Matthew Goulish

The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Lectures from The Institute of Failure

1) Pick it up. Put it down. Cross out the parts you don’t like. I kind of think that’s what the author wants you to do. His name is Matthew Goulish, and his main argument in this series of lectures is that rupture, transgression, and failure lead to innovation. In the author’s words, “To understand a system, study its failure.”

2) My own failures with respect to this book revolve around two axes. The first is my ignorance of some of the figures Goulish mentions throughout the text. Martin Heidegger, for example. I fancy myself a well-read individual, but I couldn’t name anything by Heidegger. So when I read about him, even oblique references to the man, I feel like I’ve missed out on something. Could I rectify the situation? Yes. Do I? No. The same could be said for my second failing: my inability to grasp even the most basic mathematical concepts. This failure impeded my understanding of a brief lecture titled “The Butterfly Catastrophe.”  Together these failures, according to the logic of this book, give me a unique perspective on Goulish’s argument. More accurately, I suppose, the unique dimension of my failures gives me a unique perspective on this point. It probably also says something about me an my character. I’m a kind of creature who’d like to think of myself as learned but who won’t take steps to address the gaps in my learning.

3) In addition to studying failure, Goulish also attempts to examine the meaning of a life. There’s a distinction to made her between the meaning of life and the meaning of a life. As in one life. As in someone’s life. As in What is the meaning of your life or my life or Goulish’s life. To investigate this problem, he looks at an early twentieth-century naturalist named W.N.P. Barbellion, among whose works is an essay titled “Curious Facts in the Geographical Distribution of British Newts.” It sounds funny, like a Monty Python sketch. And maybe Goulish’s lip was curling into a subtle smile as he gave this lecture. Maybe. Probably. I’m guessing it was. There’s something funny about all of this.

4) “Funny” in the academic sense of the word. Dry humor. Academic humor. I probably missed half of the jokes, and that’s being generous to myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if knowing more about Heidegger would have made this book a scream. I’d have laughed out loud, wiping tears from my eyes as I turned each page. Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, by the way. I only know this because Goulish mentions it.

5) The closest comparison I can make is to the writing of Jean Baudrillard or Jacques Derrida. Dropping these names is as much a ploy to make up for not knowing anything about Heidegger as it is to give you a sense of what this book is like. What I mean to say is the he writes like a philosopher. A French philosopher.

6) The Institute of Failure is real.

7) For the most part, I really enjoyed this book.