Part 1—Wittgenstein's pinball machine: Long ago and far away, "the appearance on the front of a new arrival...became the topic of general conversation."
So said glorious Chekhov, though only, of course, in translation. In Chekhov's account, the new arrival was "a lady with a lapdog." The events in question would have occurred in or around the 1890s.
(Some background, from the leading authority: "The Lady with the Dog is a short story by Anton Chekhov. First published in 1899, it describes an adulterous affair between Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, an unhappily married Moscow banker, and Anna Sergeyevna Von Diderits, a young married woman, an affair which begins while both are vacationing alone in the Crimean sea resort of Yalta...This is one of Chekhov's most famous pieces of short fiction. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, considers it as one of the greatest short stories ever written.")
By way of contrast, the new arrival of which we speak was a pinball machine—Bally's 1967 "RockMakers" entry. It appeared in the basement of Harvard's Dunster House at some point during the 1968-69 academic year, producing general interest.
By happenstance, that was our senior year in college. Thanks to the Vietnam war and the ever-expanding draft, it was a relatively undesirable time to be a senior in college—if you were, in the words of Luca Brasi, "a masculine child."
On the bright side, it was a time of nearly full employment—but only because 500,000 American men were "fully employed" in Vietnam. Placing that number in perspective, the nation's total population was roughly 200 million that year.
Service in Vietnam didn't necessarily seem like a fabulous deal. There were no Skype calls to the folks back home of the type we'd later see from Iraq. It was basically eleven months in a jungle, with the outside chance of being asked to engage in the occasional village massacre.
Today, the courage of various progressive pundits—we think of MSNBC's Joy Reid—has helped us see how eager these people would have been to serve in Vietnam.
Despite their lack of military service, these pundits are quick to suggest that they would have been the first to sign up for Vietnam. For ourselves, we'll only guess that they might have felt somewhat differently had they come along at a time when their bold declarations would have flown in the face of that relentless, widely-feared draft.
At any rate, it was in that year that the new arrival of whom we speak appeared in the Dunster House basement. As you can only start to see in this evocative video clip, it was a pinball machine whose iconography concerned a race of people on some planet where their sole occupation seemed to involve the making of rocks.
As pinball machines of the era went, RockMakers was wickedly great. The player could win extra games by racking up a very high score—but also by achieving an appropriate number of "Rock-A-Rocks," whose provenance we won't attempt to describe. If memory serves, the tilt mechanism was, or became, especially forgiving in the Dunster House machine.
We spent occasional thoughtful minutes lingering over RockMakers. Today, its rock-making denizens may seem to suggest the leading players in the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes (with perhaps a hint of The Flintstones), as you can see in this unfortunate image, but we're fairly sure that we hadn't seen that satirical film at that time.
For us, the rock-makers inevitably suggested the tableau painted by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the second short section, or "aphorism," of his puzzling magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations, a very hot book at the time.
What does one meet in that second short section? After an apologetic Preface, Wittgenstein starts the Investigations with a quotation from Augustine. Quickly, he moves on to this:
2. ...Let us imagine a language for which the description given by Augustine is right. The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words "block", "pillar","slab", "beam". A calls them out;—B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call.——Conceive this as a complete primitive language."Conceive this as a complete primitive language?"
Wittgenstein's denizens weren't making rocks—but who could have read this passage without thinking of Bally's rock-makers and their limited "form of life?" Indeed, the term "form of life" first appears in passage or aphorism 19, after Wittgenstein has expanded his picture of this primitive language:
19. It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.—Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.——And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life."To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life?"
As Wittgenstein acknowledges in his Preface, Philosophical Investigations is a highly obscure text. Despite this fact, its overlap with Bally's RockMakers was rather hard to ignore at that highly fraught point in time.
(Wittgenstein: "I should have liked to produce a good book. That has not come to pass, but the time is past in which I could improve it.")
RockMakers portrayed a set of humanoids whose entire world seemed to consist in the making of rocks. We've thought of those rock-makers in recent weeks as we've continued to think about the so-called "Harari heuristic."
In his widely-acclaimed best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Professor Harari advances a pregnant picture of our own self-impressed species, Homo sapiens. We took control of the planet, Harari says, when chance mutations allowed us to develop two important new abilities—the ability to "gossip," and the ability to invent, promote and believe highly potent group "fictions."
Bill Gates has blurbed Harari's book; so has Bararck Obama. When readers ponder that Harari heuristic, they're being asked to toss aside the ancient paradigm according to which our glorious, war-making species is different from all others in that we're the planet's "rational" critters.
When we ponder the Harari heuristic, we're being told that our species is different 1) because we're able to gossip, and 2) because we're able to invent and believe certain types of irrational nonsense. This makes us think of Bally's extremely limited rock-makers; of Wittgenstein's obscure text; and of the men and women of our own corporate mainstream press corps.
Are we really a "rational" species? Or are we really a bunch of rock-makers—a life form highly susceptible to error once we venture outside certain limited pathways? In Philosophical Investigation. Wittgenstein tilted rather heavily in the latter direction.
He thought our capacity for inventing and asserting nonsense was especially strong at the higher ends of the intellectual scale. The types of nonsense he especially favored occurred, he sometimes said, "only when doing philosophy." At this site, by way of contrast, we've focused on the kinds of error which have larded our modern journalism, helping bring Trump to power.
Starting after Labor Day, we expect to spend our time discussing various aspects of Wittgenstein's heady ideas. This week, we'll tick off some of the RockMaker-redolent gossip and fiction we've seen, in just the past week, all through our rock-making press.
We surviving humans have developed a thoroughly decent technology. In fairness, we've managed to move well beyond the mere making of rocks.
Our skill levels drop after that. When we venture outside the technological realm, we do tend toward gossip and fictions, and to disastrous types of error.
Wittgenstein especially thought that our "philosophers" are inclined to traffic in nonsense. Due to his date of birth, he didn't live to see the rock-like impulses and productions of our modern-day press.
Wittgenstein rolled his eyes at the philosophers, including the one who had produced his own widely-praised early work. By his own assessment, he was never able to present his later views in a coherent package.
The past twenty years have convinced us that it's pointless to discuss the incessant rock-making of our most famous journalists. We modern rock-makers are good, decent people, but what a strange world our incessant tribal rock-making has incessantly helped to create!
Tomorrow: One of last week's rock-a-rocks
Yalta today: According to the leading authority:
"In the 19th century, the town became a fashionable resort for the Russian aristocracy and gentry. Leo Tolstoy spent summers there and Anton Chekhov in 1898 bought a house (the White Dacha) here, where he lived till 1902; Yalta is the setting for Chekhov's short story, "The Lady with the Dog", and such prominent plays as The Three Sisters were written in Yalta. The town was also closely associated with royalty.Presumably, that's "the front" upon which Chekhov's "new arrival," a lady, appeared, quickly inspiring talk.
[Modern-day] Yalta has a beautiful seafront promenade along the Black Sea. People can be seen strolling there all seasons of the year, and it also serves as a place to gather and talk, to see and be seen."