Wednesday, 16 May 2007

I'm the Man of Darwin's Dreams On 21 September 1838, Darwin transcribes the following into his "M" notebook: Was witty in a dream in a confused manner. Thought that a person was hung & came to life, & then made many jokes about not having run away & having faced death, like a hero, & then I had some confused idea of showing [the] scar behind (instead of front) (having changed hanging into his head cut off) as kind of wit showing he had honourable wounds. All this was kind of wit. I changed I believe from hanging to head cut off. There was the feeling of banter and joking because the whole train of Dr. Monro['s] experiment about hanging came before me showing [the] impossibility of person recovering from hanging on account of blood, but all these ideas came one after other, without ever comparing them. I neither doubted them or believed them. €”Believing consists in the comparison of ideas, connected with judgment. I like that I make an appearance in the "M" notebook, as it's the one in which Darwin tracks the moral and social consequences of the transmutation theory he's concurrently working out in the "D" notebook. In terms of world-historical import, I suppose the fact that he knew natural selection would have far-reaching implications is of paramount importance ... but what I most appreciate (outside my appearance as a heroic wit) is that Darwin believed the content of his dreams significant enough to record alongside his thoughts on Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, Comte's Positive Philosophy, and Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. This proves that were he alive today, Darwin would have a LiveJournal ... in which he would write about me. I can sleep easy tonight.
Too Far, Sir, Way Too Far, Painfully Far, If I May Little in life is less gratifying than having an moment of insight and writing on its strength for a couple of hours before realizing that your insight isn't all that insightful—that in fact it further confuses already confused matters, adding wrinkles to creases of folds on what might well be the surface of a prune. Case in point: late yesterday afternoon I thought I'd discovered a better way to describe the current situation in scholarly publishing/reviewing. Picking up from the end of the previously posted paragraph, I wrote: This is not to say that all academic careers are destined to be as unfruitful as Casaubon's, nor that all monographs wear the obsessiveness which produced them as proudly. To the contrary, vital works are being published every year—only instead of spirited debate, their publication occasions an item of note on the next tenure review, indicative of the contribution made to the professional discourse. That the intellectual impact of this contribution is illusory. Publication should not accord to what I call the Tunguska model. As many of you know, on the morning of June 30, 1908, the largest object to strike the Earth in recorded history exploded in the air above deep in the Siberian wilderness. The forest below was flattened. Reasonable people would assume the Tunguska event, as it came to be known, would have aroused scientific curiosity. However, it took the Soviet scientific community more than a decade to launch an expedition. Rumors of the impact did not even reach American shores until early 1928. They were met with by an incredulous public, secure in the belief that if something so significant had happened, news of it would have taken less than twenty years to reach them. It was not until George Merrill, then head curator of geology in the U.S. National Museum, published in Science a loose translation of the account written by Leonid Kulik, the minerologist who led the belated Russian expedition, that the American public was convinced that something had occurred on that bright morning two decades earlier. Sadly, the space of academic publishing is something of a Siberia. Impressive monographs crash into an indifferent earth and wait, unstudied, until someone important lends them his credibility years after the fact. Only unlike the Siberia of 1908, contemporary academia is densely populated. The indifference with which these books are met is all the more surprising—or, perhaps, dismaying—because it is as if whatever object came screaming across the Siberian sky exploded above the joint annual conventions of the American Astronomical Society, the Mineralogical Society of America and the Geological Society of America. It is as if the event occurred above the heads of the professionals best equipped to study it, but instead of stopping, heading for an exit and starting the investigation, they did not (or refused to) notice it. The flattening of the very forest in which they stand is met with a knowing but indifferent nod, or a wry remark about not being able to note whether...

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