Grandmother sources

The histories I’ve written have often been hidden, lost, neglected, too broad or too amorphous to show up in others’ radar screens, histories that are not neat fields that belong to someone but the paths and waterways that meander through many fields and belong to no one. Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend primarily from painters. Just as the purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branches and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers.

Rebecca Solnit’s idea of grandmother sources (from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, pp.58-59) is a neat shorthand way of referring to a problem I have with many books. I find that non-fiction (and to an extent, fiction) books that I get enjoy most explore a topic, rather than building an argument. Strangely, this is true even when I agree with the argument that is being made. The inevitable exclusions and cherry picking that such an approach requires result in a work that lacks depth. On the other hand, openly and honestly exploring a topic—including stories and facts that might interfere with a simple, straightforward narrative—results in something I can immerse myself in and return to again and again. These are the kind of books that I learn something from every time I read them.

Solnit’s grandmother sources, and my preference for books that use them, strongly reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s plea to reject the single story in order to empower and humanize people that might not fit into the dominant narrative. It also brings to mind Matthew Chalmers’s idea of beautiful seams that allow many digital tools to flourish, rather than one dominant tool.

There is also something of Franklin’s gambit here: post-hoc rationalisation disguised as considered and informed decision making (though there are those who are honest enough to admit that most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive) . This results in a teleological history—the inevitable march of progress, manifest destiny—that erases stories from the past and obscures the many possibilities and opportunities of the present.

 

Franklin’s Gambit

We have been encouraged to believe that there might be a science of decision-making – a scientific procedure that should lead every conscientious person to the same objective answer. The distinction of the great business leader, the measure of financial acumen, would rest only in their ability to arrive at the objectively right answer faster than anyone else. I call this concept of scientific decision-making Franklin’s Rule, after the great American polymath Benjamin Franklin, who set it out in a famous letter to the English scientist, Joseph Priestley. Franklin explained that one should make decisions by listing pros and cons, and attaching weights to each item on the list.

But Franklin knew perfectly well that people – including himself – did not really make decisions this way. He went on to observe how ‘convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable person, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do’. This is Franklin’s Gambit – the process, so common in business and politics, of constructing elaborate rationalisations of decisions that have already been made on different grounds. Consultants’ fortunes have been made on the basis of Franklin’s Gambit.

John Kay discussing obliquity.