July 15, 2017

The Cynical Certainties of Soap

by dyketheelder

Last night I watched THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. Excuse: Carl’s mom was off at Slow Farm visiting Carl, a new biography of Ava Gardner was highlighted on the MSN front page, and the disc hadn’t been taken out for a walk in years. It’s a remarkably boring film, and ranks with the most cliched films ever made; but Bogart is pretty good, Edmund O”Brien got his Oscar for his supporting role; and there are a few morbid fascinations worth exploring at modest word count. Chief among them is the issue of cliche itself.
“Cliche” is what we call a component of a classic and thoroughly familiar narrative when we want to disparage it. The vehicle for cliche in this instance is what we should call the “A Star Is Born” narrative. There are probably more of these vehicles in the Hollywood ouevre than there are used Chevys in all the used car lots in LA. TBC is a contribution to the inventory by Joe Mankiewicz, who also provided the better known All ABOUT EVE. Thus the cookie is cut.
In TBC, Ava Gardner is the axis around which the drama turns. (The ball bearings are a couple of uncredited guys playing Spanish/and or Gypsy peasant/dancers.) Bogart, O’Brien, Rossano Brazzi, et al are the standard array of movie moguls, publicity hucksters, directors, and so on — with the exception of Brazzi, who is a classically redundant Italian Count, to be contrasted, in salient respects, to the gypsy dancers.
That brief list, you’ll notice, already floods the field with cliches. There are others of more interest. The reigning genre here always offers the opportunity for critique or expose’ of the institutions, mores, etc. of very medium of the critique. The genre is hopelessly narcissistic, not to mention hopelessly productive of masochistic thrills. The cliches that dominate Mankiewicz’ contributions include the contrast between natural and contrived, and innocence and corruption. Notice that it’s all about EVE, and the Contessa is Maria. (Leone gives us Marisol, who’s son is ….) Old/New Testament parallels are a genre in themselves. The expulsion from paradise is, as savants dutifully point out, the dominant master narrative in our cultural history. Equally cliched is the contrast between the barefoot and the shod: the noble savage and the saintly civilized. The sudsy resources of the cinema offer endless opportunities for casting and recasting the narrative. In this case, Mankiewicz’ cynicism suggests strongly that those who try to embrace both the natural and the civilized are doomed.
I could go on. And on. But the obvious prevents me, for it must have occurred to you that this post is in precisely the same boat as its subject content: a cliche-ridden contribution to a now cliched genre: the smarmy oration from the Olympus of the learned.
Am I alone in feeling (fearing) that I’m living out a cliche? That, say, the “politics” swarming around me are the sleepwalking remake of a narrative become cliche? That Hillary and Donald aren’t to be added to the Eves and the Marys (or the Anne Baxters and Ava Gardners — it gets harder and harder to distinguish the actors from the roles)? It’s harder and harder to distinguish the real from the fake. Hollywood (as the inheritor of the creation of narrative illusion) has lived off that difficulty in full understanding of what it was doing. Also sprach Zaratustra.

April 27, 2017


by dyketheelder

I essentially never play Scrabble any more. I refuse to play with anal retentives, and the people who want to play are characteristically thus. It will come as no surprise to DV’s if I say that I love words — as objects of both work and play. So, in some ways, I lament not playing Scrabble,

So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that I do love words. It delights me beyond reason, for example, that Claude Hopper is a big cheese in the world of white Gospel, and a protege of Jesse Helms. At any rate, I hate to see words mistreated. Scrabble is designed to degrade and denigrate words — in the service of venal gain. I want to choose and use words in terms of quality: expressivity, melifluity, strength, suggestiveness, goofyness. I love words whose history has thrust connections upon us that are by now thoroughly bogus, but open horizons to understanding nonetheless. A couple such that showed up in my reading yesterday were “cosmology” and “cosmetics”. Turns out, of course, that the ruptured link is that between beauty and order. For the ancients it was a serious question whether the universe they lived in was a cosmos. (Was fur ein question is that for us now?)

Scrabble encourages mingy Caledonian pursuit of quantitative profiteering. “How much is that word worth?”, we ask, and move a letter to see if there’s a double score sign under it. Worse, the game is competitive, so there’s profit in making it difficult for your opponent to make a good word, and loss in allowing him access to a doubling space of his own. The board fills with crabbed dead ends. Where’s the elegance in repressive denial? Nuff said.

As to my lament, I’ve actually thought about what could be done to get me to the Scrabble board. It may not be hopeless. Think of what you could make out of the materials you have at hand: a wonderful woven tapestry of beautiful words. Of course you’d create it cooperatively with the other players. The challenge of making something out of the random assortment you have at each move would be the same. However, the dominant strategy would be the creation of enabling conditions. Everyone would be concerned to give the best opportunity to the next player, given that her assortment would be limited too.

Evaluating the outcome of the game will be tricky — qualitative judgments always are: that’s traditionally one of the reasons why people seek to quantify them. But if you can do it in the arts, you can do it here as well. After all, there’ll be no issue of who wins or loses: everybody wins, or everybody loses any particular game. Finding a way to keep score is the road to ruining the game.

For those who need the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat to motivate them, it would be possible to rededicate the numbers on the tiles and the instructions on the special squares. For instance, you could set up efficiency objectives: the most beautiful tapestry at the minimal cost. “Triple word score” would be a pit of doom much to be avoided. But maybe not to be avoided at any cost, for there’s the existential thrill of the sacrifice move to consider. A really good word at a suicidal price.

Anyway, I think that this version of Scrabble could be elaborated. I doubt that it will be though. Were almost certainly have to carry on our affair with words elsewhere. Current politics is a promising possibility. Fantastic opportunities to join the goofy play of words are offered up to us daily. I’m sure the suggestion will send a cold chill up straight and rigid spines, but opportunity isn’t to be found just anywhere, and “Guignol” is a really neat word.

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by CarlD

I just almost got myself into an internet fight with a deontologist.

