December 29, 2015

Ignorance is a kind of entropy. It can’t be moraled away.

by CarlD

Tossed this off just now in response to yet another righteous refusal of the Sisyphean work of education, re: racism, sexism, etc. There are lots of things that everyone ‘should’ know. But as long as they don’t, there’s a boulder to push up a hill.

September 29, 2015

The Lively Science

by johnmccreery

I have just submitted a book review to Popanth, a slightly modified version of the text I wrote to start a forum on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Some here might be interested.


The preface to Michael Agar’s The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research begins with the following paragraphs.

“What’s a nice reader like you doing in a book like this? I’m hoping that you’re here because you’re curious about a way to do “behavioral science” or “social science” that will help you figure out a problem you’d like to solve, or maybe you just wonder what those words mean because you’re a curious type. Maybe you’re a student, new or returning, embarking on a course with those names attached to it, or maybe a course in one of the many other areas that make use of them. The point is, I’m writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues.

“This book has a simple premise to get you started. The premise is, research on humans in their social world by other humans is not a traditional science like the one created by Galileo and Newton . It’s not that the creators were wrong. Far from it. The ones who were wrong were the historical figures who tried to imitate the way the creators worked, neglecting the fact that learning how people make it through the day is different from dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa or getting hit on the head by falling apples. Galileo didn’t have to communicate with the balls. Besides, he didn’t have to worry that the balls might look down 185 feet and refuse to jump and throw him over the parapet instead.”

Two points are vital here. One concerns how we read, the other what the book is talking about. When Agar writes, “The point is, I am writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues,” he is asking those of us who are or hope to be colleagues to turn off what we think we already know and approach those concepts he mentions with a fresh, innocent gaze that makes no assumption that we know what he is talking about. He asks us to be readers who act like ethnographers, putting aside what we think to attend carefully to the people whose lives we share, looking for evidence of ideas that may be radically different from those we bring to the field. This is no small request, since, as indicated in the second paragraph, the topic sounds awfully familiar.

Anthropology, or at least the anthropology called social or cultural anthropology, is split down the middle. On one side are the “scientists” who see their goal as contributing to the kind of science conceived by Galileo and Newton, a science that discovers mathematical laws that work apply everywhere, regardless of what the entities they describe might be thinking or feeling. On the other side are the “humanists,” for whom the essence of humanity lies in what humans think and feel and insist that thoughts and feelings cannot be understood scientifically. They can only be interpreted, thickly described in ways that make human stories plausible. Our usual reaction to this divide is to pick one side or the other and become fierce advocates for our choice. Agar asks us to question the ways in which we conceive of scientific and humanistic understanding, to challenge the divide and consider an alternative view in which science and humanity are combined.

Stated so baldly, the thesis of the book sounds like a familiar sort of Hegelian dialectic: Thesis=science. Antithesis=humanity. Synthesis=A reconciliation that overcomes the initial contradiction. But there is much more to The Lively Science than is captured in this formula. Agar leads us on a picaresque journey through the thickets of modern social theory. He leads us away from the heavyweights usually featured in brief histories of social theory: Mars, Weber, and Durkheim. Instead he directs our attention to German idealists with names like Dilthey, rarely mentioned except in footnotes, and invites us to consider what they were on about when distinguishing naturwissenschaft, literally “natural science,” from geisteswissenschaft, “spiritual sciences,” a.k.a., humanities, but insisting that both are wissenschaft, i.e. science. Via this journey, Agar leads us to consider a broader view of science, in which Galileo and Newton represent only one variety, and the humanities are human sciences, retaining scientific rigor.

As illustrated by the two paragraphs quoted above, however, this is not a pretentious, ponderous book. Agar is a witty and genial writer well-aware that his mission is not to speak to those already his colleagues, already set in our intellectual ways, but to newcomers, still young and open enough in mind and spirit and still rebellious enough to want to challenge their teachers, to consider thoughts not heard, or heard not nearly enough, in classrooms. If you see yourself in this description, Michael Agar’s The Lively Science is a must-read for you.

July 17, 2015

A Thread from Savage Minds

by johnmccreery

This thread began with a post related to the ending of the Human Terrain System (HTS) program, which many anthropologists saw as a violation of anthropological ethnics. The following is only a branch of a larger discussion.

Thoughts, anyone?


