November 15, 2014

The banality of banality; or, big causes from little effects

by CarlD

“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Existentialism is back on my radar, for a couple proximate reasons. First, because I’ve got a really good student at the moment who’s both motivated and capable to do something more interesting with feminism than tribalize her grievances. So I showed her to Beauvoir and prompted her to make sense of a feminism fundamentally critical of femininity. Second, because in my ‘isms’ reading circle we’ve just gotten to existentialism (via liberalism, conservatism, communitarianism, feminism, communism, and anarchism), so I’ve been re-reading some Sartre (“Existentialism is a Humanism”), Beauvoir (Second Sex intro), and Camus (“The Myth of Sisyphus,” The Stranger). And third, because Hannah Arendt has been popping up a lot lately, via renewed scholarly interest in Eichmann in Jerusalem and the ‘banality of evil’ thesis.

It’s of the latter I now write, motivated by equal parts fascination, perplexity, and pique. This being a blog I’m not going to get all scholarly and construct a ponderously authoritativish argument. For what it’s worth, I was raised by a guy who wrote a book on Camus, so my conversation with existentialists has a certain family at the dinner table familiarity to it. I haven’t read everything Arendt wrote any more than you read everything your scholar aunt wrote (sorry I haven’t read everything you wrote, Aunt Ann Ferguson). There may be surprises there and there are certainly disagreements, but the premises of the discussion are embedded deep down in the basic premises of pre-reflective selfhood. We argue about what to do with them, not about them. And there are ways of not getting existentialism that are, y’know, banal to me.

My first copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem was so marked up, so conversed with in the margins, so thoroughly representative in that intertext of how I think about the world, that I passed it on to my most cherished student when she went away to grad school and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again. Then got another copy and marked that one up too. When I first read it the banality of evil thesis gave me a tool for understanding the world that fit my hand right away, as if the calluses of that work were somehow epigenetically already emergent there. Its two strands – that moral personhood is only achieved through responsible, attentive engagement, and that no part of that project can be laid off on any other entity – seemed both obvious to me, and obviously damning to so many human outrages large and small. Yet also a reminder that I didn’t get to sit in easy, disengaged judgment; that the attentive engagement I was responsible for meant I needed to understand first, and that project is never done.

So. Corey Robin is, as usual, doing some good work of a sort with this at his own blog and at Crooked Timber. The issue in the particular post I just linked, a response to two recent books, is whether Arendt was taken in by Eichmann’s act: whether she was a dupe who failed to understand the enormity of his vocation for evil, and therefore wrote him off as a clueless drudge unaware of the scope of his crimes, rather than the intentional, calculating monster he was. There are several fatal confounds built into that last sentence, but for now let’s move on.

Robin’s good work is to show that it makes no essential difference to Arendt’s conclusion whether Eichmann was speaking himself truly or shilling a character at the trial. Either he was someone who in the first place wasn’t clear on the enormity of his crimes, or he was someone who in awareness of that fact thought he could get the court to sympathize with him, therefore not actually getting the enormity of his crimes. Either way, Eichmann was both ethically deranged and admittedly participant in enormous crimes. So either way he was evil, the Holocaust was evil, and Arendt was on it.

Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.

It’s really nice of Robin to translate Arendt into his own Anglo-American liberalism and make her intelligible there; this may even be appropriate, given that the attack on her comes from within the righteous quasi-religious certainties of liberal or social-democratic moralizing. But Arendt’s argument was not based on Anglo-American liberalism, nor even on ethical leftism. It was premised on a distinct kind of activist humanism in the Kant / Hegel / Schopenhauer / Nietzsche trajectory that also led to the existentialists Arendt hung out with. These folks knew their Nietzsche. They knew that God was dead. They had been beyond good and evil their whole thinking lives. They therefore knew damn well that there was something pathetic and clueless about slapping the evil label on troublesome stuff, as if that got it all nicely contained and managed – as if we knew already what that meant and how to handle it, as if delivering the j’accuse enacted a reality more fundamental than the messiness of our beings together.

Camus didn’t talk about evil at all. As I’m reminded as I read through “Myth of Sisyphus” and The Stranger again, at the macro level he was interested in absurdity, the collapse and absence of any ultimate foundation for meaning or ethical choice. At the micro level he was interested in thoughtlessness, the brutalities and cruelties large and small we inflict on each other because we haven’t taken responsibility for ourselves in relation to others.

And why was Eichmann’s evil banal? Robin tells us: because it was thoughtless.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

Good. But what does this mean to Robin? That Eichmann was, possibly, just a schlemiel. But that can’t be right, because big effects like the Holocaust can’t come from little causes like that. But that’s not what Arendt says, and strangely, it’s not what she means, either. Arendt is arguing precisely that big effects can emerge from little causes; in fact, that this is routinely what happens. This is why, for her, it doesn’t get any worse than thoughtlessness. Robin thinks he needs to rehabilitate Eichmann’s evil given that he might just have been a schlemiel. He reads thoughtlessness as a kind of bourgeois party foul, inattention to the magnitude of his crimes as a tic or trick that needs to be explained away to get to the heart of the matter. But for Arendt, like for Camus, the thoughtlessness and inattention ARE the heart of the matter. Eichmann’s dereliction of thought and attention meant that, no matter how cunning or effective he may have been or not been, he was incapable of responsible presence in the world with others. This failing is not minimized, but intensely magnified, if God is dead and we have nothing but our intelligence and relationships with others to construct an ethical life out of. Add some power and all scales of mischief ensue. Far from threatening to let Eichmann off the hook by calling him ‘merely’ thoughtless and inattentive, Arendt damned him as decisively as the conceptual materials at her disposal made possible.

It’s certainly the case that no one of a religious or quasi-religious cast of mind will find this a satisfying argument. If only the narratives of good and evil will do, have at it. But Arendt paid attention to Eichmann, and thought about him, rather than installing him as an outsize cause in a pat morality tale. And it’s thoughtless and inattentive to accuse Arendt of being a bad foundational moralist, when she had no interest in being anything of the kind.

Note: for a cool takedown of the liberal inability to understand distributed mass action except through inflated personal responsibility, and a partial takedown of Arendt for addressing this via Eichmann as an imperfect case to demonstrate the point, with bonus reflections on how Marx handled such partial theorizing through the concept of the fetish, see Uncomfortable Science.

October 14, 2014

Bringing the excitement

by CarlD

I got crunched for time (I crunched myself for time) leading into submission of midterm grades, so I read a bunch of papers for assessment the first time and now I’m looping back to comment on them, which is actually the hard and time-consuming part.

It’s hard because I try to engage with the papers as actual pieces of scholarship, as the products of intelligent and developing minds. That means I can’t just take a red pen and mark all the errors to ‘justify’ a grade; I have to attend to what they’re trying to accomplish, and prompt them toward better accomplishments.

Many of this first batch of papers are doing what my colleague called ‘taking refuge in the facts’, reporting on findings with very little engagement or analysis. This is actually a victory compared to the wifty handwaving students can default to when they haven’t tuned in to the integrity of investigation – when they just think they’re jumping through hoops. These folks are getting that they should know what they’re talking about. But papers like this don’t bring the excitement yet – they’re dull recitations of data. And since I don’t ritualize very well, each one hits me right between the eyes like a soggy dishrag, and for each one I have to figure out some comment to make or question to ask that points at a way to DO something with the information they’ve found.

I didn’t assign the topics – they got to pick their own. And I’m prepared to be interested in anything. So there’s at least a potential dynamic of shared interest to work with. But when they don’t bring the excitement, mustering it up for them time after time can be a brain-wringing experience. Not to say that I consistently succeed, either.

OK, so rather than leaving this post in pathos, I wonder if anyone who’s paying attention has any stories to tell or strategies to share about finding the excitement?

September 12, 2014

Mea culpa

by CarlD

Mea maxima culpa.

July 24, 2014


by CarlD

Saw an interesting movie last night, “Snowpiercer.” Based on a graphic novel, I gather. The premise is that in response to global warming, the governments of the world leap into action and seed the skies with a chemical meant to bring temperatures down. It does, there’s a catastrophic ice age, and all life on Earth is extinguished. Except for one special train, the work of a visionary inventor, that travels a continuous loop around the world with the few remaining humans, some fish and bugs and whatnot aboard.

The humans are segregated on the train by their conditions of boarding, from first class up front through non-paying refugees in the rear. The plot is driven by the revolt of ‘steerage’, so to speak. There’s a sort of Ayn Randian quality to the basic setup – in the distrust of goverment, of course, but also in that the tail sections in fact contribute very little to the functioning of the train (beyond the odd child of the correct height to tend the innards of the engine) and owe their entire existence to the charity of Wilford, the visionary industrialist and engineer. Consequently, the ethics of sympathy for the poor downtrodden are more Kantian, a la categorical imperative, than Marxist, a la exploitation and alienation. We then go back to Rand to admire the effective gumption of that one leader and his few talented confederates who organize the (incredibly violent) breakout. None of this is articulated with any great care.

