Why “The Slack Wire”?

The phrase is from Adam Smith, who early in The Theory of Moral Sentiments describes how “the mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack wire, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies, as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation.” Any situation that you observe, or even hear described, he goes on to say, will bring forth “what [you] imagine to be the sentiments of the sufferer.” And why not? — don’t we only even experience our own lives by observing them, or describing them, as if from the outside?

The point, anyway, is that sympathy with others is an immediate, automatic, universal human response. One might go even farther and say our self, as we experience it, isn’t limited to our own isolated biological existence but encompasses some more or less broad set of those who are us.

This is a basic prior for my thinking about economics, and for my thinking about about politics. And economics and politics are what I expect this blog to be about.

Plus, slack wire implies, correctly, that what’s here is the opposite of taut: loose, underdeveloped, sloppy. And finally, it affirms my membership in the Cobain-Linklater-Copeland tribe (I even published something in the Baffler!) who’ve never quite got our footing since the 90s ended and we had to get real jobs.

So, the Slack Wire. Voila.


Except, goddamnit, what Smith says is “slack rope.” Not wire. And that is not evocative at all. So OK, for my purposes, I read it in some early edition where he did say wire. Prove me wrong.

7 thoughts on “Why “The Slack Wire”?”

  1. Are you familair with the work on mirror neurons? Lets just say that Smith hit the nail on the head when it comes to how the neurology works.


  2. …. mirror neurons, of which, of course, Smith knew nothing. Thus demonstrating that microfoundations are unnecessary for a good macro model.

  3. [mirror neurons]…and Proust was a neuroscientist. And Bentham dreamed of an MRI. But seriously, other than Ā«balancingĀ» what the words evoke for me is a mob watching a man hang. Don't you think there are too some autonomous elements of your Self,even as much of it is tied up (you're a city boy) in your performance to others and thoughts about what they're thinking about you? What about hermits, farmers, cowboys, sailors? Well you did say it's sloppy. Looking forward to reading what you've wired us.

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