In “Discipline & Punish”, Foucault quotes Marshal de Saxe, on the value of detail:
“Although those who concern themselves with details are regarded as folk of limited intelligence, it seems to me that this part is essential, because it is the foundation, and it is understanding its principles. It is not enough to have a liking for architecture. One must also know stone-cutting.”
I am not sure, however, if the analogy is quite accurate any more, at least not in our century and its vertiginous rates of change, and at least in relation to the process of having ideas.
It has been my contention – and personal excuse too, yes (for sure!) – for a very long, perhaps too long, time that in order to see the grandeur and entirety of historical arc – and by history I want to argue we should include the future as well – you must be ignorant of too many details.
It comes not from desirability but necessity: surely no human being can encompass all disciplines reliably and see their potentially productive connections simultaneously. Seeing detail, I have preferred to suggest, precludes inevitably the opportunity to see the links and trails of thought currently unconnected, and which could usefully run against each other were the process of rubbing to be facilitated.
I would argue, therefore, that whilst detail and grandeur are both necessary, in academia (as well as in other areas of endeavour) we need to work in partnership – closely so: seamlessly in fact: just as lyricist and composer often have – so that each predisposition may find its true complement.
Only then can we both know undeniably the truth of detail and, at the same time, extract imaginatively the connections which might yet save our habitat: this rock some still thrive on.
What I really mean is that it’s not enough to specialise in specialisms. We need, also, to be specialists of generalisms.
And that is why Saxe’s analogy no longer stands easily: it’s not enough to know just stone-cutting. To add real value to the future, we have to have the nous and intuition to sense and predict what can hardly be yet!
After 54 years, I still pursue my McCartney. Whilst I’ve always been a storyteller of space, and time, and uncomfortable rigour, and that race to tie all those ever so very loose ends, I have never quite managed to create a house of peace.
Now and then, perhaps, I sense its presence. But mostly, it does escape me.