Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poets and Historians

One cannot understand an historical event merely by accumulating facts.  If this were possible, I would, by now, know what the Russian Revolution was all about.  The trick is to think about an event from multiple perspectives, to use varied theoretical frameworks, analogies, and creative techniques to gain new vantage points on a historical moment or temporary pause in the remorseless flow of time.  The process is akin to therapy.  A patient enters therapy with a single explanation for his or her current predicament.  "Doctor,  I can't form meaningful relationships. Why not?  Because my mother purposefully dropped me when I was a small child and ever since that day I can't trust anyone." It's the therapist's job to apply new interpretations to an old story.  "Are you sure this is what happened?  Is it possible that she merely made a mistake?  And even if this did happen, are you sure this story isn't really a story of liberation from your mother?  Sure, she dropped you, but maybe drop is too strong a word.  Maybe she was trying to get you to take your first steps, trying to make sure you were able to move independently from her."

The possibilities for creative interpretation, story-telling, and even myth-making, are endless.  We use multiple perspectives to get a handle on larger phenomena in much the same way.  Take the case of my analysis of a dysfunctional institution with which I was, long ago, once affiliated.  I always wondered what it was about the place that made it so ungovernable.  The numbers didn't really offer any clear explanation for the chaos.  Since one couldn't merely use statistics to identify the source of the institution's abiding malaise, I was forced to come up with theoretical frameworks to make sense of the fundamental problem.

I started with Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  At first I believed the college was foundering as a result of one or two cynical individuals who had over time gone rogue, eventually eschewing even the lowest common denominators of higher education "civilization," in this case the minimum standards and requirements of accrediting bodies and higher education associations.  I naturally thought of Kurtz who, in the context of higher education, would have said:  "Fail them all.  Let God sort them out."

My next explanatory framework was predicated on archeology.  I often wondered why previous administrators had done so little to provide the university with even a rudimentary system of policies and standard operating procedures to keep things going from one day to the next.  I wondered this, until one day, while working on a brand new system for budgeting and planning, I accidentally uncovered a budgeting and planning model that looked remarkably like my own, although it had apparently been abandoned only shortly after its adoption.  I felt like a petty prince of the Middle Ages, smug in his mud-hut sovereignty, until one day unearthing the ruins of a vast system of Roman roads, aqueducts, temples, and amphitheaters.

It's not that people never got around to creating policies and procedures:  they did so, and in fact they did so over and over again, but time had swept all evidence of their progress away.  In a sense, the university had always been staffed with good people.  It's just that this culture was pre-literate:  no one kept records, and, sadly, even oral tradition had faded away.  We were in a sense like Easter Island.  Although a great people had once lived there, nobody knew how or why the great stone figures had come to exist, or what they were meant to do.

Not believing that Conrad and archeology had fully explained my situation, I turned to the social theorist Jurgen Habermas.  Habermas had authored the idea of a public sphere to explain something about modern politics.  According to his construct, the French Revolution wasn't really a tale of capitalism, although the growth of the bourgeoisie wasn't insignificant to Habermas' theory of Enlightenment. Instead, the French Revolution was the inevitable consequence of the emergence of a public sphere, in which men and women participated in a general dialogue or even debate about what was good for the body politic.  In most institutions, Habermas would explain a lot.  The faculty senate of most institutions really does mirror a public sphere.  The president, or monarch, has a great deal of power, but he or she doesn't rule in a vacuum:  ordinary men and women--the faculty in this case--help to shape a healthy culture by debating policies geared toward the health of the institution as a whole in a public forum.

Viewed from this perspective, this former institution suffered from the complete absence of a public sphere.  At this small institution, all politics were local.  Every decision was a personal one.  The faculty senate did not debate great issues.  Overall, the college was home to an anti-public sphere.  That is to say, even when one might have expected people to move away from their own private, day-to-day interests to a more generalized discussion of issues that threatened the place as a whole, that shift never happened.  Whether the institution was too small for a public sphere, or people weren't properly trained for it, the institution was mired at all times in personal rather than public discussions.  If a student success initiative was being proposed, nobody asked how many students it would help, what the opportunity costs would be, or how success would be measured.  Instead, they asked:  who had the idea, and is he or she my friend?  Would payment for the work go to me or my enemy?  Habermas the theoretician remained relevant, but the college had created an anti-public sphere rather than the ordinary variety.

Another way of explaining the university's troubles related to post-colonial theory and the experience of newly independent nations in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the age of colonial independence, observers and participants alike were often shocked to discover that Utopian aspirations of previously subjugated people broke quickly against the rocks of apparently local violence, despotism, and corruption.  Often, newly independent peoples were introduced to governments that competed on equal grounds with the former colonial powers in terms of both cruelty and economic inefficiency. How could this be the case?

Historians continue to struggle with this question. A million people died soon after the birth of India and Pakistan, but who is to blame?  Colonial powers intentionally created many of the divisions that ultimately led to catastrophe in the age of independence.  But it may also be true that many of the new colonial elites were merely emulating the cynicism and indifference of their former colonial masters.  This may have been the trouble with my former institution.  The original evil may have been perpetrated by a select group of bad or self-consciously hypocritical leaders, but eventually many other actors, some of them benevolent in other contexts, learned to emulate their ostensible superiors on the job.  Of course, many actors behave in bad faith on purpose:  they know how and why they are defrauding the system.  But others are merely reflecting the values of their ostensible betters.

