DS: This DSI
will be with writer and philosopher Robert Grudin. For further information on
him and the book which will be discussed herein, please take a look at this
link. I was lucky enough to get a preview of the galleys for his
latest forthcoming book, Design And Truth, to read, and it is a
good one. Dr. Grudin, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. There’s so much
good stuff to plumb that much will have to be left out. Nonetheless, I want to
delve into your opinions on a plenum of subjects- the philosophic, naturally,
but also religious, political and pop cultural. I have been aware of your writings for over two decades, and
prior to this book, I had read Time And The Art Of Living, your
most famous book, and generally considered by critics amongst the most
influential books on human purpose ever written (excluding ditzy pop books like Jonathan
Livingston Seagull, The Prophet, or anything from Oprah’s
Book Club), and The Grace Of Great Things. That book, as I recall,
was not so much about the how of time, but the what of it, and how to best serve
oneself within it. This latest book, it seems, is somewhere in the middle, yet
also strikes out on new ground. But, we will get to that later. For now, let me
ask, for those readers to whom your books and your name are unfamiliar, could
you please give a précis for the uninitiated, on who Robert Grudin is: what you
do, what your aims in your career are/were, major achievements, and your general
RG: Dan, thanks for inviting me.
I was educated as an academic, chose the Renaissance as my field, and in 1971 signed on as an assistant professor of English at the University of Oregon, Eugene, with a specialty in Shakespeare. My wife, the medievalist Michaela Paasche Grudin, and I soon moved into a house in the south Eugene hills started a family. In 1979 I published my first scholarly study, Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety, and received promotion and tenure. Those events changed my life. I realized that the security of tenure would allow me to pursue any creative topic that excited me, be it academic, nonfiction, poetry or fiction. Over the next 20 years, while teaching Shakespeare regularly and producing many articles, professional lectures and reviews on Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, I wrote two novels and began a series of nonfiction books, each focusing on an aspect of social and personal liberty. These books in turn led to more articles, lectures and reviews. I retired from the U of Oregon in 1998, and since then have divided my time between Berkeley, CA, and Hawaii.
DS: What exactly
does a philosopher, in the 21st Century, do? As you must now be well
into retirement, do you find the extra time has enhanced your ability to
formulate theories and write books, because, vis-à-vis many people in your
field, of your generation, your list of published writings is not as long.
RG: Just between the two of us, since 1998, when I retired, I've been writing more and publishing less. I have no explanation for this phenomenon, except that it has saved somebody a parcel of paper and ink.
DS: One of the stereotypes of philosophers is that they tend to see things very black and white, while another is the exact opposite; that they get bogged down in filigrees of minutia with no relevance to the real world. Are either correct, both, or neither?
RG: I'm not sure whom you mean by the "black and white" philosophers. Regarding the other sort, who are mainly academic, they have concentrated, over the years, on distinguishing various shades of gray until their entire discourse has devolved into a single shade of myopic blither.
thing most folk conjure up re: philosophers, is some handy idea or theorem. Is
there any Grudin’s Principle, Grudin’s Razor, or
Grudin’s Postulate? If so, what is it, and if not, why not? Have
all the old time philosophers gathered up all the best thoughts?
RG: No, I claim no single idea or principle as my own. Regarding method, my favorite pastime is to consider a given idea or issue from every conceivable angle. This method, pioneered by Cicero and Erasmus, may be called copia. Regarding attitude, I side with a unspecified number of Asian thinkers, who seem to approach their tasks with patient passion.
DS: Of all the
ideas you have wrought, which do you think has had the deepest impression upon
readers and the world, and, in the time after your death, do you think that will
remain true, or is your best idea something yet not iterated?
RG: I will be remembered, if at all, for subjecting the idea of liberty to a more extensive than average examination.
DS: This may
seem a silly query, but to many lay readers it is not: what exactly is
philosophy? And is there a take on it that you have that differs from generally
accepted norms about its content and nature? You seem to be more in favor of
what might be called practical philosophy: i.e.- ideas put into
service, rather than just dusty theorizing. Does this stem from some innate
pragmatism, desire to benefit mankind, or what?
Philosophy, as honestly practiced, concerns the two inseparable questions
of how to think and how to act.
Thus philosophy must be both theoretical and pragmatic.
DS: Is seeking
deeper or ultimate answers tenable in a cosmos where shallow and partial reasons
and answers abound?
RG: Since philosophy necessarily concerns the distinction between truth and lie, it must concern itself with the issue of what is shallow and what isn't. However, it does not rightly concern itself with "ultimate answers." Indeed, little is more shallow that what we call "ultimate."
DS: Did you have any heroes in philosophy as you grew up? Or were you attracted to the discipline of ideas?
RG: I'm especially fond of philosophers like Socrates and Bruno, who practiced free thought in the face of autocratic oppression, and philosopher like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Bacon, who taught us how to approach ideas and issues.
DS: All words simply denote things that other words can or cannot, therefore all definitions are dependent; so language is ultimately a circular exercise. Thus, is the penetration into real meaning something more mystical? Is it irresolvable? Is what you consider the color red really what I am seeing as red, etc.?
All of our verbal pursuits -- philosophy, poetry, rhetoric, narrative,
exposition and others -- exploit the strengths of language but also put a strain
on language and can be used to show the practical limits of language.
Philosophy at its best uses varieties of linguistic method and material (copia)
to convey and illuminate the complexity of experience.
DS: Philosophy is ideas, but art is ideas in motion, put to some purpose. I posit this makes it a higher and more difficult pursuit. Agree or not?
RG: Happily I don't have to answer that one, Dan, because I believe that philosophy is itself an art form.
DS: When and
where were you born? What were some of the major, or defining, issues during
your youth, insofar as they affected your career path? You would have come of
age in the Eisenhower Era, yet your writings suggest you were much more at home
in the 1960s ideals.
RG: I was born in Newark, NJ, in 1938 and raised until age 18 in a large family near Red Bank, New Jersey. My father was an air raid warden during WW II, two of my uncles enlisted, and the war -- which I saw as a threat against humanity in general -- was the single most shaping historical influence on my childhood. Neither the Eisenhower Era nor the 1960s ideals came close. In high school and college I was very much drawn to writing, as well as to the adventures that writers described. After graduating from Harvard in 1960, I spent the next year rambling across Europe on a motorcycle and returning when necessary to Dublin, where I studied at Trinity College. The next year I began the PhD program at Berkeley, where I regained contact with several of my best friends from college. In 1965 I met Michaela Maria Paasche, herself a youthful WW II refugee. We were married in March of 1967 and since have raised three boys, Anthony, Nick and Ted. Michaela and I are currently at work on a book about Boccaccio.
DS: What were
some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who
graced your existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’
When I was about six, we moved into a
house on Woodbine Ave at the base of Cross St, a semi-paved lane that had been
opened up mainly to provide the kids from north Little Silver with access to the
elementary school. Trudging home
from school, I could see our property in the middle distance at road’s end,
marked by the large hickory tree that was its distinguishing feature.
Standing under this tree in April, 1945, I first heard of the death of
Franklin Roosevelt, whom we children had come to think of as the hero of
America’s time of great danger.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Who were your childhood heroes and
why? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?
RG: Red Bank High School, 1956; Harvard College (BA), 1960; Trinity College, Dublin, 1961; UC, Berkeley (PhD), 1969. I always wanted to be a writer.
What sort of child were you- a
loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy,
a nerd, or a rebel?
As the oldest of four kids, I had a lot expected of me, from babysitting
to shoveling coal to driving my dad's big delivery truck.
At high school I loaded on sports and activities.
My heavily-packed daily schedule, plus my obsessive poetry-writing, made
me the target of teases from all angles, including mama’s boy, nerd, and rebel.
