Super interesting, over at Design Observer:
[Nuclear physicist Alexander] Langsdorf’s wife Martyl was not a scientist. She was a successful landscape painter, known in the gallery world by her first name. Her fame was even greater within her husband’s circle. As she once said, “I was the only artist these scientists ever knew.” So it was inevitable that when the [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’] founder, Hyman Goldsmith, needed a cover design for the magazine, he turned to Martyl. It was a low budget job, two colors, a lot of type. There wasn’t much extra room, but Martyl wanted to include an image that would somehow suggest the urgency of their cause.
It’s got to be one of the all-time great examples of a piece of design becoming a political and cultural instrument. What I mean is that it didn’t just package up some other message in a neat way; it was an actual lever of power. Just a teeny-tiny one, but still.
Economics has, during its entire history, from the mid-18th century until today, been dominated by only five textbooks. David Warsh lists them and explains:
[F]or the entire history of modern economics, all 250 years of it, from its beginnings during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to the present day, the discipline has been dominated by five canonical textbooks — and only five (though, of course, each had many imitators). Those who found compelling the authority of these texts became economists. Those who didn’t became something else — sociologists, political theorists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, lawyers, reformers, businessmen, religious leaders.
Isn’t that an interesting way of framing it? “Those who found compelling the authority of these texts became economists.” Wonderful phrasing; neat idea, too. The five texts were written by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall… and Paul Samuelson, who died recently, and who is the subject of Warsh’s piece.
The piece also includes this fun anecdote, new to me. Samuelson’s epochal text opens with an epigram from Willard Gibbs, a scientist and mathematician: “Mathematics is a language.” The story behind those words, from Muriel Rukeyser:
[Gibbs] would come to meetings — these faculty gatherings so full of campus politics, scarcely veiled maneuvers, and academic obstacle races — and leave without a word, staying politely enough, but never speaking. Just this once he spoke. It was during a long and tiring debate on elective courses, on whether there should be more or less English, more or less classics, more or less mathematics. And suddenly everything he had been doing stood up — and the past behind him, his [philologist] father’s life, and behind that, the long effort and voyage that had been made in many lifetimes — and he stood up, looking down on the upturned faces, astonished to see the silent man talk at last, and he said, with emphasis, once and for all: “Mathematics is a language.”
“And suddenly everything he had been doing stood up.” Jeez. More wonderful language. What an image. “Everything he had been doing stood up.”
The origin of modern individual consciousness: not perhaps Shakespeare (sorry Harold Bloom) but rather the humble space:
In the course of researching modern camel case, I stumbled across the medieval phenomenon of run-together text, formally known as scriptura continua, and could not resist chasing it down the rabbit hole. The pioneer and dean of this paleographic subfield is Paul Saenger. As I explain in my article, Saenger believes that the introduction of space between words in the seventh and eighth centuries laid the psychic groundwork for modern individual consciousness—that most of the intellectual breakthroughs that Marshall McLuhan credited to Gutenberg are more properly to be attributed to monks in Ireland and England […]
I like this twist. There’s a whole huge section on Irish monks in Alex Wright’s book Glut, and of course you know The Irish Saved Civilization. (Note the one-star comments.) What I like about this new angle is that we’re not relying on the Irish monks to save civilization—just transform it.
It’s not just spaces between words, either; it’s also silent reading. More to say about this at some point.
Ah. I have to admit: these old TV news clips from the fall of the Berlin Wall made me feel nostalgic. Not for the event, which I can’t really remember. Mostly for the music, I think. The anthems of the nightly news. We’ll never see the world this way again—never through such a narrow tube. That’s for the better… but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the way these broadcasts felt, the way they sounded.
Hmm. Maybe more websites need theme songs…
No comment on the bulk of Clay Shirky’s mega meta-journalism speech, because I haven’t read it all, but this little chunk jumped out at me. It’s a macro point, much bigger than journalism:
To use the historical analogy from Eisenstein, from The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, there was a long hundred years between the Protestant Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia. And that was a hundred years in which people almost literally did not know what to think. The old institutions were visibly not functioning any longer, but the nation-state as a new organizing principle was not yet in place. And those were, for many people, not a great hundred years.
A time “in which people almost literally did not know what to think.” That sounds pretty familiar to me. So much is now unmoored, at every level. What does good work look like? How should you organize your life economically? To which institutions should we be pledging our allegiance? How do we—especially as writers, thinkers, creative people—imagine and identify success?
I love the etymology of the word “confusion.” There are old threads of overthrow and combination (“-fusion”) in there along with the modern notion of mental mixed-up-ness.
So forget the Great Recession. Get ready for a Great Confusion.