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I don't suppose we'll ever know who invented the idea of the message in a bottle. This is the classic form of 'writing against being lost', which we read as involuntary exile desert-island style.

The more elusive concept of WritingAgainstLoss takes its place for the pessimist where the optimist puts boosterism (writing for change). It may not actually be possible, some kinds of theory would warn: supposing that texts can conserve what matters depends on data storage (think, the cork in the bottle) and the rather more important issue of whether one can convey content (even giving latitude and longitude assumes a CommonContext). That's leaving aside a medium that doesn't reliably [intrinsically?] push a message. (Compare the LongNow project.)

Where does this come from? In a traditional religious framework, perhaps one should pray instead of relying on currents and tides. It's a secular thought, assuming even one's personal co-ordinates matter. A mixture of self-help that Robinson Crusoe would have understood, plus some intellectual baggage about intangible legacies of individuality, as light as a once-popular tune.

Therefore, split the concept along the faultline that divides consequential meaning from subjective significance. In the light of the scientific revolution imminent in Defoe's days, one can write against loss with mathematics; with natural law expressed in mathematical terms; with technological specification based on natural science. If mathematical deductions are sound and based on a complete axiomatic scheme, that basis itself should be imperishable (even if the process leading up to it involved historical accident and tentative human search). And one asks, does this not also cover all the consequential matter that one wishes to preserve?

The answer was given in the negative by the public reception of the novels of Walter Scott. With what justice, one may well ask, but in the eighteenth century novels such as Richardson's were pointed to as having moral content (Diderot); now the content seemed to be a recovery, in general of the Middle Ages and of the whole bygone world (before the accession of Louis XIV, in the prevailing French culture in Europe). And in particular of Scottish history not written for or by the House of Hanover: there you have 'significance' that is consequential, indeed rhetorical if not even fabricated. But one can't dismiss romanticised nationalism as a force in the human world.

Back on the desert island, we give the shipwrecked mariner GPS and a satellite phone. We know what to do with the location data when we get the call; the traveller's tales and self-description are things we will take time to think over, especially Crusoe's accounts of how he encountered another human culture.

At a later point in the nineteenth century the matter began to seem urgent to European intellectuals. Perhaps around 1870 the idea emerged fully that 'modernism' was more than a name for propaganda for 'progress': change seen as inevitably good. The state of internal exile from something (the urban life of a country dweller being in mass terms the dominant) took over from the interminable dialectics post-Hegel: Wagner wrote long operas dwelling on the problems of (his own lost?) liberalism (power and wealth corrupt the best intentions, sex can be bad for your health, religion can't be reduced to liberal theology, modern and nationalist art). German idealism, a vast attempt to implement some AnthropicPrinciple' and paper over the faultline again, seemed to collapse and itself to need WritingAgainstLoss [why?]: instead the anti-Hegelian 'get used to it' thinkers Schopenhauer, Kirkegaard and Nietsche assumed their historical importance.

Fast forward just a couple of decades to the artists who grew up in Europe in this climate (North American culture breaks away just at this time, Russian intellectuals buy in) and you find the nationalist works, the high modernist novels (JamesJoyce? in exile recreates a Dublin day, MarcelProust? formulates the recovery of significance). T.S. Eliot in London writes the great anti-manifesto of the modern world in The Wasteland, and in his person shows the relation between the sensibility of loss and conservatism. The sailor drowned, in number of senses.

You expected a happy ending?


Compare SacredSite.

The title hides the question, writing against the loss of what? Your essay jumps around with answers including individuality, the lifeseed, culture, and the past. But most of those aren't really losses, just changes.

I think the main motivation for preservationism is really the tension between stasis and change. Some people seek change, others want things to stay the same. This is a fundamental human characteric. Only in recent times, as we find that as change has happened so rapidly, has there been a large backlash against it. Certainly you can find people in earlier times lamenting about change.

I wonder if you aren't just reiterating the idea that we have moved from a Golden Age in the past to the lesser Iron Age in the present, a belief prevalent in every culture until such people as Hegel came around. Hegel was right, though. -- SunirShah

What WyntonMarsalis? is currently doing for (with) jazz makes sense to me as a go player (heavily involved with Japanese and Korean traditions and assumptions) and hobby pianist (heavy-handedly involved in the twelve-bar blues): he is trying to stabilise the tradition. It is controversial because many would argue that jazz is avant garde, transgressive, intellectually free-thinking and collectivist; or it is nothing. What I'm claiming about German Idealism on its arc from Kant to the Young Hegelians (about which I'm certainly much less informed) is that it didn't effectively stabilise itself.

Since I believe in the many 'conservatisms', at least as many as traditional societies, while not considering myself political small-c or big-C conservative, I don't see how to take on the general question 'conservatism - right or wrong?' - no common denominator (CommonContext) for discussing it without begging the question. I appreciate the considered response to what (even) in my terms is a risk-taking piece.

A colleague of mine (a Tory) once came up with the thought that 'everyone is conservative about what they know about'. I recently discoved this was lifted from RobertConquest?, the historian of Stalinism, who said it in the terms 'everyone is reactionary ...', but coupled it with the idea about institutions, 'that they are run as if manned by agents of their worst enemies'. This is indeed a type of toryism and shows me where you get to, pessimism-wise, if common denominators are insisted upon.

Therefore, I prefer to concentrate on the writing issue. There are examples even within mathematics of traditions that have been lost, or nearly so: the Italian algebraic geometers and the rescue by OscarZariski? who wrote the book of summation, and in so doing lost his own convictions, is the classic case. --CharlesMatthews


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