Any siblings? What paths in life have
RG: My brother Peter became an academic, a writing consultant and one of America's leading experts on grantsmanship. My brother David amassed a fortune in business and became a maritime adventurer. My sister Wendy is a real estate investor and dog show judge.
Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests
and careers? Are any of them writers?
RG: They're all in academic or publishing work. Michaela writes about medieval thought and literature; Anthony is a professor of art history at the University of Vermont; Nick is a vice-president of Newsweek Corp.; Ted is in a PhD program at UC, Berkeley.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
RG: My parents were gifted students. My mother, who was a gifted musician and painter, helped found the Shrewsbury Guild of Creative Art and was a leader in local charities. My father, a businessman, took part in the opposition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950's. Both parents strongly supported my creative writing and my study of Renaissance thought and literature.
What was your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other
I was very sociable, and my friends, schools and community in the Red
Bank area were unusually supportive. One
of my biggest regrets is that I did not keep in better touch with my high school
teachers after moving west to California and Oregon.
DS: Do you
consider yourself a social or cultural critic, along with being a philosopher?
my novels, Book and The Most Amazing Thing, are social satires, and my most recent
nonfiction book, American Vulgar, is
down-and-dirty social criticism.
DS: On my list
of most influential books in my life, I would include Alex Haley’s The
Autobiography Of Malcolm X; Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass;
Loren Eiseley’s autobiography All
The Strange Hours; Leonard Shlain’s Art And Physics,
and the Betty Smith novel A
Tree Grows In Brooklyn. What books would you put on such a list as
RG: Homer, the Odyssey (I recommend the T. E. Shaw translation); Boccaccio, the Decameron (Musa/Bondanella translation); Eric Sloane, A Reverence for Wood.
DS: What are
your views on religion? Do you
believe in gods or not? Are you an atheist or agnostic? What links do you see
between philosophy and religion? Is myth merely expired religion, and religion
myth alive? Do you see religion spawning from the same human wellspring as art?
DS: Do you view
religious morality (that imposed from without) as different from secular ethics
(that immanent), which is based on deeper, common human values? After all, some
moralities justify the killing of infidels, but no ethics do.
RG: Religious moralities differ from ethical moralities, from other religious moralities, and (often enough) from themselves.
Since God concepts are obviated by simply asking ‘Who made God?’,
because the answer could always be, ‘He
always was;’ which is the
same answer one can ask re: ‘What
made the cosmos?’; thereby
making God a superfluity, why does such a belief persist?
RG: Human beings tend to love authorities and fear freedom.
you ever read Pascal Boyer’s Religion
Explained? An pal of mine recommended the book to me, but it was not
well written and its ideas were dubious. Basically, Boyer’s explanation boils
down to the fear and the bush analogy. If there are two people,
and there is a mysterious rustling behind the bush, the person who is fearful
and immediately runs away is likely to pass on more of his genes to the next
generation because, while the brave person may be braver, if there was a
saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, the brave person is dead, and bravery is
weeded out. Similarly, religious people and beliefs dominate because fear is
good for spreading one’s genes, and beliefs in the supernatural are
fear-based. While fear is no doubt a part of religion- i.e.- the fear of death,
Boyer’s is too simplistic an approach. Thoughts on the idea, and on
RG: I guess I touched on that in my last answer.
DS: Are there any major areas of philosophy, that you think have been wrongheaded, since the earliest times they were proposed? What are they and why?
RG: I believe that philosophy should be the study of everything, every which-way, and that everybody should do it. The current academic divisions of philosophy, which were in part orchestrated by Aristotle and later by Bacon, strike me as being inhibiting.
Do you belong to any political party, and what are your views on such current
politicized matters as euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, health care, and stem
RG: I've decided to deal with American politics one atrocity at a time. For me Atrocity #1 is the lobbying in our state capitals and DC. Let's get rid of it -- one state at a time, if necessary. Atrocity #2 is American education. Without education in critical thinking, Americans will never realize that lobbyists are stealing their democracy.
DS: How political is philosophy, internally, in Academia? And what role does external politics play in internal politics? I.e.- do Left Wingers get favored treatment?
RG: Clearly the so-called Left Wing is in the driver's seat. But neither the Left nor the Right, as currently populated, have any interest in real education.
DS: Do you have a philosophic bete noir? Who is he or she, and what is the source of your dispute?
RG: Heidegger: mountebank. Foucault: fraud. Or shall we say Heidegger: fraud. Foucault: mountebank? It's got to be one or the other.
DS: Now, let us
turn to your career. First I will briefly shine a light on the two books of
yours that I had previously read, then to earlier works of your I had not, and
finally, we can concentrate on your latest book, Design And Truth.
Time And The Art Of Living was the first book of yours I read,
many years ago. Its main theme seems to be the concept of subjective time (that
we experience) versus objective time (that we are enmeshed in), and its relative
brevity. Unlike many philosophical works, it is not a tome, but rather spare.
What is its style, and how does its style reflect its content? To what degree
were you conscious of this while writing the book?
RG: The Time book, of all my writings, developed the most informally. I was on sabbatical, far from home and business, and I decided to start jotting down meditations. I used two or three libraries, but there was no Internet then, and my chief area of research was my own sprawling junkyard of memory. Subjective? My method was subjectivity itself, with a bit of organization added for glue. In the end my book was less a study of time than the self-portrait of one of time's creations -- myself -- a ghost of time who spoke in ink.
what is its major posit, and themes?
RG: Imagine that the book is a singing guitarist. The singer's words wander here and there, but the guitar music repeats a love-song to the moments we have on earth.
DS: The book was
released in 1982, yet, in many ways, it seems informed by much of the 1970s, in
that those times were the beginnings of the modern self-help era. Yet, the book
is not an Oprah type work. As I recall, it was the sort of work that was
non-linear, aphoristic, and therefore a throwback to works of more Eastern
origin, yet lacking the often noxious pretensions of books written by white
Europeans aping Eastern tenets. Do you think a book like that could have been
written only in that era and milieu, and do you think that it would be radically
different were you to have written it in the last few years- given today’s
culture, plus your own advance in years?
RG: No, I certainly couldn't write it now. In the years 1978-79 a unique opportunity was presented to me, and I was carefree and naive enough to grab it. For this decision I paid a price. The book was turned down by close to 100 publishers and never got a major review. Deans at the University of Oregon, who were interested in "academic" publications, used it as evidence for delaying my promotion and warned me against writing more like it.
DS: Let me move on to The Grace Of Great Things: Creativity And Innovation. That came out almost a decade after Time And The Art Of Living. Is it your contention that it is the human mind which separates man from all other creatures? If so, how was the book received in the mainstream, since, so often, the thing that dime store philosophies try to sell the public is that the unique thing about the human animal is our soul or heart, capacity to love, etc., rather than our brain, mind, intellect, reason, culture, logic, etc.
RG: So far as I can remember, this book makes no claims about humanity's relationship to other animals.
DS: As I recall,
in the book, you tended to hew a middle road philosophy, politically, as you
tend to disdain not only conservative political tendencies, but also assail the
hypocrisies of the Left, most notably in Academia. Given that you spent a good
deal of time in Academia, how did reaction to the book differ at work than, say,
with the general public?
RG: I had fan letters both from the American Communist Party and the National Rifle Association. Few of my academic colleagues read it. But over the years it has generated a fair amount of national interested and has been repeatedly assigned as course reading at colleges.
DS: In the book
you write of the ethics of creativity. What exactly are you referring to? Is not
creativity merely a thing, like a stone? If so, how can there be a yea or nay
ethos to it?
RG: Creativity is a form of power, and all power should be subject to ethical oversight. In a similar sense, we cannot realize our creative powers without observing ethical norms like integrity, courage and self-knowledge.
DS: Let me turn
to some other of your work; first the fictive. You have published two novels: Book:
A Novel and The Most Amazing Thing. What were they about,
and how did they tie in to, if at all, your non-fictive writings?