One plausible example of an anthropologist who seems to do what HTS was intended to do pretty well is someone I have mentioned before, David Kilcullen, the author of Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, which I consider personally one of the most important books that I have read in recent years. The problem is that Kilcullen is a rare bird indeed, an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from, I recall [I could be mistaken], Australian National University, who is also a professional soldier. He is thus equipped to relate anthropological insight to military operations in a way that few, if any, other anthropologists are. The story he relates at the start of the book is a good example.

He is with a convoy returning from a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a regional slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant at the head of a valley in Afghanistan. The convoy comes under attack, a firefight ensues, but the attackers are quickly beaten off with little actual harm done on either side. There are those who instantly wonder what was going on. Have the Taliban returned to an area from which they were supposed to be driven away? Kilcullen suggests a plausible alternative scenario. The valley at the head of which the new facility was located is, like many parts of Afghanistan, controlled by multiple small warlords. The attack on the convoy was a way of expressing displeasure by the warlord who controlled the part of the valley where the attack took place at not having been consulted about where the new slaughterhouse would be located — in another warlord’s territory. Failure to avenge this insult would have seriously undermined his own authority. Kilcullen is careful to note that this alternative scenario is only hypothetical; but it is one that takes into account local political arrangements of which his on-the-scene colleagues were unaware.


Kilcullin is a military strategist, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq. He’s a poster-boy along with Andrew Exum, “Abu Muqawama”, for the new model of competent [sic] imperial management. Their interest is projecting American power. So if you’re interested in asking why we’re in Iraq, or asking why the US vetoed the return of the popular former king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah, in 2002, supporting Karzai and ceding power to various warlords, these are questions neither Kilcullin nor Exum are interested in answering.


Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Seth’s characterization of David Kilcullen [not Kilcullin] and Andrew Exum [of whom I have never heard] is valid. Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned from them? Suppose, for example, that we are interested in how propaganda works, a topic with clear relevance to anthropological studies of myth, ritual and social movements. We may abhor the politics of Joseph Goebbels and Frank Luntz, but they are masters of their dark arts and should be on every reading list. In Kilcullen’s case, I know of no other anthropologist who has pointed out the importance of coastal cities of which large parts are ungovernable for lack of infrastructure overwhelmed by mass population growth, key nodes in international networks of finance and trade, and increasingly threatened by flooding due to global warming—and are thus attractive targets as well as fertile ground for terrorist organizations. And his Malinowskian moment, noticing his colleagues from Papua New Guinea with whom he is on maneuvers employing the fish traps that become his model for organizations ranging from criminal gangs to nation states is both lucid and brilliant. In all these cases the bait is the promise of security — for a price, submission and payment of protection money, a.k.a. taxes — and armed violence provides the barbs that prevent the fish from escaping the trap. Oh, yes, these are, indeed, ugly instrumental factors in how the world is organized. It would be so much nicer to focus instead on cultural logics and poetics, become a Daoist hermit or Candide cultivating his garden. But while these are nice hobbies — I enjoy them immensely myself — it hardly seems fair to complain if taxpayers or other patrons refuse to foot the bill.


I often disagree with Seth, but I do like his being here. His rants often contain pointers to authors I have never heard of. Andrew Exum is a case in point. A Google search brought me to his book This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism. I spent much of last night reading it, being constantly reminded of how ending the draft (something I was once very much in favor of) has alienated those of us who have chosen civilian and especially academic career tracks from those who volunteer to serve in the military. Thus, we find it easy to stereotype them as anonymous automatons without conscience or moral sensibility, destructive robots lacking in what we see as humanity. I find this deeply ironical, given the effort and often self-righteous rhetoric we devote to denouncing discrimination based on race, gender, culture or religion. This is doubly ironical since the anthropological canon contains numerous examples, from Africa, North America, the Middle East and elsewhere of peoples proud of warrior traditions. We are, for example, eager to proclaim the League of the Iroquois as a model for the U.S. Constitution, while avoiding mention of the torture of captives and stoic bravery in the face of torture that were integral parts of the same culture. We are familiar with the controversy surrounding the labeling of the Yanomami as “The Fierce People,” seeing this label as an insult, despite the wealth of evidence, both ethnographic and historical, that human beings commonly enjoy violent conflict. And, yes, we do, too — albeit vicariously in games or fiction or contact sports played by other people. If our job is to render people uncomfortable with cultural stereotypes, perhaps we should start with our own. This Man’s Army is an excellent place to begin.

