Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 20, 2016

only connecting

Everything connects; but teasing out the connections in intelligible and useful ways is hard. The book I’m currently writing requires me to describe a complex set of ideas, mainly theological and aesthetic, as they were developed by five major figures: W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil. Other figures come into the story as well, most notably Reinhold Niebuhr; but keeping the connections within limits is essential, lest the story lose its coherence.

So I have to be disciplined. But there is so much I want to include in the book that I can’t — fascinating extensions of the web of ideas and human relations. For instance:

One of my major figures, Maritain, spent most of the war in New York City, where he recorded radio talks, to be broadcast in France, for the French resistance. One of the refugees who joined him in that work was the then-largely-unknown but later-to-be-enormously-famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. (Levi-Strauss’s parents, who managed to survive the war in France despite being Jewish, did not know that their son was alive until one of their neighbors heard him on the radio.) When Maritain formed the École Libre des Hautes Études, so that French intellectual life could continue in New York, Levi-Strauss joined the school and lectured on anthropology.

Through working at the Ecole Libre, Levi-Strauss met another refugee scholar, the great Russian structural linguist Roman Jakobson, who like Levi-Strauss had come to America on a cargo ship in 1941. Their exchange of ideas (they attended each other’s lectures) ultimately resulted in Levi-Strauss’s invention of the discipline of structural anthropology — one of the great developments of humanistic learning in the twentieth century.

During this period, Levi-Strauss lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village, and by a remarkable coincidence he lived on the same block as Claude Shannon, who was working for Bell Labs. (A neighbor mentioned Shannon to Levi-Strauss as a person who was “inventing an artificial brain.”) He had gotten that job largely because of his Masters thesis, which had been titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” — which is to say, he was doing for electrical circuits what Jakobson was doing for linguistics and Levi-Strauss for “the elementary structures of kinship.”

(Shannon liked living in the Village because he was a serious fan of jazz, and liked hanging out in the clubs, where, during this period, Earl Hines's band, featuring Dizzie Gillsepie and Charlie Parker among others, was more-or-less accidentally transforming jazz by creating bebop. We don't know as much about that musical era as we'd like, because from 1942-44 the American Federation of Musicians were on a recording strike. They played but didn't record.)

Shannon's office was a few blocks away in the famous Bell Labs Building, which housed, among other things, work on the Manhattan Project. In January 1943 — at the very moment that the key figures in my book were giving the lectures that shaped their vision for a renewed Christian humanism — Bell Labs received a visitor: Alan Turing.

Over the next couple of months Turing acquainted himself with what was going on at Bell Labs, especially devices for encipherment, though he appears to have said little about his own top secret work in cryptography and cryptanalysis. And on the side he spent some time with Shannon, who, it appears, really was thinking about “inventing an artificial brain.” (Turing wrote to a friend, “Shannon wants to feed not just data to a Brain, but cultural things! He wants to play music to it!”) Turing shared with Shannon his great paper “On Computable Numbers,” which surely helped Shannon towards the ideas he would articulate in his classified paper of 1945, “A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography” and then his titanic “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” of 1948.

That latter paper, combined with Turing’s work on computable numbers, laid the complete theoretical foundation for digital computers, computers which in turn provided the calculations needed to produce the first hydrogen bombs, which then consolidated the dominance of a technocratic military-industrial complex — the same technocratic power that the key figures of my book were warning against throughout the war years. (See especially Lewis’s Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.)

This supplanting of a social order grounded in an understanding of humanity — a theory of Man — deriving from biblical and classical sources by a social order manifested in specifically technological power marks one of the greatest intellectual and social transformations of the twentieth century. You can find it everywhere if you look: consider, to cite just one more example, that the first major book by Jacques Ellul was called The Theological Foundation of Law (1946) and that it was succeeded just a few years later by The Technological Society (1954).

So yes, you can see it everywhere. But the epicenter for both the transformation and the resistance to it may well have been New York City, and more particularly Greenwich Village.

2 comments:

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]