U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ah! Paradox (Guest Post by Anthony Chaney)

Editor's Note

This is the third of six guest posts from Anthony Chaney that are appearing on the Blog every other Saturday. The earlier posts in this series can be found here and here — Ben Alpers.

Would it be unseemly to admit that I hope my book, due out in October, will be reviewed in USA Today? Yes, unseemly, in a number of ways. But since I’ve already committed the offense by raising the question, let me add that I also hope the review begins with these words: Essential. Drop what you’re doing and read this book now.

I like this opening for two reasons. One, it’s quite favorable. Two–and this is the point I’m moving toward–it doesn’t give anything away. And considering the amount of space allotted to book reviews in USA Today, after these first few words there isn’t much room remaining for spoilers.

Compare this to a book review, say, in The New Yorker. I enjoy the book reviews in The New Yorker. I like the way they’re written, and I like the information they provide. I like the way they relieve me from any obligation to read the actual book.

Every once in a while I feel a little sorry for the author. The author has spent years neck-deep in research to develop an argument and to present it at book length–now the reviewer gets to step in and hit all the high notes in a half a dozen pages? That’s not fair. Let me state in conclusion that I hope the review of my book in USA Today will be followed up with a lengthy one in The New Yorker.

The other day I had something like the experience described above reading James Wood’s New Yorker review of Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom. The Kingdom reflects on the origins of Christianity in the lives, missions, and writings of the apostles Paul and Luke. The review seems to be a fair one. Wood sets the book up and responds to Carrère without standing in for him. It familiarized me with Carrère and his work, which I hadn’t known before. My experience reading the review was only “something like” the exaggerated one described above because Wood really did make me want to read Carrère’s book. Still, the ideas Wood summarized and the passages he quoted were so powerful, it was hard to imagine the book itself topping them.

Wood also wrote of Carrère’s method of presentation. “Carrère has become celebrated,” Wood writes, “for his propulsive, original, free-ranging narratives, which frequently mix memoir, biography, and fiction in rather blithely measured proportions.” He’s a scholar who reads and ponders the past, including the secondary sources, yet his deep knowledge of the scholarship is only “gently summoned.” Wood block quotes a passage where Carrère is guilty of “rampant speculation, outrageous psychologizing,” and so on. Yet the passage hit Wood hard. It was an example of Carrère “shaking things up” in a way that kept Wood from feeling like he was “back in school again.”

These descriptions of Carrère’s method of presentation are intriguing because I’ve lately heard colleagues make a distinction between analytic and creative work as if the former were ultimately more valuable, as if there could be no in-between. The book cover calls The Kingdom a novel, but not having seen the cover yet, that wasn’t my impression reading the review. Rather, the prospect of a hybrid form of scholarship made me curious. The discipline of objectivity is supposed to keep a scholar honest. We are trying to achieve some accuracy, some interpretation that can elicit trust. Yet insofar as results are distorted when the inquirer’s context is separated out from the content of inquiry, objectivity can be a counterproductive goal. This is not a new discussion, obviously. But when humanists produce work that doesn’t make the reader feel like they’re “back at school,” it’s probably a boon for the humanities. Paradoxically, it might work to bring more students in.

Ah, paradox. Here’s the sentence in the review that made me sit up in my desk chair. It’s a quote from Carrère about Paul’s stake in the doctrine of resurrection and salvation. “The more opposed it is to common sense, the more that proves its truth.” As Wood explains it, this is the sort of dynamic that captures for Wood the mind of the fanatic. It’s a quality of mind Carrère himself exhibited during a period of his life, which he is now “repelled by” but which he still “deeply admires.” This is the tension, I gather, that drives his inquiry in The Kingdom.

