Desire and the End of History: Repetition in Vico and Lacan

Central to both Giambattista Vico and Jacques Lacan is an account of history as cyclical, characterized by a repetitive ‘to and fro’ between proximity and distance, in relation to an object of desire whose achievement is tantamount to death.

Lacan posits a subject that only comes to contract its subjectivity as a result of self-alienation. Originally existing as undifferentiated from the world—or in what Lacan would refer to as the ‘real’—the subject is originally lost to itself for, in the absence of language, which is to say the basic capacity for abstraction, the subject is unable to constitute itself—or identify itself—as for-itself. In the real, the subject exists in a state of absolute proximity to itself, and so of pure potentiality.

Hypostasis, or what Levinas describes as “the event by which the existent contracts their existing,”1 is, in Lacan, the moment at which the subject achieves a traumatic split from the real through the ability to take itself as an other. Subjectivity (which is to say consciousness or identity) for Lacan, is fully realized only as a result of some originary act of separation from the real, that would allow the subject to picture the given-to-be-seen for itself, objectifying it under their own gaze. The subject, then, achieves its identity at a cost: its original unity with the real:

This split, after awakening, persists—between the return to the real, the representation of the world that has at last fallen back on its feet, arms raised, what a terrible thing, what has happened, how horrible, how stupid, what an idiot he was to fall asleep—and the consciousness re-weaving itself, which knows it is the same, keeps a grip on itself, it is I who am living through all this, I have no need to pinch myself to know that I am not dreaming.2

Inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s essay on “The Intertwining—The Chiasm,”3 Lacan suggests that human subjects are always already ‘pictured,’ belonging to that which is given-to-be-seen under the gaze of a hypothetical all-seeing other. For Merleau-Ponty, argues Lacan, it comes down to a question of

reconstituting the way by which, not from the body, but from something that he calls the flesh of the world, the original point of vision was able to emerge. It would seem that in this way one sees, in this unfinished work, the emergence of something like the search for an unnamed substance from which I, the seer, extract myself. From the toils (rets), or rays (rais), if you prefer, of an iridescence of which I am at first a part, I emerge as eye, assuming, in a way, emergence from what I would like to call the function of seeingness (voyure).4

The Lacanian subject is constituted by desire: the subject is only to the extent that they are able to extract themselves from the world and make it other. This is accomplished, suggests Lacan, only through a kind of artifice, a screen onto which the world is mapped for the subject. On the one hand, the subject can only come to know itself as a whole, or as gestalt, through the intermediary of a mirror which stands in for the objectifying gaze of others. The subject, then, can only take itself as an object of knowledge to the extent to which it is capable of separating itself from itself, and viewing itself as an object for others:

The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as gestalt, that is to say, in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which appears to him above all in contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him.5

On the other hand, just as the subject, by nature coincident with itself, must effect an artificial separation in order to know itself, so, too, must the subject, by nature undifferentiated from the real, effect an artificial separation from the real in order to take it as an object of knowledge.

The subject, therefore, wins their identity only by losing the world; yet, in losing the world, the subject also longs to get it back; herein lies the cruelest of ironies. On the one hand, the subject lacks, and so is motivated by a drive toward satisfying its most basic desire: a returnto the real. On the other hand, however, such a return would also mean giving up the subject’s differentiation qua subject. It would mean laying down their gaze, their ability to ‘picture’ the world in language, and so their experience of what Lacan calls symbolic death.

At the heart of every subject, then, are two opposing and mutually exclusive drives: the life-drive (eros, or the drive to preserve subjectivity), and the death-drive (thanatos, or the will to self-negation). This opposition at the heart of the Lacanian subject establishes a repetitive movement toward and away from the traumatic moment that first produced the subject’s split from the real. The subject is drawn to the real, but upon contacting it immediately resists, fleeing from death and back into life.

The subject in himself, the recalling of his biography, all this goes only to a certain limit, which is know as the real….An adequate thought, qua thought, at the level at which we are, always avoids—if only to find itself again later in everything—the same thing. Here, the real is that which always comes back to the same place—to the place where the subject in so far as he thinks, where the res cogitans, does not meet it.6

The subject’s history, then, is inaugurated by a split, which the subject seeks to both preserve and destroy. To eliminate this originary split and absolutely accept one’s primordial place in the real, is to lose identity and so absolutely abolish the possibility of history.