What is articulated with great care, notably by Tilda Swinton in a magnificent performance as Wilford’s top henchwoman, is an ideology of sustainability based on rigorous ordering of a closed system. Over and over the rulers explain that the whole can thrive only if each part keeps its place in exactly calibrated balance. It’s a fabulous caricature of vulgar sustainability discourse, and pokes ruthlessly at the fascism that’s never too far away when urgent images of righteous living in relation to existential threat are about.

June 2, 2014

So you want to teach History

by CarlD

I got an email from someone reaching out to local History professors for intel on grad study, with an eye to teaching in higher ed. Research was turning up very negative.

It’s fashionable nowadays for mindful profs to discourage young seekers from taking this path of inevitable doom. I was trying to give the questioner more credit for being able to make its own informed decisions. Here’s what I wrote – anything to add?

Hi! You’re right, the general indications for a teaching career in History at the college level are mixed at best. There are a lot of graduate programs and a lot of applicants for very few positions, and the positions that do exist tend to be low level and impermanent. At this point a doctorate is little better than a hunting license, and a Masters qualifies you only for temp work.

For reference, I have my doctorate from UC San Diego, and it took me three years of gradually working my way up the adjuncting scale, teaching sometimes at three different universities a day, before I got this permanent position at MU. In my field of specialization there were something like 15-20 full-time job openings a year, nationwide, and I have a file three inches thick of rejection letters thanking me for being one of 200 highly qualified applicants. Those are not good odds.

That said, there are jobs and some people do get them. And if it’s your passion, you might as well try to be one of them. What I would recommend is to join the AHA, start stalking the job listings, and pay careful attention to the trends in where the openings are and what sorts of fields and experiences are being sought. Part of my problem was that I was in European intellectual history, a field with lots of graduates but very little workplace demand. In my cohort, Africanists were much more scarce and in demand, and that probably remains true. In general, the market for Americanists and Europeanists is both larger and much more saturated than that for non-Westernists. It also helps a lot to work on underrepresented populations, although if your niche is small enough you could again find yourself in competition for very scarce openings.

Basically, you want your training to pop you as not just another of the usual thing. That gets you in play for the larger departments and the more forward-looking small ones. Then, you want to also be able to handle at least one and preferably several of the bread and butter fields. The big surveys that junior faculty are brought in to teach because senior faculty want no part of them; or the courses that are pretty much the whole curriculum where History is a service field. Smaller departments and community colleges need breadth and flexibilty much more than exotic specialization. Think about niches and prepare yourself strategically.

I would also tune in to H-Net and its associated blogs. There are frequent discussions of the job market there. There’s a lot of fretting, which you shouldn’t discount entirely, but just keep remembering that the job market is segmented and there are, in fact, jobs that people are getting. It’s just a matter of being smart about what’s in demand and developing your interests accordingly. Your passion does not entitle you to someone else’s paycheck, I’m afraid.

Of course, the other thing you can do is push on through with that one burning love, and hope it works out. That’s kind of what I did, and it kind of did work out, but there’s a lot of flaming wreckage along that road also.

Good luck! Carl

May 26, 2014

Here’s a course I wish I’d taken

by johnmccreery

I am not going to run on about it, just provide the link to one of the most thought-provoking articles on education that I have read in a long time. Looking forward to hearing what the Dykes, both junior and elder have to say about it.

February 13, 2014

Hall, Gramsci, hegemony, complexity

by CarlD

I just had what might have been a good moment on the Facebooks. Jim Livingstone posted on how the New York Times hasn’t gotten around to officially noticing the death of Stuart Hall yet (neither had Dead Voles, until now), and in that context I wrote this:

It’s interesting to me how Hall embodied the thesis ["the 'dispersal of power' from state to society, ca. 1870-1930, as Gramsci tracked and projected it in the Notebooks (trans., pp. 210-76), thereby explaining why a 'war of position' now superseded a 'war of maneuver'. In effect, a brilliant manifesto for cultural politics," Jim Livingstone]. He basically WAS Gramsci: layers of marginality radicalized by immersion in the center. But where for Gramsci the hot revolution still looked like a plannable endgame, for Hall it was off the table right from the start, precisely because of that decentering of power. But – given the catastrophes of communist centralism, I think it’s fair to wonder if power has ever not been decentralized, really, so that the whole hegemony thesis ends up looking like a really rough draft of an actual theory of complex systems.

