Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Searching for and Interpreting Clues in Tucson

Peter Brooks’ review of Robert Darnton’s Poetry and the Police, in the latest issue of The New York Review, turns out to have a curious connection to this weekend’s tragedy in Tucson.  He begins by citing an essay by Carlo Ginzberg, whose title, in English translation, is “Clues:  Roots of an Evidential Paradigm.”  The argument in this essay grows out of Ginzberg’s attempt to compare the contemporary historian with a prehistoric hunter on the grounds of how one reasons about clues.  Here is how Ginzberg describes such hunters:

Man has been a hunter for thousands of years.  In the course of countless pursuits he learned to reconstruct the shapes and movements of his invisible prey from tracks in the mud, broken branches, droppings of excrement, tufts of hair, entangled feathers, stagnating odors.  He learned to sniff out, record, interpret, and classify such infinitesimal traces as trails of spittle.

Such sentences would not be out of place in a refereed publication on cognitive science for any number of reasons;  but I suspect that Ginzberg, as a practicing historian, would have seen “reconstruct” as the most crucial verb in this passage.

Having established its significance, he could then move on to the nature of reconstruction itself:

This knowledge is characterized by the ability to move from apparently insignificant experiential data to a complex reality that cannot be experienced directly.  And the data is always arranged by the observer in such a way as to produce a narrative sequence, which could be expressed most simply as “someone passed this way.”  Perhaps the very idea of narrative (as distinct from the incantation, exorcism, or invocation) was born in a hunting society, from the experience of deciphering tracks.

Considered in the context of Tucson, however, there must be more to the story.  The FBI “hunters” now have their “prey,” Jared Lee Loughner.  They know he “passed this way;”  and they know what he did.  However, as today’s news on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition made clear, FBI investigators still lack a narrative that will attribute any motive to Loughner’s acts, raising the question of whether they will ever be able to make sense of those acts as historians try to make sense of past events, whether it involves the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

It was in this framework that I was drawn to read “American Tragedy,” Larry McMurtry’s post to NYRBlog.  For one thing I can appreciate McMurtry’s sense of scene (to invoke the terminology of Kenneth Burke’s pentad).  Not only does he live in Tucson, but also he shops at that Safeway in front of which Loughner opened fire.  More important, however, may be that, as a successful novelist, McMurtry has a respectable command of narrative in both theory and practice.  Thus, his credentials for writing about sensemaking are as strong as those of any good historian or FBI investigator.  Furthermore, he is also a hunter;  and, to be more specific, he is a gun-owning hunter.  Finally, he could write with personal knowledge about Gabrielle Giffords, having sat beside her on a flight from Dallas to Tucson.  In his blog post McMurtry makes it clear that they talked about movies, rather than politics;  but he also wrote that he “later learned that she was a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.”

Of course McMurtry has not solved the sensemaking problem that currently occupies the FBI.  Ultimately, he is less occupied with explaining the past than he is with considering what is likely to happen next.  My own reading is that he is concerned with the broader problem of a culture that tends to confuse “metaphorical truth” with “literal truth,” particularly when it comes to how we think about hunting.  Thus, he cites that notorious map with crosshairs drawn up by Sarah Palin’s political action committee, adding parenthetically that Palin has sent a letter of sympathy to Giffords and that the crosshairs “aimed” as Tucson have been removed from the aforesaid map.

Nevertheless, both word and concept are still with us.  Whether we like it or not, they are part of “the American way of life.”  He thus concludes by reflecting on this mindset:

And I don’t believe that language drawn from the hunt is likely to vanish from our political speech. Words such as “target” or “bulls eye” are deeply ingrained. We will be polite for a while but once the slugfest resumes—and politics is a slugfest—the old invective will slip back in.

In other words there will be a requisite period of dignified mourning, after which the “slugfest” will resume;  and history teaches us that the only slugfest that draws interest is one that also draws blood.

No comments: