Fashionable Nonsense

If enough of us band together and decide we don’t have to wear pants any more, we won’t have to do it … Pants are designed to hold you back from achieving all your hopes and dreams.
—Matt Bellassai “Reasons Wearing Pants Is The Absolute Worst”   Buzzfeed Video  

How did an organ-squeezing belly tourniquet become part of our everyday wardrobe—and what other suboptimal solutions do we routinely put up with?
—Stephen Dubner. “How Did The Belt Win?” Freakonomics Radio

The older and less successful I get, the more I think that the twentieth century never happened. In far-off Abu Dhabi, where the European Tour is playing this week—one can only imagine the security—the big “news” is whether science is important and how high hemlines can go. The leader after the first day was the 22 year-old winner of last year’s U.S. Amateur, Bryson DeChambeau, best-known for his odd clubs, which are each the same length, and his odd opinions—which are, it seems, equally longsighted. “I’m a golfing scientist,” DeChambeau told the world’s golf press there after shooting a low 64 the first day, before going on to compare himself implicitly to both George Washington and Einstein. Also in Abu Dhabi, the Euro Tour announced it would break with tradition and allow its members to play pro-am rounds in shorts. The reactions were predictable: “Pants on a golfer, for whatever reason, add a certain gravitas,” grumbled the architect/blogger Geoff Shackelford, while controversial Ian Poulter countered with “I mean, its 2016.” It’s unknown whether Poulter frequents Negro jazz cafes or can do the Charleston, although he certainly knows his way about a bob. The coming of DeChambeau however, may foretell more than simply the return of a combination of economic oppression and wild excess not seen—outside the pages of The Great Gatsby—in nearly a century.

Hence, I don’t really care about the hemline question, as amusing as it may be to witness grown men discuss fashion with all the seriousness of the Dowager Countess. But DeChambeau’s story is, I think, riveting, and not just because he also won the NCAA championships in addition to winning the Amateur last year, making him only the fifth golfer in history to win both in the same year. (The others are known hacks Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Ryan Moore.) Yet despite that kind of talent he still hasn’t turned professional, although he will likely have to soon: his school, Southern Methodist University, has been banned from next year’s NCAA championships for “recruiting and unethical conduct in the men’s golf program,” according to the NCAA. DeChambeau, however, is prepared for life after college golf: unusually for a student athlete with his kind of game, DeChambeau’s major at Southern Methodist University isn’t “physical education” or the old student-athlete standby, “business.” Instead, it’s physics.

Hence, the headline at Golf.com after the first round—in what might be one of the greatest feats of headline writing, golf division, in at least a couple of weeks—was “Abu Dhabi Leader DeChambeau Compares Himself To Einstein.” After his round, the young man told the media that when he first used what Golf calls “his unique swing” in 2011, he thought to himself “This could change golf,” and then said people “like Einstein and George Washington”—surely the first time both of those names have been mentioned in the same sentence by a professional golfer at a press conference—“just … capitalized on their differences and showed the world a little different side.” Not the most articulate explanation of the two historical figures to be sure—it recalls Rodney Dangerfield’s immortal line from Caddyshack: “This was invented by my friend Albert Einstein. Great guy. Made a fortune in physics.”—but it has the great advantage of being both hilariously ridiculous and, well, new.

Which is odd, because in another sense what DeChambeau represents is something absurdly old: as Ryan Lavner put it in his Golf Channel report on DeChambeau last summer, the coverage of DeChambeau after his Amateur win “portrayed [him] as an obsessive-compulsive, numbers-crazed techie who dissects a golf course.” For the past sixty years or so, at least, such a type of person has been considered anachronistic: University of Chicago PhD. Thomas Frank, for example, wrote a book twenty years ago entitled The Conquest of Cool about how (as one reviewer—Dan Geddes—summarized the point), “throughout the Fifties a general revulsion against the stultifying demands of consumer culture grew,” and industries like advertising and—interestingly from the point of view of golf’s present hemline debate—men’s fashion changed with that revulsion. Advertising, for example, experienced what’s become known as the “Creative Revolution”: “abandoning the scientific advertising of the 1950s,” advertising began “trying to portray their products as engines of youth and rebellion.” In this way, business constructed the present “hip versus square” battle that, for the most part, drives all of our lives in the present.

