Has Management Become Significantly More Incompetent?

I don’t really have a dog in the Lepore-Christensen fight. Lepore’s strongest point, that Christensen’s theory of “disruption” is both a flawed theory of history and itself an artifact of history, seems to have gotten lost in the fray. Lepore overreached in her New Yorker piece, and now Christensen’s adherents and acolytes have come out in full force. There hasn’t been much room for careful discussion of Christensen’s theory as a discourse or artifact of post-industrial social collapse — which is, I suppose, what interests me most about it.

Still, I’m following the controversy, and yesterday, John Hagel offered a welcome, level-headed contribution to the discussion. Here, I simply want to paraphrase the comment I left on his post, because it touches on some themes I’ve written about in connection with the rise of the CEO (notably here, here and here.)

Hagel wants to move the discussion of Lepore-Christensen away from intramural antagonism and the clash of personalities and disciplines to look at “fundamental and systemic trends.” Clearly, he says, “something very profound is happening — and it’s largely escaped notice.” One measure of this bigger shift: “the topple rate at which US public companies in the top quartile of return on assets performance fall out of… leadership position.” That rate, he notes, increased 40 percent between 1965 and 2012.

There are lots of possible explanations for that wild increase. It seems safe to say there must be some great historical forces at work. Otherwise, Hagel writes, “one would have to believe that management is becoming significantly more incompetent over time”; and I guess nobody would seriously believe that. Here, at least, we’re meant to pass over the thought with a knowing smile: of course management has not become significantly more incompetent over time. Right?

I didn’t seriously entertain the thought of growing managerial incompetence again until I arrived at Hagel’s concluding paragraph. There, he offers a few suggestions on how incumbent players might “more effectively respond to these disruptive approaches (short of resorting to regulation and other public policy measures).” One suggestion is that management find ways to take the long view: incumbent players need “to find ways to expand the horizons of their leadership team beyond the next quarter or next year.” Myopia is always dangerous, and more dangerous now than ever before.

At the same time, short-sighted management has a history, and as I’ve suggested in my posts on the rise of the CEO, the most interesting chapter of that history starts right around the time the topple rate increases, in the 60s and 70s.

Around 1965, as profit rates in manufacturing fall and as the postwar boom yields to post-industrial reality, new ideas of management take hold. One of them is what Jack Welch once called “the dumbest idea in the world”: the doctrine of shareholder value. As this doctrine becomes boardroom religion, we see the rise of the “CEO” as corporate savior (in Rakesh Khurana’s phrase) and cultural celebrity.

Short-termism and, in some cases, risky financial manipulation become the name of the game. Compensation packages reinforce bad habits. Strategists and management consultants take their cues from the C-Suite, and tailor their offerings accordingly.

I’m not saying the rise of the CEO, the doctrine of shareholder value, or the promise of sustainable competitive advantage in the 70s and 80s explain the increase in the topple rate, but clearly they should be taken into account here; and we should give growing managerial incompetence its due. Bad ideas about what counts as business success — and misguided actions by business (and political) leaders — certainly make businesses more vulnerable to the kind of disruption that interests Hagel: the loss of leadership position.

Big scary historical forces may be overtaking us, but if competence in the face of those forces is what we’re after, then failed ideas of corporate purpose and failed models of corporate leadership ought to be called out, questioned, and radically altered or just dropped.

Serious Conversations, 5

It’s difficult to have an uninterrupted conversation. We can retreat to some quiet spot, turn off all our devices, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, and chances are we will still have to deal with interruptions. Bar all intruders, but we cannot bar ourselves from the place where we are. A noise, the aroma of cooking, thirst or a rumble in the gut, a change in the weather or the position of the sun, the sight of a passerby, a bird or squirrel, a tugboat making its way into the harbor: it’s remarkable how little it takes to distract us or take our attention away from the conversation, stop us in mid-sentence or change the point of view.

If the interruption can be pinned on one of our party or an interloper, we are likely to go on the offensive, and start blaming. When we’re done, or if there’s no one to blame, we almost always go on the defensive: we try to go back to where we were, retrench or retrace our steps, restore equilibrium. The truth is, there’s no going back. If conversation can feel like a place we create together, then an interruption can feel like the loss of a world.

