Science Dismal and Science Gay

I have just returned from a week in New England—Boston mainly, where the American Association of Geographers (née Association of American Geographers) held its annual shindig.  I’m very far from being a regular at this event, especially of late, but various factors induced me to break my abstinence and make what may well be my last appearance among the bon ton of geography.

One inducement was an invitation to sit on a panel organized to discuss a book entitled The Anarchist Roots of Geography.  How my name came to be considered remains a mystery, but the fact that the invitation came at the last minute strongly suggests that it was an act of desperation undertaken as a last resort in a thick fog of confusion.  Why this invitation was, to me, an inducement is also something of a mystery, but I remember that it seemed like a good idea last Fall.  As I explained in my exordium, I may very well be the only self-identified reactionary in the discipline of geography, and have sympathy for anarchism only insofar as I am naturally refractory, anti-social, and opposed to being bossed around.

Although this panel met at 8:00 a.m. on the first morning of the conference, it drew a sizable audience of anarchists and fellow travelers, both types being nowadays plentiful in geography.  My remarks boiled down to the observation that theoretical anarchism (as opposed to the practical, bomb-throwing sort) is a gnostic sect.  Its essential gnosis is that Thomas Hobbes was correct to say that the Will to Power springs from fear, and that fear causes men to create the Leviathan State, but that Hobbes was wrong when he said this fear was justified because the state of nature is a “war of all against all.”

Stated even more succinctly, the anarchist gnosis is that humans are naturally cuddly as bunnies, but have been rendered scaly as snakes by they lie that they are not.

I’m not here to develop or defend this argument, but mention it only to point up the irony of a couple of incidents connected to this Anarchism panel.

One of the other panelists was a feminist whose hair may or may not have been blue, but whose feet were most certainly shod in army boots like unto those worn by Loweezy Smith (consort of Snuffy, and no relation to the author).  The gist of her comments was that the “anarchist community” was, in fact, a “manarchist” tyranny.  Whether due to their brutish insensitivity, or simple brutish brutality, anarchist men apparently daily inflict countless “microagressions” (yes, she used the word) against feminists.

Clearly, this lady in the boots saw herself as She Who Must Be Obeyed, although her resemblance to H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha was not otherwise pronounced.

The other incident occurred as I left the panel in the company of my middle son, who is fourteen and had sat through the gabfest, at the back of the room.  Strolling down the busy hotel corridor, he put this rather trenchant question:

“Dad, what did that have to do with geography?”

“Not much,” said I.

“I mean, doesn’t geography have something to do with the land?”

“Sometimes,” said I.

“Those people were only talking about politics.”

“You’re right.”

“Why is that?” he ingenuously asked.

“Beats me,” I disingenuously answered.

Looking back, I see that I should have taken this opportunity to draw him aside and explain that anarchists only pretend to oppose the Will to Power, and that their pretense of gelassenheit is, in fact, just another sly expression of the Will to Power.

As to why this particular scramble for Power was taking place at a meeting of what my son felicitously described as geographists and geographizers, that would take more time and tedium than any fourteen-year-old could be expected to endure.

I also gave a paper at this conference, my performance appearing on the program at 6:40 on Friday evening, when all the right-thinking geographists and geographizers were ensconced in nearby taprooms, grog shops, and disorderly houses.  One reason for the unfortunate timing was that the participants in my “session” had not organized themselves, but had instead been thrown together by the meeting organizers because of some broad resemblance in the topics of their papers.  In our case the broad resemblance was a concern with “education.”

The meeting organizers had also appointed me as the Chair of the session, which means that I was expected to introduced speakers, cut them off when their twenty minutes had elapsed, and then do my best to rouse a little appreciative hand-clapping in the audience.

Needless to say, our audience was exceedingly small.  Perhaps I should say it was intimate, for it was limited to the speakers in the session and a handful of their friends and family (including my very patient son).

First up was a fellow from England who told us that education should be more Marxist, although he of course dwelt on his sharp disagreements with some other fellows who believe education should be more Marxist.  He told us that he was not a geographer (nor, I suppose, a geographist or geographizer), but that he attends geography meetings (at the expense of British taxpayers) for reasons that should be (but were not) apparent to all.