Seconds later, I noticed that here at last was a handle that made me actually want to pick my old Gramsci dissertation / book back up. Until now, other than posting the most recent version here online, I’ve abandoned it to the gnawing of the rats, because I couldn’t figure out how it was anything but yet another idiosyncratic take on well-worn materials. I didn’t have to publish it anyway to get tenure, so I didn’t. Aren’t there enough of those books cluttering up the shelves?

But there’s this thread of analysis in the piece that I always quite liked, and didn’t really know what to do with. I argue that the theorists of the early 20th century really weren’t equipped to cope with the actual complexity of the world, and so they resorted to what I called ‘space maintainers’, sort of folded up theoretical napkins under the short empirical table legs. Constructs that weren’t nearly constructive enough. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony then looks like an attempt to actually theorize complexity rather than shortcutting it somehow. Still, not surprisingly, very shortcutty and so not a good candidate for adoption here and now, but in context quite the thing.

So in that Facebook comment on Hall and Gramsci I haven’t actually said anything new to me; I’m still gnawing on the same bone I always was. But what’s changed is how much I know about following theories of complexity, and how they’ve gradually begun to inform the human studies. All of our discussions on Deacon, Juarrero and so on, for example. Which means I’m now in a much better position to frame the Gramscian / Weberian / Durkheimian moment in the history of theories of complexity, for example by seeing Hall as what Gramsci looks like in a different moment of the intellectual-evolutionary process.

And since this feels like it was my insight and agenda all along, just come into a more satisfying unfolding, I don’t have the uncomfortable feeling I always had when I was trying to think of some way to graft something more interesting onto the stuff I know. Plus, the stuff I get to read to come up to publication speed on this version of the project, and the way I get to read it, actually feels interesting and valuable in its own right, and not just a bunch of legitimacy hoops to jump through.

All of which means I actually have a clear reason to apply for a sabbatical, which is long overdue. So now we get to see if this is a passing enthusiasm, or a project that actually has legs. Cheers!

January 30, 2014

We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

As Carl knows, I’m not much of a lecturer – and don’t like to do it. But in some of the upper level courses I teach I just have to do some talking to get things set up. On the good days, my talking gets to be a dialogue pretty quickly; and on the best days a polylogue. If I’m given a starting point by a student, that’s where we start. Any “exposition” of material is one of very many variations on the theme you’re trying to play, so why not their variations from their starting points.

My course on the development of Western cosmology is at the extreme in terms of what I have to “present.” In particular, there’s a lot of mathematics that has to be loaded in so we can understand Plato’s Timaeus, Galileo and Newton, and on to SNa’s as standard candles and the contribution of “dark matter” to the weight of the cosmos. The ancient math is in a style they haven’t been exposed to; the rest is basic algebra and trig that they’re supposed to know as an entrance requirement; but it all has to be (re)activated. Given the realities (lots more Philosophy majors than science majors, for example) the more graphic, visual, and dramatic it can be made, the better. Wizardry trumps orthodoxy.

So the other day, with Carl’s new post on Attention Surplus running through my head, and the task of revealing the magic of the stretched string on the immediate agenda, I sat thinking my way through the array of possible scripts that would lead from the dread monologue to the promised land of polylogue. At some point, a new slogan for my courses popped into my head:


At its simplest this just recapitulates some of the major themes already developed in AS: “coverage” is secondary (and can take care of itself, a lot of the time); it’s more important to listen to the students than talk at them; and act like a synchrotron: once you see a ball get rolling, give it an accelerating kick. I have to add that the other important element is being attentive to and reading faces and other body language. If you can’t recognize an epiphany when you see one, none of this works.

Once you do recognize it, the epiphany can do an amazing amount of work. First off, the epiphaner (epiphanist(?)) needs to understand its epiphany: talk it through out loud to find out if it’s genuine or mere brain fart; then epiphanies are contagious if brought out into the open. In fact, the one that actually occurred in the revelation of the stretched string was absolutely virulent. We even smoked out a card-carrying Platonist who was absolutely outraged that a cruddy little piece of string was placed in the position supposed to be occupied by the denizens of the world of Forms – even to be thought of as the central and decisive element of Proof. Her heartfelt (and aggressive) attempts at exorcism failed; but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her objections. Or, at least, I hope we haven’t; but I’m pretty sure I can stir them up again when I need them for, say, the big bang.

December 11, 2013

Figuring out figuring it out

by CarlD

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

October 18, 2013

Engaging students

by CarlD

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (I’ll crosspost at Attention Surplus, but that’s more of a journal and the commentariat here is larger and more diverse).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?