Or now it’s a world with a history. When we ask, where were we? what were we talking about? we are already speaking of ourselves in the past tense. There’s no need for nostalgia or remorse, and we shouldn’t lose time searching for a thread that is no longer there. The warp has changed. So must the woof.

Interruptions give us a chance to react, reset, review and recount, to advance new claims or make new demands of ourselves or of others, or simply to renew the joint commitment we made to having the conversation. So we should not think of interruptions merely as noise to signal, but learn to welcome them and think of them as an intrinsic part of the conversation itself.

Polite conversation may be a matter of knowing when and how to interrupt; serious conversation involves give and take, a socializing of attention. Interruption doesn’t have to mean talking over the other, but listening and then redirecting. We attend seriously to the matter between us by making reciprocal claims on one another’s attention.

To put that another way: conversation assumes a shared intention to shift attention.

A North American Oceanus (1865)

EasternWatershed3

In the northern part of Minnesota is the greatest elevation of what geologists denominate the eastern water-shed of our continent; lying almost exactly in the centre of North America, here the streams that flow to the north, east, and south, find their source. Lake Superior, that adjoins this section on the east, is the chief of those magnificent lakes that empty from one another into the St. Lawrence, and finally wash the coast of Labrador. The Mississippi, taking its rise in the same region and but a few miles away, flows southward with ever increasing volume to the Gulf of Mexico, and then sweeping around Florida and through the Atlantic, rejoins the waters of Lake Superior off Newfoundland; while the Red River of the North, pursuing a contrary course, empties into Hudson’s Bay and thence into the Northern Ocean. These waters, starting from little rills and springs scarcely more than a few steps apart, after wandering thousands of miles asunder come together and commingle in the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

I keep coming back to this short passage about the eastern watershed in Robert B. Roosevelt‘s Superior Fishing — the perspective it sets out, the way it locates the “source” of the eastern waters at the continent’s “centre,” the divergent flows and courses it maps, and the idea of Northern Atlantic confluence and commingling at which it repeatedly arrives.

Roosevelt starts out pretending to be scientific, dealing with “what geologists denominate,” but soon we have left geology behind. Or, at least, there is something beyond scientific naming, or something unnamed at work here as well, a story that exceeds the scientific bounds of geology, geography and cartography.

The passage describes a North American Oceanus — an ocean stream that encircles the eastern portion of the continent. The eastern stream originates in the elevated northeastern corner of Minnesota, near Grand Portage and in the rills and springs of the Boundary Waters; it divides, separates and flows north, east, and south, until its waters meet again off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Roosevelt returns to his last point — about the confluence of the eastern waters — three times in the course of this single short paragraph, tracing three divergent courses from Lake Superior to the north Atlantic and the coast of Eastern Canada. If Superior is situated at the source and origin of the watershed, Labrador and Newfoundland reliably mark its destination and point of confluence. There, in the north Atlantic, the waters rejoin and are returned to themselves.

It’s hard to say what to make of this recursive pattern, or how much to make of it. Is it anything more than a tic? The territory bounded by the waters is vast, and comprises (in 1865) the defeated Confederacy, the Union, and Eastern Canada — still, at that time, a British colony. As a Tammany Hall politician, Roosevelt would have been privy if not party to the political shenanigans that would eventually result in the Annexation Bill of 1866. The Bill was never intended to be anything more than a sop thrown to the Fenians and their Irish-American supporters. But it claimed much of the territory described by the eastern watershed – Labrador, Newfoundland, and northern Ontario — as a new territory of the United States: Canada East.  What geologists denominate the eastern watershed of our continent also encompassed, at the time, a political geography.

 

A Third Note on The First CEO

In a comment on one of my posts about the rise of the acronym “CEO,” a reader named Hugo reports some early Australian illustrations. I thought I’d lift Hugo’s notes from the comments and share them here, because the examples he’s found all pre-date the 1970 illustration of the acronym from the Harvard Business Review, which up until now I had taken to be the earliest. One dates back to 1914.

Time, again, to notify the dictionaries.

I found some earlier 1968 and 1950 examples in Australian newspapers, where chief executive officers were found at hospitals. I also found a 1917 [sic, but the source is from 1914] from a story about a town hall.

The Canberra Times, 27 July 1968, page 22:
[Begin]
Applications are invited for the above positions at the Hillston District Hospital.