Bryson DeChambeau however doesn’t care about that: his “Bible” is, as Lavner notes, a book entitled The Golfing Machine, a strange book written by an engineer named Homer Kelley and first published to obscurity in 1982—eleven years before DeChambeau was born. Like the Bible, The Golfing Machine is a book that has begun to attract a body of scholarship: not long ago, a senior writer for Golf magazine named Scott Gummer wrote a book entitled Homer Kelley’s Golfing Machine: The Curious Quest That Solved Golf. (From a professional point of view, Gummer’s tome is a kind of both production and reception history.) The Golfing Machine is, apparently, a book that appeals to the logical sort of mind: in the foreword—another piece of critical apparatus—he wrote to Gummer’s book about Kelley’s book, PGA Tour player and winner of the 1995 PGA Championship, Steve Elkington, said that Kelley’s work appealed to something deep within his brain: “I always sensed,” Elkington wrote, “that the explanation for how to create a mechanically sound stroke could be found in math and science.” The Golfing Machine is a book known for being deeply “scientific”—to the point where it may even be difficult to understand.

Yet despite the book’s known difficulty—according to Rick Lipsey at Sports Illustrated, the book “reads like a physics textbook, which in a sense it is”—Lavner tells us that “DeChambeau has always wanted to model his game after” Kelley’s since his teacher, Mike Schy, gave it to him when he was 15 years old. One of his opponents during the match play portion of the U.S. Amateur, Maverick McNealy—himself a student of “industrial engineering that is modified to add computer science and statistics, with a specific concentration in financial and decision engineering” at Stanford, and the son of the co-founder of Sun Microsystems—called DeChambeau “very analytical and calculating.” But according to Lavner, the “aspect of his game that doesn’t receive as much attention—or credit—is DeChambeau’s imagination.” To Lavner, it seems, imagination is somehow different from, and opposed to, the analytical.

Presumably, Lavner is depending for his thought on arguments proposed by students of the humanities—like, say, English professor Stanley Fish. Fish might find my description of The Golfing Machine as DeChambeau’s “Bible” incredibly revealing: he is after all, well-known for his clashes with people like biologist Richard Dawkins. Just a few years ago, in the New York Times, for example, Fish once picked up on a phrase Dawkins dropped in a television interview about how, while religious adherents can only fall back on biblical authority, “in the arena of science … ‘you can actually cite chapter and verse’”—that is, anyone can consult the relevant studies. It’s the sort of argument that the “analytical” DeChambeau might be thought to find extremely appealing—in science, the claim goes, anyone could pick up the relevant thread and see for herself.

Fish however will have none of it: according to him, all this science talk means is that we “still cite chapter and verse—we still operate on trust—but the scripture has changed … and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.” The arguments of scientific people that, as Fish has it, the “chapter and verse of scriptural citation”—that is, the actual Bible—“is based on nothing but subjective faith,” whereas “the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence” can be met, according to Fish, with the (by now tiresomely familiar to some, still incredible to others) argument that (as Fish argues elsewhere) that “the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.” Hence, to Fish, “the rhetoric of disinterested inquiry, as retailed by the likes of Dawkins … is in fact a very interested assertion of the superiority of one set of beliefs.” Science, in other words, is simply another species of rhetoric, and so hence there is necessarily a distinction between science and other forms of inquiry, which is also to say that the analytical must be distinguished from the imaginative.

In sum, Fish is arguing that, as he says, “despite invocations of fairness and equality and giving every voice a chance,” in reality people who advocate for scientific beliefs “divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’” They are just another tribe in a world that, Fish suggests, is ruled by tribal identities above everything. In this case, the “tribes” seem to be those who believe in “data” and “evidence” and “logic” and so forth—the quotes are there because it is precisely the status of these items that is in dispute—and those who believe in “imagination” and “creativity” and so on. As if, one supposes, that science is conducted by rote, and that whatever is done in the humanities has nothing whatever to do with facts or evidence.

This distinction, however, is not one that’s always been believed: take, for example, the obituary published by the famous old American magazine called the New Republic for James Joyce, the noted Irish novelist—and another author, like Homer Kelley, known for the density, and near-unreadability, of his work. As a study of Joyce’s books in Significance, the website of the Royal Statistical Society, has remarked, Joyce’s two chief works—Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—“have often been described as difficult, and particularly the latter as unreadable or worse.” (Though Joyce is also usually thought to have written what many think of as what the New York Times has called “just about the finest short story in the English language”—the story at the end of Joyce’s collection, Dubliners, entitled “The Dead.”) Like Kelley, though to a much greater extent of course, Joyce has attracted a large critical following: the number of books about Joyce’s books must number in the thousands.

The reason for the interest Joyce’s work has undoubtedly attracted is often ascribed to the particular ferocity with which Joyce defended a notion of the artist as “the priest of the imagination,” as he called it. In Joyce’s conception, the artist is the creator of “epiphanies,” by which he meant the “outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace”; the chief of the tools Joyce is known to have used to create these epiphanies is the technique known as “stream-of-consciousness”—a technique that Joyce himself traced to an 1888 French novel entitled Les Lauriers sont coupés, but that most scholars believe long predated that work. (Though they also for the most part agree that, as one critic has put it, “it had not been employed previously in English on the scale, or with the flexibility” with which Joyce used it.) In the stream-of-consciousness technique, Joyce drew upon the work of the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose work “emphasized the difference between scientific, clock time and the direct, subjective, human experience of time,” as one commenter has put it. James Joyce might then be taken as the champion of Art as opposed to Science—and, in that sense, perhaps the precursor to the movement against the scientific that, as described by Thomas Frank, reached the larger culture sometime during the Fifties.

