Saturday, June 26, 2010

More on the Metaphysics of Lists


The critic Miller suffers from a common critical disease: the belief that the critique is superior to the object of criticism. He also seems to have forgotten that a review is not the same as a critique.

First, Miller misidentifies Eco as a phenomenologist or at least says that uses the phenomenological method. Perhaps he did, I haven’t read this particular Eco book, but I do know that he is not a phenomenologist.

“But a phenomenology of the list? Only Eco would try this. And yet both agree, in their different ways, that the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite.”

Eco is a semiotician. Semiotics is a part of linguistics and deals with language a product of semiosis or of signification. I doubt that Eco would have written any book without adverting to the process of semiosis.

In any case, the opposition of Eco’s notion of lists as “catalogue” and Gawande’s more empirical one seems to me arbitrary. Miller set it up in order to offer his own conception of the list as “inventory” which is meant to function as a kind of syntheses between the two other modalities of list making.

In addition, Miller’s view of the Baroque period as one of list making strikes me as forced:

“The Baroque was not only the great age of learned play, but also of the New Science and the self-conscious championing of observation. Lists follow from this. Francis Bacon was the prophet of close examination, and was a great list-maker. Not only did he propose new ways of studying nature, he drew up inventories of natural historical projects to be undertaken by others. The vogue for encyclopedias and research tools—librarians still call them “finding aids”—that also sprouted in the seventeenth century, such as Daniel Morhof’s Polyhistor (1688), transformed European learned culture into a series of lists: books to read, instruments to master, speeches to control, and so on. With this we come closer still to Gawande’s idea of the list as a means of managing uncertainty.”

An historical period can have more than one conception of reality. Think of 19c with its Romantics as well as its empiricists and utilitarian’s. (Miller summarizes the whole 19c in half a paragraph). The Baroque is more akin to romanticism than to empiricism. The word baroque is of Portuguese origin (The word in Portuguese was used to designate an imperfect pearl.) and meant is meant to convert notions of open-endedness and asymmetry (infinity, as it were). It was invoked in the architecture as well as in literature (Cervantes, for example).

I also had a problem with Miller’s view of Kant’s “sublime” which is in opposition to the concept of “beauty.” I won’t say any more here till I read Eco’s book since I am unclear how much of Miller’s view is taken from Eco how much from Kant.

Finally, I was mystified by his introduction of inventories as another kind of list making. He introduces it in order to humanize and personalize the abstract notion of lists. However, it doesn’t work. Miller may have had in mind some pathetic (in the original meaning of the word) list which alludes to personal loss, but in opposition to his late 17th century list one could show the inventories of loss set out in a novel by the great German writer W. G. Sebald: “Austerlitz.” This is an inventory of museums and monuments and above all inventory lists of property stolen from European Jews by their German captors. The lists are endless and don’t offer the kind of pathetic “comfort” one takes from natural loss.


Just to counter Jack’s critique of this essay, I’d like to take a crack at its defence (and support my enthusiasm for it) in light of his comments. (As a lawyer, working with checklists, and thinking about them, Miller’s essay is of particular interest to me.)

First, I don’t see Miller overwhelming the object of his criticism with his own comments. He pretty faithfully, it seems to me, without having read the books he discusses, lets his observations and arguments emerge from what he reviews, save for his latter themes, which Jack objects to, and, on which, I’ll latterly comment. That seeming faithfulness, I suggest, shines through when close attention is paid to Miller’s actual content. More, respectfully, it is inaptly prescriptive to hold Miller strictly to what he reviews as though he breaches some etched-in-stone critical canon. And that prescription betokens a misreading of Miller’s essay. For while Miller deals with the books he mentions, and is faithful to them in doing so, he also uses them as a conceptual dock from which to depart on a short, entirely related voyage of his own. And there is no reason why he ought not to.

Miller begins by rehearsing briefly Gawande’s (a surgeon) interest in checklists: how, for Gawande, they, in complex situations, during surgery, mitigate against things going wrong and help guide, and release, necessary instant decision making. (Implicit, I am presuming, in Gawande’s use of checklists is their partial functionality as flow charts, or logic trees, where certain known relations between cause and effect are systematized and reduced to their cores.)

Miller makes the point that for Gawande the check list is not the answer to complexity, nor does it really deal with complexity as such. Rather, by making clear the basic and the obvious—sterilizing instruments, accounting for them and so on—it helps to minimize dumb mistakes, and establishes procedural routines so that the decision making surgeon is freer to deal with the unexpected pressing upon him.

I’d quarrel here that Gawande, with Miller’s assent, paints too bright a line between complexity and the list, and asserts too singular a notion of complexity. One mode of complexity is a body of a great amount of interacting detail constantly generating unencountered problems. But another is simply the integrated presence of those many, many details in the sense of saying, for example, the body or, perhaps, a statute, is a complex system.

Checklists, or perhaps, here, just lists, contra, Gawande and Miller, can reduce that latter sense of complexity by isolating and making plain the body’s parts. And, even in the former sense of complexity, I’d think that checklists—for, what, finally, are the known relations between, say, symptoms, and particular ills, or testing to eliminate possibilities, but checklists?—reduce complexity too. I think, in fact, the relation between complexity and checklists I’ve just argued for is nicely captured by Miller’s incisive and telling encapsulation of Gawande’s intent: “Gawande, the man of action, is all about how the list can reduce the infinitude of possibility to the possibility of finitude.”

