U.S. Intellectual History Blog

I Blame The Boss: Musings About the Missed Conference

The following is a guest post from Paul Croce, a professor of history and American Studies at Stetson University.  Paul is a prolific scholar of William James and his era, including, Science and Religion in the Age of William James: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880.

Like many of us, he laments the cancellation of our latest conference.  But not without a bit of wit!

While we nurse our disappointments about Hurricane Sandy forcing the cancellation of the conference, please keep in mind the true source of this disaster.  I blame The Boss.
 Yes Bruce Springsteen.  Ever since the early 1970s, he has been crooning from Asbury Park for his elusive Sandy girl, hoping for “carnival life” with her (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdwwIElfHPE).  But she just kept “runnin’ and laughin’,” always staying out of reach.  Until now.  After all that beckoning, she finally said, You called?  Ok, … here I come!….   
While waiting for Sandy, Springsteen mentioned Madame Marie Castello, whose fortune telling he liked because “the world has lost enough mystery.”
I have been reading a marvelous public intellectual book, Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong:Adventures in the Margins of Error (2010), which makes no mention of Madame Castello, fortune telling, or Springsteen.  But Schulz does offer astute descriptions of the role of elusive uncertainties in our lives.  The gap between the world we expect and often demand, and the messy things that actually happen is a constant source of our getting things wrong.  We generally call these problems, but she points out that being right is generally static, while being wrong is a source inspiration for science and the arts, it can be an adventure in diversity, chance, and exploration, and it is distinctively human.  To err is human, while animals and machines operate with fewer choices or none at all, and the divine, at least in monotheistic traditions, is never wrong.  Human mistakes point to our distinctiveness, and provide lessons for self-discovery. 
Many would prefer to think of the world without mystery.  My little story about the New Jersey Boss directing the storm can serve as a reminder that for all the power of our theories, contingencies still emerge, outliers happen, and natural forces can surprise.  Planning for the conference is a microcosm of all our imposition of order on life with conveniences, comforts, schedules, and clock time itself, all recent developments in world history, and even now, even the most astute intellectuals cannot control all. 
There are still more agents for proposed order, emerging from much popular religion.  A significant portion of the public maintains that there is a much bigger divine boss operating weather systems and all the world at first hand.  There is an eerie resemblance between the absolutes of religion and the confidence in human reason and organizing talents: they both attempt to banish mystery.  Historians do not need to endorse such beliefs to reckon with their competing power in a democratic culture, even while we as a group are particularly aware that contingencies abound.
Beyond awareness of the world’s capacity to surprise, what can we do about it?  I learned recently about a study of mosquitoes’ capacity to fly during rain storms, since each raindrop is to them like a boulder that could crush them.  They don’t avoid the dangers; they ride them.  Mosquitoes take constant brief trips on drops as those dangers come at them.  They turn the problems into opportunities.
So, my fellow historians, is there a way to turn this problem, this canceled conference, created by Springsteen or not, into an opportunity?—beyond the opportunities that emerged when we all just gained a weekend….  Perhaps we can have an exchange of papers with commentary on the blog; or if there is a future meeting, when there will likely be plenty of gaps in attendance, we could have panel chairs “filled” by colleagues on Skype.  It would not be the same as meeting face to face—and gleaning all the benefits of contingencies that emerge from personal contact—but it could be a chance to get a piece of the conference that wasn’t. 

Through all this musing about natural forces and mysteries, of course by cancelling the conference we also avoided immersion in a disaster zone.  The residents of New York and surroundings have been suffering and coping.  There was even a report of sea lions and sharks making their way through the streets of New York—and this was not just a joke about stock brokers and lawyers.  All best wishes to the victims of the storm and their families, and see you at the next US Intellectual History conference, whenever and however  nature and our schedules allow it to be.