Another way to take a bite from the apple of post-colonial theory, was to postulate that the university suffered from an inert or disempowered student body, and that this study body resembled a colonized people prior to independence.  To put matters another way, Belgium was able to mistreat Congolese because these men and women weren't citizens of the motherlands:  poor, uneducated, illiterate, and disqualified from any political representation whatsoever, Belgian officials and businessmen had nothing to fear from even the most extreme forms of exploitation, up to and including torture, enslavement, and mutilation.  Did the same principle hold true for my former employer?  The institution served working-class, African-American students, who had relatively little previous experience with higher education.  Do institutions atrophy without the stimulus of criticism from people empowered by either racial or class privilege to demand more from their teachers and administrators?

Another explanation for the university's ill-health came straight out of the pages of Soviet history.  When we look at the example of glasnost and perestroika, we ask ourselves why the Soviet apparatchik  class didn't rise up and overthrow Gorbachev.  If Gorbachev was threatening to undermine the Party's historical monopoly of power and even subvert the foundations of the Soviet empire, why not depose the man?  The answer hardly makes sense to Americans who who have never experienced anything like Soviet rule, but the simple fact is that for all of their arrogance to ordinary Russian citizens, Communist Party members were conditioned to accept orders, not to challenge them.

This is how the logic of Soviet-style obedience worked at my former institution.  Once, at the beginning of a search process to fill the position of vice president of teaching and learning, a well-placed colleague, one of the campus leaders, came to me in genuine consternation, asking:  "I haven't heard who we are supposed to nominate for the position, have you?"  Although outranking me by several administrative layers, this university apparatchik apparently never thought for a moment that he was entitled to do anything other than try to discern the will of some higher political power.  Perhaps here lay the institution's greatest weakness:  the system of informal authority precluded all forms of independent thinking or local decision-making.  As under Gorbachev, no matter how unhappy they were, not even key academic administrators believed they were entitled act independently to solve problems.

Once, when listening to a colleague complain about the institution's weaknesses, I realized that looking at an institution as dysfunctional can itself be a limiting mode of explanation.  Historians are familiar with this line of thinking.  If we ask, why did the Russian army do so well in the Second World War, we fail to see the reverse of the question, which is equally valid:  why did the Russian army do so badly in the contest, especially in the first phase of the war?  In terms of the ailing university, I urged my colleague to try to approach the problem of the college's weaknesses differently.  Instead of asking about the source of a university's dysfunction, why not ask how it was that the university has persisted in the face of enduring problems?

Educational theorists call this capacity for survival in the face of heavy odds "resilience." Students in the inner city face overwhelming odds.  They may suffer from hunger pangs;  they lack educational role models;  and they may need to overcome violence, both at school and at home.  And yet, despite all of these challenges, many students do overcome these barriers and ultimately achieve real success.  What makes them so resilient?  Perhaps this is the real question that requires an answer.  To return to the case of our troubled university, we knew that the university suffered from a dozen or so different challenges, but ultimately it hadn't collapsed under the weight of its disadvantages.  Instead, it survived.  What ultimately accounted for this resilience?  Were there good-intentioned people holding the place together?  Did the unions offer a measure of stability?  Did the university have a base of support from the local community?  Whatever the explanation, something accounted for the institution's endurance.

If this level of complexity attends the analysis of an individual in therapy, or an institution in crisis, what level of complexity attends a major world event such as the Russian Revolution?  In truth, global phenomena require persistent attempts to employ creative explanatory frameworks.  I'm struck by this truth every time I put aside histories of the Russian Revolution and pick up a fictional account of the same event.  It's impossible to overstate the degree to which Serge's novels or Mayakovsky poems tell us what the Revolution really meant.

I think of Joseph Brodsky's explanation of the attitude of poets toward political events.  He said that Anna Akhmatova had sometimes been accused of opposing the Revolution, but that this wasn't accurate.  Instead, Brodsky said that great poets raised themselves above the fray.  They could be neither friendly or unfriendly toward everyday politics, at least when it came to their artistic posture.  Instead, they accepted the age in all its imperfections.  They saw the world from the perspective of God, as St. Augustine might have written, outside of time.   This is why history is too important to be left to the historians.   It's something that needs to be evaluated, diagnosed,  told, mythologized, created, debated, and portrayed frenetically, and on an ongoing basis.  There is probably no single way to explain the meaning of the Russian Revolution, but if there is, it won't be an historian who stumbles upon that meaning.

Special note:  This post is a work of fiction.  Any similarity to any actually existing institution, real or imagined, is pure coincidence.


  1. Thanks for this post! Excellent stuff - I am reminded of a passage from Aristotle's Poetics: "It is also evident from what we have said that it is the poet's function to describe not what has happened, but the sorts of things that would happen and are possible, in a necessary or likely sequence. For the difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in verse and the other in prose; for you could put Herodotus' work into verse, and it would be a history in verse no less than it would be in prose. The difference is that the historian describes what has happened, whereas the poet describes the sorts of things that would happen. This is why poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history; for it speaks more of what is universal, whereas history speaks of what is particular."
    Aristotle is in need of updating, perhaps, since 'depicting the universal' is hardly the best way to describe the poet's ability to unearth the meaning of a particular society and its unique changes. But the poet's ability to look past the facts to the meaning is similar, I hope, to the ability to see past what happened to what would happen.

  2. I also like Brodsky's statement that history repeats itself, and in fact history really has to do that... Since it hasn't got any options. On the other hand, poets can give us more options.