Dynamist Blog

More Yi-Fu Tuan

From Escapism:

If a small vocabulary and the frequent use of clichés promote understanding and communal solidarity, the achievement of verbal-intellectual sophistication can have the opposite effect. The more people know and the more subtle they are at expressing what they know, the fewer listeners there will be and the more isolated individuals will feel, not only at large but also among colleagues and co-workers. Let me use an architectural metaphor to show how this can come about in academic life. Graduate students live in sparsely furnished rooms but share a house--the intellectual house of Marx, Gramschi, Foucault, or whoever the favored thinker happens to be. A warm sense of community prevails as the students encounter one another in the hallway and speak a common language, with passwords such as "capital formation," "hegemony," and "the theater of power" to establish firmly their corporate membership. Time passes. As the students mature intellectually, they move from the shared life of a house to rented apartments scattered throughout the same neighborhood. The apartments are close enough that friends still feel free to drop in for visits, and when they do the entire living space is filled with talk and laughter, recapturing as in younger days not only the bonhomie but also the tendency to embrace wholeheartedly the currently headlined doctrine. Eventually the students become professors themselves. They begin modestly to build their own houses of intellect and add to the structures as they prosper. Because each house bears witness to a scholar's achievement, it can be a source of great personal satisfaction. But the downside is, who will want to visit? And if a colleague or friend does, why should she spend time in more than one room?

Social scientists claim that a tenement building where people hang out the washing or sit on the stoop to socialize can be a warmly communal place. By contrast, a suburb with freestanding houses is cold and unfriendly. I am saying that the same may be true of intellectual life as one moves to larger houses of one's own design. Both types of move--socioeconomic and intellectual--signify success, and with both the cost to the mover can be an exacerbated feeling of isolation.

Although Tuan is talking about scholarly communities, the same phenomenon can be found in political or religious groups. There are strong communal rewards for sticking to relatively simple, widely shared language (and the simple, widely shared beliefs it implies).

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