The second speaker was an elderly gentleman from the Republic of Georgia who outlined a syllabus he had designed to teach geography without running afoul of the Soviet authorities.  As his English was limited, he helpfully projected the script from which he read on PowerPoint slides.  Although he had his family with him, he kept looking to me with a worried and rather apologetic expression on his face, perhaps under an apprehension that I was a Soviet agent.

The third speaker was a young woman from Taiwan who uses eye-tracking technology to study how people connect the objects on a map with objects in the landscape in front of them, and thereby “orient” themselves in space.  The salient mental operation is called “object rotation,” and in the performance of this operation, men and women are not equally gifted.  The young woman from Taiwan is herself gifted in the mental operation known as “staying on the right side of history,” so she said this inequality is a great mystery.

Our fourth speaker didn’t show up, perhaps because he was detained in some taproom, grog shop, or disorderly house.

I came last in order of presentation, but not in spirit, vigor, or vim.  My topic was, indeed, the need for geographers to show some spirit by embracing the romance, poetry, beauty and heroism that are naturally connected to the study of faraway places, the surveying of spacious landscapes, and the pleasures of exploration (real or vicarious).  Students are not, I pointed out, sour old husks—at least not yet.  Whatever their faults, they are full of life and a confidence that the earth is filled with wonders.  It is therefore stupid, and very possibly evil, for us to blight this vitality with dolorous “criticism.”

To give my jeremiad some semblance of academic respectability, I tied my argument to two ideas from Thomas Carlyle.  The first was his fictional bugbear Professor Dryasdust, a plodding German pedant who succeeds in making everything boring and drab.  Being a bit of a pedant myself, I pointed out that Carlyle got this character from Sir Walter Scott.  In both Scott and Carlyle, Dr. Dryasdust is the enemy of romance, poetry, beauty and heroism, and a great proponent of “dismal science.”

Many today think that economics is the “dismal science,” whereas for Carlyle (who coined the phrase) it was one branch of dismal science.  Dismal science stood in opposition to “the gay science,” a phrase that was understood from about 1500 until about 1980 as the name of romantic poetry.  Gay science represented human existence as a glorious thing that was filled with romance, poetry, beauty and heroism.  It proposed that “man has a soul in him different from the stomach,” unlike dismal science (i.e. positivism), which represented the world as nothing more than “a kitchen and a cattle stall.”

Although he perked up at the mention of gay science, the English Marxist seemed to disapprove of what I said.  The contingent from Georgia said they agreed with everything I said, but wondered if saying it was altogether prudent.  A young man from Taiwan asked me why they were not taught such things back home.  I should have answered that it is because Dr. Dryasdust still controls all of those parts of geography that have not fallen under control of the geographizers, geographists, and She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Geographizing is a weary business, and neither I nor my son are gifted with limitless patience, so we played hooky more than once.  This delinquency no doubt impaired our knowledge of geographism, but some might find compensating improvements in our knowledge of geography.  In our wanderings we found some romance and poetry (albeit of a melancholy sort), some beauty, and even a little heroism.


A Short Gallery With Comments

immigrantsBoston is the most strikingly post-Christian city in America, the field being strong and the striving for distinction fierce.  I think this is because the relics of Christianity are so conspicuous, the hulks of dead churches littering the landscape like bones in a desert.  In the center of other American cities, most churches have either been razed, or are indistinguishable from the hockey arenas and department stores by which they are surrounded.  This banner was popular on Boston churches.  It was poignant to contrast the gothic architecture with which the West was born and the humanitarian sentimentality by which it will be buried.  Looking more closely at the banner, one wonders if Egypt may indeed be a fitting symbol of post-Christian America.  Or perhaps failing to understand the meaning of Egypt in biblical iconography is the most fitting symbol of all.


Burying GroundWhile in Boston, I read that Harvard University will shortly change the last line of its song “Fair Harvard.”  As presently written, this song exhorts the school to strive towards its destiny of truth and goodness, and to eschew “moss-covered error,” “til the stock of the Puritans die.”  It seems that even Harvard has come to recognize as “moss-covered error” the pretense that the “stock of the Puritans” is still with us in this world.  The “spirit,” perhaps, but not the “stock.”