Applications and enquiries to the undersigned or Matron Fairchild, Box 1, PO, Hillson, NSW, 2675.
R. I. Cross,
C.E.O.
[End]

The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1950, page 30:
[Begin]
PARRAMATTA DISTRICT HOSPITAL.
Wanted. Experienced Sister to take
charge of the Out Patient Department
at this hospital.

N. B. FILBY,
Secretary and C.E.O.
[End]

Independent, 7 November 1914, page 3:
[Begin]
BEHIND THE SCENES
BY A TOWN HALL FLY

Of course I am the chief executive officer but I only execute by instructions.

“What a pity,” said the M.M., the C.E.O.

“Not at all, my dear young lady.” the C.E.O.’s voice was tear laden too.
[End]

Also uses G.H.U. a few times for Great High Understrapper.

I don’t think these earlier Australian instances should invalidate what I’ve said previously about the widespread use of the acronym CEO in the 1970s and 1980s. Those observations concern the use of “CEO” as an important marker of corporate power, social status and cultural celebrity in America, from roughly 1970-2010.

Still, it’s interesting to consider these early examples. The first two are abbreviations used in newspaper advertisements (maybe just to save money) for positions at hospitals, where the CEOs are clearly in charge of correspondence if not of hiring. Nothing too glamorous. [Update: And one reader, in a comment on this post, suggests that CEO in this context may mean "Catholic Education Officer," adding that at this time in Australia, "nurses and religious orders go together."]

The illustration from 1914 offers a satirical, behind-the-scenes account of a municipal office thrown into bureaucratic confusion by a report of 24 cows eating all the flowers and shrubs in the park. Underlings and citizens address the Chief Executive Officer by such honorifics as “Your Chief Executiveness” and “Most Magnificent” and, then, “CEO.” It is an empty title; he seems unable to execute anything at all: “Of course I am the chief executive officer,” he insists, “but I only execute by instructions.” When he finally understands the gravity of the situation, he acts: “I will tell somebody to tell somebody else to tell the inspector as soon as he comes in the morning at nine. I’m sure 24 cows won’t eat all the shrubs in that time.” He is very much the Chief, very much an Officer, but not much when it comes to Execution.

Serious Conversations, 4

The sculptor Richard Serra tells the following story about a Charles Mingus session at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, sometime around 1956.

The performance was in the afternoon and there was a fan on. It was really loud and Mingus was going through his set and they were recording, and the bartender turned off the fan. Mingus had an apoplectic fit. He jumped over the bar and practically throttled the guy. ‘That fan was one of my instruments,’ he said. And it made me think, as someone who wanted to be an artist, that you had to pay attention all the time to everything that was going on, because everything was of potential use, if you could see the potential.

Place matters, whether you are playing music, making a sculpture or — as I like to remind people — simply having a conversation. From Mingus, Serra learned “to pay attention to everything that was going on,” and that ambient attention or awareness of place has figured prominently in Serra’s own art, which frequently involves creating site-specific, large-scale sculptures that both fit with and alter their surroundings. Place furnishes the sculptor with context, material and ideas: everything is of “potential use, if you..see the potential”. Place can be both potent and useful, a power and a utility. For Serra, it’s all a matter of paying attention.

Serrasculpture

Richard Serra creates large-scale, site-specific sculptures that draw on and amplify the power of place.

How, then, might we tap the power of place and put it to use when it comes to serious conversations? How do we pay attention to the place we are and how does that attention get repaid?

This is a vast topic, so for now I want to set out a few markers, just to get the discussion started.

First and most obviously, place situates the participants. We can talk about place in this basic sense as the setting of a conversation — not merely a location, site or spot; the setting is more like a scene in which we are the actors. I am not entirely sure about the theatrical metaphor (which is inescapable when we talk about place as a scene or setting): I don’t mean to imply that conversations are performances for the benefit of anyone other than the interlocutors, that they require an audience, or that the place has the temporary and artificial qualities of a stage or set, put up or constructed for the sake of staging a conversation. That all sounds too contrived, and it implies a grand designer or author behind the scenes. Of course every conversation involves some element of make believe and there is a performative aspect to all conversation, but we ought to imagine an unscripted play, spontaneous or at least unplanned, in which the actors themselves are sole authors and creators — an improvisation.