That sentence woke me up not so much because of the topic of Christianity–although that’s interesting and relevant – but because it’s a typical expression of the dynamic of paradox and the seeming wall its sets up to further understanding. I’ve spent the bulk of the last decade trying to scale walls like that in my study of the thought and work of Gregory Bateson. Paradoxes aren’t rare, of course. They aren’t rare in life and they aren’t rare in humanist scholarship. Keat’s “negative capability” is one of many concepts that spoke to the necessity of living with paradox and contradiction. Paradoxes are often the places where the humanist’s inquiry comes to a halt, leaving only the expression of a logical obstacle as a gesture of humility and depth. Although well-read in the humanities, Bateson was a scientist. By applying the new twentieth-century thinking about communication, information and systems theory to the life sciences, Bateson began to see paradox not as a rhetorical stopping place but as a dynamic integral to biological processes. With concepts such as the double bind, he naturalized paradox, so to speak.

Like many who are drawn to Bateson’s work, one of the first of his essays I read was “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism,” which he wrote in 1969. As he does in many of his great essays, in “The Cybernetics of ‘Self,'” Bateson advanced a series of abstract ideas by way of an analysis of something more straightforward – in this case, the ideas and literature of Alcoholics Anonymous. While it was typical for doctors, psychiatrists, and family members to locate an alcoholic’s problem in drunkenness, Bateson praised AA for identifying the problem in the alcoholic’s sober life: a pathological “style” that sought release in intoxication. From this perspective, Bateson saw the “sobriety” of the alcoholic as “an unusually disastrous variant of the Cartesian dualism.” The bad epistemology of the mind-body split created a “myth of self-power” that moved progressively toward self-negation in a futile attempt to prove itself to be true. So far, this sounds like a humanist’s argument. But Bateson was a scientist. He supports each of the steps in his argument with anthropological and biological modes of observation and explanation, newly animated with the midcentury concepts of systems theory. This allowed him to construct a novel merger of the semiotic and the empirical.

There is an obvious parallel in this essay’s topic and the topic of Carrère’s book. The struggle of the alcoholic with the bottle is the struggle of the twice-born with faith. For a thinker like Bateson, similar patterns indicated a more abstract order. The pattern he identified was a pattern of relationship, found both in anthropology and natural history, between entities in competition, where the behavior of one triggered a symmetrical behavior in the other. When psychological reifications of “self” and “other” were carved out of the larger system in our perceptions of things, they too could take part in battle. “I can control” and “it won’t work” became mutually reinforcing opponents. How do you know if you can control your drinking unless you actually risk a drink? How do you know if your belief is strong unless you actually entertain doubt? The more general myth of self-power, too, required a continuous raising of the stakes.

This basic dynamic is suggested in the “more/more” structure of sentences like the one quoted from Carrère: “The more opposed it is to common sense, the more that proves its truth.” In systems theory, this dynamic indicates a positive feedback loop moving in a runaway fashion toward punctuating change or breakdown. In AA literature, it indicates a repeated set of behaviors that move the alcoholic closer and closer to an automobile accident, the loss of a job, the loss of a marriage, an arrest, and/or at some point, “hitting bottom.”

With these more/more structures, it isn’t hard to extrapolate to economic or environmental matters. How about this one: “The more an economy grows, the more it undermines the social and material resources that make it viable.” We’ve heard language about being addicted to oil, to cheap energy, to the concept of unlimited growth.  The source of those addictions, Bateson would suggest, is the fundamental myth of self-power. “It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure,” he writes in “The Cybernetics of ‘Self.’” The essay argues for truths in natural history that align with thousands of years of human wisdom, wisdom which our politics and our economic imaginary continue to ignore: “Too much of anything is toxic.”

Carrère, Wood informs us, wrote an earlier book about Philip K. Dick, and this interest plays into his latest book, too. Dick was someone who saw Christianity as a fraud, and who later believed himself to be receiving messages from God. How curious that a discussion about Phillip K. Dick can come up in a book about the founding of Christianity. This comes from bringing the context of the inquirer into the inquiry, I presume.

Phillip K. Dick didn’t make it into my book about Gregory Bateson, though my research certainly included him, and had I enlarged my scope to include the 1970s, he probably would have. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. Bateson and Dick were contemporaries confronting similar data from different methodologies and ways of knowing. Dick, who Carrère apparently sees as a latter-day Paul, enacted paradox. Bateson naturalized it, and his merger of the semiotic and the empiricalat least for this humanistopened up a few doors that seemed sealed shut.

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