Miller excellently contrasts that encapsulation with his description of Eco’s project: the list as an arrow to the infinite: the former wants to contract; the latter wants to expand; the former aims at functionality; the latter aims at a “phenomenology of the list”.

(On this point I think, respectfully again, Jack goes quite astray. What Miller means, I think, is Eco’s intent to account for the idea of the list by studying the structure of lists though “his experience of them ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity.” The issue is not whether Eco is a phenomenologist.)

But what knits Gawande and Eco a bit together, for Miller, is the idea “…that the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite.” I don’t know, arguing further against Jack, how this can be thought to be the critic overwhelming his material. It’s the opposite: the critic adhering to his material both (Gawande) to distill it and represent it and (Eco) to distill it and put it into illuminating contexts.

At that point of contact, a “limit” in the sense of that which surpasses our understanding, Miller observes, Gawande, wanting functional contraction, would call a meeting, Eco “…would send us to a museum”. For, as Eco says, artists reckon with the infinitude of the world either by trying to get its essence or by cataloguing it to illuminate the vastness beyond the catalogue, the latter bearing some relation to Gawande’s checklist. That relation is only partial because Gawande’s checklist drives toward what can be grasped while Eco’s catalogue drives toward what can’t be.

Eco’s two ways of the artist reckoning with infinitude derives, says Miller, from Kant’s two ways of apprehending it: experiencing it as microcosm:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

or beholding in many things—stars in the sky, or more grandly, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread”—its irreducible plentitude and vastness, which, for Eco, finds aesthetic form in the catalogue, however, and necessarily, partial.

Again, as against Jack, I say Miller, fulfilling his role as reviewer and critic, notes his own qualms with Eco: Eco’s curated art exhibition is arbitrary and not serviceable for his argument, an argument essentially born of texts. In Miller’s incisive words, “…the “visual list” still has not met its proper theorist”. As well, Eco, for Miller, has not sharply enough distinguished between the list as prelude to infinitude and merely practical lists, even while, for Eco, the latter may, in some instances, be a species of the former, especially when they have a dimension of the aesthetic. The point that this second concern goes to is, for Miller, a certain failure in Eco's phenomenological project, his analytical failure to rescue the variety of lists from his own irreducible subjectivity: “Infinity, Eco seems to suggest, is all between the ears.”

Then, Miller, having dealt, in his fashion, with Eco, goes abroad as I say, travels intellectually, from the conceptual dock of his critical treatment. Miller deals with the list in relation to the seventeenth century’s New Science and as the age of the city. Thus, he relates the list to New Science’s privileging of disinterested observation, pace Francis Bacon, and he remarks the list as the starting point for taxonomies, texts and encyclopedias, and also for research tools and the itemization, inventorying of, the artifacts of culture and the techniques of personal development (precursor to the infomercial?).

Heading back to the contrast informing his essay, Miller notes that with these developments in the seventeenth century, we are firmly on Gawande’s side--lassoing uncertainty-- of the contrasting divide.

Miller is wonderfully synoptic is his treatment of the city itself, now pace Eco, as a living catalogue pointing to the infinite, and as a source for the artistic treatment of it as that. As Miller concludes his own synoptic catalogue here:

“Walt Whitman looked at New York, the future capital of the twentieth century, and saw his infinitude mirrored in its. The late modern city—Eco gives us Los Angeles-sprawls in all directions, with only connections, and neither center nor periphery. The image of the neuron is apposite, and suggests again the horizon of what we do not fully understand.”

In the final section of his essay, Miller, still traveling abroad but without veering from the course of his theme, pursues a sea lane he has sailed before, as co-editor of Dutch New York Between East and WestThe World of Margrieta van Varic. He treats, somewhat contra Gawande, probate inventories as a mode of list both contracting and expanding reality, particularly as related to the infinitude of death.

Contracting it, a dead Flatbush woman’s seventeenth century inventory of worldly goods, her probate inventory, seems the quintessence of a Gawandian purpose-driven list, the means of implementing all the prosaic, worldly consequences of her death, a listing of all that her life as things has come to. But, as against that account of her life’s inventory, the list also points to the infinitude that makes up a life, all that has gone before, and points to a living, irreducibly complex social history and, the point is made, to a living, irreducibly complex psychological history.

Finally, as a variation on the theme that “…the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite…”, the personal inventory, as a mode of list, is something different from an arrow to infinitude as the list is for Eco, and is something different from a means of roping reality as it is for Gawande. Different from these two, the personal inventory as probate list is a pathos--an occasion for feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness—and some confoundedness too: an axis, or, in Miller’s apt word, a “threshold” between life and death, a meeting point between them. As that, it is sadly and bewilderingly different from Gawanade’s meeting as a functional response to the infinite that life wants to manage. And as that, it is bewilderingly smaller and different from Eco’s meaning of the list as expansively taking living man to the periphery of the infinite.

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