Fortunately I kept my wits about me and took a powder. Nothing good ever comes of getting into it with the righteous and literal-minded. The occasion was a Facebook post on Erica Benner’s Guardian essay asking “Have we got Machiavelli all wrong?” Well of course ‘we’ have. She tells the familiar story of teaching Machiavelli the usual way, as a shill for power; but then starting to pay attention to all the stuff he says (especially in the Discourses on Livy) about freedom and citizenship and republican virtue; and finally realizing that all of the Prince stuff is framed by the other stuff as cautionary tales and instructions to a free people on how to spot and resist tyranny. This version of the argument obviously has Trump in mind. Of course careful readers have been having something like this epiphany for hundreds of years, not least Gramsci, as I have discussed at length.

The deontologist shrugged off the context and insisted on the text, where Machiavelli plainly says things about the exercise of power that are morally repugnant. QED. Machiavelli is the Disneyland of is/ought theorists. Never is it more plain that deontology (and its evil twin consequentialism) emerges from fundamental intellectual laziness. Morals do all the work of keeping things neat and linear, selecting out a priori all of the confounds. Nowhere to be found is any sense that the world is a manifold we stumble through with all manner of dispositions, habits, practices, heuristics, improvisations, reflexes, desperate gambles, selective ignorances, constraints, affordances, conditions, situations, assemblages, trajectories, strategies, roles, identities, networks, and whatnot before we ever get anywhere near ‘ethics’, the tidy parlor game of the mind. Take your shoes off before you walk on the carpet.

I am aware that there are myriad permutations and subtleties I am trampling upon here. It is my intention, nay, duty in life to never get drawn into any detailed examination of these. They have nothing to do with any serious business. With Machiavelli, we start with a person trying to make sense of and be effective within a lifeworld, a particular situation in turn of the 16th century Italy that constitutes and embeds him in particular conditions, dynamics, opportunities, threats, resources, and so on. He remains interesting because he takes a real crack at that, which means he has zero fucks to give about systematic ethics.

Nowadays we talk about real takings a crack in terms of complex dynamical systems. Machiavelli signals that’s what he’s up to, according to the available idiom, through the concept of fortuna. In my dissertation I talked generally about fortuna as contingency, following Pocock. But I would now translate fortuna and its conceptual partner ‘corruption’ into the range of complex dynamics covered by chaos, emergence, nonlinearity, and self-organization, arising respectively from broad historical processes and human relations more specifically. As an analyst, Machiavelli saw chaotic historical and interactive fields that defied linear causal analysis. As a strategist, he was looking for the stocks and flows that could be nudged toward emergence into a (meta)stable political order.

Here’s a characteristic orienting gesture, from The Prince chapter XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect in Human Affairs and How to Withstand Her:”

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

So much is happening that is not and cannot be under any kind of direct human control. It would be reasonable to give up all hope for intentional action. But he sees free will as one constrained operator within a dynamic field, and on that limited basis it’s worth working out how to be more rather than less effective.

His solution relies first on the pre-stocking of all of the resources, conditions, and happy accidents needed to assemble the new order: a free and virtuous citizenry, custom, law, yes ethics, religion, institutions, checks and balances among the competing power bases. The configuration and interaction of these make up “the spirit of the times:”

I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. Because men are seen, in affairs that lead to the end which every man has before him, namely, glory and riches, to get there by various methods; one with caution, another with haste; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by its opposite; and each one succeeds in reaching the goal by a different method. One can also see of two cautious men the one attain his end, the other fail; and similarly, two men by different observances are equally successful, the one being cautious, the other impetuous; all this arises from nothing else than whether or not they conform in their methods to the spirit of the times.

This is a rudimentary theory of inus (insufficient but nonredundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient) conditions. One size does not fit all. Not only are there many, path dependent ways to skin a cat, but the decision path is itself embedded in a larger dynamic field of supporting and thwarting conditions. Bloody messes are heavily represented in the possibility fan.

Anyone (say, a Prince) who wants to be something like intentionally effective has to orient themselves to existing flows, working with what is already working. Even then, it’s important to clean out as many variables as possible so that the various flows can be channeled together into a metastable, homeostatic order, actively maintained by continuing collective effort:

And this must be taken as a general rule: that never or rarely does it happen that any republic or realm is well-ordered from the beginning, or altogether reformed from its old order, if it is not ordered by one… but a prudent orderer of a republic, if he has this will to benefit not himself but the common good… has to arrange to have this authority alone; nor will a wise mind take issue with any extraordinary action necessary to order a realm or constitute a republic…. [But] if one is appropriate to order things, the order will not last long when it remains on the shoulders of the one, but very well when it remains in the care of many, and when it is up to many to maintain it. Because just as many are not suited to order a thing, due to not knowing its good because of the diverse opinions among them, so once they know it they cannot agree to abandon it.” Discourses, book I, chapter IX.

So what does it mean to be “Machiavellian?” It certainly doesn’t mean to focus on ethics, which are at best a strand of the larger analysis that involved him. I suppose if he thought you could get anything done with ethics, he would have been much more interested in them. But it also doesn’t mean simply being an amoral shill for power. Machiavelli liked republics and liberty very much – they are explicitly the end goal, and his life’s work. But he didn’t think there was anything easy about getting or maintaining them, and that lots of things had to line up to make them possible, none of them conforming to abstract ideals. It’s an old point, older even than Machiavelli, but it bears repeating in whatever ways the spirit of the times call forth. Nowadays we might say he didn’t have the privilege of focusing on ethics.

February 20, 2017

Spitballing the abyss, part deux

by CarlD

Here’s the text I settled on for my part of the Trump in Fayetteville lyceum. I took out most of the snark and some of the handwaving from the first version. (New readers, I recommend the discussion in the comments there.) This one also includes my contribution to what we’re calling the ‘candy round’, where we go against everything we believe as responsible professional historians and take a crack at predicting the future based on the past. I decided for pretty obvious reasons on Berlusconi. Finally, I’ve appended the PowerPoint slides I’ve synced with my text (numbers in parens) as a running paratext. Mostly it’s selected quotes from the interviews themselves, offering ‘evidence’ and commentary.