SkullThere is, of course, some truth to the theory that derives Progressivism from Puritanism; but the theory is wrong to suggest that Progressivism was the telos of Puritanism.  One doesn’t get Progressivism out of Puritanism without gross violence to Puritanism.  I think this is most evident when we consider the stark difference in the attitudes these creeds take to pretty lies.  The Puritans really hated pretty lies, whereas Progressives love any lie that is pretty enough.  I’ve seen modern tombstones decorated with a fishing pole, a bowling ball, and a tractor trailer truck; but never one decorated with the brutal realism of this old Puritan stone.


PewThe old churches have small placards, such as the one my son is reading here, explaining the economic, social, and physiological meaning of box pews.  If there was a placard that ventured to interpret the theological meaning, I missed it.  The placards gave us to understand that a box pew was simply a status symbol and a shelter against cold drafts; and they missed no opportunity to remind us that low-status congregants (especially Blacks) were exiled to shame and shivering in the galleries.  The theological significance of box pews is, of course, found in the last verse of Joshua 24, with its rather strong suggestion that we ideally approach the Lord as families, and not as a motley mob who simply squash into a pew all together.



I have a brother in New Hampshire, and one afternoon the three of us hiked to the summit of Mount Moosilauke, which is just shy of 5,000 feet and therefore still buried in snow.  The name means bare summit, and Moosilauke is not misnamed.  On this particular afternoon, the summit of Moosilauke was also whipped by a wind that could have stripped all hair from the head of a young man, this wind enhanced by a pelting rain that it drove through two waterproof layers.  Staggering down Moosilauke, with pale hypothermia close on our heels, I had occasion to reflect on the folly of pretty lies, and the even greater folly of dismal science.  Real life is always within spitting distance of death.

13 thoughts on “Science Dismal and Science Gay

  1. Pingback: Science Dismal and Science Gay | @the_arv

  2. I once organized a major humanities conference in a hotel located between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which, like the Twin Towers, no longer exists. My proposal to the board, which the board, being as pusillanimous and ineffective as any board is, pettily rejected was to have a gang on hand at every session to truncheon speakers into polite silence when they trespassed beyond their twenty minutes of allotted time. (Naturally, I wanted the gang to undertake their truncheonings gaily, not dismally.) I also thought that it would be a good thing for the same gang to truncheon “questioners” who, after three minutes of pontificating, had not yet posed an actual question. I still favor these ideas. In fact, I believe that daily, random truncheonings would greatly improve the attitudinal quality of most humanities faculties.

  3. Pingback: Science Dismal and Science Gay | Reaction Times

  4. In Scotland, pews, which are usually appendant or appurtenant to land in the parish, have been the subject of much litigation, one case, Stiven versus the Heritors of Kirriemuir, heard in the First Division on 13th November 1878.being commemorated in verse.

    In consequence of alterations in the church it was found that there was not a sufficient number of seats for the heritors [Heritors are the Scottish equivalent of freeholders and are bound to maintain the kirk and manse].

    “They couldna a’ get in, ’twas clear,
    But what tho’ some maun bide awa’,
    They had the richt the Word to hear,
    And Scotsmen lo’e their richts’ bune a’.”

    Among the heritors, one objected to the change, and the poem proceeded—

    “The allocation syne began,
    According to an auld decree.
    But up and cries this angry man,
    ‘Na, faith I’ll gie the lairds a plea.
    I’d rather gang nae mair to kirk,
    And risk auld Nick’s eternal fumes,
    Than yield to this unlawful wark
    O’ conjunct richts in bottom rooms.’

    The Lords replied—

    ‘What’s that to us? Ye seem, indeed, a cankered chiel.
    The auld kirk stands, and while it does
    The auld decree maim stand as weel.
    Mak’ the best of that, my friend;
    And when ye find a sitting toom,
    Think mair upon yer latter end,
    And less upon yer bottom room.'”

    • Weren’t pews an early modern innovation? At traditional liturgies East and West most stood and kneeled or prostrated on the cold hard floor. I bring this up because pews always struck me as the type of Baroque accretion that the reform of the liturgy was supposed to save us from. Of course we can never “go back” to more pentintial and truly austere practices.

      Also regarding families sitting together I have read that in the early Church the genders stood segregated from each other. Some of the Eastern churches still maintain the practice.

