Waves and Radiation

4 04 2008

Nominal

The compulsion to write is embedded in the doctrine of human affairs. It is in our psychology, the impulse to communicate. And to share stories, true, false or otherwise, is in that evolutionary condition. We innovate like young lieutenants on a warfront, trying to convey the distinctly novel while timidly assimilating the knowledge of years past. Authors, television anchors, corporate figureheads have all appreciated that bitter struggle between apprentice and master; between reading and writing.

An excerpt from a student in my Social Economics course at Millson College. Despite the regurgitation from lecture, the poor use of simile, the confusing and possibly contrived set of three workers, I sense he is approaching a real thought towards the end of his blue book, a shame perhaps that the exam only ran for an hour and a half. What clever deduction about the human condition might have escaped his hands?

We discuss the conventional topics in our marble floored halls. We employ the dichotomy of nominal and real to its extreme and question it. What we affix to things, that power we give it by naming it, possibly Biblical, is fundamental to existence. It is fundamental like the struggle between reading and writing: our names in themselves mean nothing believed only by a rogue; only with a compliant cohort does it become relevant. Then these nominals take on real value, extinguishing themselves only as the language and society themselves erode. Symbolic generation. The creation and destruction of meanings in markets, Schumpeterian, keeps the underlying social contract relevant and understood.

The students often file in quietly to my lectures, aware of my sternness, my acrimony for ignorant questions and unabashed hand-raisers. Lectures are an escape from interaction. I speak and they listen, annotate, record. Those who do not want to come are not welcome. I speak with the precision of a physicist exhorting the finer points of his incisive proof and the rigorous dullness that becomes inescapable at forty-three. I imagine that there are more exciting speakers, but no more exciting material than we cover. Hear the voices of science churning to answer the questions of life, of dynamic social interactions, of government and psychology. In mid-lecture I sometimes become passionate, my striding pace quickens, my hands wave more fluidly. Then I see the students smile their attending curious smiles. They type or write in their code, bulleted and in Times New Roman or perhaps with loopy o’s and undotted i’s. They wear the shirts of contemporary bands, of their respective dorms, of their culture expressed through the market system, itself excited to innovate with progressively more imitative art. The shirts in particular are a fascinating time-series. The frequency of collared-shirts, densely populated in the front rows contrasted with the cliques of girls hiding towards the sides beneath Millison sweatshirts. In a few weeks, they reorganize as the girls in sweatshirts begin dating those with a need to declare their musical preference with clothing; they separate from their herd only to be reunited with them after Spring break. The collared shirt crowd sometimes puts on the suit and tie, ostensibly for an interview with a financial firm. Sometimes one or two stop coming altogether, disappointing me most. These are not my contemporaries, they are more important. These are those who in their casual judgments decide the life expectancy of my thoughts. Despite my disregard, I am dependent. I fear they know this, too.

In the background of my life there is a murmur of solitude. Perhaps it explains my compulsion to write. Perhaps it explains the absence of my wife, long separated now. The solitude is in bed with my personality, the two conniving pieces of my life that have worked in unison, feeding upon one another. A positive feedback mechanism, my students would tell me. I have meaning because of my contributions to the literature. My contributions to society are tangible in the papers written and cultural analyses that have made my students a self-selected and prestigious group. They are mine. I know their names and histories, their stories. They are the ones I will give anything to. At office hours, I hear their academic struggles and they hear my personal ones. At lecture I become the analytic animal; in person, the social animal.

Still, loneliness pervades my life. After the year passes and my select seniors graduate, the most I hear from them are what is written in the college newspaper. The college paper, the unimaginatively named “Times,” has the cloudlike sensation of ivory-tower delights. It bears the burden of fact with the restless guile of indolent, casual sensibilities borne in the undergraduate ethos. Sparkling champagne and cheap beer, discarded pizza boxes, uneaten cafeteria food, ambiguous regretful hookups and misguided after-school events litter the social scene. Nothing here pretends to be more than camp for the well-educated and the well-endowed.

I was wrong, it does pretend. I pretend. I pretend for the sake of advancement, that if I redefine the environment; if I write a constitution, contribute in to the ethos, it will change. Let it become something.

The letter from my wife that night said, “The papers have been filed today. I missed you Eric, but I am not going to let my life go by.” That was real.