I’m putting it below the fold so it doesn’t clutter up the blog’s front page.  Continue reading

February 5, 2017

Spitballing the abyss

by CarlD

Last year my colleagues Peter and Patrick and I took our university’s community oral history project to the two local rallies for Donald Trump. We talked with a number of the ralliers in what might be described as a naive, unstructured ethnographic style. Recordings led to transcripts (thanks, Patrick!), and then to a proposal to present our findings as this year’s faculty research lyceum (thanks again, Patrick!). We got the gig.

Each of us has his own take on what is, of course, not so much a ‘data set’ (let alone a ‘representative sample’) as a particular interactive assemblage, a massively contingent co-production. We conducted the interviews as interested parties and with leading ideas about what was happening; we interpret them now with those same ideas and all of the resources of partisanship, prejudice, bias, selective perception, agenda, etc. etc. at our disposal. We are not reliable narrators. But as historians we are used to speaking for the dead. And for the living we think talking with people, taking them seriously, and trying to understand them is better than any alternative we are aware of.

The other thing that’s been on my mind lately is my sabbatical project on the history, theory, and pedagogy of complex adaptive systems. So of course what I’m doing with these interviews is to mash them up with the complex systems stuff. The general question I’m asking of the data then is, ‘How do these folks (seem to) think things work’?

We’ve got about 8 minutes each. Here’s the rough draft I just put together for my partners and the commenters. I’ll be filling in citations and interview quotations next, and I can tweak the whole thing until the actual presentation later this month. So, comment is welcome:


I’m interested in what we think about how things work. When I’m not interviewing Trump ralliers, my research is on the history and theory of societies as complex adaptive systems. People have always noticed that social processes do not seem to correspond very well to simple cause and effect explanations, or to respond very well to simple cause and effect engineering. Social processes routinely go sideways and defy prediction and control, much like the weather. Back at the tail end of the Renaissance Machiavelli warned the Prince about this ‘fortuna’, and some kind of ‘fortune’ or ‘luck’ explanation is one of the more common ways of accounting for the wonkiness of social processes.

We now know that with the weather, even short term unpredictability is because there are many systems actually involved in the ‘weather system’, all of them are active and effective but none of them are in control, they are all oscillating and linked and dynamically interdependent, and there’s lots of feedback that can amplify very small causes into very large effects, or dampen very large causes into very small effects. This disparity between causes and effects is called ‘nonlinearity’. It is characteristic of complex systems, as are self-organization (there is no designing hand at work) and emergence (the whole is more and other than the sum of the parts).

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything, Ike Eisenhower remarked. Despite Machiavelli’s early attunement to the issue and the routine awareness by better leaders and strategists that you have to expect the unexpected, getting serious about grappling with societies as complex systems that work a lot like the weather has been slow going. For one thing, we have a species prejudice that our reasons and intentions are different and more effective kinds of causes than ocean currents and snow melt. And for another, our own evolutionary adaptation disposes us to act on simplifications rather than get lost in complexity. In most action windows there’s not much advantage in prediction or control to be gained by sorting through dozens, hundreds, or thousands of oscillating, interacting, feedbacking variables with massive uncertainty factors, so our default is to make a best guess and take a stab at it. Styles and strategies of guessing distribute across the population and this diversity, like our distribution across the political spectrum, assures that for most processes and contingencies, a bunch of them will be good enough. Sub-optimality is also characteristic of complex systems.

So I was not surprised to find that our interview partners had accounts of how things work that, shall we say, left some things out. At a first pass, they all confidently articulated a crudely simplistic, personalized story of current American politics. Crooked politicians messed things up; immigrants abused our kindness and stole our jobs. Trump will toss the bums out and fix everything. They were strongly focused on individual intention and agency, motivated by personal character, morals, and formal ideas, as their primary explanation for political processes and actions. Systems routinely appeared in their accounts as illegitimately powerful, anonymously personal (“they”), generally malevolent intentional corruptors of wholesome individual action.

Fascinating corollaries included Trump’s personal incorruptibility due to his already having plenty of money of his own, and unquestioning faith in their ability to peer deep into Trump’s soul and detect the authentic care and concern for America there. From a complex systems perspective, their anger at the “rigged system” and eagerness to find a powerful leader to overturn it come into sharp focus as perpetually frustrated and frustrating attempts to enforce legible, predictable linearity on irreducibly non-linear processes. They would have just as much luck understanding how politics work if they believed in witchcraft, fate, or a shadowy global cabal of all-powerful dentists.

I have already said, however, that hurling spitballs at the yawning abyss of complexity is pretty much standard operating procedure. It is hardly a unique failing of these folks, or even a failing at all. Good enough is good enough. And complexity can in fact be managed and engineered down to mere complication or even simple linearity in local settings through rigorous organization and massive effort. Our interview partners all had robust histories in these kinds of engineered systems, and the dispositions to match. They were military and ex-military, nurses, librarians, postal and factory workers. They were mostly religious. They were used to other people having more power than them and making things happen. They were steeped in the everyday strategies of complexity management by orderly hierarchy, leadership, function, and procedure.

But in the parts of the interviews where they were not explaining how they think things work but reflecting on what worried them, a powerful countertext emerged. They perceived only too well the unmanageable complexity of things. It frustrated and terrified them. It kept them up at night and troubled their waking. The uncanny complexity of the world was so far beyond their scope, so realistically out of their reach and uncaring of their wellbeing, so stubbornly resistant to every normal effort and procedure in their experience, so unfair and irrational and amoral, that they lived in anxiety and dread. None of the law, rules, discipline, hard work, the nation, the flag, kittens, puppies, authenticity, guns, and ammo, hold up against the infinite confounds of complexity.

And then Trump said he could fix all that. They knew it was a gamble, and said so. But they were going to hurl him at the abyss and hope.

February 2, 2017

Code switching and complexity

by CarlD

There’s sort of a general theme here at the blog and in my own approach to teaching, life, the universe, and everything: that complexity is the rule; and that observant, resourceful flexibility, a disposition to learning and the ability to code switch, is therefore strategically desirable.

But we’ve also often discussed another strategy, which is to engineer systems that gear down complexity into mere complication, or even rigorously simple linearity. Under the right conditions this can work very well and get a lot done, although maintaining those conditions is generally very costly and ultimately unsustainable.