RG: Each of my two novels relates closely to a non-fiction book that I wrote in the same time period. Book: A Novel is a fiction devoted to creativity -- the same subject matter as The Grace of Great Things. The Most Amazing Thing satirizes the same elements of Americana that I would later take up in American Vulgar.
DS: In writing
fictive works, did you consider yourself a philosopher trying to write a novel,
or a novelist separate from your philosophic training? And, to what degree do
you value the craft of writing vis-à-vis the ideas you convey? I ask because,
your writing style and ability to form a narrative reminds me most of historian
Daniel J. Boorstin, and his writing style; to which yours is similar.
RG: I've written my nonfiction books more or less obsessively, as responses to overpowering impulse. My novels were more calculated. I began writing Book because I was teaching a course on creativity and thought it was only fair for me to join my students in the type of assignment I gave them. A year after Book I began The Most Amazing Thing because my Random House editor wanted another novel. Oddly enough writing these novels was more pure fun than any of the other books. Your philosopher question is a good one, though. In the late 1960's I wrote a novel, never published, satirizing the various interest groups who were active during that decade. There was a pretty clear philosophical perspective behind this novel, and it weakened the whole project. My friend Bill Lamont warned me about this, but I was too silly to listen.
DS: Prior to Design
And Truth, you had also penned three other non-fictive works. In
chronological order they were: Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare And
Renaissance Contrariety; On Dialogue: An Essay In Free Thought; and American
Vulgar: The Politics Of Manipulation Versus The Culture of Awareness.
Having not read these books, can you briefly summarize each? And do they fall
into a continuum with the previously mentioned works, or do they stake out their
RG: Mighty Opposites (1979) is an academic book about the oppositional nature of ideas and characters in Shakespeare -- and the sources of this opposition in Renaissance thought. On Dialogue and American Vulgar are the third and fourth books in the series on liberty that I began with the books on time and creativity. On Dialogue considers the dialogic bases of free thought from Parmenides to modern science. American Vulgar explores the political and economic interests that profit by exploiting American ignorance, and argues for a resurgence of social consciousness to counter these interests.
DS: Let me
return to the last book mentioned, and the last book published, American
Vulgar. A portion of it was excerpted
here: ‘The year 2003
saw a momentous but rather embarrassing test of the U.S. Constitutional
separation of Church from State. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered a
two-ton religious monument to be placed in the lobby of the Alabama Judicial
Building, using the Declaration of Independence as his authority:
top of Moore's washing machine-sized monument is engraved with the Ten
Commandments as excerpted from the Book of Exodus in the King James Bible....
The front of the monument references the Declaration of Independence with the
statement,"Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."
Moore again referred to the Declaration in justifying his actions:
come from God, not from government. If government can give you rights,
government can take them away from you. If God gives you rights, no man and no
government can take them away from you. That was the premise of the organic law
of this country, which is the Declaration of Independence.
So began a battle royal between pro-Mooreites and anti-Mooreites over an
engraved block of stone.(1)
What is embarrassing about this debate is that it is based on a serious misunderstanding of the history of ideas. The “Nature’s God” of the Declaration was not a Christian god, nor could it have been taken as such by a literate citizen in 1776. Instead it is a reference to the much vaguer Prime Mover as envisaged by Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and other free-thinkers. Jefferson believed neither in the divinity of Christ nor in the authority of the Bible. By using the idiom “Nature’s God” he and his co-signers were, in fact, diplomatically distancing themselves from the Christian tradition. Evidence of this distancing abounds.’ I wholeheartedly agree, but I think that vulgarity is the lesser of two evils, and that the greater is an American ignorance that is willful, and I’m not so sure this stems from vulgarity. Could you expound a bit? Also, why is it that so few people care to acknowledge the reality that this country was NOT founded on a religious tenet, but specifically on a non-religious foundation?
RG: On the vulgarity/stupidity question, see page 3 of American
Vulgar, where I establish the following definition: "An action is
vulgar when it is at once ignorant, harmful, and popular." On whether the
US is founded on Christian principles, the First Amendment, which guarantees our
right to have any religion or no religion at all, makes this issue fundamentally
irrelevant. On why so few people
care, the probably answer is that it is because so few US media and educators
care. In any case, it is both wrong
and vulgarizing to call the USA a Christian nation when the Founders went to
great to assert the opposite.
DS: You also take a well deserved swipe at a thing that rankles me: ‘Higher
education has come to this pass through an unfortunate combination of factors.
Most colleges cannot afford to staff writing courses. Professors, who must
publish in specialized fields, have grown more unwilling to teach the sort of
generalized lower-division courses that make up a core curriculum. Current
academic wisdom dismisses core curricula as arbitrary and simplistic. College
catalogs and college budgets are crowded with the pedagogy of gender, ethnicity
and sexual orientation. Lecture halls buzz with the rhetoric of literary
theorists who dismiss American liberty as subjective and fictional. The
discourse of liberty has fallen victim to the free marketry of Academe.
This crisis is unintentionally illustrated by an article entitled “The Postmodern English Major: A Case Study,” appearing in the Winter, 2003 ADE (Association of Departments of English) Bulletin and written by Professor Lawrence Schwartz. Schwartz claims that, at least on his campus (Montclair St. U.), literary studies are “more alive than ever,” and credits this happy state of affairs to the work of a faculty task force that swept away the old major and brought in a new order of things. Its 1992 report “made the context of dissatisfaction clear:”
There is the general perception that the structure of the old major no longer meets the challenges of shifting faculty interests, a student constituency undergoing broad sociological change, and an academic discipline in the midst of dramatic conceptual and institutional transformations.
Schwartz then goes on to show how the new English major speaks to these considerations by destructuring its requirements, redefining its parameters and allowing for more curricular variety, all of which tend to make it more “postmodern.”
I have no issue with Schwartz’s conclusions. “Postmodern,” for better or worse, is indeed what the new major is. My question is whether “shifting faculty interests, a student constituency undergoing broad sociological change, and an academic discipline in the midst of dramatic ... transformations” are more important considerations than the basic issue of how much students should know, and what they should be able to do, after completing the English major. We must assume that the English major should be part of a B.A. degree that in some sense prepares students for life in a complex and challenging world. How will altering the major to conform to “shifting faculty interests” and changing disciplines contribute to this goal? Here are some of these new interests as presented by the premier American literary association, the MLA:
Politics of Critical Language; Cinema; Theory of Literary History; Performance;
Literature and the Idea of Europe; Literature and Censorship; Colonialism and
the Postcolonial Condition; The Status of Evidence; Ethnicity;; Rereading Class;
Globalizing Literary Studies; Imagining History; Science Fiction and Literary
Studies: The Next Millennium...(11)
A handsome bunch of topics, if you want your paper accepted for the next
conference or published in a scholarly journal, but rather recondite when
applied to students who have only a handful of semester courses to learn
reading, writing and critical thinking.’ My two comments would be that a) ‘education’ is so often
confused with attending college, whereas most college trained folk I encounter,
in any field, are generally closed-minded- due to PoMo and PC Multiculturalism-
and utterly ill prepared to think critically (look at the comments that abound
on any political or arts blog as proof- especially by those claiming to be
college educated), therefore I question the need to even send so many people to
college when trade schools should be flourishing, and b) the emphasis on emotion
over intellect, in schools (places of supposed intellectual nourishment) has led
to the coddling of underachievers and the neglect of those with great potential.
In short, who cares if a million retards can feel good about learning to tie
their shoelaces properly if we lose a few potential Newtons, Mozarts, or Edisons?
RG: In a document that ultimately helped shape the profile of modern democracy (De inventione), Cicero wrote that the most important goal of liberal education was eloquence and wisdom: learning how to make true and wise statements convincingly. Similarly voters must be well-educated enough in language to be able to distinguish a truth-teller from a slick poseur. For, this and other closely-connected reasons, we need higher education in the liberal arts.