Although concerned more with the social than the individual, Vico’s account of human history is rooted in the ontology of the subject in a way similar to Lacan. Human history, argues Vico, emerges with, and as a result of, the achievement of subjectivity. In a fabulous ontogenetic narrative, for example, Vico posits a primordial state in which the human world was populated by dumb animals seeking only after their own utility. Lacking all capacity for language, these original humans are just as Lacan suggests: undifferentiated, given-to-be-seen, pictured:

By fleeing from the wild beasts with which the great forest must have abounded, and by pursuing women, who in that state must have been wild, indocile, and shy, they became separated from each other in their search for food and water. Mothers abandoned their children, who in time must have come to grow up without ever hearing a human voice, much less learning any human custom, and thus descended to a state truly bestial and savage….They would be quite without that fear of gods, fathers and teachers which chills and benumbs even the most exuberant in childhood.7

Human history is inaugurated, according to Vico, by the first emergence of subjectivity, and this subjectivity is realized for Vico in a way that, once again, resonates strongly with the Lacanian account. According to Vico’s account of ontogenesis, Human being emerges only through trauma, an event capable of startling the potential subject in such a way as to provoke its separation from the rest of nature — in such a way as to take itself as an other in relation to others that are not itself.

In his fabulous and mythological account of human origins, Vico uses thunder to represent that traumatic encounter with otherness necessary to produce the differentiation of human beings from their environment. Consciousness, argues Vico, was produced by the need to ‘picture’ the Other, and it was the fear produced by thunder that originally created the need to picture. In picturing thunder as an Other (as variations of the sky god Zeus), these first subjects were forced to other themselves in relation to it: consciousness is formed, for Vico, when the tautological “I am I” becomes the “I am not not I.”

Of such natures must have been the first founders of gentile humanity when at last the sky fearfully rolled with thunder and flashed with lightening, as could not but follow from the bursting upon the air for the first time of an impression so violent….Thereupon a few giants, who must have been the most robust, and who were dispersed throughout the forests on the mountain heights where the strongest beasts have their dens, were frightened and astonished by the great effect whose cause they did not know and raised their eyes and became aware of the sky. An because in such a case the nature of the human mind meads it to attribute its own nature to the effect, and because in that state their nature was that of men all robust bodily strength, who expressed their very violent passions by shouting and grumbling, they pictured the sky to themselves as a great animated body, which in that aspect they called Jove, the first god of the so-called greater gentes.8

To his account, however, which to this point resonates fairly strongly with Lacan, Vico adds the suggestion that God, having created human beings for relationship with Him, is active in human history, intervening in ways that restore and preserve piety when it is lost to pride. The concept of providence is central to Vico’s account of the subject in history, and thunder is the providential act par excellence. According to Vico, humanity’s original descent into ‘bestiality’ came about only after the sons of Noah rejected the religion of their father9 – a kind of symbolic death through the killing, not only of the father, but of the Name that guarantees the fathers authority. In refusing God’s authority, Noah’s sons sought to install themselves. Not realizing that their vanity was not sufficient in itself to guarantee the symbolic order, the descendents of the sons of Noah lost themselves to themselves. In the absence of divine providence, subjectivity was impossible to sustain; and in the absence of providence, humanity was helpless to find itself. In light of this situation, thunder is a supernatural intervention intended by God to shock humanity back into relationship with Himself.

Vico, then, agrees with Lacan that human beings are driven toward their own destruction. However, he rejects the idea that there is any sort of internal ‘life drive’ whose aim is the preservation of subjectivity. Instead, Vico conceptualizes the human pride, or selfishness, that Lacan includes under the rubric of eros as a necessary part of thanatos. For Vico, it is the will to self-sufficiency that is tantamount to absolute differentiation, the will to symbolic death, and the end of human history.

In providing for this property [of being social] God has so ordained and disposed human institutions that men, having fallem from complete justice by original sin, and while intending almost always to do something qhite different and often quite the contrary—so that for private utility they would live alone like wild beasts—have been led by this same utility and along the aforesaid different and contrary paths to live like men in justice and to keep themselves in society and thus to observe their social nature….The conduct of divine providence in this matter is one ofthose things whose rationale is a chief business of our Science, which becomes in this aspect a rational civil theology of divine providence.10

In a way that anticipates Nietzsche, then, Vico here observes that the semblance of the good of Reason also contains the seeds of its own annihilation.

