Grand Strategy: Nine Years

8 November 2017

Wednesday


This month marks nine years of Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon. I started regularly posting in November 2008. Since then I have continuously maintained this blog, though my rate of posting has declined, especially over the past couple of years. My reduced rate of posting here is not due to my running out of ideas. On the contrary, I have more material than I can even write down. My posts have become more detailed and in-depth, which requires more research and more care in composition. This also means that I hesitate to post my more half-baked ideas. When I look back on some of my early posts I find things that I would never write today: it is no longer enough for me to suggest an idea; I want to develop the ideas that I present.

Already sensing my hesitation to post half-baked ideas some years ago, and knowing that the key to working out ideas is to maintain a continuous engagement with them (which is best done by writing about them every day), I started a blog on Tumblr, Grand Strategy Annex, where I post more spontaneously, just so that I can keep the ideas flowing without monitoring each word so closely that scholarly conscience prevents one from writing anything at all. I’m glad that I did this, even though it divides my efforts, because I often capture an idea in a quick Tumblr post fist, and later incorporate this in a longer post here, or on Medium, or on Centauri Dreams.

In addition to these online writings (and three Twitter accounts), I also keep numerous notebooks in which I write in longhand, and I work on dozens of different manuscripts on my computer. All this material, if collected together, would run to many thousands of pages. And over the past year or so I have discovered that I can accelerate my formulation of ideas even more by always carrying a digital recorder with me. I spend a lot of time each day driving around and running errands, and now I use that time listening to the ideas that I have recorded on previous days and then elaborating on them in further recordings. That means that I also have hundreds of spoken word notes that have not been transcribed. So, as I said above, I haven’t run out of ideas.

My approach to philosophy is what in the early modern period was called copia. (Erasmus wrote a short book On Copia of Words and Ideas.) I prioritize the generation of new ideas. I can imagine that, to someone who pursues the other strategy — that of confining oneself to a small number of ideas and spending a lifetime elaborating these in the most detailed and comprehensive manner possible — this sounds like a rather trivial way to think about things. However, I would suggest that one is statistically more likely to hit upon a significant idea by surveying many of them rather than focusing on a familiar few.

A blog is a good way to present the results of a copia strategy in philosophy, but I sometimes have misgivings about the time I put into writing blog posts. I could instead use this time to refine a manuscript. I worry that spending another ten years of writing blog posts may mean that I never produce anything more substantial. But I have already tried the book strategy. More than ten years ago I produced a couple of books that I self-published (Political Economy of Globalization and Variations on the Theme of Life). I thought (naïvely, as it turns out) that these two books would develop a readership over time, if only I could be patient. This has not happened. I changed my strategy and started writing blog posts instead of books as a compromise. While my blog readership is very small, at least these posts do occasionally get read, and when I post to Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams I have gotten as many as a hundred thoughtful comments on a single post. That is real engagement, and worth the effort to know that others have read carefully and have responded thoughtfully.

Part of my strategy of writing blog posts, then, follows from my native temperament; some of my strategy follows from my peculiar circumstances. Individuals in an academic or scholarly community, I assume, have others with whom they can have informal conversations in which they can float ideas that are not yet ready for systematic exposition. It is necessary to have a sympathetic ear for this sort of thing, as any tender, young, and inchoate idea can easily be torn apart. What is important is to try to discern within an idea if it has potential. Since I do my work in isolation, I float my ideas here. And what I post here is but a small fragment of the ideas I am working on at any given moment.

I won’t say that I have chosen the right strategy, and I certainly know that I haven’t chosen an optimal strategy, but I have chosen a strategy that is consonant with my own temperament. This consonance plays a role in the development of my ideas. Because I am doing what comes naturally to me, without any extrinsic prompting from any source outside myself, this is something that I can continue to do as long as I have life in me. It does not get old to me; the salt does not lose its savor.

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Wednesday


six years

It is always a pleasure to mark another anniversary of Grand Strategy: The View of Oregon. While I remain a thoroughly marginal figure with very few readers, my efforts have not been entirely in vain. After all, you’re reading this.

A surprising number of blogs appear to be about nothing but blogging, statistics, attracting an readership, responding to comments, and so on. This is incredibly tedious, and I don’t know how they’ve gotten the subscribers and comments that these sites usually feature. (Maybe it’s mostly friends and family, or maybe its some unseen connection to the mainstream media.) There is nothing quite so tiresome as to hear writers talking about writing, or to hear the resentful talking about their resentments. Sometimes the two are one and the same. Thus I limit myself to one post per year in which I vent on the mundane details of writing this blog, so as not to presume too much upon my readers’ patience. My previous anniversary postings include:

Grand Strategy Celebrates One Year!

Grand Strategy Celebrates Two Years!

Grand Strategy Celebrates Three Years!

Four More Years!

Five Years!

That I have continued my efforts is a reflection of intrinsic interest; many blogs are started, and most fizzle, whether or not the writers gain an audience. Given that 95 percent of blogs are abandoned, that fewer men than women blog, that most blogs are written by individuals in their 20s, I am something of a statistical anomaly by dint of pure perseverance. I continue to produce posts, albeit at a slower rate than before, and because I still have plenty of ideas I don’t see myself running out of things to say any time soon.

