Now think fast!: Brief reflections on the making of ‘Despatches from the Invisible Revolution’

The very idea of the book is undergoing a paradigm shift before our eyes. For the life of me, I can’t tell exactly what a book is, what it is supposed to do, how it is meant to loop into or out of our cultural moment, or what purpose it will likely serve in the coming years. But I’m curious, ever so, and I think too that Hegel would have been equally so. It is said of Hegel that he finished the final pages of The Phenomenology of Spirit as Napoleon came dashing on his horse and, as the saying goes, changed the course of history.

I think Hegel would have wanted to know what it means for a book to be made for and written, as it were, to its time. (This, undoubtedly, is why my philosophy book is not yet finished. If I don’t know what a timely book is, then I also don’t know quite how to shape and craft it. I sit with thread in hand.)

When we don’t know what exactly is to be done but yet we can hear the demand to reflect, we try something out and gauge how well it works. With due daring, my friends Dougald and Keith have put together a collected volume, Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, in which my essay on philosophy of education appears. I would like to share with you some rather rudimentary reflections not on what I wrote but upon the making of the book.

The first thing that struck me was the speed with which the book was able to go from conception to completion. I see that the call for submissions went out on Nov. 27, 2011. Dougald also sent his friends a group email on Dec. 2. The book was completed a few days before Feb. 21, and the first contribution was made publicly available on  Feb. 23. The book is to be launched on Feb. 29 at a free public event, the Free Word Centre. As of this morning, Pam at Pedia Press has informed me that my copy has already been dropped in the mail. (NB: I’m including all these links in order to give you only the faintest hint of the network conceit, a prominent leitmotiv of the book. [Don’t worry, longtime reader. My fuddy-duddy self wrote many words about St. Benedict and none at all about networks.] I have  not even mentioned the near infinite speed at which all the tweets have gone out, crisscrossed, been retweeted, got crossed up, and generally caught their recipients in mid-breath or mid-swallow. A swallow, a swallow, a mere flesh wound.)

By my tally, the process took about 3 months, give or take a few days, from start to finish. Equally striking is the fact that the book will be dissemmated in a variety of formats at once: in paperback and hardcover; as an e-book; and as blog installments posted once monthly on the New Public Thinking website. Also of note is how the book was edited and assembled: mainly through wikipages and real time editing (though Dougald himself did most of the editorial work) and by very few people in total. Finally, we might simply roll our eyes over the speed of conception, delivery, promotion, distribution, and review. (There is some talk, though how serious I don’t know, of getting the economist Paul Mason to have a look at it and see what he thinks. You’d be surprised to hear how connected the contributors are to each other and to other well-appointed others in the UK and abroad.)

(Pause and just think: we’re only 2 months into 2012. The contributions were reflections on 2011. Only now is Napoleon’s horse leaning down to drink.)

This, then, is but one line of thought concerning the material production of thinking fast. Bang! OK, people, think fast!

Another is how the writers–eclectic characters and motley figures all–will respond to the events that circled around them. I can’t tell you because I’ve not yet read any of the pieces except for Dougald’s. How well did the contributors do at thinking fast? How did they manage to think in situ as well as post facto? How, in their piece, did they make it out in one piece? How responsive are they or have they been to the questions looming large in our time? Above all, have they thought quickly but not too quickly? If too quickly, then philosophical clarity gets lost. If too slowly, then the time has been lost, the moment missed, the fugitive stillness unfelt. I don’t want any widening gyres unless there are poets on set.

This last about timeliness goes to the preamble I posted on Facebook yesterday. “I can’t help,” I wrote there,

but take glee in the concerted activity occurring at New Public Thinking at the moment. Reminds me of baseball: of long afternoons, of a center fielder patting his glove in the outfield, flicking his cleats against the grass, smelling the buttery air. Nothing… nothing… nothing, the world slowly turning or turning quickly but turning, as it were, without him. The world groping, immobile, other. And then, the sound the bat makes against a ball wound so tightly and then the center fielder and his teammates all moving and moving about with the utmost grace without which they’d surely fall into despair. The wise ones, due to long preparations amid the contemplative silence, now move about gracefully, moving around, round and round each other with concerted steps. Now the world lies open to them, and now they move with it. They hope to avoid disaster.

In my philosophy practice, I see individuals regularly who are stuck–struck stuck–and who yearn to act quickly. “Quick! Get me out of this!” Here, instead, I caution: acting quickly is likely to make you more stuck, stuck in the exile of ceaseless, futile activity. Repeat repeat repeat.

To me, “Now think fast!” can only be attuned to the current historical moment if it has already undergone the long spiritual preparation, those slack, listless, contemplative months, those unrelenting yet vital forms of ascesis. Unless this is so, thinking nimbly and acting virtuously just now! would be either impossible or lucky.

In all honesty, I don’t know what will come of this book–“doubtless not much,” says the betting man off to my right–but I think, at a minimum, it shows careful daring. Over email (think fast!), I offered my full-bellied gratitude:

Another round of thanks and applause to Dougald and Keith for putting this whole thing together. (Here a space in which to insert all the names of people I’ve left out with that forlorn ampersand.)

I’m already imagining some stern-browed craftsman hard at work, lovingly stitching together my hardbound edition and carrying it delicately in his handmade satchel across the icy Atlantic. I expect the book to arrive with due prescience: before the world as we know it collapses.