As I dig through our oral history project’s Trump rally interviews (I’m working on a longer post that will provide more framing information on this), one of the things that is gradually coming into focus is that the Trump rallyers we talked to were explicitly not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity, and that they all had robust histories in systems engineered for linearity (the military, nursing, library science, factory work) with the dispositions to match.

Anecdotally, I don’t think there’s any automatic political valence to this sort of history or disposition. I know plenty of liberals and lefties who are also not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity. Such folk tend to be in charge no matter what. I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a no man’s land between two armies of essentially similar people, fighting bitterly over the details of a narrow, rigid world that I would hate to live in either way.

January 5, 2017


by dyketheelder

We stir, mix, knead, and blend all the time when we’re cooking (or painting, for that matter). We do it to produce uniformity, homogeneity, smoothness, and so on. If you want your pea soup with lumps of ham, and maybe carrots, in it, don’t put it through the blender. If you want a marbled loaf of bread, don’t stir the two batters together too much; just enough to get the fractal dimension of marbling you want. If you want nice smooth gravy, blend it.

If you want nice scrolls and whorls in your Belusov Zabotinski reaction. don’t stir it. If you want a nice smooth martini, stir (or shake) it.

If you don’t want a uniform sea of blank faces in your classroom, don’t impose a system of homogeneity producers in your prerequisites and in your required assignments.

If you want the distinctiveness of your state to make a difference in a presidential election, elect through an electoral college, not a nationwide popular vote.

Everywhere and always there are reasons and pressures to stir, mix, knead and blend, and reasons not to do so. A humble epitome of the nonlinear dynamics we live by.

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by CarlD

It’s now pretty much officially understood that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media feeds promote cognitive bubbling, a subset of what Dyke the Elder just called “ego condoms.” In a way that was presumably much harder when there was just the one corner store and no portable screens to displace awkward neighborly interactions, folks get to select (and have selected for them) their feeds of news, commentary, entertainment, and social interaction for narrow, comforting self-confirmation. Folks think small, and defend their small thinking fiercely. When contaminants rudely break through the latex, the threat of contagion meets with a poorly developed intellectual immune system that has to kick into panic mode to repel the invaders. How’s that for some metaphors.

A current example is the liberal / progressive reaction to the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Donald Trump’s Director of Strategy. Consigliere Bannon was most recently a mastermind of the Trump campaign. Before that he ‘ran’ in some sense the clickbaity right wing news and commentary consortium Breitbart News Network, worked mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs, ran a media investment bank, made celebratory movies about heroes of conservatism, and directed Biosphere 2. Ha.

Bannon is a classic self-made man, working class, Irish Catholic, bootstrappy, with the usual disdain for ‘the Establishment’ and whiners who put their hand out rather than working their way up. Like anyone with this trajectory who takes this attitude, he seems to be completely oblivious to the systemic flows, gates, and filters that selectively advantage the efforts of guys like him, even while skillfully navigating them. We all know a bunch of guys like this. You’d like to be impressed and happy for them if they weren’t so poisonous. These are the people who are in charge now.

The obliviousness to the selectivity of system flows is one ego condom. The reification of ‘the Establishment’ is another. He’s well defended against the paralyzing confounds of complexity. Guys like this succeed not despite their selective perception but because of it. They’re hard points driven at the gaps and fissures of moving targets. All of the metaphors of the phallus and its disciplining apply here.

A lot of the left commentary would like this guy to be scary because he’s a bigot. That is literally the no-brainer response, a pure reflex. A guy like this may well be a bigot but also gives two shits about race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other ego condoms of righteous subalternity. You can be as blackly, gayly transwhatsis as you like, as long as you do it on your own time and don’t try to leverage it against him. You’re as free to be any of those things as you earn for yourself. These are libertarians, not social conservatives, although that’s one of the weirder aggregations of the American right at the moment. They’re brought together by the more than plausible perception that progressive identity politics does, in fact, try to leverage against them, whether it be ‘their’ resources and opportunities or their world view. So I take Bannon himself at his word when he says he’s not racist or sexist or homophobic. To him, all of that is (diagnostically, to be sure) beside the point.

Cognitive latexing against complexity ‘works’, in a pointy kind of way, but of course it comes with consequences. On the left it means we’ll go into the next election cycle still not knowing what hit us or having any idea what to do about it. On the right, among lots of other things you get Bannon.

You may not want to watch this whole video but never fear, I’ve done it for you. Why? Because my own defenses against complexity are poor, so I’m easily distracted. Bannon is actually a smart guy and he’d like to be engaged with the big picture. All that latex though means that the big picture can’t be complex, so he’s got to linearize it. Latex linearity is all over this talk. He tells a story about the heroic history of Judeo-Christian values. He grafts capitalism onto that story without even momentary irony. And here comes the apocalypse: the wealth and opportunity afforded the whole world by Judeo-Christian capitalism is catastrophically imperiled by the huge national debt racked up and then foisted on the common man by the rapacity and cronyism of the Establishment.

We’ve heard this all before. Righteous, angry, frightening certainty around a securely linearized narrative is, as Bannon himself says, one of the most profoundly motivating strategies of being in the world. As is so often the case, this version picks out some things that are more or less true. Bannon is right, he’s just not all the way right. As a linearizer he can’t be all the way right (well, none of us can) but he can be the kind of partly right that ends up being super wrong.

In passing, he’s a little right and then very wrong about the Western Judeo-Christian thing for all the reasons that Kwame Anthony Appiah says better than I could. The consequence of that is a severe truncation of the evolutionary resources that the whole process of historical experimentation has made available to us. Extinction awaits the species that locks itself into a single evolutionary strategy. The dinosaurs are gone but the birds are still with us. Bannon is a tyrannosaurus, which is a cool thing to be until it’s not. Evolution is for the birds.

More importantly he’s also a little bit right about the debt, or rather about how the debt has been played by the various loose assemblages of visionaries, fools, and scoundrels who have gradually over the course of centuries but then with increasing speed in recent times worked out how to make money appear and disappear without material mediation. It’s true, for example, that the numbers are now simply mind-boggling. A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money. Except we’re not. None of the money is real except the stuff regular folks are still expected to buy things with and pay back if it’s borrowed. All of the rest of it moves around and pops into and out of existence in computers in whatever numbers are needed to get stuff done from time to time. “Debt” has always been another name for money, but the point of distinguishing them is now functionally obsolete.

