April 13: short cuts

There is this book ‘Sapiens’ going round, being perused by a range of self-important folk in the tube and elsewhere. Sapiens, as in homo sapiens, man. It is one of those total titles. It covers the world for you. I don’t know who wrote it. It is surely a Professor of Something with a Chair in something somewhere. We live in an era of short cuts to learning and wisdom. Of course, there are the self-help books that cover most of the ground floor of any bookshop now, but also there are these more learned volumes that claim to take us through from bottom to top of the enterprise that is us. Then the reader goes off knowing everything. Job done. They can get back on Instagram. Totalising is, of course, a valid enough enterprise. You cut through to the essential. The danger is that in any business of this nature there are generalisations, short cuts. The writer will mention Rousseau for one little reference to a movement in the 18th Century but will never have read him. It reminds me of a friend at university who was once telling me about Rabelais. He had read a chapter in a book on literary theory about the Russian critic Bakhtin’s book about Rabelais. so, having read no Rabelais (no 16th Century French literature at all, not even in English translation) and having read no Bakhtin at all, he was spewing out the opinion of a writer, who perhaps himself had never really read them. In the process, ideas are coarsened. A couple of little generalisations emerge. This is a phenomenon you get a lot of in contemporary art. You read the accompanying text to a piece of conceptual art and it cites Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida et al. You know this guy hasn’t read any of these people. Lots of short cuts. When everyone reads Sapiens and depends on their view of a whole range of thinkers on this digest, they are opening themselves up to all kinds of potential manipulation, intentional or unintentional.

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