The fact that, for Vico, pride and thanatos are one in the same is evidenced by the appeal to another, and more ancient, creation narrative, one that predates and, in fact, conditions the possibility of a subjectivity that could be lost and found. Vico follows the Biblical account of creation, claiming that subjectivity first came into being as a result of Divine activity, and that it was sustained by an original and absolute piety, or relationship of Creator to created. Human history, however, does not begin at the beginning, but rather with the fall, and with an increasingly absolute desire to reject God and to install humanity in His place. In the absence of God, human beings seek only after their own pleasure and utility and quickly fall into a Hobbesian state of nature in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

For Vico, then, human history is cyclical, following a pattern of rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall.11 As in Lacan, each of these stages correspond to a degree of proximity to the object of desire; and, like Lacan, Vico argues that a satisfaction of the subject’s desire is tantamount to the end of history. Furthermore, Vico is similar to Lacan to the extent that he situates the subject between two conflicting desires. Where they differ, however, is in the fact that Vico locates eros outside of the subject, suggesting it, not as a desire for self, but as a desire for an other that can only be maintained through the desire of the other: a providential desire that can only be maintained through divine activity.

The main reason for this difference between Lacan and Vico is their differing opinion on the nature of the Other as an object of desire. Lacan’s other is nominal, a reified artifice necessary to the constitution of human subjectivity. In other words, the Lacanian subject is only possible because of a projected fantasy that it must refuse to acknowledge: “Is it not precisely because desire is established here in the domain of seeing that we can make it vanish?”12 Vico’s transcendental object of desire, on the other hand, is an Other in a real sense, God, and it is only a ‘real’ relationship with this Other that, in Vico’s account, guarentees the possibility of subjectivity. In contrast to the Lacanian subject, which loses itself as a result of an absolute proximity to the object of its desire, a proximity that reveals its spectral heritage, Vico’s subject only loses itself only as a result of absolute distance. In contrast to Lacan, therefore, who positions the subjects as perpetually bouncing between two poles, compelled, as it were, toward a moment of death that it refuses to accept for reasons of self-preservation, Vico’s subject, but more precisely civil history, is compelled from without, through providence, toward a piety. In Lacan, agency is one in the self; in Vico it is won in the Other. This is not to say that Vico ever suggests the possibility of coincidence with the Other, God, or transcendental object of desire. As he concludes his work, “from all that we have set forth in this work, it is to be finally concluded that this science carries inseparably with it the study of piety, and that he who is not pious cannot be truly wise.”13 Piety is not fulfillment, but rather sustained desire in the hope of achieving a proximity that can never be. In this, the psychoanalytic notion of eros, as a will to self-preservation, is more akin to Rousseau’s amour propre. Piety, as a continual movement toward an Other sustained by the desire of the Other is love truly, and so eros in the richest and deepest sense of the term.

To conclude, Human history is, for Vico, a story of loss. Civil history is possible only as a result of the alienation of its subjects, and it is oriented toward its end(s) by eros, or providence, and thanatos, or self-supremacy. Vico’s account establishes the two ‘ends’ of history, poles between which human history necessarily vacillates. In his demand for piety, Vico establishes human history as a process sustained, not by the achievement of either end, but rather by the promise of an impossible moment when identity and the fulfillment of desire coincide: an impossible return to that original and paradoxical moment of true identity rooted in an absolute abrogation of self in relation to God. In a Derridean way, then, Vico’s historical identity is constituted by an infinite and repetitive movement sustained teleologically, by the promise a future that is always and necessarily to come.

A version of this piece was originally presented at the “CONTROVERSY: Within History and Classics” conference hosted at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, AB), March 3 – 4, 2006.

1 Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other. Trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne
University Press, 1987), 43.
2 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1998), 70.
3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible. Trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL:
Northwestern University Press, 1968).
4 Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 82.
5 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, Trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977), 2.
6 Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 49
7 Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 113.
8 Vico, New Science, p. 117-118.
9 Vico, New Science, 9.
10 Vico, New Science, 4.
11 Vico, New Science, 79.
12 Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 85.
13 Vico, New Science, 426.