Place sets conditions and defines limits: this is where we are, not over there, not elsewhere, maybe not even where we most want to be, but here. Limits imply presence, a here and now, and it’s up to us to recognize and attend to that. Our attention registers the basic obligation we have to one another, which is simply to be in this place (and in this conversation). The word ‘obligation’ here shouldn’t be misleading or mistaken for mandate or coercion: when a conversation is serious, we are not under any compulsion. We claim each other’s attention. It makes sense, then, to talk about place as a space of commitment, a setting to which we can both lay claim and which permits us to make some simple claims: stay and talk awhile; listen to me; help me understand what you are saying.  As I’ve said before, you can’t just walk away or start playing hula hoops and I can’t take part if I am whistling Dixie or daydreaming of someplace far away. This place is not just incidentally a backdrop for our conversation and our conversation is not a backdrop for some other action that will define or disrupt the place; our mutual presence here commits us jointly to the conversation. Attending to place helps us respect and keep that commitment.

Place creates new possibilities in the conversation, as participants discover and avail themselves of their situation in all sorts of ways. This is close to what Richard Serra is getting at when he talks about paying attention to everything that’s going on — a noisy fan, the voices of children playing nearby, the smell and feel of the lush green grass, the roar of traffic or the flow of a nearby stream, a tweeting bird or a passing cyclist, the wail of sirens or the approach of the police, the patter of the rain, the creak of the wood as we settle on a rough-hewn bench. The important point here is that in conversation we experience a place from the inside and in company with others. To keep company is to be a participant, not merely an observer of the place, looking in or looking on from the outside. Our conversation is what’s going on there — or at least one of the most important things going on.

Place is intrinsic to the unfolding of conversation, the warp to its woof; and to an appreciable extent, place and conversation may be indistinguishable — especially once things get going. Or it might be easier just to say conversation is the place we create between us. It’s not a question of your place or mine. It’s ours.

Dips

scarabgrub1Yesterday I had vertigo for the better part of the day. What set my world in motion is still not clear: too little sleep, too much booze the night before, dehydration, antihistamines, chocolate, a migraine, the inner ear. The first few bars of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Four in One’ looped in my head, a spinning, dizzying syntax.

I had planned to bring a tall ladder to the garden and prune the lilacs — which have already bloomed and gone. Negotiating the staircase proved hard enough. So, instead, I kneeled and, when I could not kneel, sat in the dirt and listlessly pulled a few weeds.

A copper-headed scarab grub made his way, with difficulty, out of a rotted tree stump and into the daylight. He writhed and pushed and lurched his fat body forward, but his legs twitched, as if in a palsy, unable to gain traction. As I left him, he had started to burrow back into the moist darkness of the decayed stump.

In the evening, when I was again able to focus my eyes, I went back to my book, and read about Archimedes, who ran naked and dripping wet through the streets of Syracuse shouting Eureka! He had, he explained, discovered the force that kept him afloat in the bathtub.

 

Where Are the Women in Mining?

Glencore remains the only FTSE 100 company that does not have a woman on its board of directors. At the shareholder’s meeting at the start of this week, Chairman Tony Hayward promised that the company would remedy the situation by year’s end; but some big institutional investors have grown impatient, and UK business secretary Vince Cable said “it is simply not credible that one company cannot find any suitable women.”

The problem is industry-wide. A 2013 report by Amanda van Dyke (of Palisade Capital and Chair of the organization Women in Mining) and Stephney Dallmann (of PwC) found that mining companies “have the lowest number of women on boards of any listed industry group in the world.”

Maybe that doesn’t come as a great surprise to those familiar with mining, but within the industry there are companies who seem to be doing more than bluffing or hoping the issue will go away. Most of those are high profile global players. Women’s numbers decline steadily as we move down the ranks to the so-called juniors; and the likelihood that women will have a board seat or participate in a board committee also varies by territory. (South Africa leads the pack: over 21% of the committee seats of listed South African mining companies are occupied by women.)

Canada boasts the highest number of listed mining companies, and the “large mining companies in Canada are much further down the road [than smaller firms] in terms of their understanding of the importance of the role women play on boards.” The top-tier Canadian companies with high market capitalization (and the increased visibility that comes with size) have nearly 14% of board directorships held by women, but among the bottom 400 of the world’s top 500 miners, Canada has “the lowest participation on board committees by women, at 5.9%.”

