Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sensory Cascade: Progress or Change?

...the ever-whirling wheele of Change...

Some common phenomena almost universally experienced yet lack an identifying name. Everybody knows what déjà vu is, but what do you call that experience of searching for a word that is “on the tip of your tongue” but can apparently make it no farther than that? The experience with which I begin is one I know to be widely shared. You encounter a new word, a new idea, a new historical personage, a new medical condition, a new—whatever. You are sure you have never encountered it before. But all of a sudden the floodgates seem to open, and you are encountering it everywhere. This experience needs a name, and I invite my readers to make nominations. For the time being I’ll call it “sensory cascade”.

I awoke this morning with the vague intention of writing a blog about two aspects of progress. The first aspect, an abstract one, relates to the curious misuse of the word “progressive” (noun) in current political discourse. The second aspect, entirely concrete, or at least petrine, relates to the current state of the stone wall last mentioned on July 7th. I don’t ponder the linguistic history of the word “progress” very often. Hence I was somewhat astonished when I opened the editorial page of this morning’s NY Times to find an essay by one John McWhorter entitled “The Dreaded P-Word.” Definitely sensory cascade.

I won’t try to link the op ed piece, since that would force me, and you, to “register” with our national paper of record. Tastes differ, but I work my way through the Times editorial page very much in the spirit that I work through my morning laps, or might work through a session of head-butting a brick wall. The experience stimulates the adrenaline, and you feel much better when you stop doing it.

McWhorter’s essay is excellent, however. He is identified as a “contributing editor at City Journal”. This fact unleashed another sensory cascade, since until recently I had never heard of City Journal. But then out of the blue one of my most brilliant former students, now the journal’s managing editor, invited me to write a little piece for it. I actually got paid coin of the realm for dashing off a mini-blog. Since then references to the journal have been popping up everywhere.

Mr. McWhorter’s subject is the recent attempt of so-called “liberals” to rechristen themselves as so-called “progressives”. He is, I assume, a so-called "conservative." Naturally he has a political point, but he writes as a linguistic historian, and this is what gives charm to the essay. The vulgar understanding of the word “progress” begins with the assumption that change is in and of itself a good thing. This is a proposition dubious in the extreme. President Obama campaigned as “the candidate of change.” Not merely that, he was the candidate of “change you can believe in,” presumably the best kind. Change is dynamic and kinetic; change is hopping all over the place. Yet there is an aspect of all this that seems insufficiently considered. When the new president took the oath of office he promised to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This is a commitment not to change but to an unwavering stasis. The Bill of Rights: the same old same old, since 1791.

Most of our ancestors regarded change, in the abstract, with something approaching horror. There are some fragmentary stanzas that we believe Spenser intended to incorporate into his Faerie Queene. They are usually called “The Mutabilitie Cantos,” and they begin thus:

What man that sees the ever-whirling wheele,

Of Change, the which all mortall things doth sway,

But that therby doth find, and plainly feele,

How MUTABILITY in them doth play

Her cruell sports to many mens decay?

That was the classical Western attitude to “change”.

One can make progress only with regard to fixed goals. If you are in Allentown PA you can make progress toward your goal of Keokuk IA, for instance. Progress toward fuzzy or ambiguous ends—“the greatest good for the greatest number,” for instance, or “affordable, quality health-care for all Americans”—is likely to be as slippery and uncertain as the ends themselves. That is, it is relatively simple to effect change. Achieving progress is something else altogether. I spent a good deal of the week moving a large number of heavy bricks from one pile to another some twenty-five yards away. I guess that is change I can believe in, and I now have a random brick pile that was once at point A and is now at point B. But you can definitely make progress when your goal is the completion of a stone wall, and this week I have been a progressive.




  1. Dear Professor,

    I grew up in a milieu in which "progressive" was the term of choice used to identify the best sort of people in the political world, the people with whom my parents most closely identified, a term which distinguished real "progressives" from run-of the-mill liberals.

    Some of their favorite "progressive" people and institutions included Vito Marcantonio and Adam Clayton Powell (when he was on the American Labor Party line), the newspaper PM (where David Axelrod's mother worked as an editor), the American Veterans Committee, and veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

    My parents were former members of the Communist Party, USA, who remained staunch fellow-travelers even after Hungary, maintaining a fierce loyalty to the ultimate propriety of the "peace-loving Soviet Union" that even extended to a fondness for Russian popular and high culture. They participated in all of the "movements" the KGB sponsored in this country, incluing the "peace" movement, the nuclear disarmament movement, the pro-UN movement, and the anti-Vietnam-War movement.

    In fairness to American communists, I will also add that they were strong and consistent supporters of the civil rights movement long before it was cool.

    So whn I hear the term "progressive," applied to political movements and grouplets, I hear the sectarian cant of the communist movement. "Progressive" was a code word used when it was impolitic to say frankly "left," let alone socialist or communist.

    I don't think their usage hearkened back to Wilsonian progressivism at all, except homonymically -- although that confusion might have been another deliberate layer of deception. I would have to research the adoption of the term "progressive" by leftists to know for sure.

    But I am sure that one reason that leftists adopted this term was in fact to obscure the "fixed goal" to which they were striving.

    ANd I think it is only fitting that Billy Ayers's protege should be the figurehead of today's "progressives."

  2. Dear Professor,
    Sensory cascade I find to be a perfectly suitable - and suitable is not a word I use lightly - English word for the phenomenon you mention, and it has all the impact of an Irish Spring soap commercial, too. However, it seems it is an Englishing that should also have some classical pedigree, a linguist lineage in the vein of Puttenham's rendering of classic Greek and Latin tropes and figures. Certainly Greek should have first go, then either a Latin transliteration or calque should rejoin. It is at his juncture, however, that, following my very own scheme, I fail myself, for my Greek is indeed ancient in turn forestalling my less hoary but even so spotty Latin. I've settled on a few combinations of intensive prefixes and frequentative suffixes, but with no suitable base. Greek can be a very technical tongue and I feel as though I've been technically knocked out by it. Perhaps something will come into focus like Kekule's vision of benzene.

  3. Dear Professor,

    In my haste to comment on your interesting observations, I neglected to mention the most obvious reason that American communists in the 1950s used the designation "progressive" for themselves and their fellow-travelers: the 1948 "Progressive Party" presidential campaign of Henry Wallace.