On a tangent, as an artist, I have noticed that ‘greatness’ is something
that seems to be a random thing. When people have tried to make available the
sperm or eggs of Nobel winners or Mensans, the kids turn out to be rather
average. This gibes with the fact that almost all great people, such as Picasso,
Newton, Einstein, and most famously- Thomas Jefferson, have never had any
forebears nor descendents come close to their achievements. And the few famed
people who’ve had success run in their families- the Adamses, the Darwins, the
Barrymores, have never really had greats in their clans, or- as in the Darwin
case, Erasmus was not in a league with his grandson Charles. I call this fact the
Infinity Spike, meaning that the idea that a Master Race could be
engineered- at least intellectually, is folly. Perhaps physical characteristics,
but the chances of two Mensans or Nobel Laureates producing another Michelangelo
or Kurosawa are only negligibly greater than such a person coming from a plumber
and a teacher. Perhaps a three or four out of fifty million chance versus a one
and a half to two chance. In short, greatness spikes toward infinity out of
nowhere- there is no predictable bell curve nor progression toward excellence.
What are your thoughts on this posit?
RG: You make a very good case for universal liberal education.
DS: Now, on to
your latest work. Can you give the readers a one or two paragraph précis of the
content of Design And Truth; its overall argument, and its major
RG: In this book I characterize design as the defining human activity and discuss it from two major perspectives: Part One: The often troubled relationship between design and political and economic power, and, Part Two: the often-surprisingly intricate ways in which perceiving design or creating it ourselves can illuminate our lives. In both sections I choose not only my material but my narrative style from the full variety of my own experience: childhood memories, household challenges, professional interactions, scholarship, art, literature, history and journalism.
DS: Ok, now on
to some specific and general queries regarding the book and your views. I’ll
try to go in a roughly chronological order. The first part of the book is called
Homage To Rikyu: Design Truth, And Power. Who was Rikyu, and what
is his relation to the book’s ideas?
RG: Rikyu was a 16th-century Japanese thinker, best known for his mastery of the tea ceremony. He is celebrated for democratizing this traditional social event: redesigning it so that it would lose its feudal inequalities and become a medium for the free interchange of ideas. His fame and originality brought him into fatal conflict with the reigning warlord, Hideyoshi.
DS: Early on in
the book you make this claim: ‘However grand their aspirations, they
wait upon the will of people in power. And power, which can ratify the truth of
good design, can, conversely, debase design into a fabric of lies.’
What strikes me about the statement, which does not really need a context, and
which the book expounds upon, is how radically different it is from the Western
ideals of free will, will to power, etc. Are those
things just clichés, and is what you are espousing a neo-realism? Or are you
just setting up the parameters for people to fail and more easily shift the
RG: "Free will" and "freedom of ideas" are not only often just clichés; they are sometimes outright lies: the Monopoly money of pols and hucksters. One of the only ways to determine whether a marketplace is fair or crooked is to study it, not in terms of its self-advertisements, but rather in terms of its dominant designs.
DS: You then
relate the tale of the designer of the World Trade Center, Minoru Yamasaki, his
business interests in the Moslem world, and how the design of the Twin Towers
may have offended Islam. But, who cares? Is not a psychosis- be it individual or
mass, the problem of the sufferer? Anything can offend anyone; life is about
ignoring most of life’s offenses, stupidities, redundancies, and nasty little
moments, no? If not, we would all become Ted Bundys or Osama bin Ladens and kill
off the majority of people who annoy us. It seems like a Leftist slant of ‘Blame
America,’ and while Ugly Americanism has a long and pathetic track
record globally, it seems to me that 9/11 was not an example of it, but of
Islam’s fundamental philosophic immaturity. The unnecessary wars that followed
9/11 can be argued as opportunistic Ugly Americanism, but not 9/11. Thoughts?
RG: In that chapter I attempted to show how a variety of self-interested initiatives and responses -- by financiers, developers, designers and fundamentalists -- created the perfect storm that was 9/11. I'm sorry if I failed to express that clearly.
DS: You also
claim that good design tells the truth. Is it not that you really
mean it is grounded in reality? Reality is the more objective
term, whereas truth implies a volitional act. If one can show that
a building is poorly designed, and leaks whenever it rains, that is a reality.
There may be a truth that the architectural firm knew about the poor design and
covered it up to avoid a financial loss, but there is a contextual difference
between the two things, and the term truth has been so abused in terms of art
and cultural relativity that it’s virtually meaningless now. Thoughts?
RG: First, neither "truth" nor "reality" works as a philosophical term unless it is first established in context. Otherwise the two terms are so vague and simiIar as to resemble a pair of octopuses necking with each other. I establish the word "truth," in Chapter 3 of Design and Truth, in the context of the Renaissance theory of design as rhetoric. My working definition is that design "tells the truth" if it addresses nature and society productively. I try to keep faith with this definition throughout the book.
Second, you raise the question of art vs. truth/reality as though it were a new issue. This is one of the oldest questions in philosophy. Plato broached it aggressively, and Aristotle gave it a brilliant run-through in the Poetics. In turn, Cicero, Augustine, Dante and Boccaccio have (in different ways) revived the issue, which reached a sort of apogee in Renaissance theory with Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry. Unless you are aware of this debate and have some new views on it (I certainly don't!), there's no need to bring it up here.
DS: I would
contend that great art lies, and usually the greater the lie, the greater the
art, quite often. Hamlet, the poetry of Whitman, the Bible, pop
songs, film, and novels. The best examples of art are drowning in lies: specific
to an event, generally to a culture, historically, philosophically, etc. Art is
from the same root as artifice. Not only is it not truth; it CANNOT be truth,
fundamentally, for it is an approximation of reality. Thus, is not design
(especially if one accepts your claim of it as being tied to truth) really a
form of craft, artisanship, rather than art itself? Craft serves a purpose,
usually a prosaic one, whereas art is a means and end unto itself, even though
it paradoxically is a way to convey a message, as well. Thoughts?
RG: With due respect, I feel that the views you express here would require a book of your own; for, as stated they lack both definition and demonstration.
DS: You take a
good and informed swipe at much of modern art when you rip into the work of the
avant garde exhibition artist Christo, calling his work a ‘massive
multiplication of banalities’ and ‘void of essential
significance,’ and that he is more concerned with advertising himself
than communicating something at a higher level, which is the purpose of art. It
is a verb, first, not a noun. The art in something is how it conveys a message.
But, Christo is hardly alone. What began with Duchamp, careered through the
frauds of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, through LANGUAGE poetry and
Postmodernism has, in my view, turned the masses almost completely off to art as
something positive. It has become Hollywoodized as ‘mere entertainment.’
What is the root connection and cause of this?
RG: These are good points, but here you're expecting me to write another book, and one for which I am scarcely qualified. No, I can't tell you in a short interview what's the matter with modern design; but I hope that I was able, in Chapters 1-6, to sketch out what happens when it is controlled irresponsibly.
DS: Getting back
to design, you touch upon Frank Lloyd Wright, almost the poster boy for
aesthetics over functionality. His buildings are famously beautiful and stylish,
but plagued with inefficiencies and design flaws. Is he the ultimate style
over substance example? If not, can you posit a better one?
RG: Your statement about Wright seems to ignore his famous "usonian" philosophy, as well as the fact that he influenced a lot of quintessential practical architecture.
DS: By page 27
you come out and define truth as ‘the laws of nature as we experience
them on Earth.’ In other words, you have made it a synonym for reality,
and removed the act of volition from the definition of truth. I encounter this
in art all the time, when people may honestly be telling the truth that they
‘like’ this or that bad work of art, even if it, in reality, is demonstrably
bad by objective standards. Why do you stake out such a risky and needless
RG: "Truth" and "reality" again? Sweating out these definitions only makes them vaguer than they were, and if I join in this game, I'm afraid I'll end up with having no book at all.