The authors acknowledge that many of these companies are at early stages of development and they have only a few board seats to fill; but if they expect to grow and mature (as they do), there is no time like the present to lead or at least follow the lead of the big league players. When the same men keep winning the game of musical chairs — and when they sit next to each other (as they do) not just on one board, but on several, and their affiliations stretch back over decades — the result is likely to be not just over-familiarity but insularity, both of which are likely to impair and impede judgment. Meetings become a day at the club; the boardroom becomes an echo chamber.

As van Dyke and Dallmann note in a 2014 follow up report, it’s misleading to say, as many mining company executives do when pressed, that the small number of women directors correlates in a meaningful way with the lack of women with mining-related degrees. Only 32% of men on boards of mining companies have an engineering degree. So “there is no shortage of women in the talent pool;” according to van Dyke and Dallmann, “there is simply a perception of a lack of available female talent.”

This blinkered view of reality has real-world consequences, for shareholders and stakeholders in the communities where the miners operate. Mining companies with women on their boards see performance improvements on a number of fronts, from financial to social and environmental performance. “Sustainability” — as measured by water use, Bloomberg ESG score, UN Global Compact participation, Community Spend, and CSR or Sustainability Committee – improves across the board. For example, average total water use by mining companies “decreases steadily with an increase of women” in director roles — though it’s not entirely clear to me why that should be so — and “the amount [mining] companies spend on community projects and initiatives increases with the number of women on the board.” The authors are careful not to urge any hasty conclusions, but after surveying the data they are compelled to suggest that “the security of a company’s social licence to operate may be improved by having women on the board.”

I would go one step further: it’s difficult to countenance a mining company asking for social license to operate even as it deliberately insulates itself from social reality.

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.

 

Can Films Still Make a Difference?

What filmmaker wouldn’t be pleased with a critic like Joan Gibb Engel? Here’s what she writes about 1913 Massacre.

We were treated to a complex story, excellently told, replete with black and white stills from the period depicting the miners, the strikers, the town, the children, and the hall before it was torn down, and there were colorful scenes from the present of townspeople reflecting on the tragedy and their versions of what really happened. It had mystery, drama, sentiment, dance, and of course, the now-famous song sung in the film by Woody’s son Arlo.

Gibb Engel was in the audience when we showed 1913 Massacre at the Calumet Theatre in October of 2012, and she recalls the event in a paper she contributed to Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse: Ecological Integrity for Law, Policy and Human Rights. (The book came out last year, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I came across her article, while looking for some notice of the film’s May Day screening in Oslo, Norway.)

It turns out that Gibb Engel comes to bury our film, not to praise it. She offers her experience at the Calumet Theatre as a “dispiriting example of the failure of a film to make a difference.” And it’s not just 1913 Massacre. “I don’t believe a film, even a beautiful one…can do much for us now. We are already too awash in virtual reality depictions of the future, and no generation has had more reason to question their respective validities.”

The question whether a film can still “make a difference” in the world is one I’ve struggled with myself, written about (e.g., here, here and here), and discussed often with friends and colleagues. Gibb Engel arrives at her pessimistic view mainly after viewing and thinking about another film — Journey of the Universe, a big-budget television documentary produced by Mary Eveyln Tucker and Brian Swimme — and then she finds that view reinforced by an exchange she has, or tries to have, with a young man seated next to her at the Calumet Theatre watching our low-budget, independent film.

He was “a local high school student” who had come to the theater that day with his girlfriend, and he “had been playing with his mobile phone prior to the lights going down.” When Ken or I — we usually take turns at this — asked everyone in the audience to please make sure their cell phones were switched off, “he turned it off as requested for the performance.” So far so good! The trouble comes after the film is over, when Gibb Engel

turned to the young man and asked what he thought of it. He answered in a voice completely devoid of colour: ‘it was interesting.’

And on the basis of that exchange, Gibb Engel concludes that 1913 Massacre failed to “make a difference.” What are we to make of this?

