tempora cum causis (7)

Ancient. I wouldn’t say that I am the biggest Plato* fan in the world, but there is one passage of the Protagoras that I do actually find myself coming back to often. Here comes the Loeb of Protagoras 314a–314b:

καὶ γὰρ δὴ καὶ πολὺ μείζων κίνδυνος ἐν τῇ τῶν μαθημάτων ὠνῇ ἢ ἐν τῇ τῶν σιτίων. σιτία μὲν γὰρ καὶ ποτὰ πριάμενον παρὰ τοῦ καπήλου καὶ ἐμπόρου ἔξεστιν ἐν ἄλλοις ἀγγείοις ἀποφέρειν, καὶ πρὶν δέξασθαι αὐτὰ εἰς τὸ σῶμα πιόντα ἢ φαγόντα, καταθέμενον οἴκαδε ἔξεστι συμβουλεύσασθαι, παρακαλέσαντα τὸν ἐπαΐοντα, ὅ τι τε ἐδεστέον ἢ ποτέον καὶ ὅ τι μή, καὶ ὁπόσον καὶ ὁπότε· ὥστε ἐν τῇ ὠνῇ οὐ μέγας ὁ κίνδυνος. μαθήματα δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν ἄλλῳ ἀγγείῳ ἀπενεγκεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀνάγκη, καταθέντα τὴν τιμήν, τὸ μάθημα ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ψυχῇ λαβόντα καὶ μαθόντα ἀπιέναι ἢ βεβλαμμένον ἢ ὠφελημένον. 

“For I tell you there is far more serious risk in the purchase of doctrines than in that of eatables. When you buy victuals and liquors you can carry them off from the dealer or merchant in separate vessels, and before you take them into your body by drinking or eating you can lay them by in your house and take the advice of an expert whom you can call in, as to what is fit to eat or drink and what is not, and how much you should take and when; so that in this purchase the risk is not serious. But you cannot carry away doctrines in a separate vessel: you are compelled, when you have handed over the price, to take the doctrine in your very soul by learning it, and so to depart either an injured or a benefited man.”

Food and drink, the things we consume, can be good or bad for us. But we’re not immediately exposed to this benefit or harm. We have a chance to consider whether or not to ingest them. We can consult someone whose opinion is worth knowing. Ideas are different, according to Socrates. Once you hear something, you can’t unhear it. There is no mechanism to mediate ideas – we become infected, by good things and bad alike, via an organic movement of thought which no vessel can contain. Contagion of this kind is discussed in the Protagoras as part of a warning against accepting the teachings of the sophists – individuals who, from Plato’s perspective, can teach you intellectual parlour tricks, but not true wisdom. As James Collins (2015: 158) writes, “In this scenario, there is no gap between things taught and things learned; both are μαθήματα and instantly transmitted…To hear is to learn. Exposure means ingestion.”

As Collins notes, it’s surprisingly to hear Socrates speak this way. The absorption of ideas is figured as instantaneous – stripped of the possibility of a failure, or rejection, of understanding (ib.): “Following his metaphor of ingestion (δέξασθαι αὐτὰ εἰς τὸ σῶμα) to the end, also missing are the vital processes of chewing, swallowing, and digestion, not to mention the possibilities of indigestion and regurgitation.” Yet everyone who has tried to learn something knows that it’s not always easy to internalize new ideas. At the same time, the kind of unwitting contagion which this passage describes is a real phenomenon. In 1994, Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues, John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson, produced a text entitled Emotional Contagion, outlining the impact of one individual’s emotions over another’s. In the introduction to the book, Hatfield describes a scenario in which she and Rapson, working together as therapists, left a session in a state of high-wired anxiety. After some reflection they understood that they were both feeling the emotions of their patient, even though they did not realize this was the case, and indeed, had initially missed the signs of her deliberately cloaked distress.

While we’ve historically been discouraged from thinking so, we learn with our emotions. Plato’s suggestion that we “catch” ideas reflects the mechanism of emotional contagion, which in turn suggests that knowledge is generated and conveyed relationally, socially. Despite the fact that we (academics especially) flagillate and exert ourselves into knowing more, there is something to be said for the fact that a student (and, in my case, a professor, i.e. the eternal student) learns passively from their environment and from their social surroundings. The internet’s role in this epistemology of contagion is an interesting one. On the one hand, the exposure to so much social information means that we are exposed (and ingest) ideas at a higher rate than ever before. This does have benefits. The confessional nature of social media has given me a chance to see into the lives of those who have different experiences from me. Getting to know the voices of the marginalized prepares me better to advocate them for them in my own positions of power (such as they are). On the other hand, the difficulty of resisting this absorption means that malicious ideas are also spread quickly. Ultimately, it is of interest to that, as original as I may think I am, some of my ideas are not coming directly from my interal processes but are developing passively from my interactions with others.

*My problem is not really with Plato, but with the reception of Plato. It bothers me that Plato is so often invoked without placing his ideas in their cultural and intellectual context.

Modern. After hearing Sarah Derbew discuss Kevin Young’s The Grey Album (2012) during her talk at BU last week, I wanted to read it too. The first chapter of this work, “The Shadow Book”,  presents a taxonomy of books which fail to be written. Given the fact that what we research and write about must be reflective of our identities, I’m not exactly sure why I am so interested in fragmentation and lack. At a certain point I moved away from the fullness (some might say over-fullness) of Cicero towards the other voices which his works contain – or at least echo – and from that point on I became attracted to the world of the fragmented, forgotten, or lost. Young’s work confirms something which can be readily felt: no writing contains everything that the writer might wish to say, and all writing reveals a negative imprint of the world which shaped it. There is no fullness. In the case of black culture, fullness is negated not just by the natural negation of existence, but by a deep and long history of violence – slavery, social death, and the social inheritance of their effects. Books, if they are written in the first place, are left unfinished, lost, burned. In the context of violence, black authors speak in code; their words say one thing, but there is also another meaning, a shadow. Donna Zuckerberg used the image of the shadow library to describe how harassment in the academy has made us lose brilliant scholarship that was never produced. Young’s writing invites a reflection on what we really think text can do — certainly, literature and writing gives an index of reality, but it isn’t the totality of what is real. I keep find myself saying to our students, “The ancient sources don’t want to tell you what you want to know.” There is an inherent conservatism to most ancient writing – they are not like William Carlos Williams, whose poetry attempts to include, as Young (2012: 16) writes, “not everything but anything.” Cicero, whose letters often seem so confessional, wasn’t making a documentary for us. He took things for granted in his writing (as we all do); aspects of his life which were so familiar to him that he didn’t write about them are the kind of things which we could now never prove existed.

Internet.

Excerpt. Samantha Irby 2017: 218: “People are boring and terrible. I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups,* my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea. I have an attitude. And a sharp edge! I’m impatient. I like the whole bed.”

*I don’t usually include an editorial note on these excerpts (I like them to speak for themselves), but “my smart sometimes hiccups” is my new mantra.

Daily Life. Last week, thanks to Rhiannon Knol, I got to get up close and personal with some early printed classical texts at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. 

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