Bannon tells the story of the crash of 2008 and its bailout as the story of enormous debt being created that is yet to be accounted for and paid back. What actually happened is that the people who do money finally figured out almost all the way that they could just invent as much of it as they needed to settle things down and get on with being rich. And that’s what they did. Overnight. Several trillion dollars, by fiat. Many more trillions since then, as Bannon says. And it worked. It settled things right down, and it’s still out there being money.

In fact there’s so much money now no one knows what to do with it all. It’s parked in the zeros and ones of offshore computers, waiting for someone to have a bright idea. And still they make more, with no inflation because unlike Zimbabwe and Germany after WW 1, nobody but the latex apocalysts even begins to doubt the robustness of the underlying system. Money that was not borrowed, but flat invented. Money so fungible it makes money pointless. Making people pay for things, and especially making people pay for the money of debt, is at this point just a bad habit. It doesn’t even make the wealthy any wealthier – they can just write themselves on that many zeros and ones any time they like. It’s all counted with machine precision but it doesn’t need to be accounted for, and unless we get really unfathomably stupid, it never needs to be paid back because it was never taken from anywhere it needs to be paid back to.

Unfortunately this is exactly the unfathomable stupidity that Bannon is flogging. We’ve just finally demonstrated conclusively that there’s as much money as we need for whatever we think we need. Right now only ‘the Establishment’ are benefiting fully from that; we can be angry about that together. But we’re literally one evolutionary step from the regime of shared plenty, and the tyrannosaurus wants to collapse plenty into austerity. He wants to haul us back to the horrifying constraints of the gold standard and the poor house.

The problem is that there is literally no way for a linearizer to see this. The new money is an effective abstraction. It’s not causally tied to any material antecedent. It’s not produced by work, or ingenuity, or great stores of gold, or any other tangible whatsis. It’s no longer even indexing the wealth and power of any one nation state. It is enabled by the complexity of the global economy. It is supported by an enormous network of official and unofficial actors, all of them entrained to an accounting regime that completely by accident emerged, first vulnerably in places like Ireland and Greece and then invulnerably in the U.S., into a self-organizing, self-sustaining global guarantor of value. It’s a system that’s big enough and rich enough to effortlessly support a fine standard of living for the kind of global population we’d have if everyone was happy and secure, although right now it’s mostly just driving the left side of the Pareto distribution to ridiculous heights. A Hayek with his market emergence might have been able to wrap his mind around this, although he didn’t buy Keynes’ first rumblings. But it can only baffle and enrage a vulgar fetishist of individual striving like Bannon.

Bannon wants to bring back the jobs and get people working again. Oh for the good old days when America was more separately and tangibly great. This in an environment where our machines have increasingly displaced necessary labor, and where most of us ‘work’ at exchanging optional services in a way that makes the discourses of productivity a cruel joke. Why would we want to bring back jobs? The old folks and historical re-enactors can do whatever jobs they want to while the rest of us figure out what to do with all this time we’ll have on our hands. Make steel, if we like, or not. Learn things and share them with each other. Do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as we have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

We live in interesting times. The possibility fan includes the worlds of the apocalysts of the left and right, frightened and enraged and weirdly empowered by complexity and change, declaring doom and retreating to a cramped, sustainable austerity. It also includes pushing forward into this new regime that has now fully matured right under our noses. I’d like to think the latter is inevitable but in fact it’s not – the Stephen Effin Bannons of the world actually hold it in their power to enforce their cramped, austere, linear image on the world by decoupling the linkages that make the new order possible. This is now what’s at stake. Everything else is the tail trying to wag the dog.

November 15, 2016


by dyketheelder

In some classroom, at some point twenty or thirty years ago, undoubtedly with the catalytic aid of some students, I invented the concept of the ego condom. Things like that happen when your classroom is relaxed and free flowing.  For instance, in a similar way in a similar setting (with the aid (goading) of Amy and Janelle, as I remember) the concept of the sexual outyowindow emerged. Amy: “Was that a sexual innuendo? Reply: “No, that was a sexual outyowindow.” Far too gross and blatant to be an inyowindow — however unintended.  Not very profound, but I’ll get back to it later. Meanwhile back to the ego condom.

An ego condom is a device for protecting a vulnerable ego from socially engendered damage. When fully understood, and generalized, it turns out that ego condoms are so plural and so ubiquitous that the concept spins off into virtual vacuity. In fact, they’re major staples of human personality. However, the concept was invented in the context of the philosophy of science, and in that context the concept can do some work. That is, the concept fits a particular sort of situation — such as the following:

Carl and I are currently reading Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. Without going into the details, the book is a work of advocacy. It proposes to insert chemiosmosis, Peter Mitchell’s theory of bioenergetics, into the core of evolutionary theory, now dominated by replication and information. Mitchell received a (1973) Nobel for the theory, but it has never gained the general ascendancy of the post-Watson and Crick lines of thought. Now, I first ran into Mitchell’s theory in the ’80’s. Bruce Weber, a friend, writing colleague, and biochemist, was a strong advocate for Mitchell. A group of us talked a lot about how Mitchell’s discoveries might find a central place in evolutionary thinking. I remember it being pretty hard going, especially for me at that particular stage of my ignorance. At any rate, at the time, and for a long time, Mitchell’s views remained essentially unnoticed in evolutionary discourse. In reading Lane’s book I thought again, for the first time in a long time, about how and why Mitchell’s views could be ignored.

That sort of question always leads to a plurality of intersecting hypotheses, some subset of which eventually stand as a sort of answer. Within the subset ego condoms insinuate themselves. My own advocacy here is to urge that when confronted with such questions, ego condoms are a profitable component of the search for answers. Hunt for them, and you get a long way toward understanding the dialectical structure of science. They never by a long shot ever give you a full answer, but they help “deconvolute” the tangle of answers you end up with. And it almost always is a tangle, since ego condoms are never orthogonal to more “scientific” factors, but live in these factors like viruses. In Cosmopolitics Isabel Stengers works out these issues very elegantly with respect to the fate of Prigogine’s theories.

