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Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

This is a meditation on blogging.  I take as my inspiration the immortal passage from Ecclesiastes because it expresses so beautifully what Erik Erikson, in Childhood and Society, called the life cycle. 

Once I was young, now I am old.  Once every idea was an illumination, every book an adventure, every argument a call to arms.  Now, each idea echoes with a lifetime of reflection, each book takes its place in the bookshelf of my mind next to countless others remembered as old friends, each argument brings the weary thought, “Have we not yet settled that old fight?”

Each book I have written is forever marked by the moment in life’s journey that I had reached as I wrote.  In Defense of Anarchism is a young man’s book, a gauntlet flung in the face of overreaching authority.  Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, despite its provocative subject, is a mature reflection, rich in attention to irony and metaphor and the literary shaping of thought.

When I was young, my university lectures were studied, neatly outlined, presented as though carved in stone.  But as I grew older, more and more often memories, stories, allusions to matters far afield would creep in, until now, I am as garrulous as any old man sitting by the fire and remembering earlier days.

When I retired nine years ago, I launched this blog in an effort to continue a lifetime of teaching.  At first, terrified that my active life had ended, I plunged into a lengthy autobiography and then into a series of tutorials, mini-tutorials and appreciations so extended that very soon I had written more than half a million words.  But blogging is unlike teaching.  It is lonely, impersonal, episodic.  There are no faces, no eyes widening or narrowing, no sense of the passage of human time.  Each post is, as it were, born yesterday.  I recall with longing the master classes I have watched in which an old cellist or violinist listens to a young, eager aspirant and breaks in from time to time to shape a phrase or correct a bowing, offering his or her lifetime of experience to help the young student transmute notes into music and music into art.

To be sure, through a blog I can reach in one day more minds than I would have encountered in a decade of teaching, but how much more satisfying it would be to sit quietly and talk with just one or two, shaping a thought, offering a phrase, drawing a parallel with an old memory and seeing in the eyes a flash of understanding, a realization of possibilities newly opened.

This is what the young Marx had in mind when he wrote so beautifully, in the fragment on alienated labor, of the way in which the capitalist organization of the factory routinizes and dehumanizes the natural human activity of collective production.  I fear the Internet is the factory of the mind.


Unknown said...

While it is not the same as a face-to-face interaction, I assure you that every day, the same flash of understanding you elicited in your students is appearing in the eyes of people who are reading this blog. At the same time, I am very glad you are teaching face to face right now. Even though I am seeing them recorded, thousands of kilometres and a few days away, there is something in the lectures you are posting that is different from the way you talk to us through your blog posts.

Unknown said...
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Edmund Wilson said...

Professor Wolff, I would agree with you. The Internet does indeed seem to have the capacity to dehumanise some of the most human aspects of experience. Perhaps, as well as being the factory of the mind, the Internet is also the 'soma' of the mind (to use Aldous Huxley's term).

Amin said...

You are right that technology in many ways dehumanised our relations and many sublime aspects of our life but only through this internet or in a broader sense 'technology"I, from hundred thousand miles away, can enjoy and adore those beautiful pieces of old testament, Ecclesiastes. and simply have this privilege to read your writings only few moments after you write them.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Prof, I have become disenchanted with our society's obsession with technology of late myself (I recognize the irony of posting this comment from an Android smartphone. I have no excuse save that I'm at work and this is how I occupy my mind.)

I somewhat recently read a book titled Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. I think you would find this a fascinating book; it deals primarily with AI/robotics and social media, and their deleterious effects on society as well as the warning signs that the popularity of such technologies raise about the already sorry state of our society. It is rigorously researched, and the author has been studying the phenomena mentioned for over 30 years, so she has seen the effects, and how they have changed over time (she says flat out that her books have been successively less sanguine about these effects).

The data and arguments presented in the book, combined with my personal experiences with social media, did not leave me with positive feelings regarding the future of our society.

(I just remembered that I read this book before the election; needless to say, given Trump, and also the Russia shenanigans - as Late Night Show host Seth Meyers recently said, "As of right now there is still no conclusive evidence connecting the dots that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the presidency, but there are so many dots. We are covered in dots. The Trump presidency is basically a six-year-old with chicken pox. And the rest of us are really fucking itchy." - I have an even less positive outlook now! Ha!)

Enam el Brux said...

The digital agora is a rough place. The question of expecting more from technology reminds me of a recent dinner conversation I had with some employees of a financial startup. The sentiment, generally widely shared among technology enthusiasts, that apps and big data can replace fallible human judgment, bears on Prof Wolff's thoughts on the future of socialism. On the heel of anecdotes about the failure of Russia's command economy, there were hopes expressed about the power of "big data" and "the right metrics" to address "inefficiencies" of the educational system. But those same technologies might just as well address allocation problems beyond the capabilities of the Soviet planners. Maybe a Tollens argument (if I have that right) will make this clearer: if big data and advanced computing capabilities couldn't replace the market, why should we believe the tech evangelist claim that technology will save education or solve the replication crisis in psychology?

vathek said...
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vathek said...

Since I myself have nothing of substance to contribute, let me point you to that great song by Pete Seeger, based on Ecclesiastes, "Turn, Turn, Turn".

First, Seeger together with the wonderful Judy Collins;

then, the probably better known version by the Byrds. Enjoy.