July 5, 2015

Making work

by CarlD

Among other things, the unfolding drama in Greece is a reminder that in the world today, and for quite some time past, there is not and has not been enough work for people to do. Rather than find some other way to organize and valorize human life, the response to this has been to make work.

In Greece, among many other places, this has taken the form of massive systems of neo-feudal governmental and quasi-governmental employment (farmers of government payments like the defense and health industries, for example), funded through various extractive and inventive strategies ranging from taxation to money printing to ‘public debt’. (Since the fiat currencies of the modern state are essentially circulating debt, there is no essential difference between these strategies except the levels of public confusion and therefore the pseudo-politics caused by each.)

Because countries like Greece are not big and scary enough to control their own narratives, this fabrication of life and value is commonly referred to there as ‘corruption’. In countries big and scary enough to control their own narratives like the United States and Germany, it is referred to as ‘the public sector’. But in all cases most of the work in question deploys the otherwise unemployed to provide each other, at each others’ expense, with ‘services’ the need for which is largely created by their availability.

Clearly this is not ‘gainful’ or ‘productive’ employment, except in the pragmatic and existential senses that life and value are created by it. As the story goes, truly productive employment only occurs in the ‘private sector’, where the work is driven by real market demand rather than corrupt and/or unproductive shenanigans.

Which brings me to landscaping.

versailles gardens

Landscaping might be described as an inherently unproductive modification of land. Farms are not landscaped, they are worked. Lawns without sheep are an ecological monstrosity, and ‘yards’ need only be cleared enough to keep pests and predators from immediate contact with the buildings. Unremarkable local plants do the trick just fine with minimal inputs of effort. Spare land may well become valuable through garden planting, or left fallow. Of course flowers that attract pollinators, fix nitrogen, and the like may add splashes of color and texture. Productive land has its own beauty, as do the lumpy bodies of productive people. Human / land interaction is traditionally labor and attention intensive. Ordinary folks lived like this for millenia.

And yet, in the United States alone landscaping is an $80 billion ‘industry’. Some of this of course is public and quasi-public landscaping like government lawns and highway medians, but most of it is private and therefore market driven. There is a robust demand for landscaping.

The need to beautify commercial/residential property as a place for relaxation, entertainment or work, has long nourished the interest in landscaping. The worth added to the value of property by decorative structures, ponds, patios, and green-winding pathways too cannot be undermined. Keeping in view the growing popularity and importance of landscaping as an art, science, and commercial value proposition, it is of little surprise that landscaping services has now become one of the most important domains in the overall services industry.

From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Over 800,000 people are employed in just the direct provision of landscaping services such as “sod laying, mowing, trimming, planting, watering, fertilizing, digging, raking, sprinkler installation, and installation of mortarless segmental concrete masonry wall units,” over 15,000 in “death care services” alone. This does NOT include the production of landscaping supplies and equipment, agriculture of sod and ornamental plants, industry and academic study of same, fractions of transportation, water, and sewer infrastructure devoted to moving the stuff and the stuff’s inputs and outputs around, yard ‘waste’ removal, and so on. Taken all together, it would probably be safe to say that private demand for the inherently unproductive modification of land annually generates about a million jobs and about $100 billion dollars. Yay, markets!

As the husband and friend of artists I know that there are all sorts of ways to argue about the nature and value of beauty. As the (hopefully) soon-to-be owner of a farm originally set up for ornamental livestock (horses) that we hope gradually to convert to boutique farm-to-table production, I am aware that there are no clear lines between the production and productivity of aesthetic and alimentary experience. The other thing that folks did for millenia was eat gruel. And horseflesh.

1265 panorama

But this is my point. If we take an old-school approach to productive labor, there’s very little of that left to do after the machines get done. MOST of the work that people do now, especially in the developed world, is makework. My job certainly is, in a way that’s obvious enough to produce real strains at the point of sale, and incredibly vulnerable by the productivity standards that waves of businessy types periodically try to enforce on it. For education (employment: 8 million+) in anything that required real productivity, tech schools and apprenticeships, largely taught by mechanical reproduction, would surely do the trick. The rest is landscaping.

