Gist theory and haute cuisine

At oh about 6:15 yesterday morning, entering my twenty-fifth hour without sleep, I wrote this grammatically dubious sentence:

But that the thread of argument that allowed this movement to cohere occasionally disappears or is internally undermined does nothing to diminish McEnaney's point, and perhaps augments it: that the construction of foreign policy opinion occurs in the pervasive context of cultural configurations—in this instance, gender roles and the implicit relations of power—and additionally, that the diplomatic activity of the state has gendered meanings impacting upon those cultural configurations.

Now if you asked me to ennumerate, precisely and without reliance on hazy abstractions, the elements that might comprise a "cultural configuration", who or what configures them and how, I don't know that I could give you a very good answer. I have a sneaking suspicion no-one could.

I don't really think that it matters. I interpret this kind of theoretical shorthand as a gist: a unit of useful imprecision that allows me to sketch out just enough of an idea that my argument can progress into new and interesting territory. In programming terms, it's equatable to that kind of hack where (for instance) a variable is given a temporary and arbitrary constant value rather than being precisely calculated—so that you can get on with the business of testing whether the other critical components are communicating correctly and whether the overarching system actually works (or even compiles). At some stage it will be necessary to do the calculations and the error handling and all the rest, but right now it's more important to see if the program does roughly what it is supposed to do. "Cultural configurations" and related gists are like theoretical "magic numbers" for humanities essays. They function just well enough to let you move on to more pressing matters.

Some guy, alright a traditionalist historian called Bruce Kuklick—a name you don't really need to memorise for the purposes of this exposition—is not so forgiving. He takes another example of the sort of gisting found in my quotation above, this time from a Professor Rosenberg:

Certain patterns or orders within sexual politics and within international politics are often simultaneously represented within the same signifying arrangements.

...where "signifying arrangements" is clearly a gist on par with "cultural configurations", meaning the bare minimum more than nothing-at-all. Kuklick delivers this damning and altogether enjoyable indictment:

I have said this before in print and probably will say it again, with all due respect to Professor Rosenberg: This is intellectual junk, the mental equivalent to eating at McDonald's. What Rosenberg says can be said more easily.

And I can understand the sentiment behind his objection, the sense that you might be getting duped by smoke and mirrors. It's a necessary admonition for all those who gist excessively. But at risk of undermining the vividness of his metaphor, I think I can render it more accurate.

The experience is not so much like eating at McDonalds, where at a certain point you realise you've finished your burger and chips,* because there's wrappers everywhere, your hands greasy and your mouth is dry. Your stomach has by and large stopped communicating its emptiness to your brain, and you can get back to what you were doing before hunger intervened.

No, I think the experience—especially where gists are used not for bridging ideas but as final destinations—is closer to that of being served haute cuisine. Where you are presented with what is barely an entree, and can only be devoured with some difficulty, after which you are given a cheque for a three course feast.

* I know Maccas likes to refer to chips as "fries". You might call my refusal to acquiesce to this terminology an inconsequential act of insurrection against cultural imperialism. Or something.

Joseph | 27 May 2004

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