October 9, 2013

The Overpass National Anthem

by Asher Kay

O Overpass, your majesty bisects the hostile sky
Between the hours of four and three your keening voices cry.
Your wedge, too steep for pudgy tyrants, rising o’er the scree
Provides salvation’s path, which, though abrasive to the knee,
Will ever earn the praises of the luckless such as me
The luckless such as me.

O Overpass, your hundred hearts that beat with every tire
In schizophrenic palpitation kindles the desire
To lie in peaceful slumber, snug between your concrete beams
Until, in fifteen minutes, by the rattling of your seams
The quick and dead alike are raised from hundred heart-beat dreams
From hundred heart-beat dreams.

O Overpass, your purpose is for those who skate above
But purposes have shadows, and all shadows are a glove
And in that glove are birds and fear and cardboard and debris
And shelter, blessed shelter, for the luckless such as we
The luckless such as we.

September 17, 2013

Deacon deepening

by dyketheelder

“One theme of this book is that the planet, and indeed the cosmos, is replete with self-organizing, spatiotemporal systems flowing at different speeds, levels of sophistication, and degrees of staying power. These impersonal systems are open to some degree and never in perfect equilibrium; they interact, with each having a degree of entanglement with several others. … The biosphere itself is an open, thermodynamic system, driving heat into space and contributing to the condition of life on Earth. Such a perspective does not deny self-organizing power to economic markets. It does, however, suggest that these systems are much more fragile, interdependent, and volatile than their fervent supporters imagine, partly because they are closely involved with other self-organizing systems operating at various scales and tempos.”
That’s from the first paragraph of the chapter “second interlude: modes of self-organization” in William E. Connolly’s new book THE FRAGILITY OF THINGS: SELF-ORGANIZING PROCESSES, NEOLIBERAL FANTASIES, AND DEMOCRATIC ACTIVISM Duke UP. The rest of the chapter does a halfway interesting job of spelling out some of Deacon’s apparatus (he calls it “teleodynamism) and applying it in a preliminary way to financial markets and their social consequences. I haven’t read any other chapters except at a glance — I’m real busy at the moment — but the book looks to be pretty wide-ranging (Sophocles, Kant, Whitehead, among others). I’ll certainly get to it when I have the time.
For me, Connolly is a blast from the past. He was one of the more or less Marxian political scientists active in the 60′s (Peter Bachrach and Steven Lukes were others), and I read some of his stuff then. He went completely off my screen for about a half century, and now he’s back. Lo and behold, he’s traveled some of the same ground I have, and we meet at Deacon. Those of you who see promise in Deacon’s approach may want to look at its use by an old lefty with a real track record.

September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by CarlD

The faculty at the University of Oregon appear to have hoisted themselves in exactly this way we talked about here earlier. I am officially sad about that.

kliban eye poke

August 20, 2013

Yeast again

by CarlD

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

August 9, 2013

Bad Things Happen to Good People

by johnmccreery

Last Wednesday, Ruth, my wife, business partner, and best friend for  forty-five years, were walking to our office. As we started up the same set of stairs we climb every day, Ruth suddenly felt weak and short of breath.  She was smart enough to instantly take herself to the doctor who has been treating her for high blood pressure. The doctor was smart enough to instantly arrange an emergency check-in at Keiyu Hospital in Minato-Mirai 21, the Yokohama harbor project district only minutes by cab from both our home and the doctor’s office. She was met at the door by a wheelchair, run through a  battery of tests, diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, and popped into a bed with supplementary oxygen and a heparin drip in her arm. The good news is that when I left her last night, she had had her first not-me visitors. She had a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her face. She appears to be out of danger and recovering rapidly.  So now I find myself reflecting once again on the privileged lives that Ruth and I lead and the difference it can make when bad stuff happens.

What if we hadn’t been living in an affluent neighborhood close to the center of one of the world’s great cities?

What if Ruth hadn’t been the patient of a cardiovascular specialist connected with one of the city’s best hospitals?

What if we weren’t living in a country where public health insurance will cover most of the medical expenses?

What if we didn’t have the Internet and Facebook, where a host of friends from all over the world have rallied round, including my best friend from high school, an M.D. with the Public Health Service, who has provided reassuring advice — the treatment Ruth is receiving is exactly the one she should be receiving.

What if we hadn’t been able to afford the mobile WiFi router that lets her FB message and Skype with the daughter and grandkids in the USA via her iPad Mini? What if those gadgets didn’t even exist?

I can’t help thinking, Yes, bad things can happen to good people, but privilege can certainly ease the pain.