And therefore, makework had better be alright. As much as I’d like to get on my high horse about Greek (or Italian) ‘corruption’, there’s none of my life that doesn’t participate in the same dynamics. I try to pay off, maybe in ways public sector employees give up on or never learn, but given the spread of outcomes that’s not much more than noise in the signal. What does Germany think it’s doing that’s so much better than what the Greeks are doing? For the life of me, I can’t work that out.


June 23, 2015


by CarlD

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.

June 6, 2015

conversations with Hesiod

by dyketheelder

Yrjo Haila (a large Finn, but not a white shark) and I are working on (playing with) an ongoing conversation anchored in Hesiod’s WORKS AND DAYS. It wouldn’t hurt to get some Volian commentary if we could. On the not-very-safe assumption that I can figure out how to do it, I’ll send along a short introduction that explains the project; and two short, typical, and connected contributions that you might like. If I fail, I’ll get Carl to provide them.



The house that Jack built

May 1, 2015

The communism of useful accessories

by CarlD

I’m reading papers at the local cafe, and one of the staff is looking around for a leopard print umbrella somebody left behind earlier. I helpfully informed her in my opinion it is a mistake to think one owns useful accessories. Umbrellas, sunglasses, and the like. I think of these as being in common circulation, withdrawn for occasional use and then recontributed when not immediately needed. Every so often we’re all responsible for replenishing depleted supply by buying more, which is probably where confusion about ownership comes from.

This system works so well it’s never clear to me why people think communism wouldn’t work. Umbrellas, cars, books, prom dresses, shovels, cufflinks, what’s the difference? We don’t all need one sitting around idly waiting for us to need it, we just need some to be around for when we do. Then we’d have plenty of resources left over to take care of the things we all do need all the time.

I’m not going to go check where exactly in the “Manifesto” Marx and Engels explain how stupid this all is. Back to reading papers for me.

February 20, 2015

Friendly fire in the war of position

by CarlD

I’ve been doing very little blog reading lately – I think this is temporary, as I feel my way toward a workable relationship between media feeds and meatworld obligations – but I look in on Crooked Timber and Easily Distracted pretty regularly. The latter because I find myself agreeing with Tim Burke about almost everything (plus he and his brother wrote the book on Saturday morning cartoons, a tome I keep in my bathroom and nostalge over fondly from time to time). The former because of the general quality of the topics, the bloggers, and the commentariat; and the grim fascination of the fact that although I agree with or at least see the point of them too most of the time, the people there who most exactly express my thoughts are routinely hounded out of the conversation as scoundrels and trolls.

Even at these high standards there are two particularly interesting conversations unfolding at these blogs that I strongly recommend. At Easily Distracted, Tim popped up from one of his regular bouts of blog exhaustion with a great series of posts called “Grasping the Nettle”. He’s been interested pretty much all along in the way progressive activism works both for and against progressive values, especially in online and academic communities. Among other things, these posts are about targeting, ‘allies’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘privilege checking’. Who gets to be in that conversation, and how – the ways progressive discourses and practices assemble inclusions, exclusions, trajectories, and positions. How to fight the ‘war of position’, in Gramscian terms.

And at Crooked Timber, the always-pithy Belle Waring called a stand-down on the circular firing squad of progressive righteousness to create a safe space for everyone to say their “unpopular thoughts” about feminism and the left, without that fear of being hounded out of the conversation for missing a locked step. (Trigger warning: unpopular thoughts. Also, rape testimonies.) The resulting conversation is so much better than the doctrine-policed ones, so much friendlier, richer, more relaxed and inclusive and nuanced! Everyone is presumed to be speaking in good faith; lots of education is happening, without the customary shaming and shunning.

Still, other than ‘don’t be an asshole’ it all doesn’t really point at any particular programme for progressive practice; nor does Tim’s stuff.

January 16, 2015

Philosophy of social science, help or hindrance?

by johnmccreery

It may depend on when you took the course, says Daniel Little at Understanding Society.

What think you, Voles?

January 7, 2015

R.I.P. Ulrich Beck [cross-posted from SocNet]

by johnmccreery

Beck has long been one of my favorite sociologists. His description of the Risk Society as one in which invisible risks replace visible wealth as the dominant form of social inequality and only experts can claim to identify and know how to address those risks resonates strongly with the world of Chinese popular religion that was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.