Yet, the New Republic did not describe Joyce as a great opponent of science on the occasion of his death in 1941. On the contrary: the Irish author was, the magazine said, “the great research scientist of letters, handling words with the same freedom and originality [with which] Einstein handles mathematical symbols.” And the magazine by no means qualified the statement—if anything, it doubled down: “Literature as a pure art,” the article also claimed, “approaches the nature of pure science.” To many readers today, the comparison appears outlandish—as Fish’s work shows, many, many people believe today that Art and Science are different, that they possess, as the biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said about science and religion, “non-overlapping magisteria,” or differing realms of exploration and authority. But that is not what the editors of the New Republic thought.

Now, in one sense this is a perfect instance of exactly the point Stanley Fish has spent by far the majority of his adult life making: what he has called (in “Dorothy and the Tree: A Lesson in Epistemology,” from 2011) “the thesis that the things we see and the categories we place them in … are functions of ways of thinking that have their source in culture rather than nature.” To many of us today, the 1941-era version of The New Republic looks ridiculous: to those educated in the forty years between, say, 1960 and, perhaps, 2000 the idea that James Joyce and Albert Einstein were in the same line of work is, at the very least, risible and, at worst, a sign of incipient schizophrenia.

Yet as DeChambeau’s mention of George Washington and Albert Einstein in the same breath reveals, Fish’s argument is itself revisable: that is, if it is possible to think that, because our categories are based upon “culture,” and not something eternal about the universe, then our categories can be endlessly redrawn—both Einstein and Washington, one could say, were revolutionaries in their respective fields, or both spoke Indo-European languages, or both were white men, or both grew up influenced by a Judeo-Christian morality, or both believed that long white hair makes a man look distinguished. But if that is so, then it is also possible, as indeed it must be by the terms of Fish’s argument, to think that since the distinction between the categories is “cultural” and not intrinsic, then science and art are simply differing races of the same species. That is, if you really take Fish’s argument seriously, then it shouldn’t be possible—as apparently it is for many people today—to think of “culture” as superior to “nature.” Instead, you’d think more or less what, apparently, the long-ago editors of the New Republic thought: that the distinction between science and art is a trivial one.

There are, as it happens, such people today, though it takes some doing to find them. Or should I say, hunt them down. “To interpret tracks and signs,” argues Louis Liebenberg in his book, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, “trackers must project themselves into the position of the animal in order to create a hypothetical explanation of what the animal was doing.” In this way, Liebenberg says, tracking is “not strictly empirical, since it also involves the tracker’s imagination”—which is to say that Liebenberg is perfectly willing to grant Stanley Fish’s point that science is, as Liebenberg says, “not only a product of objective observation of the world through sense perception” but “also a product of the human imagination.” But if that is so, then far from being a “cultural” phenomenon, science would be—just as it claims—ruled by natural, and not cultural, considerations.

Or to put it another way, the distinction would be beside the point: “Interpretation”—according to Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit—“is a natural human activity; it doesn’t require instruction.” Presumably, what Posner means is that, if interpretation exists, it must have come into existence somehow—and that, since it clearly has, it must have developed in a fashion not appreciably different than the biologically-based story Liebenberg lays out. To Fish, of course, such would mean something like the “capture” of the humanities by the sciences—but from the point of view of Liebenberg or Posner or the long-dead editors of the New Republic, there isn’t anything for the “sciences” to “capture”: both the sciences and the humanities are simply different facets of the same process.

What DeChambeau’s unself-consciousness about his desire for data, in turn, might mean then is that the world described by Frank—the world in which the sciences and the humanities are antagonistic to each other—may be about to turn. Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight, for example, has pioneered data-driven political journalism, while—as the newscasters say—in sports the Boston Red Sox won a championship for the first time in decades on the strength of the application of statistical work influenced by the baseball “sabermetrician” Bill James. If it is true that, as some might like to say, the zeitgeist is changing, then that would likely have certain implications that, at the moment, are entirely unpredictable—at least, for those of us old enough to remember the twentieth century. But if they do, it will not matter much to me: as I say, the older I get the more I am convinced that the twentieth century—that century that began by doing such fantastic deeds as passing constitutional amendments like the one granting women the vote and ensuring the direct election of senators, and then slowly lost momentum throughout the latter half of its course—never happened.

Of course, we will get to wear shorts.

 

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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