      • Pews certainly date back to the very beginning of the 14th century, for we find actions for perturbation of pew being raised in the courts Christian; in some cases, one suspects, to try the title to the lands to which they were appendant there, rather than in the temporal courts.

        The custom of the Lord of Erection having “seating” is very old and, in guild churches, the Worshipful Master and Wardens were entitled to a canopy and, one presumes, a seat under it.

        Most of the congregation did not have seating, as the story of Jenny Geddes throwing her stool at the Dean of St Giles in protest at the Common Prayer Book on 23 July 1637 shows.

  5. I’m afraid I don’t know the history of church seating in any detail. I know that box pews can be partly explained as a means to raise money in a disestablished church. My sense is that “passing the plate” may be a modern innovation. Medieval cathedrals often have balconies, sometimes enclosed by glass windows, and these were explained to me as, essentially, skyboxes for aristocrats. I’m not sure of this, since they are often located beyond the altar rail.

    To fully understand box pews, one must take in certain economic and sociological factors; but I believe one must also take in the theological significance they had for the families that sat in them. The interpretive material I saw in the Boston churches focused exclusively on the economic and sociological, and was thus entirely in the spirit of dismal science.

  6. Superb article. So great in fact that I almost hate to sully it with a minor objection. But it gets at an important point…

    the theory is wrong to suggest that Progressivism was the telos of Puritanism. One doesn’t get Progressivism out of Puritanism without gross violence to Puritanism.

    The point being: What IS (or rather was) the telos of Puritanism? I’m having a hard time conceiving as anything other than rebellion and chaos. Certainly the original Puritans cared very much for doctrine. Indeed, so much so they tore apart the thing they wished to purify. Quite apart from the truth or falsity of any doctrinal point, the episode stands at least as a warning that doctrinal questions cannot be well answered in isolation from the social and psychological ecosystem in which they arise. That religious egalitarianism leads to social instability—and… eventually… much wickedness–is clear, irrespective of whether it’s correct doctrine.

    • Or we could simply say that egalitarianism per se – whether religious or not – leads to social instability. Social instability being the condition of a society in which clear agreement on the persons properly vested with authority has been muddled.

    • Thanks! I don’t think Progressivism can be the telos of Puritanism because Puritanism doesn’t always evolve into Progressivism. Sometimes it evolves into low-church fundamentalism. If we look at the Presbyterians, we see that the Progressives generally outmaneuver the low-church fundamentalists and commandeer the institutions, but the low-church fundamentalists are no less the intellectual heirs of the Puritans. Many people who got the Puritan thesis from Moldbug don’t ask how Moldbug explains his hero R. L. Dabney, whose Puritan pedigree is as good as that of William Ellery Channing or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dabney’s Defense of Virginia and the South is a book in the Puritan tradition. The same might be said for Rousas John Rushdoony, who strikes me as a very capable critic of Progressivism.

      With that said, I also think it would be reasonable to say that Puritanism is a very dangerous doctrine, perhaps so dangerous as to be universally avoided. As you say, the danger lies in the fact that it is highly unstable, and therefore easily deflected by rather small perturbations in its environment. For example, it clearly goes haywire if anyone fiddles with the strong Calvinist principle of depravity. Replace this principle with some eighteenth-century folderol about “Reason and Virtue,” and before you know it you’re looking at a smug Unitarian. It also reacts badly when mixed with German idealism, basically by confusing divine providence and historical progress.

      Finally, I would agree that Puritans generally do not know when to quit, so their effort to “clean house” often ends by smashing all the furniture and throwing it out the window. I believe that Americans were uniquely vulnerable to the trash of pop culture because Puritans had so ruthlessly expunged so much of the old, European, Catholic culture. When they tore down the May Pole, they were clearing a space for Mickey Mouse. In this sense I suppose one might liken Puritanism to the AIDS virus. It does’t kill you, but it opens the gates to the thing that will kill you.

  7. If I’m recognizing the church in question, your photo crops out the funniest part of that particular banner: immediately below it, a placard suspended by chain in front of the door saying “For security reasons, this door is locked at all times.”

  8. Pingback: The Very Best of Last Week in Reaction (2017/04/16) – The Reactivity Place


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