January 15, 2005

Fortune Cookie

smfortune1.jpgLast year, I and a colleague met with two professors for lunch. We went to this Chinese-Vietnamese place across the street from the Carlson School. It was cheap, and they had a buffet. This indicates that the professors were buying. One of the professors astutely observed that most fortune cookies nowadays are not fortune cookies but rather "aphorism cookies." They provide no clairvoyance but rather sagely advice. I wonder which role the tiny messages are meant to provide, and if anything is really Chinese about them.

I remember seeing fortune cookies made through the window of a fortune cookie factory on a rare family trip to San Francisco when I was a child. A women wearing a hat peeled of round disks off a turret and expertly folded the cookies as they came around. She tossed them in a bucket, presumably to be wrapped.

smfortune2.jpgRecently, I opened a fortune cookie containing the aphorism "Example is better than precept." This seems to capture one of the problems I appear to be having with graduate school. Theoretical work is all about precept, to the extent that some political theorists (like Habermas) avoid examples altogether in their published work (even though they may and often do advocate in the outside world) and empiricists are criticized for using case studies (wherein entire situations can be understood in terms of the interrelated workings of their components) by "quants" who contend that for a theory to be valid it must be falsifiable. To sum up my longstanding of this latter stance I answer that human behavior does not follow exogenous "rules" as does celestial or atomic behavior. To be human is to understand, and to be incapable of understanding everything. And that includes understanding the forces that lead us to act and think the way we do.

On the obverse of the aphorism was a "Learn Chinese" phrase "Mayor &mdash Shi-zhang." Roomie took this to mean that I was destined to become active once more in the political capacity in which I once served. I prefer to think of the omen as a mere confirmation that the aphorism was meant for me and no one else. Who the heck needs to say "Mayor" in Chinese?

Posted by webs0080 at January 15, 2005 12:53 PM