It’s worth pointing out from the very start that Gibb Engel seems to have nothing but praise for the film, but her argument in this paper is an exercise in a foregone conclusion: what she really wants to say here — what she in fact says immediately after having dispensed with Journey to the Universe and 1913 Massacre — is that there isn’t

any way forward except to do what GEIG [the Global Ecological Integrity Group: Gibb Engel’s husband, Ron Engel, sits on the executive committee] and its members have tried to do these past twenty years: make a personal connection with some part of the Earth and help others do the same; work for social and ecological justice; fight for people and policies that matter to the Earth’s flourishing; get our hands dirty.

Exactly how this noble or necessary or dirty work is to be accomplished, and why there should be only one way forward, she does not bother to say. There’s also a whole messy argument to untangle here about the possibility of unmediated experience (of nature) and the role of language, story and representation in forging “personal connections” and helping others do the same, working for justice and fighting for policies, etc. that Gibb Engel doesn’t come close to addressing here. I’m not going to press the issue. Instead, I want to go back to the moment where she turns to the young man sitting next to her in the Calumet Theatre and asks him what he thought of 1913 Massacre.

It’s an odd moment to focus on, and I am reluctant to allow Gibb Engel’s account of her exchange with this young man to stand for the audience’s experience of the film. There were plenty of reasons to think that 1913 Massacre did make a real difference to that Calumet audience — maybe even to that local high school kid.  And this isn’t just because I am one of the film’s producers. The house was packed for three screenings; the crowd gave the film successive standing ovations; the whole house laughed and cried and rode the film like a wave. (My diary of the Calumet Screenings is here). Gibb Engel enjoyed herself as well. But she wants to divert our attention from the audience’s experience (“we were treated to a complex story, excellently told”) to the experience of this one young man.

Now having been a young man of high school age, I can tell you that at that time in my life I probably would not have even managed “it was interesting” if asked by a middle-aged woman sitting next to me what I thought of a film. If I had been there with my girlfriend, as he was, I probably would have been even more reticent; or I might have said or done something awkward in an effort to impress my girl, or disentangle myself from the mutual attention of these two women, or get off the witness stand where this lady had put me. In other words, what Gibb Engel fails to consider here is that “it was interesting” was in all likelihood a social cue, meant to nip the conversation in the bud. (Remember when your parents’ friends used to ask you how things were going at school? “Fine.” It’s still a good rule not to trust anyone over 30, at least until you’re 25 or so.)

Even more puzzling is that Gibb Engel takes her cue from this high school student and then puts the failure to connect in a meaningful way on the young man. But surely Gibb Engel has an important part in the little social drama she describes, as the young man’s grown-up antagonist or interlocutor. That’s the position she’s in after watching the film and turning to the young man; maybe it’s fair to say it’s the position the film put her in. These two probably would never have had occasion to address one another were it not for the fact that they happened to be seated next to each other at the Calumet Theatre for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

So, as my friend Marc Tognotti pointed out when I shared the passage from Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse with him, 1913 Massacre did make at least one “obvious difference” in Gibb Engel’s world: first of all, it prompted Gibb Engel to turn to the cell-phone-wielding young man next to her and ask what he thought of the film. (And before that, it prompted the young man to turn off his cell phone — to take his life offline and participate in a public screening of a film, or at least sit quietly through it.) And when he gave her a cue “devoid of colour,” Gibb Engel by her own account seems to have let the whole thing drop, without adding any color of her own. She could have offered what she herself thought of the film, expressed the appreciation she later put into writing, asked what he meant by interesting, addressed his girlfriend and asked her what she thought, asked them both if they grew up in Calumet and had ever heard the story. And so on: the possibilities for improvisation, new relationship and conversation after the colorless “interesting” cue were many, especially because in Calumet nearly every high school kid has some family connection to the Italian Hall or the mining operations or the Finnish music Oren Tikkanen sings in our film. Gibb Engel didn’t pursue any of those.

What Gibb Engel doesn’t acknowledge here or anywhere in her discussion of 1913 Massacre or Journey of the Universe is that the difference film or any work of art makes is always one that we have to make, among ourselves. Marc puts it this way in an email:

Our tradition with film and with all art is to believe that meaning resides within the art object, or within the mind of the author/artist, etc.  But the meaning of art, if we take a pragmatist perspective anyhow, is actually something that is realized in the public domain, in how the artwork changes the conversation, changes the way in which people coordinate their actions with one another and towards the world, natural and artificial. Once we realize this, we can stop treating art as something for individual consumption, we can stop objectifying meaning in a way that renders us passive observers, and we can begin to take responsibility for creating meaning and creating change.