DS: A bit later,
this initial conflation leads to a greater conflation when you declare, ‘Good
artists are major truth-designers.’ Yet, this is palpably false. I
could find hundreds of disproofs, but since only one is needed, I will give it,
and a few others, to boot. Many works of art about war (novels, paintings,
films) will simplistically portray it as all bad, unjustified slaughter. Yet,
clearly this is false. The two best examples are the American Civil War and
World War Two. While one can argue that the Union and Allied causes, and their
combatants were hardly pristine, it is simply not tenable to argue that the
Confederacy and the Axis Powers were far worse, and had they prevailed the world
would be a far worse place. Therefore, war is not simply unjustifiable
slaughter, and great works of art, like Paths Of Glory or All
Quiet On The Western Front, which are championed as anti-war tracts, are
fundamentally lies, as is a typical John Wayne war film that claims that war is
all glory, or a Wayne film that distorts the history of white-Native American
relations. They are lies, but artistically can be argued as having good or great
worth. Counter-arguments are often made to claim that such and such work really
does not represent such and such a view, but these are usually ad hoc, defensive
thrusts after the reality of the art’s lie has been punctured. A second
example, and now focused on the artists, not art: painter Pablo Picasso was
famously lauded as humanitarian for works like Guernica, and
others, but he was, by all credible accounts a greedy, misanthropic,
misogynistic little cretin, despite the higher claims his art made about human
nature. As one who decried human ugliness and evil, he certainly did not
hesitate its employ in his own life. Thus his public and artistic personae were
at odds, and one was a lie. Thus, a great artist was fundamentally a liar, a
fraud. Here’s even a better example: poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of the
most personally spiritual and movingly profound poems upon the human soul and
condition ever written. They are distillations of human conscience nonpareil.
Yet, in his life, he was a liar, adulterer, neglectful husband, who abandoned
his wife and children to live off the largesse of others, and basically
neglected his daughter. He was, by most estimations, an even more despicable and
fraudulent human being than Picasso, but I think an even greater artist, and
certainly an artist whose art was more based upon claims of a purer human
nature, one which he wholly rejected in his private life. He was a fraud and
liar on an even greater scale than Picasso. So, while there may have been truths
both artists wrought, they were likely incidental to the work, not philosophies
either understood or practiced, and even if they understood them, they may have
been employed for the exigencies of the art at hand, not a fundament of their
overall canon of art; and, as in the case with anti-war art or pro-war art, they
could be great while not being based in truth at all. Ideas?
RG: Good comments. But I handled these issues as best I could in my answer beginning, "First, neither 'truth' nor 'reality' works as a philosophical term unless it is first established in context." (p. 13)
gears from the esoteric to the prosaic, you then tackle design flaws in the
World Trade Center and give, I think, the best written explanation of unintended
consequences that I’ve read in a long while. You end by declaring, ‘Osama
bin Laden confused sanctity with slaughter, and the Port Authority managers
believed that bigger was better and put thousands of lives at risk for the sake
of more rental space. That ignorance and greed on this scale were allowed to
determine our history does America no credit.’ Can you briefly
summarize what simple steps could have been done to fortify the Twin Towers, to
have prevented their total destruction, and why these steps were not done?
RG: Given that the Twin Towers were both (on a horizontal plane) square, there should have been staircases at each of the eight corners. There also should have been more internal, and less external, structural reinforcement. Greater window space would have provided tenants with more information about potential danger outside the building. Perhaps most importantly of all, the office space of the Trade Center could have been distributed over a greater number of smaller buildings.
DS: On page 46,
you use this quote from Donald Norman, another writer who focuses on design: ‘Well
designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible
clues to their operation. Poorly-designed objects can be difficult and
frustrating to use. They provide no clues- or sometimes false clues. They trap
the user and thwart the normal process of interpretation and understanding.’
I think it’s a good quote, but I also think it’s another nail in the coffin
of the art and truth conflation, for while this is all true of design, it is
also true of craft- think of a well designed building or basket. But, great art,
while its message conveyed may be clear, is often, in its own essence, hermetic.
What makes it great is often a mystery. Near-great art can have a flaw or a clue
into its inner scaffolding, via that crack in perfection, that allows for
replication, but often great art seems hewn from a god, thus what often leads to
artists ascribing their own creativity to the Divine Inspiration Fallacy, or a
Muse. A great film, like La
Dolce Vita, can work on so many levels, with such a high execution
that it seems almost impossible to think that another film could do so much.
Thus, it is not as easily replicable as the latest generic Hollywood action
Please see my next response.
DS: I just
mentioned the Divine
Inspiration Fallacy. I coined this term because so many artists
seem to deny their own creativity, pawning it off on others, or worse….God, or
some other force or demiurge. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s all
me, or you, or any artist. Do you agree? I think that the Divine Inspiration
Fallacy is also the underlying root of why so many artists- especially those of
quality, feel a rivalry with other quality artists. Were they to realize or
acknowledge their creative force as a part of their own nature then there would
be no reason to be envious. As example, I look at a great artwork as a new way
to Nirvana- so to speak, and seek to know how that path was blazed, how it can
be recreated, or adumbrated. Yet, those who believe in the Divine Inspiration
Fallacy, and view creativity as something apart and above them, see any success
by others as somehow their rival’s plucking down something from the ether that
could have been theirs, and now is one less great insight, work, or idea that
they can never have. Surely you’ve known such patterns of artistic envy from
history. Have you any personal tales in that regard? And, do you think that the
DIF is an answer to why so many artists are insecure, especially in comparison
to other artists?
RG: With one exception, here, I think we're getting off the subject of design -- at least, design from my admittedly sloppy point of view. Design, writ large, operates in all aspects of nature, as well as being the trademark function of humanity. Thus I'm not writing a book about great art, but rather about an aspect of art that is shared by other phenomena and pursuits. But to the extent that art necessarily uses design, I'd venture to say that the art we call "inspired" is the sort of art that sets up several designs on several levels and plays with them polyphonically.
DS: You then
move on to corporate America, and give numerous examples of inefficiencies. In
fact, you’ve spent a good deal of time as a corporate consultant. I’ve
worked in many fields in almost four decades of work. I’ve worked in the
public and private sectors, on and off the books, unionized and non-union jobs,
large and small companies, corporations and privately held firms, blue and white
collar, day labor and Fortune 500 companies, so I’ve seen it all, and, as your
book details what my experience knows to be true, I have to ask this simple
question: where in the hell did the notion that corporations were any more
efficient than governments or any other non-corporate businesses, ever get
started? I would state that all organizations, business or charities, suffer
from the Lowest Common Denominator of
the dumbest person involved having the final say, and the Peter Principle. Have
you even a grasp at an answer? Is it all just part of the myth of the
RG: In business as in politics, we wait, usually in vain, for the following combination: good ideas, developed by strong teams and promoted by eloquent leaders.
DS: In the book,
you mention the idea of integrity. On a diurnal basis, the most common meaning
of the term is ‘firm adherence to a code of ethical values.’
But, in its original form, the term meant, ‘a state of completeness.’
I think the older definition is often elided in discussions of the idea and
ideal of integrity. Yet, I sense that the older definition is more essential to
the claims of your book than the latter one. Am I reading into things, or would
you agree? If so, what import does it bear to your book’s theses?
Both meanings are firmly entrenched in English usage.
Integrity as ‘firm adherence to a code of ethical values.’
seems more appropriate to people.
Integrity ‘a state of completeness’ is
better applied to designs.
DS: A bit later
in the book you state this: ‘I have a theory about social class that
goes like this: No matter how much money you make, you are upper class if you
spend less than you earn, and you are lower class if you spend more than you
earn. And if you spend exactly what you earn, give or take a hundred bucks or so
a month, then you are the anxious class.’ My dad (1916-1983) always
preached about living under your means, and to always save something from every
paycheck. The recent financial meltdown is basically, in its simplest terms, an
example of a violation of these truisms on personal, corporate, and global
levels. Do you agree? If not, why not?
we're all Anxious Class."
