27 February 2011

Six degrees of crispy bacon

On the wikipedia page for Social Network Theory they have Stanley Milgram and his six degrees separation (apparently he did not use that term) story. He did use the term small world. There are a couple entries for Milgram in my Social Network Analysis textbook, but nothing like the amount of emphasis they use there.

The current larger size of the world may be swamping the small world thing into irrelevance. The last couple times I experienced it ("oh, so you know . . ."), it got me absolutely nowhere. When I go to my professional society annual meeting there are 25 000 people there and I am at absolute maximum two degrees of separation from any one of them and the response I get from 99% of the people there is interstate highway etiquette. OK that is an exaggeration but it is not by much. I know one guy who is known by all 25 000 as he wrote the canonical textbook in the field. I wonder what he experiences when he walks through that meeting hall. Does he feel like Elvis? The last time I saw him at one of those meetings he looked bored.

The Social Network Analysis textbook is an outlier in my library. I have forgotten why I bought it. The other day I searched my Amazon purchase history and found what I bought it with and on what day. Then I went digging through my journals to figure out what I was spending my time on when I decided I wanted to own a Social Network textbook. This was twenty minutes of digging and I was still clueless when I finished. When you catch a clear view of something you do not understand, that is where you dig for gold, even though usually you find nothing. Most gold prospecters are poor. I was reminded by this of the day when I declared myself a victor in the quest to become an educated person.

When I was younger I poured myself into an avalanche of materials, feeling that some day I would know enough to not feel perpetually ignorant, and after that day my life would be fine even though then it was a mostly soulless grind. The object of my feelings that day was one Walter Benjamin, a literary critic of some note who died in World War II. I had seen his name as some sort of keystone in a number of different contexts and his book Illuminations was in that ever growing stack of books which I had to finish in order to view myself as an educated person.

One day I finally got to that book and perhaps it was my mood, but around page fifty I decided the book was crap. But not just that. There was also a reverse avalanche of cynicism as I had seen at least a dozen respectable scholars (and no way to tell at that point who they were) whose judgment I had to question for speaking so highly of the crap. So I decided there, then, I had read all that I required of myself to read to consider myself as educated. I remember the room, the sunlight coming in the window, what was in refrigerator; it was summer; Clinton was president; I was listening to lots of folk music; the woman I was dating and I seemed to have a great thing going for a while.

It was a sensation of freedom. I can remember nothing about college graduation, except I was looking forward to what I thought was a great job offer across the country.

I tossed Illuminations in the dumpster, but I may go back to it again some day. I have since learned that Benjamin was close friends with Gershem Scholem, whose books I have come to adore. What would be strange is, if I pick the book back up with a fresh brain and a generous attitude and find it is still crap to me. Maybe the fellow had some nervous tic in his writing style which is annoying to me personally.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.