fresh reading” of central figures in the history of political thought was exactly the language I’d used on my application, and seeing someone else say the same thing suggest to me the silliness of such a claim. After all, no one’s ever going to admit their interpretation of a figure is a stale one. If everyone’s aim is to produce “fresh readings,” then really all that means is something like: to each, his own. A “fresh interpretation” will probably find its due date on a similar scale to that of a vegetable.

I’d read an article recently about the nebulous concept of “scholarly value” that quoted John Hanno lambasting the Modern Language Association and the professionalization of academic scholarship in general:

How many members of the MLA? 30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project.

Certainly, having 30,000 literary critics is better than a society having, say, 30,000 ISIS fighters. But is there really that much that needs to be done? Surely there’s scholarly work one could do that just isn’t worth the time.

Jonathan Swift characterized the academy as a madhouse. Maybe it’s better that we’ve found a place to house some of our madness. Still, I would like to maintain parts of my sanity.

But one thing that makes that hard is that I studied Russian and so my idea of what an intellectual should be is stuck in 19th-century Siberia. One of the famous stories of the Russian intellectuals (actually they should be called intelligents, another important distinction we won’t discuss), is that one of them (Alexander Herzen I think?) wouldn’t let his party guests eat until they’d settled the question “Is there was a God or not?” That question stands alongside “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done” as Russia’s so-called accursed questions that the intelligentsia debated endlessly at least until Stalin put an end to the debate. (“Do you respect me?” is jokingly said to be contemporary Russia’s fourth “accursed question.”).

“Do you want to save the world,” was my own try at a question, a presumptuous paraphrase of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, that I peppered on different people in the endless procession of evening happy hours after math camp afternoons. Unfortunately, in our American soirees the libations precede the interrogations, so I cannot recall clearly some of the better answers my friends have given. Note to self: be a better listener.

My second problem is that the first poem I ever had to memorize was Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and so my idea of what an American college student should do is be stuck in a state of perpetual stupid longing. I mean, man, like, if you aren’t “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” then like what are you even doing, you know? The idea of authenticity is regularly misunderstood: not to “be yourself” or “be all you can be” but rather to be all the universe as best as you yourself can be. If you do not consider yourself responsible and implicated in the machinations of the whole cosmos, why not?

The topic I tell people I’m studying is the politics of modern science and technology. How those things relate to power and the broader world around them. There are two time periods I am interested in. Firstly: why did science happen in the first place? How did we get from a world in which most scientific progress was either random or conducted by isolated elite individuals to one in which scientific progress was an explicit aim of many societies and enormous, publically funded, collaborative institutions exist in order to strive for that goal. To examine this change I wanted to study the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in Western Europe.

I am also interested in what science and technology mean right now. How do people relate to their gadgets, how does science shape our political debates and how can politics prevent science and technology from being used for evil?

I don’t think I would be interested in the first topic if I wasn’t intrigued and in some ways disturbed about how technology was affecting me on a personal level. Why were some of the most memorable moments of childhood spent playing video games? Why was it that my only significant relationships with girls occurred over AOL Instant Messenger or via text? Why did it seem like more often than not the new gadgets I bought didn’t produce the happiness I imagined they would? Why did introducing technology into education never work well in my public school? To say nothing of the fact that many of the most pressing national political debates, nukes, climate change, NSA surveillance, and so forth, seemed to have technology as their central component.

Sophomore year of college I read Francis Bacon for the first time and was amazed that a human being seemingly was able to predict and intentionally draw up plans for many of the institutions we now hold essential to the progress of scientific and technological research. Because Bacon is often considered the first great cheerleader for science, technology, and modernity, he consequently takes heaps of blame for supposedly being the harbinger of bad things like imperialism, scientism, and totalitarianism. So what was even more intriguing to me, was that upon close study of Bacon it seemed to me that Bacon himself foresaw a lot of the negative things he would be later accused of perpetuating — and yet he decided to advocate for scientific and technological advancement anyway! Why?

That was the question of my undergraduate thesis. I still haven’t satisfactory answered it to myself. However, I knew I could say something new enough about the question enough to write a thesis that could get me into grad school, the topic of technology and science being uber trendy.

This question gets my intellectual curiosity juices flowing. It’s awe-inspiring to feel like I can glimpse a bit the mind of human of such vast vision and intelligence, and I feel it helps me better appreciate the heights to which our species can go. I think I understand Bacon better than most people who have studied him and feel the same reward I imagine as one who is more capable at solving chess puzzles. Studying Bacon has intrinsic humanistic worth, at times it can be beautiful.

But contemplating Bacon’s mind is not akin to staring into the mind of God. And at the end of the day, who really cares whether or not we really foresaw the dangers of the technological society or not. Exculpating his name won’t do anything to justify or remember the people who suffered for his innovations, even if those innovations represented the only way to avoid an even worse fate.

And few scholars of Bacon would say they study him for intellectual curiosity alone. Somewhere or other there’s embedded the claim that somehow understanding how science got started will help us guide it in our own world. Something like: if modernity is an edifice and the edifice is crumbling, then it would be handy to look at the blueprint in order to figure out what needs to be strengthened, or whether the whole damn thing should be done away with. Perhaps things that were thought necessary to exclude then should now be included. Or perhaps decisions were made for X reason and X reason has changed so we should change our thinking. But can a better understanding of Bacon really help us in any way today? We make these gestures to suggest yes, but do we even actually follow through with them? After all, I have been studying technology for six years now and I still struggle to relate to it properly in my own life. I’m more bound to my phone and computer than ever before, chastise my inability to break certain dependencies more than ever. If that’s the case, should I really expect to help others more thoughtfully manage technology in their own lives? To say nothing of change on a large scale. Precocious undergraduates have been penning critiques of the historical rise of modernity for scores of semesters. And yet the edifice still stands. So why not just study technology today, if that’s what’s important? Or if we want to improve science and technology’s relationship with the rest of society, why not embed oneself within the hierarchies or science or technology themselves?

I have a friend who’s sort of interested in doing for economics what I want to study regarding science and technology, and this morning he sent me a document entitled “THE QUESTIONS,” that list the questions he’s anxious to know. I like the idea of deliberately signaling to yourself and to others what you are aiming for. (If nothing else so you can smile later at your oh-so-silly self-of-the-past). So, in that vein, here’re mine:


1. How far can an investigation into the historical causes of the rise of modern science inform how we ought to relate to it today (without falling victim to anachronisms and stretched historical comparisons)?

2. How useful is it to understanding either the historical development of science or our contemporary situation to study and understand actual science and technology, not just theories of it?

3. How useful is it to understanding either the historical development of science or our contemporary situation to study and understand the actual practice of politics, not just theories of it?