I’ve been called a cynic, which I’ve long held rather as healthy scepticism. And I’ve railed over uncertainty now and then, mostly in academics although, in fairness, never absolutely. But, all irony aside, I now defer with appreciative respect to Russell Napier, whose typically gripping understatement offers a typically brilliant case not simply for uncertainty but for its necessity.
Napier initially co-founded the Library to register mistakes from business and finance although he mentions that the Library’s embrace has since widened to reflect more equitable representation… true enough: if there was ever a sector of sustainable growth…
On the other hand, if the Library may ever truly succeed, you expect it will need to put itself out of business – gladly, I suppose. But, as I say, all irony aside.
He devotes a good portion of his commentary here to sound money, fraudulent banking, and the consequences of ruinous ill discipline. He’s droll, simple, clear, and engrossing.
It’s not all negative, either: whether or not the flipside to every mistake is great success or mere intention – either way, hey… there’s a flipside.
And that, I suppose, is the take-away just now, for me anyway… with modest whimsy, Napier and the Library sound a call of respect for uncertainty and the untidiness that efficiency and statistics and computation are not only unwilling to consider but unable to predict or control. If the reason to embrace uncertainty is because outcomes can’t be guaranteed, what is that if not attributable to people… to our deficiency, our equivocation, our inexactitude? In a culture where metrics are religion and science invincible, truth is what can be measured, and qualitative uncertainty has been a nobly humoured side of fries.
Napier speaks here for about half an hour, ahead of a short and equally informative Q&A, and caps his remarks with a reminder that any opinion one has will utterly depend on the perspective one takes in order to have it.
As ever with Russell Napier, at least for me, the time spent feels most definitely worthwhile and insufficiently brief.
There’s a cultural tone where progress is pretty full of its own value. The connotation of progress often suggests, by the same turn, that whatever is not progress is an obstacle. This sense of progress discounts whatever preceded it as obsolete – whether as something quaint or paltry but, either way, as certainly not worth keeping. To this sense of progress, however ironically, history is invective.
Progress is commonly venerated as something that’s coming next that is better and, obviously, thereby to be preferred, as compared to whatever’s coming next as being simply next. What might have amounted to an organic change is pre-empted by the contrivance of progress. What might have been less characterised than simply observed is superseded by an imperative for progress, the value and desirability of which is clear to any who decide to believe it, and lost on any who decide not to.
Who decided progress gets to play the trump card? When and how was progress excused from easing its way in respectfully, the way I ask students to join us quietly when they arrive late? What makes progress this prevailingly important, as compared to any other approach or way to be that we might choose to try?
Maybe asking these questions is stubborn, but that only makes progress more pushy – and if both are arrogant for saying so, well… I’m pretty sure it takes one to know one.
Progress ought to understand, when it rips the past to shreds, that it’s not the only one who’s expended itself to become what it becomes. Tearing down the past can discount untold gallons of blood sweat and tears. One swing of progress can undo years, decades, centuries of labour, layer upon layer of things learned along the way up til then, things like the forebears of – yeah – progress.
Assuming one and only one stance risks neglecting any other perspective. Careful note here ought to assure that progress, like status quo, doesn’t have to be a nemesis or a victim, not unless it decides to be.
At a glance, this post admittedly seems eclectic, which is writer’s code for incoherent. Two things… (i) okay, that’s fair; (ii) ‘show, don’t tell’ is writer’s code for respecting the audience, which is coded code for ‘intentionally eclectic’.
If this works out, future posts will probably be a whole lot easier.
Elsewhere, briefly, I consider something Martha Nussbaum offers about emotions – their essence, their “history,” as she puts it – which really I take to be our histories, and history too, I suppose.
To characterise grief, for example, she says, “… the experience itself involves a storm of memories and concrete perceptions,” what she earlier calls “rich and dense perceptions” (p. 65). Later, she indicates “memory” as synonymous with “an emotional habit” (p. 114) and cites neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux to say memories are not individual items per se but composite outcomes of our physiological network – in one sense, like how a movie isn’t just ‘by’ the Director but thanks to the enduring efforts of an entire cast and crew; in another sense, like how a highway is not so much a destination as a well-trodden connection between two destinations.
For his part, LeDoux distinguishes between (what I will call) instincts and emotions – the former we share with the lowest bacterium, the latter all our own, being self-aware, to boast on high as we will.
All this is fascinating. But when I experience flashes of memory, that seem to me disjointed things, which come and go, glimmer and fade, tripped by who-knows-what… when this happens to me, rather than look back at what comprises them, just as often I’m trying to piece them together with sharper moments into some more indicative pattern. I guess you could say I’m trying to find some meaning to them.
So… three memories, falling together…
In the backseat of my Mom’s VW, stopped for a fill-up, when gas stations belonged in neighbourhoods…
The jockey’s a young guy, teens or twenties, although that’s still just an adult to me. And he is hustling – from the driver’s window to the pump, the squeegee, the tires, back around to check the oil. I crane my neck, too obedient to undo my seatbelt, so all I see is an elbow and a ball cap. Into the building, back with the Chargex. Somewhere in all this, while he’s blurring past the front windshield, my Mom remarks to me, to herself, something like “Would you look at him – if the whole country worked that hard, the economy wouldn’t be in so much trouble.”
At the time, I took her word for it – this is before friends, or books, or stuff like favourite bands and watching movies. I just logged the admiration, and only much later was I struck that my Mom would ever note the economy. But I figure that’s how pervasive inflation really was at the time. For me, inflation was California on the evening news, people atop car hoods and lounging in open passenger doors, lined up waiting for gas.
In the front “yard” of the Firehall, where we played soccer and football, and watched the trucks come and go – today with one of the neighbourhood kids.
Just me and him, and no football – just talking. He’s one of these kids who’s already matured, a real brain, and speaks with that cadence adults have. Of all things, we’re talking about gold, which somewhere along the way I’ve heard my brother talking about with my Dad. And you know what they say… by the time you’re hearing nine-year olds talk about it at the Firehall, it’s definitely reached its peak.
In fact, he informs me with assured cadence, gold is now well past its peak on the way down, a claim my Dad confirms for me later that evening. And in one conversation for decades is lost all the lustre that no amountofhistory will sustain when you don’t know any of it anyway.
In the living room – the second one, where the furniture feels out of place and the jaded nuclear family finally muddles to a close.
I listen from the door as my Dad, in his deliberate way, explains fractional reserve banking and fiat currencies to me from the easy chair – derisively, at my incredulity, and ruefully, now that he, and we, are irrevocably scarred by misfortune. He explains the Commodity Exchange, in all its cacophony, and the primacy of foreign exchange, and he explains bankreserves, and the vacuous basis of all: debt.
And he forecasts the end – how it can only end, how it must end – and offers his strictest piece of advice: never owe what you can’t afford because – and really now I’m paraphrasing, this was like 1985 – because what people commonly call a House of Cards is actually a Set of Dominos, that are already well underway.
They’re faded memories, 35–40–45 years ago now, and an admitted jumble… is their only common thread “me” and nothing more?
You might say so – and hey, belonging to me, how could they mean anything to you beyond the scope of your physiological network? Different cast + different crew = different movie. So why even share them like this?
No, I wouldn’t expect my memories to strike you, at least not the way they strike me. Still, though… high road or low road – I just can’t help but wonder whether we’re all bound for the same destination.