August 8, 2013

Fixing a hole

by CarlD

One of the themes of my history classes for the last little while is arrangement and assembly, both in relation to how history works and in relation to how the students work. If the little dinger goes ‘ding’ and they get that they’re part of history (I mean actually get it, not just spout canned homilies about it), so much the better.

I try to work this up into an appropriately complex analysis on the history side, in part by leveraging a more simple version of it on the student side. What’s been missing is a really clean image of the process of accumulation, arrangement, and assemblage that routinely goes into human works like, say, college essays – and their evaluation. You’d think you could just talk this through by direct reference to their own writing, but for reasons that are fairly complicated, many students are not receptive or actively resistant to direct writing instruction. I’ve found that a good metaphor sidesteps the blockage and creates leverage to move it. So, I finally just got around to accumulating and arranging a slideshow ( house presentation ) that I think may do the trick. It’s twelve slides of twelve pictures, which I’ll reproduce and discuss below (and crosspost on Attention Surplus to be part of that archive). The assembly will happen in each class discussion. I expect to take a whole class period with each group on this, timed right before they start producing process work for their first papers. Suggestions welcome.

The metaphor is building a house. First slide:


Easy enough. A plan. What is this, in relation to the assignment? Here I get to call their attention to all of the design guidance in the syllabus. Second slide:

cottage sketch

Is this a house yet? Why not? What is it? Not a pipe! Third slide:


Here we’re looking at raw materials. A tidy pile of lumber is obviously not a house yet, just like a pile of facts is not an essay yet. But wait, fourth slide:


Turns out that lumber wasn’t so raw, as materials go. We’re following the history of accumulation and arrangement here. (For me, and sometimes to the students, another image is a story Dyke the Elder tells about ordering a bicycle, ‘some assembly required’, and then having a truck roll up with a drum of raw latex sap, bauxite, petroleum, and so on.) Research; primary sources, secondary sources, interpretation, analysis. Fifth slide:


At this point we can safely say ‘and so on’, perhaps mentioning acorns and the strategies squirrels use to hide them from each other. We can also start to have a little side conversation about what it means to say ‘I built this’, which gets us to slide six:

on the patio

- which affords an opportunity to humanize the discussion, reflect more deeply on the narratives of independence in relation to the realities of massive systems of enabling interdependence (‘hey I built that table’, maybe out of the pallet the screws shipped on), and talk about the relative fungibility of materials – since this is clearly not a house, although it’s made of some of the same things as a house. This is also a place to begin to bring home the connection to authorship and plagiarism. (Speaking of plagiarism, all of the images except this one used in this post and presentation came right up on a google search and represent ‘types’ in a way that makes me feel comfortably fair-usey about them. This is not an official legal opinion. My thanks to all of the creators and rights-holders.) Slide seven:


Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. A finished house, a finished paper. What went into that? Planning, an image, materials, craft, elaborated skill and care. Slide eight:


Oh well hey, that’s nice too, and very different. Now we can talk about style. How would you pick between these two? Matter of taste here, but also who it’s for and what it’s trying to accomplish. Rhetoric. Speaking of which, slide nine:


Nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re getting a bit older and the stairs have become a quandary, or if you’re moving up from a single-wide and don’t want your sensibilities too jostled, or you’re a developer looking to make the cheapest possible buck, or you’re a society seeking a kind of material consensus, or etc. So here we get to talk about how styles do things in relation to audiences and agendas. I anticipate this is where the conversation is most likely to get bogged down in defense mechanisms. Slide ten:

grass house

Everyone just relax. Of course people build to suit local purposes and materials. And of course we can read those right back off of what they build. Is the ranch a ‘bad’ house? How about the grass one? How about the victorian? Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, what resources are available, who’s judging and by what criteria. But that ‘depends’ is not an ‘it’s all good’ depends. Slide eleven:


Most of the papers I get. In some ways an admirable contrivance, but we are still justified in reading a lack of resource, skill, and attention to detail back off of it. Not the sort of thing you’d want from certified accomplished fabricators like college graduates. And now slide twelve:

screwy house

Is this the same as the one before it? Why, or why not?

August 6, 2013

On the patio – uh oh!

by CarlD

For some years now the two big summer projects have been to paint the house and build a patio. The painting will have to wait at least another year, but the patio is done.

It all started with a little section of our little yard we grandiosely call ‘the grove’, because it’s not in any of the traffic areas and it’s in the middle of our trees. When I moved in the area was grassy, which turned out to be a highly artificial and labor-intensive condition. Without that labor it quickly deteriorated to scrub. This saved a couple minutes of mowing, and as Rachel and I ‘improved’ our outdoors we at first focused on other areas. But in the back of our minds we had not quite reconciled to letting the forest primeval withdraw this piece of ‘our property’ from productive development.