I don’t blog because I expect a book deal to come out of my efforts, or because I expect to have a million hits a day, or because I think I’m going to be interviewed on television or by the New York Times (though, honestly, I would prefer the Financial Times). On the contrary, blogging is much more likely to bring ridicule than fame and fortune, as others express consternation as to why one bothers at all.

It is interesting to compare the nay-sayers at opposite ends of the spectrum. There are the working class nay-sayers who can’t understand why someone with a full time job would use their spare time to write a blog rather than to enjoy the short space of leisure to which their employment entitles them between the end of the work day and the onset of sleep. On the other hand, there are the privileged nay-sayers, those who have already come into a position of influence, fame, or money, who cannot understand why those on the bottom continue to struggle for some recognition when — obviously — they are doomed to eternal anonymity.

Nay-sayers aside, it is with a certain Schadenfreude that marginal individuals like myself can look upon the near catastrophic failure in the publishing industry today, even if the mainstream media continues to dominate public opinion on the internet now instead of through print. Those who assumed that the publishing industry would go on as it has always gone on have been forced to face hard truths about newspapers and magazines in a digital age. Media outlets that can come to be social institutions have had to change their way of doing business, and, as I have remarked elsewhere, no one should cry for the papers.

I write not to fill column inches or to sell soap, but because I have something to say. I earn nothing from my efforts, but I would be writing this material anyway, without regard to readers or remuneration, so by putting this material that I would have written anyway on a blog, a few people read it who would not otherwise have read it. A few ideas are shared.

A sincere “thank you” to the handful of readers who have returned, and for whom I now write. There is more to come.

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An exercise in self-declaration

Since I started with Sartre yesterday (in Disappearing Act), it is appropriate, in a sense, that I continue with Sartre. In his influential essay, “What is Writing?” Sartre wrote:

If a writer has chosen to remain silent on any aspect whatever of the world, or, according to an expression which says just what it means, to pass over it in silence, one has the right to ask: “Why have you spoken of this rather than that, and — since you speak in order to bring about change — why do you want to change this rather than that?”

This is vintage Sartre: unforgiving, demanding, and totalizing. For the last reason — its totalizing pretensions — I cannot wholeheartedly agree. Nevertheless, even if my agreement falls short of totality, I recognize the imperative embodied in the words.

This little passage is quite pregnant with implicit references. Did Sartre ever read Wittgenstein? It is hard to imagine, but he may have been referring to Wittgenstein when he speaks of “passing over in silence”, as this is exactly what Wittgenstein recommends in the last sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” (“Wovon mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss mann schweigen.”) Wittgenstein, too, offers an imperative.

No writer can say everything, or address every question posed by his public pronouncements. Similarly, one does not always want to effect a change in choosing to write about anything. To imagine that one only speaks in order to effect a change is to already have placed oneself in the attitude of an institution, in virtue of the avoidance of which, as we mentioned yesterday, Sartre refused the Nobel Prize: “I, Sartre the Institution, have said it, therefore let it be done.” This is what Sartre took pains to avoid, but in fact could not avoid.

But now my reader (if I have any readers) have the right to ask me why I am going on about this anyway. For this reason: yesterday, in a caption of a picture of Heidegger, I asked the rhetorical question: “And what are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently asked?”

I think that if we interpret Sartre sympathetically, and do not insist on attaining an impossible totality of expression regarding any aspect whatever of the world, that he meant leading, rhetorical questions such as I asked above constitute a form of bad faith (mauvaise foi)… words lying there like inert objects that pretend not to act even while in not acting they act.

The written word is a two way street. The writer writes, and the reader reads. If the reader’s reading leaves him dissatisfied, he certainly has the right, if not the duty, to interrogate the writer. Thus the writer responds, and writers again, and the reader reads again. This does not give us the totality of the world in prose, but it does give an account of the demands of the public sphere.

So let me declare myself on Heidegger: can Heidegger the philosopher be rescued from the ruin of the man? Yes. That is the short answer. The longer answer is that, while I despise Heidegger’s writing style, which strikes me as unforgivably obscurantist, there are some valuable ideas hidden among the verbiage, like sapphires in the mud. The long answer must also honestly acknowledge that the content of Heidegger’s thought is intimately related to what initially drew him to Nazism, or least to what he believed Nazism represented in the spring of 1933 when he joined the Nazi party to the spring of 1934 when he resigned his rectorship. Heidegger’s Nazism wasn’t a “mistake” on his part; he quite earnestly believed that the movement did not live up to its promise, and it was that promise to which Heidegger remained committed.

There is a considerable Heidegger industry that cranks out commentaries and publications in numbers apparently calculated to pad academic CVs, and because of the Heidegger controversy there is also a virtual sub-industry of books on Heidegger and Nazism. There are philosophers who think that Heidegger is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and others who won’t mention his name. This Heidegger industry has turned both Heidegger the man and Heidegger the philosopher into an institution of no mean order.

I guess there is a sense in which my attitude to philosophy is utilitarian, as I will use ideas from any source whatsoever, be it Heidegger or Sartre, Gobineau or Valery, Croce or Marx — all deeply compromised men, but all with something of value to say. Sartre himself is supposed to have said, “Valery is a fascist, but not all fascists are Valery.” I don’t think that Sartre would have argued that great poetry excuses fascism, but the least that can be said is that he clearly sees the dilemma.

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