Must Learning Analytics be Inhumane? Reflections at the Intersection of Renaissance Philosophy and Big Data in Education

trashWe live in an increasingly quantified world.
Advances in electronic database architectures, a rapid increase in computing power, and the development of sophisticated strategies for analyzing massive amounts of data have converged to produce analytics as a distinct approach to solving complex problems in a variety of fields. Sitting at the intersection of data warehousing and data mining, analytics has been used in sciences such as physics, biology, and climate science since the 1970’s. It is used extensively in business as a tool for optimizing processes, and by marketers as a way of targeting advertisements to particular audiences. We are living at the very beginning of an era of data-driven decision-making, in which sensors are capable of capturing data about nearly every part of our lives, in which massive data warehouses are capable of storing and making this data accessible, and in which computing power and sophisticated data mining techniques are capable of providing feedback to stakeholders in near real-time.

Analytics arrived late to the learning sciences. This first journal dedicated to the use of analytics in the learning sciences, the Journal of Educational Data Mining, only began publication in 2009 (Baker & Siemens, 2013). Since then, however, the field of education has been transformed, as institutions increasingly seek to leverage the power of their existing databases in order to improve efficiency and increase student success by optimizing their learning environments. EDUCAUSE has called Learning Analytics a ‘Gamer Changer’. The 2013 Higher Education Edition of the NMC Horizon Report lists data-driven learning and assessment as a mid-range trend likely to take three to five years to create substantial change.

What is Learning Analytics?

In its most common and general formulation, learning analytics is defined as “the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for the purpose of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs” (Long & Siemens, 2011). To those actively involved in the use of learning analytics, it represents a powerful set of tools and techniques that will increasingly allows administrators and instructors to identify at-risk students in order to develop strategies that increase their chances of success. In higher education, the field of learning analytics consists primarily of individuals representing two different perspectives. On the one hand, administrators and university information technology (IT) professionals are interested in leveraging their existing IT infrastructure in order to track student activity and increase student success, usually defined either in terms of retention or grade performance. The primary publication venue for this group is EDUCAUSE and its various publications. On the other hand, there are data scientists who are interested in optimizing learning within particular learning environments. Although there is a growing number of organizations and journals dedicated to learning analytics from this perspective, the most established and prominent venues for scholarly communication in this field are the Journal of Educational Data Mining and the International Conference on Learning Analytics Knowledge. The orientation of these two communities is symptomatic of the history of analytics more generally, which comes out of IT and business intelligence on the one hand (the orientation of EDUCAUSE), and out of data science on the other (the educational data mining perspective). What is currently largely lacking from the field of learning analytics, however, is a humanistic viewpoint, a perspective that would first ask deeper questions about the task of education, and only afterward inquire after how best to accomplish that task.

What is Humane Education?

Humanists of the early Italian Renaissance — specifically Vergerio, Bruni, Piccolomini, Guarino, and Vegio — are remarkable because they were first and foremost teachers, and pursued philosophy only as a secondary activity. For these thinkers, philosophy was not an important activity in and of itself, but rather as served an important supporting function in the service of the larger task of education. Looking to this Humanist tradition, I will focus on three main themes that address the ‘what,’ the ‘how,’ and the ‘why’ of education. In answer to the ‘what’ question, humane education is concerned with cultivating those habits and sensibilities required in order to be responsive to particular situations. For the Humanists of the Italian Renaissance, education involved cultivating ingenium, or the capacity to rally disparate and apparently unrelated elements and put them together in such a way to address the demands of a particular here and now. The ‘what’ of humane education is not a content or a method, but rather an openness to the world, a practice of embracing information from multiple and diverse sources in order to be prudent at a moment that calls for action. Second, the ‘how’ of education involves eloquence. Through eloquence, the student is not taught, but rather seduced into a personal relationship with a world of knowledge. It is a mistake to think that the teacher is in any way responsible for the student’s learning, for learning only ever takes place in the learner. The teacher-student relationship is not one in which some datum is effectively transferred from one mind to another. Instead, the teacher functions as a liaison between the student and knowledge with the task of showing, modeling, and inspiring. Lastly, for the Humanists of the Italian Renaissance who were tremendously influenced by Cicero’s De Oratore, the general aim of education is truth, by which they meant knowledge of the whole. On the other hand, and more specifically, they gave a special place to self-knowledge as necessary in order to arrive at an understanding of the whole. Giambattista Vico, for example, insisted that “knowledge of oneself is for everyone the greatest incentive to acquire the universe of learning in the shortest period of time.” From the humane perspective, the end of education as a relationship between teacher and student is merely to bring students into an understanding of themselves and in such a way as to make learning possible. In order to maximize students’ potential for learning, students must first come to an understanding of themselves as ingenious agents responsible for their own learning activity.