Well, then, give us an example of an ego condom.

I’ve hoped that you might have thought of some candidates of your own, by now, but I’ll take a look at one of the most obvious and ubiquitous: dick waving. Of course in these days we’ll have to find another identifying phrase, what with the emergence of more and more high quality women at the forefront of science; and ego condoms turn out to be unisex. (The image of Leslie Nielsen keeps flashing, as it were, into my mind.) “Dick waving”, incidentally, is an obvious example — at least in this context — of a sexual outyowindow. As I said, we’ll get back to that. Meanwhile, one of the most common formulae of dick waving is “We scientists …”. I’m pretty sure that the ego condom first emerged in my Cosmology class, and with respect to Brian Greene, a chronic dick waver. The issue is the reversibility or irreversibility of cosmological dynamical equations — a central issue for Prigogine and Stengers, of course. Greene is a champion of reversibility.  He has lots of company. He also is aware of the sensitivity and instability of his position. So in one of his books (one of the many versions of his book, all re-titled) he defends reversibility by a “We scientists …”.

As Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean “we”, white man?” Greene is cuddling his ego in an orthodoxy that he deems or hopes is strong enough to protect him in his position; but in my “Prigoginian”view, he’s succeeded in making the instability, hence his vulnerability, more obvious. If you want to understand current cosmological theory, it’s good to see that. It opens questions and problematizes issues that might otherwise be swept under the rug.

Now, as tacitly promised, political correctness: the hegemony of the Puritan constabulary. I think that’s a disease we could all die from. Recent politics confirms me in that judgment. The attempt to sterilize social and political discourse is the ultimate ego condom. The establishment of mutual respect and understanding is a, if not the, major problem we face. I don’t think that mutual understanding and respect can live very long in the face of the sterilization of our available discursive space. I know for a fact that any education that conduces to mutual understanding and respect can’t live under that regime. It may sound trivial to say that we need classroom climates where “sexual outyowindow”, and “ego condom”, and “dick waving as a rhetorical strategy” can emerge, but intellectual freedom and productive pathways to answers depend on exactly that climate. If you think that some people are hurt, and many others made uncomfortable, in that climate, you’re right. In fact, it’s traditional; and the reason the tradition must be promoted and defended, for the alternative is not only painful, but deadly. Ironically, Donald and the millions he has captured show us just that. Matched against a gutless, self-protective alternative, they showed us the result of generations of denial and self-sanctimony that have denied space for converting festering disagreement and resentment into any sort of mutual project of understanding and respect. The prime minister of Malaysia epitomized the election as the rebellion of those who were left behind. Obviously they weren’t just left behind, but also actively excluded by those with a deep grained sense of their own superiority. But that sense of superiority among the educated while elite is hard to defend in the world that’s emerged from colonialisms internal and external, so default to preventive sterilization — intellectual eugenics. Intellectual space has more and more been taken over by ego condoms. As in the case of the sciences, the recognition of these protective devices, and especially their fragility, can be helpful.



October 31, 2016

Let the tool do the work

by CarlD

is my bid for best advice that’s hard to follow.

As an incurable tamperer I have a million instances on mental file, but currently it’s hammers in relation to staples as I tack field wire onto an old post and rail fence to prepare a pasture for the pigs we just got. It’s amazing how well a hammer works when you just let it do its thing; and it’s amazing how many ways wire and staple can get messed up, but also just how much more exhausting the job immediately gets when you don’t.

So the rubric is: best advice that’s hard to follow. Any other favorites?

October 14, 2016

The recombinant DNA of our political discourse

by CarlD

I’m forging slowly and painfully through John H. Holland’s Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2014). I’m going to recommend it, but it’s tough going for me because Holland comes at complex adaptive systems from an engineering and computer science perspective. The approach is computational, so I would imagine tremendously congenial to Asher and perhaps JohnM. Whereas I can work it out (thanks, John), but it’s way out of my silo. I’m a house painter, not a pigment chemist, Jim. Consider a passage like this, from Chapter 5, which took me about an hour to decode:

To get a more precise view of the routing possibilities for tags, let’s look again at the use of #s to define the conditions for signal-processing rules (introduced at the beginning of Chapter 4). A condition can be set to respond to a given tag by using #s (don’t cares) on either side of the tag; thus the condition #100### … # responds to a signal string with tag 100 at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions of the string. Note that a condition with many #s can accept a variety of tags while a condition with few #s will accept few if any tags (requiring a specific string when it has no #s). Or, looking at tags themselves, short tags satisfy a variety of conditions, while long tags make highly specific requirements on conditions.

“Don’t cares?” Wah? And then he does some tables and stuff to show how the routing and recombination of tags happens, creating emergence. Which normally I’d ignore and wait for the explication in words, only then the words assume I have a basic understanding of how binary works; and although I do, I also kind of don’t. My balls are not making it through the urn gates, if you get my drift.

“If you’re not bringing math skills to the problem [of climate change],” [Bill Gates] said with a sort of amused asperity, “then representative democracy is a problem.”

So as usual I resort to a kind of rough and ready translation, to find enough cognitive overlap with something familiar where I can get a handle on what I’m being told. Which, if I understand correctly (but how could I, given this cludgy workaround), in itself corresponds to what Holland is saying about how information tagging works, and the emergence of something like knowledge. And because of the election and the work I’ve been doing to try to bridge the various discourse communities I interact with, the something familiar I go to is politics.

I’m especially interested in, roughly speaking, the information content of political discourse. I surf a lot of short-form information streams, ranging from domestic and foreign press and commentary (Atlantic, Guardian, Jacobin, Baffler, Breitbart, Red State, etc.) to online affinity groups (Sanford / Lee County Truth Seekers) to Facebook statuses. I interview Trump ralliers for my department’s oral history project. I talk with neighbors and friends. None of this is meant to be scientific or in any way dispositive; I’m just grazing.

