Fragments 1

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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On Fame, celebrity and Notoriety

The notions of historical fame, celebrity and notoriety are often intermingled. Some people are famous during (all or part of) their lifetime and forgotten soon after.  Others gain fame only centuries after their death. Still others are considered important figures in history yet are known only to a select few.

So, what makes a person, a personal history famous or, even more important, of historical significance?

One possible taxonomy of famous personages is the following:

(A) People who exert influence over their fellow human beings during their lifetime, whether in a limited way or transcending geographical, ethnic, national and other boundaries;
(B) People who exert influence over their fellow humans posthumously, again: either in a limited scope or transcending temporal, spatial and other limitations;
(C) People who achieved the same aforementioned influence via an agent – human or non-human (mostly, who propagated their influence through another human being).
To be considered (and, thus, to become) a historical figure a person must satisfy condition B above. This, in itself, is a sufficient (though not a necessary) condition. Alternatively, a person may satisfy condition A above. Once more, this is a sufficient condition – though hardly a necessary one.

A person has two other ways to qualify:

He can either satisfy a combination of conditions A and C or Meet the requirements of conditions B and C.

A few observations can be made:

That historical stature is a direct descendant and derivative of the influence the historical figure has over other human beings. This influence cannot remain potential – it must be exerted. Put differently, historical prominence is the result of an interaction between humans, wherein one of the involved influences the other in a disproportionate manner.

Second, the above criteria lack all quantitative dimensions. Without such determinants they lose their qualifying power. Some kind of formula (in the quantitative sense) must be found in order to restore meaning to the above classes of fame and standing in history.

The Creative Person as a Child

The creative person is often described as suffering from dysfunctional skills of communication. Unable to employ the normal means used by other mortals to communicate their thoughts (cognition) and their emotions (affect) – he resorts to the circumspect, highly convoluted and idiosyncratic form of communication known as Art (or Science, depending on his inclination and predilections).

But this cold, functional, phenomenological analysis fails to capture the spirit of the creative act. Nor does it amply account for our responses to acts of creation (ranging from enthusiasm to awe and from criticism to censorship). True, this range of responses characterizes everyday communications as well – but no one can deny that it is imbued with much less energy in the latter case. Much less vigour and commitment, less passion go into the more regular exercise of the very same reactions. This is a classical case of a quantitative degree which is transformed into a qualitative difference.

The creative person provokes, evokes and convokes the Child in us by behaving as such himself.  This rude violation of our social conventions and norms (the artist is, chronologically, an adult) shocks us into an utter loss of defences. This results in enlightenment: a sudden flood of insights, the release of hitherto suppressed emotions, memories and embryonic forms of cognition and affect. The artist poses as our subconscious, both private and collective.

On the Importance of Human Life

Human life is - and always has been - the ultimate value, a yardstick by which all others are measured and against which they are weighted. This held true in all cultures and nations throughout history.

On first impression, the last sentence sounds patently erroneous.  We all know about the regimes that regarded human lives as dispensable, that murdered and tortured, that cleansed and annihilated whole populations. Surely, these regimes defy the aforementioned generalization?

I beg to differ. I believe that the apparent difference of opinion is the result of the omnipresent characteristics of the value of human life. It permeates every space and every time. It is not subject to gradations or to deferral.  This, at least, is what the liberal philosophies claim.  And here lies the difference:

It is not that authoritarian regimes believe differently. They do not contest the over-riding importance of the value itself. Life is sacred, valuable, to be cherished and preserved. But it could be subject to deferral, to quantitative measurement and, therefore, to differences in rigour.

The value of the sacredness of human life ("The Value", for short) can be suspended on the following grounds:

(1) Quantitative - when a lesser evil will prevent a bigger one. Sacrificing the lives of the few to save the lives of the many is a principle enshrined and embedded in activities such as war and medicinal care. All cultures - no matter how steeped(or rooted) in liberal lore accept it. They all send soldiers to die to save the more numerous civilian population. A doctor sacrifices lives daily, when he confronts the horns of life and death dilemmas.
It is really a question of quantity ("the numerical ratio between those saved and those sacrificed"), of quality ("are there privileged lives whose saving or preservation is worth the sacrifice of others' lives?") and of evaluation (no onecan safely predict the results of such moral dilemmas - will the lives be saved as the result of the sacrifice?).

(2) Temporal - when the sacrifice of life (voluntary or forced) in the present secures a better life for others in the future. These future lives need not be more numerous than the lives sacrificed. A life in the future immediately acquires the connotationof youth in need of protection. It is the old sacrificed for the sake of the new, a trade off between those who already had their share of life - and those who had none yet. It is the bloody equivalent of a savings plan: one forgoes present consumption for a future one.
The mirror image of this temporal argument comes close to belonging to the third group (see next), the qualitative one. It prefers to sacrifice a life in the present so that another life, also present, will continue in the future. Abortion is an instance of this approach: the life of the child is extinguished to secure the future well being of the mother. In Judaism, it is forbidden to kill a she-bird. It is preferableto kill its off-spring. The mother has the potential to compensate for this loss of life by bringing others to the world.