DS: The second
part of Design And Truth is called Homage To Vasari:
Design, Knowledge, And Energy. As a reader of Lives Of The Artists
in my teen years, I know who Vasari was. But, why is he important in your
RG: Vasari established design as a latent and determining principle in all arts and crafts. Because of him, design is now an important field of study, and designers are a respected professional class.
DS: Early on in
this section you write of Homer’s The Odyssey. I’ve read a
half dozen translations of it, so have a pretty good idea of its content and
form and, frankly, it is not a good work of art. An important one, yes, as a
surviving fragment of our past, but historic import does not equal artistic
greatness. The episodes are rather banal, the character development weak, the
music of the poem functional, the ‘morals’ rather straightforward and not
particularly deep. I’m not espousing the Julian
Jaynesian notion that there was a fundamental change in the human
mind over the centuries, but there is no denying that modern art, at its best,
towers above the best art from the Ancient and Medieval realms. I wrote a
novella, The Enkidiad, based upon the Gilgamesh
epic, and while I love that old poem, the truth is that even the non-fragmented
parts are weak, and my book is far more complex, great, and beautiful a work
than its progenitor. Do you think that The Odyssey is more
important as a fundament of the design of epopee than a discrete work of art
unto itself? I.e.- is its representative power as a model more important than
its immanent worth as a work?
RG: The Odyssey is my favorite poem, though it would take me a book to say why; and this interview is not a place for me to comment on your views of your own art.
DS: From page
109: ‘Humanism gets a bad press these days. Marxists call it a
bourgeois fantasy. Postmodernists decry it as a ruling-class dinosaur.
Fundamentalists curse it as the work of the devil. Admittedly, to visit an
American university campus is to find a humanism that has been ruthlessly
overspecialized and overcommercialized- it is little more than a ghost of an
idea.’ You then go on to describe it in its earlier more essential
form. But, to me, the more important query is why has Academia so derided
intellect as a pursuit, in favor of emotionalism? Humanism, as example, does not
need to be framed as emotional bleeding heart liberalism. It can be defended
intellectually. True liberalism, as example, can easily be defended: just go
back in quarter century increments and the steady push of openness and
liberalism is apparent through history. Yet, Academia seems to have never been
more cloistered away from the realities of life; at least not in the last
century or so. What is it about modern liberalism that has engendered such a
fastidious insularity and ruthless elitism, not base on actual accomplishment?
And this trend (seen in PoMo and PC Multiculturalism) seems to be a doppelganger
to the Right’s anti-intellectual and anti-scientific fervor?
RG: Yes, I'm much of that opinion in American Vulgar. "I would like to suggest two factors that are especially compelling because they seem to be related to each other: the rise of the religious Right and the voluntary self-destruction, by the intellectual Left, of American education in the humanities." (http://thescreamonline.com/essays/essays5-1/vulgar.html)
Later, you write that intellectuals are paid not to
overwork themselves, but get paid for the quality, not quantity of
their work. Unfortunately, though, that may be true in theory, but not reality
because, whether in the workplace or Academia, nepotism, cronyism, and
favoritism, rule, whereas meritocracy is a joke, I have seen this in EVERY
workplace I have been in, from low level criminal pursuits to high level
corporate crime. America, in this era, loathes quality. It wants to reduce
everyone and thing to a gray mush. What is the solution?
RG: Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I meant to say that good consultants can get paid quite a lot. Agreed, however: so can lousy ones.
DS: By page 131,
you write, of William Blake: ‘A better illustrator than he was a poet,
he decorated his verses with graphics so apt and eloquent that they radically
enhanced the meaning of his words.’ I find that a stunning claim. While
Blake was a hit and miss poet, he did render a dozen or more great poems in his
simpler Songs, whereas his masturbatory and bipolar screeds were nonsense, but
almost no one takes his illustrations seriously. He was an illustrator at a
sub-modern comic book level. Literally, I went to school with kids who were far
better than Blake, and could never get a sniff of writing or drawing for Marvel
nor DC Comics. If anything, Blake’s silly scribblings and etchings obfuscate
his words, which, in the Songs, ring absolutely clarion. And not that it matters
re: the correctness of any assertion, but most visual artists agree that
Blake’s visual art was rudimentary, and rather crude. What do you find so
enchanting about Blake’s visual art vis-à-vis his poetry?
RG: Have I screwed up about art again? I should have held my peace. Anyway, the point of that little section was that Blake achieved a kind of integrity as poet-illustrator-printer. He could personally produced an entire work, from tip to toe.
DS: The whole book really rips corporate America, to such a degree that I recall this definition of a corporation, from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: CORPORATION, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. Comments?
RG: True. If you can, dig up the 60 Minutes segment that Michael Lewis did tonight, 3/14/10.
are just legal fictions, made up by the state. Why are they accorded privileges
that individuals are not, such as tax breaks, exemptions from laws, etc.? In
essence and reality, there is really little definitional difference between
corporations and what is conventionally seen as ‘organized crime,’ no?
RG: Corporations use lobbyists who bribe the government to legitimize corporate malfeasance and elect pro-corporate officials.
DS: One of the
book’s posits is that Moslem/Arab societies will not automatically be
modernized by Western intervention. Comparisons to Japan, after World War Two
are inapt, because Japan had industrialized since the mid-19th
Century. I wholeheartedly agree, and yet so few people see this truth. Why?
RG: In Design and Truth I contend that our present idea of democracy -- at least the idea held by citizens who are liberally-educated -- is a "knowledge design" that has been well over a thousand years in the making (readers may wince at my claim that this knowledge design originated in 9th-century Baghdad!). Islamic societies, in the main, have followed a completely different course of development with regard to matters political. This historical rift has produced two opposed cases of tunnel-vision. In the same sense that many Islamic societies cannot understand our predisposition towards political liberty, our society has trouble realizing the rootedness of Islamic conceptions, of Church, authority, ethics and consciousness in general. Do I, personally, favor "our present idea of democracy?" Yes.
your book notes the obvious, that most of society seems void of not only an
ability to introspect and cogitate upon deeper issues, but of a will to do so.
Yet, I have found many intellectuals unwilling to push themselves. At best, they
are comfortable with only repeating claims they’ve made many times before, and
never stepping outside their boxes. As example, when I interviewed Daniel
Dennett he seemed almost a blank slate himself, unwilling to take on
philosophic subjects beyond that he’s written of. As example, he had appeared
on a tv talk show at the end of the century, as a panelist regarding the most
influential folk of the last millennium. You recall how many lists were made, no
doubt. Anyway, I thought it a great way to dovetail with my interest in mass
murderers and despots, since I believe Genghis Khan was overlooked on most
lists, with the issue of causality and determinism. Thus, I asked this query:
That puts me in mind of another Charlie
Rose show you did, with Steven Pinker and others, at the turn of the
century, on the most influential people of last century. What I found a bit
galling was some of the sheer stupidity on that panel- most notably by the
President of the Carnegie Institute, Maxine Singer. She equated influence with
good morality- an asinine position, yet one which no one, not even you,
challenged. I similarly recalled Time magazine having a most important people of
the last millennium issue, and leaving off, to my mind, easily the most
influential person of the last thousand years, Genghis Khan. My reasoning is
that influence comes with time, so the most influential person simply could not
be in the last couple of hundred years. Then, there would have to be reach over
several spheres. Then, there would be the mind experiment of removing that
person and seeing if he or she was merely a part of historic forces, or one of
the Great Men of History. Khan fits all of these- even if he was the worst mass
killer in human history, up until the 20th Century. He was born early
on- the 12th Century, and he took a nomadic Gobi people, with a six
thousand year history of no territorial expansion, united the Mongol tribes with
the Turkic tribes, and built a nation larger in area than the old Soviet Union-
all within two decades- and sans guns or any advanced war materiel. His effect
on politics, the arts, religion (his was a secular state), and life was
profound. Remove him and the Mongols likely go on as nomads. Then there is no
check on Chinese expansionism. Khan forced the Chinese to abandon their junk
explorations across the Pacific and likely to the Americas. They hibernated
xenophobically as a world power for centuries. The Khanates carved out of his
empire, by his descendants, helped establish the Ottoman Empire, which acted as
a bulwark against Muslim expansionism into Europe. Without the Ottomans, Islam
may have displaced the Papacy, forcing its withdrawal to Scandinavia and a
reduced status as a regional Arctic cult. China may have expanded across the
Subcontinent, Oceania, and into the Andes and the western half of the Americas,
while Europe was Islamized. Moorish Spain and Imam Britain may have then settled
the Americas from the east. The Cold War of the last century may not have been
between Communism and Capitalism, but between Islam and Sino aggression. Yet,
none of that happened because one Mongol named Temujin preferred horseback
riding and conquest to life as a scavenger. To me, this omission shows the
profound lack of vision many so-called leaders and experts have in their
First, would you agree with my ranking of Genghis Khan as
numero uno in influence last eon, for despite his genocidal ruthlessness, he was
an organizational genius with a mind that wanted to know seemingly everything?
