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More on Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, and on slow thinking

Posted on February 28, 2012 in Default, Home

Despatches from the Invisible Revolution is now available for order. Some of the constituent essays are going to be published on the New Public Thinking site, starting with Vinay Gupta’s On Becoming a Conservative. The comment thread below the original announcement post on the book is fascinating and well worth a look.

One of the contributors, Andrew Taggart has published a thoughtful and provocative reflection on the book. He plays with the tension between the speed at which the book was conceived, written and published, and the slow pace necessary for truly reflective and transformative thought. Here are a couple of extracts:

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.

and:

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.

I’ve been turning these issues round in my head over the last few days and I’m not sure how to respond. I think that most of the chapters in the book do indeed seem to balance the rapid-response format with evidence of long-term reflection. It seems to me that the major problem with the book is going to be that it is about 2011 and to a superficial reader might already seem ‘too late’. There seems to be a gap between the instant response of journalism and the more considered approach of historical analysis. The book is too late for the former and too early for the latter. That’s its promise of course. Perhaps it is worth exploring the ‘middle ground’ between history and journalism. I’m a big fan of the journal Delayed Gratification which deliberately analyses the news several months ‘late’.

The most important point of Andrew’s essay is that ‘instant’ reaction can only be illuminating if it is grounded in a long-term process of contemplation. That is perhaps the difference between good and bad journalism – the latter exists in a ‘continuous present’ whereas the former is situated in the broad sweep of time.

I’m not sure where academia fits into this, particularly academic sociology. The long time lag that generally characterises academic research and publication mitigates against snap judgements certainly, but it also makes it hard to contribute to a current debate without temporarily ‘stepping out’ of one’s scholarly frame. I’ve often wondered where history fits into sociology. There is such a thing of historical sociology of course, but is most sociology about the now? Certainly, when Ben Gidley and I were working on Turbulent Times, which is intended to be a sociological analysis of the contemporary British Jewish community, we spent a lot of time researching and writing the history of the community.

And there I’ll leave things – I have no conclusion to offer right now.