The work of art is not just the inhuman object that remains when the craftsman puts down his tools; it is the human activity that can begin only after the artwork is brought into the world.

The Roosevelt Everybody Chose to Forget About

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I still can’t say what exactly I expected to come of my visit to Robert B. Roosevelt’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery yesterday. I’d been reading Superior Fishing — Roosevelt’s picaresque account of his adventures with Don Pedro from the Sault to the Harmony River — and upon learning that R.B. was buried here in Brooklyn, I felt I had to pay him a visit.

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Section 51, Lot 10267 is hardly the grandest corner of Green-Wood. The tombstones of the Roosevelts form a ring around a grassy crown where Locust meets Grape Avenue. Robert’s grave is the first you notice if you approach from Grape, as I did. His stone is set prominently on the left hand of his family — the graves of his first wife Elizabeth Ellis and his children.

Robert “is the Roosevelt everybody chose to forget about,” writes David McCollough in Mornings on Horseback. A Bohemian and a gadabout, a ladies man and an adventurer, Robert was the Roosevelt “for whom the family often had to do some explaining,” and that was not just because he wrote curious books about fishing, invented various noms de plume, consorted with the likes of Oscar Wilde and was “bursting with ideas.”

After Elizabeth’s death in 1887, Robert married Marion (or Minnie) O’Shea. By then, Minnie had been his mistress for about twenty years, and he was the father of her three children — Maude, Granville and Kenyon — a fact that Robert never publicly acknowledged. (Timothy Beard, a genealogist at the New York Public Library, unearthed the story.) While Elizabeth was still alive, Robert kept Minnie in a townhouse not too far from his own, where she lived under the name Mrs. Robert F. Fortescue (a nom de plume of a different order). He married her in 1888, at a Roman Catholic Church in Clapham, England. She and her children do not have a share in the Roosevelt plot at Green-Wood.

Minnie was hardly Robert’s only mistress. He bought a supply of “garish green” gloves on sale at Stewart’s Department Store, and gave them as tributes to the women whose company he kept; and among his friends it became a winking game to notice women wearing them as they strolled down Fifth Avenue or through Central Park. Even on the three-day steamship cruise from Cleveland to the Sault, Roosevelt and Don Pedro manage to make “the acquaintance of one or two kind beings in crinoline.” They are frustrated when the Indian women they encounter in a village along the Agawa River seem unaware of or unmoved by “our high delicacy towards the female sex” and keep hidden from view: “during our entire stay we had nothing but dissolving views of female charms—loveliness that was not arrayed in crinoline.”

In Point Judith, printed as a sort of appendix or afterword in the 1865 edition of Superior Fishing, Roosevelt’s journey to Point Judith, Rhode Island begins with an unpleasant trip by rail from New Haven to Kingston.  There, he picks up a stage to the South Pier and finds himself in the company of “a pretty little widow, with hazel eyes”:

It is seven miles from Kingston to the South Pier, the driver may happen to be a little tight, very sleepy, and wholly unobservant of what is passing in the back of his vehicle. Moonlight is either reflected with great brilliancy from hazel eyes, or else hazel eyes originate a brilliancy akin to moonlight, and certainly moonlight, hazel eyes, white teeth, rosy lips, soft hands, and a slender waist, are very bewitching in a close carriage of a moonlight night, with a preoccupied driver. Some women have a smile like sunshine, and their laugh rings like a chime of bells; and if you happen to be riding alone with a pretty widow, and something suggests love-making, and her merry laughter slowly dies away into a gentle smile, and the smile fades into a look of sympathetic feeling, that you have to draw very near to see, till you feel her palpitating breath upon your cheek, and her hand trembles when by the merest accident you touch it, and the ride occupies an hour or more, you may, before the South Pier is reached, almost forget that you are married.

His grave was not tidy. I cleared away some  sticks and a broken bottle, and tried to scrape the bird droppings from the top of the stone. Some little purple wildflowers have sprung up near his plot, and the sight of them makes it less dreary.