Why a point?

by johnmccreery

Carl writes,

I’m afraid I don’t know how to both layer in codes and end up at a clean, neat point. Some assembly required.

I wonder why we need the closure that “clean, neat point” requires.

Our need could be practical. As Andrew Abbott points out in Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, applications of the social sciences typically take the form of identifying bottlenecks, points at which policymakers can hope to apply their levers to achieve a desired effect.

Our need could be aesthetic. We could be so used to thinking of “works” as bounded wholes, like pictures in frames, that it feels like something is missing if we cannot see the boundary that a clean, neat point implies.

But do we have to think like this?

In the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked Levi-Strauss suggests that knowledge be imagined as the formation of a galaxy from cosmic dust. Here and there new stars appear. Here and there structures emerge. But as soon as we approach the edge, we are back in the dust again. If, moreover, there is something to be learned from the history of science, it is that the closure implicit in scientific theories is more often a pause than a limit. Science works with approximations, not with proclamations of absolute Truth with a capital “T.” No sooner are new theories announced than scientists get to work at their edges, where the boundaries are never completely closed.

If art is our model, we should, perhaps, consider Henry Jenkins’ argument in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Jenkins observes that a characteristic feature of the new multimedia franchises is the lack of closure in individual items. Each new film or TV show not only anticipates a sequel. It also leaves holes in the story that are only filled by other media, e.g., when the fan reads the comic book or plays a video game. Intellectual property owners are continually trying to draw boundaries around a franchise, to ensure that only they profit. But fans equipped with the Internet and PC editing capabilities once restricted to multimillion dollar editing suites are continually eluding and transgressing the limits that the property owners set. The idea of the work as a bounded, finished whole with one neat, clear point is, it appears, going the way of the Dodo.


5 Comments to “Why a point?”

  1. A while back I saw a report on a study that used fMRIs to chart brain activity during performance of intellectual tasks, sampling people who had been prescreened and sorted according to their task-effectiveness. I think the hypothesis was that people who were good at focused task-oriented thinking would be pulling in resources from all over their brains, whereas poor thinkers would be underactivated. As it turned out exactly the opposite was the case. The brains of ineffective thinkers lit up like Christmas trees, with activation scattered all over the place. In contrast effective thinkers showed very intense but highly localized activation.

    Clearly the whole idea of ‘effectiness’ begs unpacking in relation to the question you’re asking (and my original rumination), but I cite this finding to suggest that at least for some purposes, being able to focus on and develop a point is a very important yet unevenly distributed skill. I can see this with my students, many of whom are almost literally paralyzed by what seem to me to be quite simple questions the answers to which they actually know, yet can’t find for the life of them. There’s a Three Stooges routine happening in their heads with all kinds of running around and into themselves. They just don’t know how to zero in on what’s needed. And it’s not that they are wired up instead for more complex thoughts – they can’t even get to those because they’re so in their own ways. I’m afraid it’s really quite pathetic, in a charming and all-too-human way.

    I think it’s a fascinating and open question whether what they need is skilling in focused, effective linearity so that eventually a more inclusive, wholistic approach can emerge from the dynamic interactions of all the straight lines; or whether you can develop responsible, effective wholism without first going through linearity. It may be that there are differences in brain architecture that condition these developmental processes. I try to show my students both and give them the opportunity to take what they need, which seems to work fairly well, but it’s hardly a science.

    Anyway, the closure of a neat, clean point is something we need or don’t need depending on what we’re trying to accomplish and what resources are available to us, I’d say.

  2. Could it be that we are confusing concentration, a process, with point, an outcome? Concentration is clearly a part of the Levi-Strauss galaxy model. No stars light up, no structures appear unless the cosmic dust is condensed.

  3. I’ll buy that, but if you’ve got the process can’t you get the outcome any time you need it?

  4. Not necessarily. Even if a process is available, the output may also depend on the input. The process may be exposed to interference. Also, if the process itself is probabilistic, the predictable output may not be reducible to one clear point, even given a particular input and trouble-free operation.

    Nothing that I have suggested here should be construed as encouraging sloppy thinking. It is, rather, an experiment in shifting thinking away from a single-point perspective, the sort of thing found in Cubism but also in classic Chinese and Japanese ink-painting, where multiple perspectives are common, approaching scenes simultaneously from several different directions.

    Why would one want to do that? One might, for example, note that single-point perspective is associated with simple, mechanical solutions to problems. But, as general systems theorists have shown us, problems soluble by simple, mechanical models, or even their statistical analogues, are relatively rare. I think, too, of Clifford Geertz’s opening paragraph to “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man.”

    Toward the end of his recent study of the ideas used by tribal peoples, La Pensée Sauvage, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss remarks that scientific explanation does not consist, as we have been led to imagine, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists, he says, in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less. So far as the study of man is concerned, one may go even further, I think, and argue that explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity than went with the simple ones.

  5. Oh, me like. The necessity to work in linear fashion and come to a full stop was a source of considerable frustration during my dissertation, which in my head was always structured like a map as opposed to a highway. I applied to be able to write it in hypertextual form, and they said yes so long as I would also produce a traditionally bound document (ones of those yesses that resembles very much a no, in other words.) Now in blog form I can be circuitous and I just find it so much more productive.

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