Why Humane Education?

The question of the compatibility of learning analytics and humane education is important for three reasons. First, as mentioned above, in spite of the interdisciplinary aspirations of the emerging field of learning analytics, the humanities are currently almost entirely unrepresented. In fact, within some circles (particularly within the educational data mining community), the kind of non-experimental research that is characteristic of studies in the humanities is treated with relative disdain. If the field of learning analytics seeks to make prescriptive judgments about learning in general, and learning is something that takes place within the sciences and humanities alike, then the field is doing itself a disservice by excluding the humanities from the conversation. Furthermore, since institutional decisions with consequences for the future of higher education are increasingly data-driven, a failure on the part of humanists to take a critical interest is to give up their place at the table.

Second, the role of the humanities is to ask, not just how best to accomplish a particular end, but rather to interrogate the end itself. The language of optimization pervades the field of learning analytics, but there is not a clear consensus within the field about what an optimal state might look like (except, perhaps, the two most common definitions of success: (1) retention through to degree, and (2) a grade of C- or higher). In other words, there is a strong sense that there is a standard of success, but little reflection on what that standard is, and why it should be adopted as the end of education.

Lastly, and most importantly, in the absence of a humanistic perspective, the assumptions underlying the field of learning analytics put it at odds with the demands of education in the twenty-first century. Bauman, Thomas and Brown, Davidson, and a growing contingent of others observe that the social landscape has seen a radical shift since the 1950s, that technological advancement and globalization have thrust us into a world of constant change. In this new social and technological milieu, what is called for on the part of individuals is exactly the kind of ingenious activity demanded by the Humanists of the Italian Renaissance. With respect both to the conception of human nature put forth by these thinkers, and to the skills necessary to survive and thrive in the 21st century, education must be humane in the sense described above. The problem with learning analytics, however, and with the data-driven approach to problem solving in general, is that it tends to undermine the very creativity that education needs to cultivate. In a recent article in Wired Magazine, Felix Salmon notes that in business and politics, with respect to systems of people, ‘quants’ can arrive at highly efficacious insights that have a tremendous amount of predictive power, but that algorithm-powered systems have a way of encouraging people to change their behaviors in perverse ways, in order to provide a system with more of what it is designed to measure. In other words, proxy variables quickly become mistaken for the concepts they are meant to represent. As a consequence, predictive systems end up rewarding conformity and discouraging innovative behaviors that actually produce enduring value.

The question, ‘is learning analytics compatible with humane education,’ is not a question about the use of learning analytics in the humanities. It is rather a question about the use of learning analytics in general. If learning analytics is incompatible with humane education, then it ought to be severely restricted in scope, if not jettisoned entirely, as a technique that can only undermine self-knowledge and human flourishing. What I would like to suggest, however, is that learning analytics and humane education are not incompatible at all. The problem is not with analytics itself, but rather emerges only with a lack of reflection upon what it might mean to incorporate analytics as a meaningful part of a complete philosophy of teaching and learning.

Bacon, Vico, and the “Long Tail”

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user spratmackrel]
In his essay, “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson observes that the our ability to overcome the ‘tyranny of physical space’ through the use of a combination of online databases and streaming services has fundamentally altered business models and, as a consequence, has radically increased our access to information. In the past, limited by the physical constraints of location and shelf space, retailers were forced to carry a small selection of material that appealed to the greatest proportion of a local market. In terms of the book industry, these limitations mean that books rapidly go out of print and become very difficult to come by after a relatively short period of time. In contrast, however, the ability of companies like Amazon to replace small store fronts with massive warehouses, and to leverage the internet to reach global markets, has allowed them to carry and generate significant revenue from products in a way that smaller markets would not produce. This model becomes even more profitable when the products themselves are digital (as in the case of music, movies, books, software, etc), since a single stored copy can be infinitely licensed and distributed, which is to say, sold. The first of three ‘rules’ that Anderson offers businesses in this new digital economy is “Make Everything Available.” Since there is a market for everything, and since the cost of storage is so incredibly low, there is profit to be made even from the most obscure (and awful) material: “In the Long Tail economy, it’s more expensive to evaluate than to release. just do it!”