A patio is traditional in such cases, the problem being the natural slope of the land. After a couple years of morose reflection about digging it flat with sweat and shovel, opportunity knocked when our awesome neighbor Charles brought home the backhoe from work. During a break in the action I strolled over and allowed as how it would be delightful if blah blah blah, and 15 minutes later we had a nicely leveled little oblong to work with. Incidentally, it is just an amazing pleasure to watch someone who knows how to work one of those big machines practice their craft. Thanks again, Charles!

Because we had just moved our outdoor plopping from the nice sitting area under the pergola I built to the nice sitting area under the willow I planted, the backhoe opportunity was not otherwise connected to focused motivation, however. So our new landscape enjoyed a couple more years of natural settling. This may well have continued indefinitely, punctuated with idle conversations about whether to lay the patio with concrete pavers, brick, or stone, build a deck, or just relax and accept the foresty fait accompli, were it not for two critical catalyzing events. The first was our friend JR building a really lovely patio onto the back of his house, injecting equal parts of inspiration and shame into our dawdling. The other was me working on laying a stone walkway and patio during last summer’s campus ‘Show You Care Day’.

The project was striding right along from ‘someday, somehow’ to ‘soon, like this’. The fatal step was Rachel wondering about stone options and costs, and deciding she would stop in at the local landscaping lot for a quick recon on the way to her studio. She came back with a ticket for a pallet of local stone and a load of scree (crushed stone used as a leveling and binding substrate). These were soon delivered and all of a sudden we were building a patio.

We decided quickly against the kind of rigorous, multilayered surface preparation that gets you a perfectly level, uniform, and weed-resistant construct. Rachel got big old heavy stones in the 2′ – 3′ range, which guaranteed an irregular surface no matter what. Going with the flow of the site, the materials, our attitudes toward fuss, and the house aesthetic, our objective was to create a hard, relatively flat surface with rustic appeal. The site was already pretty level, so we spread the scree to about 3-4″ depth and started piecing together stones. Because the stones’ surfaces were not actually flat, this required quite a lot of little digging and filling operations to get each one firmly set in the scree, at which point we left final settling and leveling to time, use, and the elements.

We called what we ended up with The Cosmic Egg.

The Cosmic Egg

The Cosmic Egg

Nice as that was, dragging one of my old Mk 3 adirondacks over revealed a problem for the planned home-made furnishings – especially at the thin point of the Egg, there wasn’t really enough space for the adirondacks’ long footprint. So I poked around the web and looked at a lot of pictures and cooked up the Mk 4 design, with conventional back legs rather than the regulation slides. The prototype was satisfactorily more compact without giving up any comfort.


Here you see one finished Mk 4 and one unfinished one.


Rachel had the brilliant idea to make the table out of the pallet the stone came on! She did the landscaping with hostas, ferns, black-eyed susans, tomatoes, and tasty beverages.


Here are my ‘plans’ for the Mk 4s. They take almost exactly five 8′ 1X4 boards each:

July 24, 2013

From Renan, Wha…

by CarlD

From Renan, What is a Nation?:

“The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common and also that they have forgotten many things. No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgundian, an Alan, a Taifale, or a Visigoth, yet every French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, or the massacres that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century. …

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial.”