One interesting possible application rests on the observation that all forms of consulting are magic. People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe, and random chance alone will lead to identification of some who claim such powers as having “It,” that special something that produces desired results. Negative evidence will disappear in a context where most who claim special powers are known to be frauds. The primary question for those looking for “It” to solve their problems is how to find the golden needle in a huge and constantly growing haystack. They turn to to their social networks for recommendations by trusted others, whose trust may, however, be grounded in nothing more than having found someone whose recommendations lie in the apparent success tail of a normal curve. . . .

P.S. I would be delighted if some computational sociologist with greater math skills than my own could build a model around these assumptions.

But, yes. I mourn the death of Ulrich Beck.

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by CarlD

I was muchly impressed by this recent interview with Chris Rock, a comedian and cultural commentator I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to before. (Mostly, my inattention, because his voice reminds me of the stock overexcited kid cartoon voice that I find so irritating. Sorry Chris, my bad.) Among the many striking points he makes, he talks about how he stopped playing college campuses.

…I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Well, you know, college campuses are perhaps uniquely the places where you can talk about things. So, this is a funny development, and by some way of reckoning a self-inflicted wedgie. On my campus some folks are worried about the liberal arts being under attack. By whom, by whom?

Rock talks about how there’s no backstage any more, nowhere or way to workshop ideas without the glare of righteous judgmental scrutiny. Of course we may be glad that cops don’t get to workshop their ideas about authority and power without fear of video capture, and once we grasp that power and authority work through informal systems, and that the personal is political, none of us can in principle claim a free pass on abuses of situated privilege. Where’s Power? Where’s Authority?


When she was almost 7, Rachel had a serious health crisis, ultimately involving (and perhaps resolved by) a series of spinal taps. Click through for details and some amazing reflection. The way the health professionals treated her and her family reminds her of how the NYPD treated Eric Garner. No wonder she’s interested in how doing right can go wrong! I asked her when spinal taps might be available for laughing about. That was a puzzler.

And Dyke the Elder finally just retired this semester, after around fifty years in the saddle. The precipitating event was a kerfuffle over a student who took offense to Rachel’s multimedia art project, the satirical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies, as a discussion piece in a class about meaning in the arts. It went to the Dean, the Provost got involved, and rather than anyone having a sense of humor or scholarly integrity, sensitivity training was suggested.

Haha! Empowerment.

December 16, 2014

Lost in translation

by CarlD

JohnM asks if the voles are really dead! Only as dead as we’re dead, I’d say, or as alive as we make ourselves. But I’ve been doing my micro-blogging on Facebook, so his comment jostled me to realize I could just go ahead and do some of it here to get things moving a bit.

I’m reading Murakami’s 1Q84, and enjoying it. Via Overdrive, btw, a cool library app. And I just came across this:

She entered the bar a little after seven. A young piano and guitar duo were playing “Sweet Lorraine.” Their version was a copy of an old Nat King Cole record, but they weren’t bad.

The use of ‘copy’ here is odd. There’s a general oddness of the prose, which is clearly a theme of the book. It may be a theme of Murakami, but I don’t have the background to assess that. In this book there seem to be adjacent dimensions in partial contact; the signal of this so far is that things are a little off. So is this one of those? Or does Murakami not know that a ‘copy’ of a song is conventionally called a ‘cover’? (No idea if that distinction exists in Japanese – John?) Or did the translator miss one here? Or are they both playing with similarity and simulation in a way that needs to be teased at in language?

Anyway, this then got me thinking about the first time I was introduced to the concept of a ‘cover’. I was young but already aware of music, and it was via our family friend Luther Dogan, the partner of Dyke the Elder’s colleague Paul Snyder. Luther was a professional musician who, if I remember correctly, did mostly backing vocals. He used the word ‘cover’ in conversation and then explained it to me when I was confused. I remember rolling it around in my brain quite a bit, probably one of my earlier exposures to metaphorical language that doesn’t map neatly onto the naive meaning it’s applied to.

I also think of Luther frequently because one of the times I remember being just plain wrong was in a much later conversation with him about Ry Cooder, in which I confidently asserted that “Paradise and Lunch” was Cooder’s first album. I don’t know why I thought that, but it wasn’t, and Luther knew it. But he was very gentle about prompting me to reconsider, and graciously dropped it when I didn’t.

I also think about Luther a lot because he was the Black partner of a White man, which I later learned was supposed to be a big deal in several dimensions. But it wasn’t a big deal at all – they were just our friends Paul and Luther.

November 23, 2014


by CarlD

Got some papers to read, so made some bagels inst…also.


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!


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