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24 January 2013

The Community Function, the Italian Renaissance, Paul Graham’s essays & the impossibility of doing it alone

That is a photo I took on a trip to Italy this past December. While I haven’t traveled widely there, it’s a place that recalls other cities trapped in amber historically and creatively. Like Paris, like Bruges as depicted in the film In Bruges(Acknowledgement: this impression of Italy is mostly hearsay, inspired less from lived experience than from movies and television shows and people ranting about how good the pizza is in Naples. My recent trip touched down in Siena, Florence, Pisa and the Tuscan countryside — not Rome or Milan, cities which I suspect may provide a very different impression of the country.)

Anyhoo, that picture depicts the amber trap. Here’s another snap of a poster I found near the bathroom of a Sienese museum devoted to the city’s history.

While, at first glance, it might seem to disprove my thesis — how modern! marionettes & dildos! — I ask that you consider this picture more deeply: where else on earth could such a poster exist but in a country in denial about a modern consciousness rife as it is with irony, sarcasm, parody, self-parody, all the rest of it.

Moving on — don’t worry, I’ll loop back! — here’s another thing I don’t know all that much about: contemporary essayists. Of the ones I do know, internet entrepreneur, computer programmer and writer Paul Graham strikes me as one of the best, and certainly the one I read with the most unalloyed pleasure. (He inspires the kind of satisfaction one might experience if presented with an intractable lock, then provided a shoebox full of keys to sort through, and then, upon first attempt to match them, you heard that magic click.)

I can explain to you why I like Paul Graham via close reading, but maybe it’s better and easier to show you this diagram grabbed from Wikipedia which someone came up with to illustrate Graham’s essay How to Disagree.

Writing as as someone who has been accused of being, erm…HARSH…at times, it’s the kind of essay (and diagram) which I think anyone could learn something from. But so could all of us. Here is the lovely opening paragraph of Graham’s essay:

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.

Essentially, the essay is a guide to navigating conflict and communication in the electronic age. It’s this simple dissembling of emergent manners & business which Graham excels at. He observes, acknowledges, and even offers an implicit titter of respect for the level of popular discourse in our culture — while also trying to elevate said culture. (By the way, if you were wondering, the term “asshat” does not appear in Graham’s original essay, but the phrase “u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!” most certainly does. He isn’t just pointing out the existence of name calling — he shows that he has a personal fluency in txtspk and comment section style.)

Too many folks that call themselves essayists place themselves on high, away from the actual scrum of culture, or so far from it their attempts at engaging fail miserably. (A similar ability to discuss and respect the “low,” while aspiring to the “high” is what makes folks like David Foster WallaceDave Hickey, and John Jeremiah Sullivan some of my other favorite essay writers.)
In any case, to tie tight the two strands of this blog post together, my recent visit to Italy got me thinking a bit about one essay of Graham’s, which provides his take on the amber trapped era Italians look back upon with such justifiable pride.

Good design happens in chunks. The inhabitants of fifteenth century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth century Milanese artists can you name?

Something was happening in Florence in the fifteenth century. And it can’t have been genetic, because it isn’t happening now. You have to assume that whatever inborn ability Leonardo and Michelangelo had, there were people born in Milan with just as much. What happened to the Milanese Leonardo?

There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren’t, and the reason is that to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450.

Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionally from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, The New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.

At any given time there are a few hot topics and a few groups doing great work on them, and it’s nearly impossible to do good work yourself if you’re too far removed from one of these centers. You can push or pull these trends to some extent, but you can’t break away from them. (Maybe you can, but the Milanese Leonardo couldn’t.)

This also made me wonder about ambition vs. skill vs. luck as it plays out among the scene I find myself part of, the certainly more modest achievements of the Brooklyn, New York art scene — filled as it is with musicians, graphic designers and artisanal chocolate makers. However, self-consciousness befits an essayist more than it does a cultural producer, so for now I’ll hang up my flannel on that question, and relive a moment of staring out over the crete senesi.


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16 June 2009

Paul Graham on philosophy

I was tempted to headline this one “Computer Programmer Shits All Over Philosophy”:

What philosophy books would you recommend?

I can’t think of any I’d recommend. What I learned from trying to study philosophy is that the place to look is in other fields. If you understand math or history or aeronautical engineering very well, the most abstract of the things you know are what philosophy is supposed to be teaching. Books on philosophy per se are either highly technical stuff that doesn’t matter much, or vague concatenations of abstractions their own authors didn’t fully understand (e.g. Hegel).

It can be interesting to study ancient philosophy, but more as a kind of accident report than to teach you anything useful.

This is from Paul Graham’s RAQ, aka “Rarely-Asked Questions” which he explains as “questions that I’ve only been asked once or twice, but which seem especially interesting.”

Seriously though, whenever this Paul Graham (not this Paul Graham) publishes one of his essays or talks on his website, I am riveted. Clear-eyed, elegant, and thoroughly thru-conceived thought & documentation on topics ranging from the death of television to the lies we tell our kids from an artful computer programmer’s perspective.

He seems to be posting less frequently of late. That bums me out.

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