We do indeed seem to be moving more and more from an economy of scarcity to one of abundance. From a scholarly perspective, this means the development of a rich, extensive, inexpensive (Anderson’s second rule is “cut the price in half, then lower it”), and easily accessible archive of material. As Anderson observes, “it is a fair bet that children today will grow up never knowing the meaning of “out of print.” On the other hand, however, I wonder what an economically driven abundance (concerned with quantity over quality) will have on our ideas about the value of tradition.

In the early days of the Enlightenment, there was some discussion about the scarcity of available information relative to the total amount of material that had presumably been produced. In this, there seems to have been two primary perspectives. From Francis Bacon we learn that it was common for scholars at that time to believe that the works that had survived had done so by virtue of their importance and, consequently, represented the best that the history of ideas had to offer. In contrast to this dominant position, Bacon argued that it was not in fact the best that had endured, but rather the most trivial.

Another error, that hath also some affinity with the former, is a conceit that of former opinions or sects after variety and examination the best hath still prevailed and suppressed the rest; so as if a man should begin the labour of a new search, he were but like to light upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by rejection brought into oblivion; as if the multitude, or the wisest for the multitude’s sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that which is popular and superficial than to that which is substantial and profound for the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid. (Bacon, The Advancement of Learning)

In essence, Bacon advocates an approach that would abandon tradition entirely, and systematically create new repositories of knowledge built upon firm foundations. Since the best has been lost, and what remains has little value, Bacon leaves us with little choice in the matter. Responding to Bacon, who is notorious for his rejection of the value of tradition, Giambattista Vico supports the former view, the view that Bacon insists is in error:

There is, therefore, more wit than truth in Bacon’s statement that in the tidal wave of the barbarians’ invasions, the major writers sank to the bottom, while the lighter ones floated on the surface. In each branch of learning, instead, it is only the most outstanding authors who have reached us, by virtue of being copied by hand. If one or another was lost, it was purely by chance. (Vico 1990, 73)

For Vico, Bacon makes a mistake in accounting for scarcity by emphasizing what falls away. For Bacon, it seems, knowledge persists unless something happens to it, and it just so happens that the finest knowledge is the first to be lost. In contrast, Vico argues that the opposite is the case: that knowledge naturally decays over time, and that its endurance is only made possible through the active (providential) intervention of scribes motivated by an interest in preserving the finest and best. Both authors are resigned to the fact that what’s lost is lost. When it comes to accounting for the scarce intellectual resources that have persisted through time, however, Bacon views this scarcity as evidence of inferiority, and Vico of eminence.

Under conditions of scarcity, whether high (in the case of Vico) or low (in the case of Bacon), knowledge has value, and this valuable nature of knowledge demands a response. If received knowledge is of high value, then it ought to be preserved; if not, then it ought to be jettisoned. But what kind of value does knowledge have within a ‘long-tail’ information economy characterized by abundance? (This would, of course, be an obvious place to bring in Walter Benjamin and his comments on the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and for that reason I will resist the temptation).

A central part of digital literacy (something that we, in higher education, are increasingly encouraged to incorporate into our learning outcomes, at least latently) is the ability to evaluate and judge the quality of sources that are found online. With so much information at our fingertips, and the flattening of value that comes as a result of an approach to content delivery that would release rather than evaluate, are we entering a period that, with Vico, is appreciating tradition more and more by virtue of the fact that we have more and more of it? Or is tradition quickly being stripped of its value as a consequence of the fact that all knowledge is lumped together as equally valuable within the marketplace of ideas? In other words, does our increased access to the past (and other marginal material) give it more importance, more of a voice, in the present? Or does this abundance justify its dismissal (a la Bacon) in the face of a present and future that really count?