Fragments of Frank Moretti, “The Birth of the Parameters of Understanding”

The classicist, educator, and technologist Frank Moretti passed away last year. While he published many articles and several books, Frank’s thinking was also present in his seminars on the History of Communication and Communication Theory and Social Thought. I recorded many of these seminars as a student  between 2010-2012. As a tribute to Frank’s voice and thought, I am transcribing passages from these recordings where Frank speaks at length.

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10.6.2010

The Havelock. Even if you don’t like his interpretation of the notion of the hypnosis of poetry, and the emergence of philosophy, the last two chapters are the identifier of the knower. In other words, all of sudden we believe that we can know. And somehow we begin to construct an identity where we can know things beyond appearances. So I can look at you, at each of you, and I can figure out what you really are. What I see isn’t giving me a lot of evidence, because we’ve all learned how to manipulate our masks. But the whole notion that somehow there’s a deeper reality behind appearances, is a new emergent notion. It’s clear that it wasn’t in Homer. And also that the object of knowledge is something that tries to hide, that it’s not always easy to figure out how this knowing subject should say: “Ah! That’s it!” as opposed to claiming that it’s this story or that story or this story. And so, regardless of how you feel about them, they’re both somehow playing in that same universe of people who are beginning to believe in themselves as having an intellect that pierces appearances and looks at differences and fashions an object within a deeper whole of what’s real and what’s not.

Now, the Sen interview. The reason why I wanted you to pay attention to that: it’s a contemporary taking up of the question of what the object of knowledge can be. How do you arrive at courses of action in real life when you’re trying to help people? That’s Sen’s question. How do you decide what to do? Do you do it from the premise that you know the truth and then you elaborate different kinds of policies and modes of intervention in the first world, second world, or third world–or whatever world you’re working in? Or do you try to somehow get down the ground and understand circumstances and develop a debate that allows you to make a prudent judgement whereby you think that the thing you’re going to do is better than the thing that others propose. So you’re choosing comparatively as opposed to absolutely. The book that Muldani wrote about Darfur [for instance]. You read that book, and it’s a critique of the Western way of engaging that problem, which is based on all these absolute assumptions. That notion of absolute assumptions is a position about knowledge: that you can start from these absolute places. He’s arguing that, to really figure out this problem, you really have to do the anthropology. You have to understand the ethnic histories. And no judgements are simple. So everyone wants to believe “Save Darfur!” There are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys are good this way and the bad guys are bad that way. It’s just a ridiculous analysis. It just obliterates the complexity of human experience. And Sen tries to take up that question: well, how are you supposed to make judgements if you don’t believe that there’s just one way, and we can find out, by virtue of that way, what the truth is and who is good and who is bad absolutely?

*

What you created was an interesting comparison. I’m not sure I agree with it: that Herodotus is the plurality and Thucydides believes in a kind mono-causal universe. Going back to the bottle [points to a bottle of seltzer]. Here’s the problem in life. Let’s say that the bottle is a problem. Then we have to figure out collectively what we’re going to do about the bottle. How do you proceed? Do you proceed with the notion that there is a truth that we could look to–however it is we figure it out–and then take our direction on how to deal with the bottle? Or do we try to create as robust a dialogue as possible about the fact that you can’t see this bottle from the perspective I see it? When I see a seltzer bottle I think of the seltzer I used to make, because I used to work at my grandfather’s soda factory for all the early years of my life, from the time I was five. So everybody does have a different experience of things. Now, is every experience of equal value? No. And that’s where a Sophist would bring in the question of rationality. Rationality is not a technique to derive the absolute truth, but rather an instrument or tool (which is what Sen would say) to figure out the best possible solution. Think of all of the ways that people try to claim they know what the problem is and where it came from–some are hideous and ridiculous. The reality is that it takes a collective endeavor to understand the problem, and even then you’re making decisions, and decisions are always based on limited human capacities to know and understand. People like Sen and Bruno Latour and others would argue that even in science it’s the same thing. That it doesn’t change because you can somehow invoke science. In fact, Latour says that one of our big problems now is that we let the scientists believe that they have an absolute purchase on a reality that no one else can understand. So what I was saying was, I liked your distinction, but I was also thinking that these two perspectives are alike in certain ways. They’re both recognizing the challenge of trying to understand. It’s as simple as that. The connection between them and Sen: I’m saying Herodotus and Thucydides show us the birth of the parameters for understanding.

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