Commencement, Summer 2012

Friday, August 03, 2012

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a book that many critics regard as the twentieth-century equivalent of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick, Pynchon makes a distinction between those people who are only able to think in binary terms as opposed to those who are capable of inhabiting what Pynchon refers to as “the domain between zero and one.”  The first kind of person is typified by a character appropriately named Pointsman, whom Pynchon describes as imagining “the cortex of the brain as a mosaic of tiny on/off elements,” whereas his character Roger Mexico, by contrast, is fully at ease in “the middle Pointsman has excluded from his persuasion.” 



I trust this news won’t come to you as a shock, but as University of North Florida graduates you have now assumed responsibility, like Roger Mexico, for occupying the space between zero and one.  I hasten to add that it would be easier for you if this were not the case.  It is far simpler to occupy a world in which every choice is a choice between black and white, absolutely right or entirely wrong, the totally pure or the utterly tainted, or in digital terms, the on or the off.  You can live this way, of course, but in order to do so you would have to narrow your horizon to a degree that I am confident you would find to be unbearably parochial.  You would have to associate exclusively with other people just like yourself, whose values consistently duplicated your own.  You would have to reject the potential legitimacy of any information that might cause you to have to realign what you already know.  You would have to live in such a sequestered way as to only breath stale air. 


But as the acquisition of your degrees attests, this is not the way you have chosen to live.  You have chosen instead to step outside the narrow confines of black and white certainty into the grey universe of indeterminacy, doubt, and ambiguity.  The reward for your intellectual courage is that you will not be bound by rigid adherence to the familiar, the predictable, or the routinized.  As people who move with alacrity between the zero and the one, you are equipped to be connoisseurs of the emergent and to contribute to the noble enterprise that the poet Ezra Pound described as “making it new.” 


It is for this reason that, in addition to all the other good that you will do in the world, I am hopeful that you will find opportunities to advocate in a passionate way for the institution that in a few moments will become your alma mater.  Universities, as you are probably aware, are under enormous pressure to produce more graduates more quickly and in the most cost-effective manner possible, leading them directly from a utilitarian education to gainful employment.  These are admirable expectations and I can guarantee you that everyone on the platform here today is committed to fulfilling them.  But universities also must preserve space for the expression of, reflection upon, and delight in the non-utilitarian aspect of what it means to be human, that more often than not falls into the domain between zero and one.  Without that precious space our lives would be hollowed out and impoverished.  So please, speak up on its behalf, on UNF’s behalf, and help assure that future generations of graduates will be as enriched as you have been by an education not for a moment but for a lifetime.  Congratulations and good luck.