This Academic Life
Last night I went to a minor-league baseball game with my family. Decent game; the carnival atmosphere of minor-league baseball is always a fascinating slice of Americana, from the bad off-key rendition of the national anthem to get things rolling, to the cheezy giveaways and contests between innings, to the overpriced concessions and the locally-sponsored mascots (including the big red toothbrush who helped sweep the field during the 7th inning stretch). Quite an experience.

After the game there were fireworks. Since I was in Europe during this Fourth of July, and since most municipal laws prevent setting off fireworks except for designated holidays, I hadn't gotten to see any fireworks this summer. There's something very powerful and awe-inspiring about a good fireworks display: the loud cracks and bangs as things explode, the bursts of color filling the sky, the anticipation of watching something streak heavenward, then burn out its launch colors and continue moving almost invisibly until BANG trails of fire abruptly stream forth, shine brightly for a moment, and then fade almost as quickly. The kids loved it; I don't think my daughter had ever seen a fireworks display before, and I doubt that my son remembered any that he had seen in person. Part of the fun, of course, was watching their stunned and rapt expressions as the display unfolded.

I have several personal associations with fireworks, associations that are invoked when I watch a good display:

1) my dad used to set off fireworks on the Fourth on our street, before the laws became more restrictive about those kinds of things. We'd play with sparklers and light "snakes" while he got ready, and then rockets would launch into the air. I don't even really remember what the bursts looked like, but I do remember the excitement and the sounds.

2) the small town I lived in during my middle school years had a bizarre tradition of not having fireworks on the Fourth, but instead waiting until town "jubilee days" a few weeks later. But they made up for the inconvenience by hiring someone really good to do the display. The whole town (there were only about 5000 people total, less than the attendance of the game last night) would gather on the hill behind the high school and watch and cheer. Fireworks away from anything resembling city lights are a whole different thing, let me tell you: brighter, crisper, more dramatic.

3) 1985, National Boy Scout Jamboree, Fort A. P. Hill, Virginia. The closing ceremonies featured a dual fireworks display in which things were alternately launched from a site to the left of the main stage and a site to the right; a friend and I started playing a silly game where we'd compliment one another on the fireworks that came from the other person's side. Again, I hardly remember the actual color bursts, but the noise and the game I remember vividly.

4) one year my wife and I went to South Street Seaport in Manhattan to watch the display set off each year on the Fourth from boats in the river. We had forgotten to bring playing cards, so I went in search of some while she held our seats; by the time I had found some the police had closed off the area and were refusing to let me back in. I begged, pleaded, almost cried -- and one cop let me pass. The display was fantastic, although we were downwind of the launch site so the smoke blew right into our faces after a while. Afterwards, the police shepherded everyone through the streets to the subway stations; it felt like something out of a disaster movie, with large crowds walking through darkened city streets cleared of traffic. And the subway ride back home, crammed into a car with about a hundred too many people…The moral of the story: always bring playing cards :-)

5) once -- and only once -- my wife and I went down to the National Mall to watch the "national" display on the Fourth. Sitting in the hot sun for hours was not fun, and the display itself was pretty pathetic. I'd much rather have a smaller display that I could get closer to.

Why do I mention all of these things? Obviously most of you weren't there, and reminiscing with people you don't know is a somewhat bizarre activity. But I'll bet that many of you have experiences that display "family resemblances" to these -- many of you Americans, at any rate. "Fireworks on the Fourth" are woven into the tapestry of the common life of the United States of America, as is minor-league baseball (although that not so much any more, with the replacement of baseball by football, basketball, and -- shudder -- NASCAR racing as the everyday American sports of choice). It's a commonplace in the literal sense: a (weakly) shared social space within which experiences take place. And to the extent (which is an empirical question) that those commonplaces are in fact common to a group of people, their individual experiences are never wholly their own -- even as they are also entirely personal. Both at once, neither account serving to exhaust the phenomenon.

Experiences, inexhaustible in themselves, are nonetheless shaped and structured by their participation in a series of commonplaces like this one. Can you really describe the experience of a fireworks display? (Wittgenstein asks at one point in Philosophical Investigations: Describe the aroma of coffee. This is not an invitation to wax poetic, though, but one of those classically Wittgensteinian observations that brings language to a standstill -- you can't do it. All you can do is to evoke the experience, and hope that you have pulled sufficient threads of our communal form of life so that those to whom you speak understand what you mean.) Can I really describe spending an evening with my family at a baseball game topped off by fireworks? No. Not fully. In one of her songs, Dar Williams comments that "sometimes your family just makes sense"; the "sense" in question is something inexpressible, though, something beyond language and hence nonsensical. But, nonetheless, actual.

Academics often get wrapped up in what we can say, what we can use language to do. Our livelihood depends on it, and we're generally pretty good at it. But we can all-too-easily forget that the analytical worlds that we produce are "objective illusions," momentary ideal-typifications of processes and relations that are always in flux. It is good to be reminded that there are forms of sense that spill over the boundaries of those ideal-types, and experiences that evade and elude even the most brilliant accounts of them. And it is good to sometimes just sit and watch the fireworks with your son on your lap and your wife and daughter at your side, oohing and ahhing as bursts of color fill the skies.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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