He was arguably also the most amazing figure in human history. If you disagree,
why? And why do you think he was so ignored on such lists? Was it simple
Eurocentrism? Or something more confounding?
Dennett flippantly replied: ‘I guess I just don’t know
enough about Genghis Khan to judge,’ which implied he a) had no clue
that his humor was lacking, b) the question was essentially not about the Mongol
warlord, c) did not care about giving a good interview nor digging a bit deeper
into his mind, or d) all of the above. So, let me first ask you if such lack of
intellectual engagement is a problem unique to Dennett, systemic in philosophy-
which explains why even fewer people are interested in it than poetry, or simply
evidence of the greater intellectual apathy of the times, including the ennui of
Academia? Secondly, given the points I laid out in the above question, whom
would you place in the top spot on such a list, and what are your views of
causality and determinism?
RG: First, a small correction: The Ottomans were a Muslim empire. Second, I recommend that all interviewees should be granted, as a fundamental guarantee, the right to say "I don't know." Third, lists of "influential folk" -- especially the way in which they are normally judged and answered -- have a decidedly emetic effect on my digestion. In spite of all this, however, I agree with you that GK was a much more important historical force than we generally give him credit for being.
DS: Claim: Communism
fails because it encourages laziness. Capitalism fails because it encourages
selfishness. Do you agree or not? If so, what are the alternatives?
RG: Before addressing these formidably simplistic statements, I suggest that we ask ourselves an even briefer question: "What is a commonwealth?"
DS: Why do
corporations almost exclusively have a top down flow of information rather than
bottom up? The little guys are those on the front lines, and have the most
knowledge of daily business activities. Managers, in essence, are not paid,
these days, to manage, but to legislate and not evaluate information. Thereby
their jobs are largely superfluous. Ideas?
RG: In Ch. 13 of Design and Truth ("Corporate Redesign and the Business of Knowledge") I maintain that, instead of dollar-signs and ball-bearings, knowledge itself is the real material of all business (Hayek and Drucker pioneered this theory) , and that businesses should be run with the same respect for knowledge that schools are. Of course such a system would specify that workers at all levels should be knowledge-gatherers, and that knowledge should move in both upward and downward directions.
DS: Why is there
a breakdown in logic, within corporations, that has them view things only on a
short term basis rather than the long term?
RG: I attribute this to the completely mistaken expectation of owners and stockholders that the value of a corporation should move up on a quarterly basis.
DS: You cite
Google as an example of a good corporation, yet they infamously censored
information for profit within China, and only when under cyber-attack did they
decide to challenge that. Google also ruthlessly believes it has intellectual
property rights to copyrighted and trademarked information, as well as the right
to take photographs of private property and post them online, despite the
objections of homeowners. This is hardly what I would call an example of good
corporatism, but of typical corporatism. I would argue that the debate over the
virtue of capitalism vs. communism or socialism is misdirected. There has been
no pure capitalism since 1929. In reality, the divide is between socialapitalism
and corporatism; i.e.- small time capitalism with social roots and
corporatism that cares not for anything. It is the small, local business vs.
McDonald’s, Walmart, and Microsoft.
RG: Re: your criticisms of Google, I deal with them, though maybe not enough, in Ch. 13. Re: your remarks on "corporatism," there's more than a kernel of truth there, except that the problem was noted by Jefferson more than a century before 1929.
DS: By page 181
you come upon the idea of narratives, and basically claim that all human beings,
on an elemental level, have a desire, if not need, to make narrative ‘sense
of things.’ I pretty much agree, and have long dismissed the fallacy
that there are things such as non-representational or non-narrative arts. One
can retard narrative, but not eliminate it. A song devises an emotional
narrative, a painting or sculpture implies a narrative before and after the
captured moment. So does a poem, whereas novels, short stories, plays, movies,
all sculpt narratives. The best art manipulates the human impulse to narrative
most effectively. Do you agree? Explain.
RG: This makes a lot of sense, except in the case of the Renaissance dichotomy between "narrative" and "non-narrative" painting.
DS: On page 188
you delve into ‘subjectivity as unconscious design.’ What do
you mean by it? I see a correlation between it and John Keats’ idea of Negative
Capability, or the ability to connect things that seemingly have no
connection, save for in retrospect. Do you see a connection between the two?
RG: Keats defined NC as "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." According to such a definition, such an individual feels no need of using "unconscious design" (as I define it) to connect the dots.
DS: On a philosophic level, do you see any criteria as wholly objective? Or, is it all a philosophic exercise- i.e.- a single drop of objectivity objectifies a whole ocean’s worth of subjectivity, the way a single drop of blood would literally make an ocean of pure water impure?
"Objectivity" and "subjectivity'" like all arbitrary
designators, do not exist absolutely in nature, although they can serve
effectively in terms of comparative judgments.
DS: If we realize that objectivity has limits- real, material, or philosophic, is not that as good as no limits because we’ve ‘accepted’ the field of play, so to speak? It’s just that the field has shrunk from infinite to not quite infinite.
DS: On page 192,
you claim: ‘We all have designers imprisoned within us, and the only
question is whether we are able to free them.’ I disagree. I recall my
wife and a friend of mine arguing over whether all people are creative. Well, in
the sense that they may find a novel way to tie a shoelace, but not at a deep,
profound level. Most human beings are mind-numbingly obtuse. My friend
disagreed, and my wife countered that to claim all people are creative, in that
sense, is to claim all people are athletic, because even most fat people can get
up out of a chair under their own power, or merely because they can respire.
It’s a patent absurdity. But, even were one to grant the claim that we all
design things because we all have a need for narrative, the more penetrating
question is not if we are able to free them, but if those designers are any
good, and deserving of freedom. The last thing we need in this world are MORE
uncreative people deluding themselves into thinking they are creative. People
need to be satisfied with their limits. I can write great sonnets and great
critical articles, but I cannot play centerfield for the New York Yankees, nor
sing like Paul Robeson. Comments?
RG: Point well taken. Stretch it a bit, and I'd have to agree that dead people can be something of a drag as well. But I hope that my readers will accept my statement in the very general way in which it was intended.