What I find is that American political discourse seems like it could be usefully analogized to DNA. There isn’t actually that much divergence or diversity of original information. You can get almost anything said by rearranging and elaborating on a few basic concepts like individual, community, threat, and opportunity. DNA is just four proteins, CGAT. That’s plenty. How they’re arranged is what actually does the work, all the way up to thoughts about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Analysis of complex systems almost always turns on finding recurring patterns in the system’s ever-changing configurations (Holland).

There’s nothing new about ‘reducing’ political discourse to unit ideas. Recall George Lakoff boiling American politics down to basic orienting metaphors of the family: authoritarian father and nurturing parent. But those are already speciated information complexes, and as the subsequent commentary has shown, highly vulnerable to complexifying analysis. He’s missing the rearrangement step. It’s like if he said, “Over there you have monkeys, whereas here are the humans.” And because the matter is in motion, just about everyone turns out to be a missing link.

It is unusual for CAS agents to converge, even momentarily, to a single ‘optimal’ strategy, or to an equilibrium. As the agents adapt to each other, new agents with new strategies usually emerge. Then each new agent offers opportunities for still further interactions, increasing the overall complexity (Holland).

 So here is a human interaction I wrote about on Facebook the other day:

I don’t suppose I’m hiding my disdain for Trump and (qualified) support for Clinton very well. And yes, I think there is a lot of bad stuff you have to ignore or explain away to be excited about either of them, but so much more so with Trump that there’s no reasonable comparison.

But the world keeps turning. Yesterday I was clearing two big trees that fell across our driveway when two pickups pulled in and spilled out neighbors we hadn’t met yet, equipped with big chainsaws and neighborly fellowship. A job that would have taken me an hour took us ten minutes, and then off they went looking for more people to help.

The conversation made it clear they were Trump supporters – pretty much all our neighbors are – but I liked them very much and not just because they were helping me. They were no nonsense and capable, thoughtful and droll.

It sort of amazes me that good folks like this can’t or won’t scale their sense of helping out to the national level. I know that who needs help, and when, and by whom, and for how long, is a complicated question. Why people need help is even more complicated. Unless it’s a tree across the driveway. On that we can agree.

What does this agreement mean? Holland says that what I’m going to call understanding, which is a transformed relationship to the world, comes from the kinds of overlap that enable exchange, and that change emerges routinely from these swaps.

It has been observed that innovation in CAS is mostly a matter of combining well-known components in new ways (Holland).

So one overlap in my story is “chainsaw,” and it’s actually a critical one for this particular interaction. There’s even political information of a kind in it, since owning your own chainsaw and being usefully skilled with it express a position in and relationship to the world. These guys got a lot more comfortable once they saw me whacking off limbs and logs without a lot of fuss, and vice versa. This overlap then enabled later bantering swaps in which we explored (scant) overlaps in our gender and family systems via their assumption that my hatchback, trapped behind the trunks at the bottom of the driveway, must be my wife’s car. The rescuing the little lady narrative got weird for a second. It got ok again once it was the commute vehicle, and a diesel, and we could talk about retrofitting an electrical fuel pump on old Jettas to improve reliability.

The guys were grandfather, father, and son. Grandpa mostly sat and watched, Dad ran the main saw (he said they had “bar and bow,” which I didn’t properly understand until he pulled out his rig, learning and growing),


and Son sort of puttered around moving cut branches. In the following conversation, Dad talked modestly about a life of extraordinary accomplishment as a builder, mechanic, and entrepreneur. Son had the same easy feel of quality but turned out to be one of the completely useless young men I’ve written about before. He’s got a degree in History, so we overlapped there, and on our assessment that no one in their right minds would go into teaching in the current educational environment. Just a whole lot of overlap there, to be honest. He noticed my Farm Bureau Insurance cap and connected it to his pragmatic pursuit of insurance agent certification. There were no illusions about the redeeming value of this occupation, and here Dad made a crack about getting right with Obamacare and the mirage of “free” insurance, which is one of the branching tags of our current politics.

OK, so this is a blog post and can’t noodle around in anecdote forever. What about the recombinant DNA of our political discourse? The overlapping tags for us were the American classics: community, individual, opportunity, threat. In some sense we agreed on all the basics; that is, our ideas were composed of the same elements. Our political divergence was in those tags’ recombination across different environmental and developmental histories. In the right situation we could get the community and opportunity tags to overlap pretty robustly, but what became clear is that for a whole range of situations, that was not the effective exchange zone, branched especially by where we put the threat tags.

Roughly speaking and allowing for all the partial overlaps, conflations, and plain misses I think this is basically right, but I’m no more sure it’s usefully right than noticing that monkeys, apes, and humans share 98% of their DNA, or whatever it is. As Holland might say the vocabulary needs the grammar to emerge into meaning. On the other hand there’s always that idea of kinship that’s so easy to lose in our biological and political discussions. It’s not that conservatives don’t have the individual tag, it’s that it’s assembled differently with the community and threat tags. We could work with that, maybe. And as usual this is me thinking out loud where, if we can get the tags to overlap, others might be interested to think with me.

September 15, 2016

Philosophy’s Reason Problem

by Asher Kay

There was a decent column on NYT's The Stone blog today. Yeah, I was surprised too. Robert Burton, a neurologist, neuroscientist and popular science author was discussing the problem that Philosophy has letting go of Reason:

Going forward, the greatest challenge for philosophy will be to remain relevant while conceding that, like the rest of the animal kingdom, we are decision-making organisms rather than rational agents, and that our most logical conclusions about moral and ethical values can’t be scientifically verified nor guaranteed to pass the test of time.

Burton makes some good points in the piece, but he doesn't offer a lot in the way of solutions. It might be fun to think about what a solution would look like.

Like so many of the misconceptions that Philosophy can't seem to get past, I'm inclined to lay this one at the feet of Immanuel Kant, who probably did as much to send Philosophy veering off in the wrong direction as Freud did for Psychology.

