Searching for Balance in the Morrison Room

 

One of the best places I’ve ever seen is the Morrison Library on the UC Berkeley campus. It’s a reading room outfitted with comfy chairs and books of poetry and travel literature scattered casually here and there.

This is where the earnest and hardworking ethos of the stacks give way to something more thoughtful and musing. The Morrison, elegant and casual, is a big version of something we might find in the country home of an Oxford don (with money of her own).
 I was on the Berkeley campus as a tourist just nosing around, seeing what I could
 see. And I wandered into this room and thought, “So this is what heaven looks like.” When students are in the stacks, they are retainers in the service of professorial masters. It’s all rigor, discipline and nose to the grindstone. But here in the Morrison, they are free men and women. Now they could let ideas wander and, *blush*, cohabit.

This is the world the sociologist Mark Granovetter imagined when he discovered that most social networks are redundant, filled with like-minded people. What mattered were the people who traveled between networks allowing them to communicate, and, *blush*, cohabit. The Morrison Library encouraged ideas and students to travel.

What’s with all the “*blush*, cohabit” you ask? I thought you never would. It just so happened that I was in Berkeley to visit my girlfriend who just so happened to be staying
at the Berkeley City Club and I was interested to hear that she had heard in the dining room racist language from people eating there, including, without apology – or apparently even without so much as a Paula Deen ‘apology’ – the N word. So I couldn’t help look at Berkeley, as I snooped around, not only through the lens of the 1960s radicalism that had made it for me famous, but also through that of an old guard apparently still in place, still active, and for all I knew, waiting to stage a counter-revolution!

From the point of view of the Berkeley City Club, the Morrison Library must have looked like the kind of place that would encourage loose thinking and dangerous ideas. It turns out these two institutions came into the world at roughly the same time perhaps as antidotes to one another. The Morrison Library was founded in 1928 and the Berkeley City Club in 1927.

But the contrast that really interested me was the one between the stacks and the Morrison. If the stacks represent the old order of intellectual labor and the Morrison the new, the Morrison won. In a postindustrial era and an innovation economy, what we value now
is less the production of knowledge than the release of creativity. And the Morrison is perfect for exactly that, encouraging us to move the knowledge from one domain to another. To take a John McPhee New Yorker story about Roman numerals and apply it ever so metaphorically to a poem about the Russian steppe – Hey, presto. A new idea, a better idea, a more creative mind is unleashed.

When the stacks lose, this ends the forced march insisted on by a Soviet professoriate, the one that rewarded those who prepared to make the epidermis of knowledge deeper
by a cell, the one that rewarded people not for leaping between silos but for taking up residence in one of them and saying, “Shhhh, no talking!” And you can forget about the Berkeley City Club. Unless you lived there, in which case you can forget about ever getting out.

The Morrison victory was accomplished by revolutionary youth. People like Steve Jobs and Stewart Brand could imagine what would happen in a digital world, and machines that could remember, retrieve, organize and represent learning better than any mortal. Together the old citadels of knowledge fell and those few people who still occupy the ruins, scratching out small understandings, are increasingly bad tempered and alone. They might occupy the Senior Common Room or the Berkeley City Club. They might continue to serve as a petri dish for intellectual provincialism or indeed for racism. But their moment has passed. The academics will soon be removed from the world by a reformation of the university that will make the Henrician transformation of the Catholic church look mere by comparison. The racists, well, I don’t think they are reproducing themselves at anything like the pace they need for survival. Death will take them soon enough.

But it’s too soon to stage a celebration or declare the battle won. We are left with two problems.

1/ Now that we are all about creativity, and the recombination of knowledge, we are less good at mastering any one body of knowledge. Perhaps ‘body’ is something like ‘book.’ It’s an artifact created by the massive inefficiencies of intellectual labor and other problems that no longer matter. So don’t call it a body, call it a mastery. There has to be a place for people who really know village life in 14th century France or economic regulation in mainland China.

The trouble is we overcorrected. Now that we are all Granovetterians, skipping from silo to silo, the silos are in jeopardy. Again, there is a lot that is wrong about the way they are organized and still more that’s wrong with the organizers still in place. But we still need them. Perhaps less as silos and more as watch towers or light- houses. But we still need those solitary figures who live to make a single body of knowledge.

Maybe we should ask everyone to cultivate a specialty. There are people who know the names of all the alternative bands that played in Portland in the late 1980s. That’s a specialty. Or we could ask people to master village
life of the 14th century. Whatever else we know, whatever else we think about, we should know about something very particular.

And this can be our balance. We have the big picture. And we have a small one. I am thinking that the possession of a big picture will make us better at seeing the larger significance of our small study of a French medieval village. And that will be a big improvement on the present occupants of the Ivory tower who often don’t know or care less.

2/ We need to develop our idea of the Granovetterian – who and what we are when we take up the liberty and inducement of
the Morrison Library and combine knowledge in new and explosive ways. As it stands, there’s lots of brave talk about “failing fast” and “being wrong early and often.” In the worst of these clichés, we are urged to “think outside the box.” This language has been around for awhile. Take the phrase “stop making sense.” I believe this is an idea from the 19th century avant-garde that found its way into popular culture (and an album title from the Talking Heads) and the idea is now everywhere. In a time that prizes creativity and innovation, everyone is urged to go the edge of what we know and see what we can harvest from the new and strange possibilities.

What’s missing are methodologists who think about how we think outside the box. We don’t have enough skate parks or abandoned swimming pools, where the intellectual agile can assemble and wow one another with one stunt after another, pushing the envelope of possibility. This is what has always happened at certain universities and yeshivas. Kids talk and the implicit challenge is always, “Check this out. You couldn’t try. You wouldn’t dare!” And thus do the smart get smarter, and when they return to the civilian world, it’s like everyone
is a victim of gravity untouched by any knowledge of escape artistry.

The balance here is how to combine our free flights of creativity with a clear idea of how
to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Living in the Morrison we occupy a world filled with facts and half facts and possible facts. We address them with this interpretive frame and then that interpretive frame. We embrace an idea that is entirely emergent and have to decide is this something or merely an artifact of my thinking process. And then eventually we have to assemble facts, frames, ideas and illuminations into a something like a compre- hensive view. We need to tidy up. All of us need to be methodologists, paying attention to the way we extract order out of chaos and some of us ought to serve as methodologists who specialize in how this works.

Two balances, then. One between the global view encouraged by our Morrison liberty and the specialized knowledge of the old regime; and one between the great leaps of intuition with which we know order, the opportunities of Morrison enquiry and a new set of methods that improves our chances of ‘sticking the landing’ with leaping with Granovetter hither and yon.

 This article appears in MISC Winter 2014, The Balance Issue 

 

 

 

the author

Grant McCracken

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist who studies contemporary culture. He is the author of several books including Chief Culture Officer and most recently, Culturematic. He is based in New York City, United States.