DS: Let me now turn to some questions I call my ‘series queries;’ things I ask most interviewees, to try and see what a parallax of responses I get from different people in different professions, to the same ideas. I saw someone killed at the age of 5, and seen many deaths since. Thus, I am sort of inured to it, and lack the common human fear of death. I feel I won’t feel a thing when dead, so it’s pointless to worry. I see only 3 possibilities for what death could be, and none of them have any logical bearing on me. 1) it’s everlasting life (or afterlife or afterdeath- technically), thus it’s a neverending adventure- whether hellish or heavenly; 2) it’s an endless sleep and/or dream, and I can handle either; or 3) it’s total nihility, a void of what was me, therefore worry is futile and silly. Do you agree, or do you see other options, and which option would you bet on as being true?
RG: Agree. I would only add that, in my case, I hope it won't be an English Dept. committee meeting.
you ever watched Michael Apted’s The
Up Series documentaries? What are your thoughts on it as a
longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree
with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is
seven and I will give you the man.’?
RG: Haven't watched it. But, just between us, I would treat all Jesuit proverbs with a degree of caution.
DS: Some years ago, my wife and I were in the resort town of Stillwater, Minnesota, and there was some Buddhist monk convention there. It was odd, in this lily-white town, to see a bunch of barefoot bald Oriental men in flaming red and pink robes, walking around. But, as my wife and a friend of hers, who was with us, went off, I sat on a bench in a store, where three monks came in. The youngest was the only one who spoke English, and in the course of our conversation, it became apparent that monkdom was merely a family business he’d given no serious thought to. When we parted I think I left him in an existential quandary; one I’ve often wondered the result of. Is this not a pitfall of an insular life- be it based on religion or ethnic apartheid, or even philosophic choice? Do too many people simply go with the flow, in accepting whatever roles others have cast for them? And, how does one go about countering such?
Experience is the fundamental determinant of choice.
Thus a child's experience -- family, school, peer group, etc. -- will
usually constitute the gamut of his or her choices.
DS: Do you believe that time exists? Or is life/existence, merely a film, a series of 3D holographic movie frames/photos that we (our souls/spirits) sort of roller coaster through? If so, then are we speaking of dualism? My first question may seem silly, but there are physicists who seriously claim time is an illusion.
Time is one of the few basic variables of all our measurement.
That is why the rise of modern science and technology depended, to a
large extent, on the precise measurement of time.
The other, more figurative and personal definitions of time all grow out
DS: If time and existence are somehow preset, and we can only roller coaster through a certain path, that means any life is immutable, and some believe that all things are forever fixed- i.e.- that if at 7:25 PM tonight I will be eating a certain flavor of yogurt from a cup, I have always eaten that same flavor yogurt (in fact the very same yogurt, in all respects), I will always eat it, and am always eating it. Time, if an illusion, means that there is only one superstructure whose passage we traverse gives the illusion of time. Some also believe that different entities/souls/consciousnesses can traverse the same pathways, so that ‘I’ am not really a separate entity, but more a program that limitless souls can experience, or ‘transexperience.’ The now is then, in some fashion, an eternal now- all is forever, infinitely experienced by infinite souls. A close corollary posits that a life is more like a railroad track that any soul can traverse- i.e.- the life of Robert Grudin or Dan Schneider is fixed like a track, and at any given moment any soul (a train car or locomotive engine) can traverse it and experience the events dear and dreadful to that life. Life is therefore a track, a path, not a train, or thing. What is your take on these theses- a sort of reworking of Eternal Recurrence, held by some extreme New Age beliefs? Personally, I think it’s a pop cultural dumbing down and bastardization of currently known physics.
It's not very convincing.
DS: Now on to some broader questions regarding philosophy, films, life, and some pet peeves, etc. I started these interviews because so many interviews, online and in print, are atrocious. They are merely vehicles designed to pimp a book or other product- film, CD, etc. One of the things I’ve tried to do with these interviews is avoid the canned sort of responses that most interviews- print or videotaped, indulge in, yet most people find comfort in hearing the expected. Why are the readers and the interviews so banal? Where have all the great interviewers like a Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, or Bill Buckley gone? Only Charlie Rose, on PBS, is left. Is conversation, which an interview is merely a rigorous form of, dying?
True, Rose is a great interviewer. But
remember, he's got a big advantage over us.
He can hear his guest's responses in real time and build on them --
into what may be striking revelations.
I know that you aspire, some day, to do the same thing.
DS: To what do you attribute the lack of introspection in modern society? Is American or Western culture simply as shallow as man of its detractors claim? In the arts, PC and Postmodernism have certainly aided in the ‘dumbing down’ of culture.
Well put. But consider also
the unsettling possibility that exaggerated introspection itself is to blame:
that the more we introspect, the shallower we become.
DS: I ask this question of almost all my interviewees, but, as a philosopher, let me see if you find any relevance to it. I believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And aMRo to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic is applicable. When I interviewed Steven Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense, this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences, the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this? Are their current philosophers who might be considered visionaries in a hundred or more years? Who are they? Is there one discipline of philosophy that lends itself more to creative or visionary thought? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?
I'm afraid that these categories and numbers leave me gasping for air.
The phenomena we know as talent and genius are of such complexity that
trying to categorize or quantify them runs the risk of confusing them
hopelessly. How, moreover, can we
create typologies for the curiosity, fascination, patience, judiciousness,
sympathy, enthusiasm, ambition and pure amusability that are such obvious
components of creativity -- assign a number to each of them?
DS: Ok, this
next question is one that Steven
Then there is the old example of, ‘What if a building was burning,
and you could only save a person or the last extant manuscript of the works of
William Shakespeare (or The Mona Lisa, or some other great work of art).
Which would you save?’ Most people say, the person, and likely mean it. Yet,
to me, I would have to weigh the person and the works. Even a good person is
likely to not have a fraction of the cultural impact of a great work of art,
especially over the centuries. Yes, saving Darwin or Galileo or Picasso or
Rembrandt, over their works, is easy, for they can recapitulate most of that
stuff. But saving Larry MacDougall, of MacDougall’s Plumbing? I’m not gonna
lie, Larry would probably die, because nothing he could ever do would likely be
as valuable to human culture as that great work of art. And it’s not because I
devalue a human life, as much as I truly value human creations over human
non-creators. Does that belief make one a cold, calculating proto-Fascist, a
Stalinist wannabe, an über-sensitive lover of all things, or simply a mature,
Do you agree or not? And, is this not merely a continuation of the
valuation of any human life over other things that are possibly more precious to
society at large? And, is not this a version of the lame argument that
anti-abortionists use- that you could be flushing away the person who cures
cancer, unaware that no single person will ever do such a thing, for scientific
discovery always has its Marconis and Edisons and Teslas waiting to step in if
one of them fails? Thus, is not a decision to save the more valuable item,
regardless of pro human bias, the truly enlightened view?
RG: In effect, that's an easy decision, because either option can be supported. For a real toughie, try Sophie's Choice.
DS: A few years
back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica.
On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my
co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant-
or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin
to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Is the
same true in philosophic precedent?
RG: Philosophy has been out of gas for some time now. In fact, it's better to call it fossilophy. If it ever reemerges in lively form, I imagine it may be as some means of reorganizing or redefining other areas of inquiry.
DS: At this
point in your life, have you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not,
what failures gnaw at you the most? Which of those failures do you think you can
RG: I've now written books on five different aspects of liberty. But every time I finish one, some new question pops up.
Additionally, I would like to write some more fiction.
What is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of books and your work?
RG: During the next few weeks, Michaela Grudin and I will complete our current book, Boccaccio's Decameron and the Ciceronian Renaissance. At best, it will not reach a large audience. But it's something that we have very much wanted to do.
DS: Thanks for
doing this interview, Robert Grudin, and let me allow you a closing statement,
on whatever you like.
RG: For his indispensable help and guidance on our Boccaccio project, as on many other of our efforts, Michaela and I wish to acknowledge our friend and teacher Charles Muscatine, who died this week at 89 years of age. See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/20/arts/20muscatine.html?ref=obituaries
March 16, 2010
Return to Cosmoetica