(3) Qualitative - This is an especially vicious variant because it purports to endow subjective notions and views with "scientific" objectivity. People are judged to belong to different qualitative groups (by race, skin colour, birth and a hundredother parameters). The result of this immoral taxonomy is that the lives of the "lesser" brands of humans are considered less "weighty" and worthy than the lives of the upper grades of humanity. The former are therefore sacrificed to benefit the latter. The Jews in Nazi occupied Europe, the slaves in America, the aborigines in Australia are three examples out of hundreds.

(4) Utilitarian - When the sacrifice of a life will bring another person material or other benefits. This is the thinking (and action) which characterizes psychopaths and sociopaths criminals, for instance. For them, life is a tradable commodityand it can be exchanged against non-life goods and services. Money buys life and their extermination and so do drugs.

Only this last category has the hallmarks of total ignorance and ignoring the value of human life. But one can hardly equate a sub-culture (e.g., of crime) with a culture or with a civilization (with its organized institutions). Or can one?

Being First, Being Original, Being Innovative

There is an often missed distinction between Being First , Being Original and Being Innovative.

To determine that someone (or something) has been (a) first – a temporal test has to be applied. It should elicit answers to at least three questions: what exactly was done, when exactly was it done and was (exactly) this ever done before.

To determine that someone (or something) is original – a substantive test has to be applied. It should answer at least the following questions: what exactly was done, when exactly was it done and was (exactly) this ever done before.

To determine that someone (or something) is innovative – a practical test has to be applied. It should answer at least the following questions : what exactly was done, in which way was it done and was (exactly) this ever done before in the (exactly) same way.

Reviewing the tests above leads us to two conclusions:

(1) Being first and being original are more closely linked than being first and being innovative or than being original and being innovative. This is due to the similarity of the tests applied to determine “firstness” and originality.

(2) Though the tests are the same, the emphasis shifts. To determine whether someone or something is first, we primarily ask “when” while to determine originality we primarily ask “what”.

All three help in the conservation of resources and, therefore, in the delicate act of human survival. By being first a feasibility theorem is demonstrated (“it is possible”). By being original, what is needed or can be done is expounded upon. And by being innovative, the practical aspect is revealed: how should it be done. Society rewards these pathfinders with status and lavishes other tangible and intangible benefits upon them - mainly upon the Originators and the Innovators. The Firsts are more neglected because they do not directly open the new path to humanity – they merely demonstrate the possibility). The Originators and the Innovators are the ones who discover / expose / invent / put together / phrase something in a way which will enable others to do the same (really to reconstruct the process) with much less effort (=resources) invested.

Being First without Being Original is conceivable. This is because Being First is context dependent. The answers to questions like where, when, with whom, what for – are all determinant. For instance: had I travelled to a tribe in the Amazon forests and quoted a speech of Kennedy to them – I would have hardly been original but I would definitely have been the first IN THE CONTEXT of that particular tribe at that particular time.  Popularizers of modern science and religious missionaries all are first but not original. It is their audience which determines their Being First – and history which determines their (lack of) originality.

Many of us reinvent the wheel. It is humanly impossible to be aware of all that was written and done by others before us. Unaware of the fact that we are not first, nor original, nor innovative we act file patent applications, make discoveries in science, exploit (not so) new themes in the arts.  Society may judge us differently than we perceive ourselves to be and hence the syndrome of the “misunderstood genius”. Admittedly, things are easier for those who use words as their vehicle: there are so many permutations, that the likelihood of not being first or innovative is minuscule. Yet, since originality is measured by the substantive (=idea) content, the chances of being original as well are slim. At most, we will end up restating or re-phrasing old ideas. The situation is worse (and the tests more rigorous) when it comes to non-verbal fields of human endeavour.

But then surely this is too severe! Aren't we all dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants? Can one be original, first, even innovative without digesting the experience of past generations? Can all of this happen discontinuously? Isn't continuity a prerequisite?

True, a scientist innovates, explores, discovers on the basis of (a limited and somewhat random) selection of previous explorations and research. He even uses equipment – to measure and perform other functions – that was invented by his predecessors. But progress and advance are conceivable without access to the treasure troves of the past, and devoid of continuity. True again, the very concept of progress entails a basis for comparison. But it might be easier to modify the choice of words than to ignore reality.

Scientific revolutions are not smooth evolutionary processes (even biological evolution is no longer considered a smoothly evolving affair). They are phase transitions, paradigmatic changes, jumps, fits and starts rather than orderly syllogisms (Kuhn: “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”). There is very little continuity in quantum mechanics (more so, though, in the Relativity Theories). There is even less in modern genetics and immunology. The notion of the laborious use of building blocks to construct the tower of knowledge is not supported by the history of human knowledge. And what about the first human being who had a thought or invented a device – on what did he base himself and whom did he continue?

Innovation is the father of context, original thoughts shape the human community and the firsts among us dictate the rules of the game. There is very little continuity in the discontinuous processes called invention and revolution. But we are and always have been human and our reactions to new things and adaptation to the new world that they bring in their wake, essentially remain the same. It is there that continuity is to be found.