July 22, 2013

Hello Hollywood

by dyketheelder

Carl and Frau arrived rather unexpectedly for a short in-transit visit. A real treat: you voles have some sense of the relationship between Carl and me by now, but Rachel and I are also compliciters in a number of projects. (Actually, you know that too.)
We got heavily into Roger Corman. Attack of the Crab Monsters on Thursday, and on Friday the Roger Corman volume in AFI’s Director series, plus the documentary “A salute to Roger Corman”. My interest in sci-fi doesn’t begin to match Carl’s. Mine is pretty much confined to “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto,” Krell metal, and Q. But Roger Corman is another matter. Not only did he produce and direct Little Shop of Horrors, a far more finely crafted movie, in my estimation, than, say, Gone with the Wind, but he was the most important teacher/mentor in the 20th Century film world. It’s the latter that Carl and I hermeneutered ‘til midnight.
James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard are just a few of the many movie makers given their important start by Corman. It would be hard to think of another teacher with that kind of lineup of grads – maybe Wheeler at Princeton: he gets to start his list with Dick Fineman – but I can’t think of another in any field. So of course Carl and I were afforded the opportunity to ruminate on what Corman actually did, and how he did it.
For me and my generation, I’ve found in retrospect, Corman’s initial importance was his affording us the opportunity to have our socks knocked off, at an impressionable age, by Rashomon, The Magician, Wild Strawberries, the Seventh Seal, and La Strada. He’s the one, as Janus Films, who was responsible for the US distribution of the great “foreign” art films of the period – en passant with respect to his career, punctuational with respect to mine. Others owe Corman for many (potentially hundreds of) thrilling nights at the local drive-in.
But what Carl and I were after was the understanding of Corman as teacher/mentor. What can we learn from him to get better at doing what we do when we do what we do? The conversation pretty quickly homed in on providing opportunity. Corman was a genius at recognizing talent when he saw it, gave it the chance to show itself and develop, and shoved it into a challenging place, very often the chance to direct a first movie. (The catch phrase in the tribe was Corman’s “If you do well with this, you’ll never have to make a film for me again.”) Tough love and a boot out the door to opportunity.
Two important words showed up: “trust”, and “risk.” Corman trusted both his own judgment, and those about whom he made the judgment. Of course trusting them entailed a certain amount of risk, a failed movie, and so on, but Corman was smart enough to buffer the risk, and keep it under control. Carl’s way of putting it was that Corman found a place in the movie biz where you didn’t have to hit a home run every time at bat. He was the greatest singles hitter in film history. If you get to a place where you have to make a multi-million dollar blockbuster (as, ironically, Cameron certainly did), the risk is stultifying. If you were knocking off Bucket of Blood, or The Wasp Woman in five days or so (or Little Shop of Horrors in two) for a few thousand bucks, the risk was negligible – and exhilarating fun to boot. The immediate consequence was the space to afford all those wonderful opportunities. Ask yourself, is your course (or your current project) tangled up in the ethos of megabuck homerun hitting, or would a good solid base hit get the job done? Cameron, in his interview, counts what he learned about attitude toward risk with Corman as one of his formative lessons. The only thing I’d add to Carl’s image is that sometimes you don’t even need to get a base hit. Success may mean bunting somebody into scoring position, something Corman did over and over again.
“Afford” keeps popping up. It’s a funny word, usually showing up when you ask yourself if you can afford a new Mercedes, or some such. But as it’s appeared here, its meaning has flipped. Corman’s affordances were largely the result of what he couldn’t afford. Affordances as opportunities needn’t be tied to affordances as resources, especially financial resources. In fact, Carl and I fell into talking a lot of this through in terms of the concept of affordance, a concept we’ve come to use a lot (and was showing up in DV long before I was). Corman just turns out to be one of the best conversation platforms for affordance since Miu lib.
In any case, I’d been thinking about affordance again over the last couple of weeks in pursuit of a project some of you have dealt with at an earlier stage. Vis. I hacked my way back into the jungle I’d created “in defense of” Terry Deacon and his terminological terrorism. In particular, I pulled out the stuff on his concept of “ententionality” – a discussion I’d couched in terms of soil fertility as ententional. The old paper had been shot down somewhere over the Zuider Zee, and I wanted to see if I could locate any survivors who could live on in another context. Deacon and I both still like my take on entention.
So I recontextualized, and submitted (electronically, of course) elsewhere. I’ve never gotten such good service. The rejection was in my e-mail the next time I looked at it. But meanwhile, I’d sent the new version to Tony Chemero, who some of you might have run across: e.g. Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, out of MIT. Tony’s interest in, and understanding of, Deacon is very close to mine. But the roots of his work are with John Gibson’s ecological psychology (E.g. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception), and Gibson is the originator of the best known industrial strength concept of affordance. In fact, lacking as always in good sense, I’d mentioned (parenthetically) in the new version that the whole discussion of the ententionality of soil could be re-written in terms of affordance. (I’m somehow bound to shove awkward connections down the throats of people who don’t want to make any connections at all.)
Chemero liked the paper, lamented its misfortunes, and suggested that if I actually worked out the connection to affordance a bit, Ecological Psychology, the Gibsonian journal, might publish it. So that’s what I’m working on.
I think I’d better do it without raking in Roger Corman. But for DV there’s lots more to be said about Roger and his affordance machine.

June 13, 2013

Real Life, Real Research

by johnmccreery

The war stories series on the Portigal consulting company’s website is a treasure chest of anecdotes for anyone who wonders what life is like on the front lines of qualitative consumer research, a.k.a. design ethnography or business anthropology.


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