Without getting long-winded about it, Kant was keen to refute Hume's conclusion that inductive reasoning from experience was the only way we really acquired knowledge. To attack the problem, Kant separated judgements along two axes: the a priori/a posteriori axis and the analytic/synthetic axis. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is that the former takes place "prior to experience" and the latter are grounded in experience. The difference between analytic and synthetic judgements is that the former work only with information present in the propositions being reasoned about and thus don't create "new" knowledge, while the latter bring new information in. Kant combined these axes to produce four kinds of judgements: a posteriori analytic, a posteriori synthetic, a priori analytic, and a priori synthetic. The kind of judgement which Kant felt would refute Hume, if it existed, was the a priori synthetic judgement. If we could reason, without reference to experience, in a way that would produce new knowledge, Hume's depressing thesis would be wrong.

The fact that of his four categories, one – a posteriori analytic judgements – couldn't exist, and another – a priori synthetic – didn't obviously exist should have been a red flag that he was thinking about it wrong. But maybe we should cut him a break. My sense, after reading a lot of philosophy from this time period, is that the concept of "experience" was not particularly clear or well-formed. The ghost of Avicenna's Floating Man was still pretty regularly rattling windows and knocking things off Philosophy's bookshelves in Kant's time (hell, he's still kicking around today).

A modern, physicalist view would reject the a priori/a posteriori distinction altogether. Avicenna's Floating Man would have a brain with zero input, and we know that such a brain would probably not operate at all, let alone do any predicate logic. Thought itself – including reason – is driven by stimulus, and there is no real way to separate perception from reasoning, except with respect to a rough taxonomy of mental activity. Both reason and perception depend upon the patterned activity of a brain impinged upon over long periods of time by a consistent physical universe that enables it to transcode, record and model its consistencies.

When Burton talks about the "void" that would be left in Philosophy if reason were abandoned, I'm reminded of the fear of nihilism that lurks behind arguments for moral realism. If there is no real foundation for moral truths, it whispers, then the whole ediface falls and we are left with a morality in which "anything goes". It's the same fear that Camus walked right up to and flipped the bird at in his discussion of absurdity. And it was a bird that needed flipping.

It's not really Reason that's losing its footing in Philosophy. It's not just a perception problem. It's realism.

The fact is that the nihilism of "anything goes" is a false fear. Anything doesn't go. Anything hardly even gets started going. Our physical universe constrains us to a knife's edge of possibilities, and our biological structures constrain us even further. We can't escape the survival instinct or our range of tastes any more than we can escape gravity or the temperature range our bodies can withstand.

So the solution to Philosophy's problem is a weaker, less absolute concept of reason, and a weaker, less absolute realism that recognizes that what we wanted to be a foundation is really just a strong, consistent, persistent set of constraints.

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by CarlD

One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!

In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.

So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.

A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularismSecularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.

Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.

What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.

All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.

Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.

But no, look, not complex systems, complex systemsComplex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.

Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.

May 17, 2016

Replace starter and front shocks on 1992 Chevy S10

by CarlD

I just did this job, and because I didn’t find much specific help on the internet, and because I learned some things while doing it, I’m leaving notes here in case they help someone else later. I am not a mechanic, so this is strictly diy stuff.

The starter is an easy job. What was hard for me was figuring out how to make it an easy job. That took two days. Once I figured it out, the job itself took maybe an hour. Here’s what I figured out:

  1. Unbolt the flywheel cover
  2. Get as much slack as you can on the wires

That’s it. Compared with the starter, the shocks were really easy. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Be ready to cut the top nut off

OK, now if you’re interested here’s my story, starting with the starter. The shop manual and the internet both explain the job in a sentence or two. Unbolt the starter; disconnect the wires; installation is the reverse of these steps. All of that is true, but unhelpful. Almost as unhelpful as this video:

The reason it’s unhelpful is because the starter is puzzle-pieced into this tiny space on the passenger side between the engine and the frame and the shock mount. You have to come at it from underneath. The two mounting bolts themselves are easy enough to access and remove, but then actually physically pulling the starter out is amazingly difficult. With the solenoid on top and the wires connected the range of motion is very small, the shapes are eccentric and ill-matching, everything catches on everything else, and the business end is wedged into the flywheel housing. And if you’re lying on your back with your arms all cramped up and only really room to bring one hand into play, well. And it’s heavy, so it keeps trying to drop out of the tiny little manipulation zone. Let’s just say it was only by sheer stubbornness and unfathomable luck that I got the thing out of there, after having at it and taking breaks to not yell and break things and looking for guidance on the internet (to be honest, I did not watch every available video, so I may have missed the perfect one. Because I prefer to read my instructions and I can only take so much of guys with great hands and senses of spatial relations but primitive people skills stumbling through endless inane introductory remarks followed by stilted explanations in that dumb teacher voice they all think they have to do; see above).

AutoZone had a cheap remanufactured starter with a lifetime warranty in stock. They insisted on testing the old one, because for some reason the tech thought he couldn’t sell me a new one if the old one still worked. Well of course, the old one spun right up on the bench. Between the shop manual and the internet I had worked out that the probable problem was a faulty overrunning clutch, which as I understand it was keeping the spin from being translated from the starter to the flywheel. (Interestingly, the encouragement to just go ahead and replace the starter for this fault came from a forum thread of military guys talking about the same problem with their humvees. I think – the jargon was pretty thick.) I told the tech this and he contrived to get a fail out of his rig somehow, and he winked at me and sold me the starter. So that was day one.

Day two, I’m back under the truck trying to recapture lightning in a bottle and get the new unit back up in by whatever miraculous path I got the old one out. Nothing, no chance. The exit and return paths are not symmetrical. You can either have the wires connected or you can have the starter in position, but you can’t have both. When they’re connected the wires take in just enough of the range of motion to defeat insertion. But the solenoid is positioned on the top of the unit, buried between the frame and the engine, which meant there was just no way I could see or read about to get the wires connected once it was in place. Which doesn’t stop numerous web sources from helpfully explaining to insert the starter, then connect the wires.

Around this point the friendly old local guy who comes and fishes our pond sometimes stopped by for a chat. He saw I was working on the truck and a long conversation ensued, extolling the virtues of Chevy trucks and reminiscing about the ones he’s had. In the course of this, he learned that I was working on the starter and his face broke all out in sympathy. Nasty job, tiny spaces, did it on his daughter’s Pinto once and practically had to take the engine out to get at it. So that made me feel a little better, because honestly I was starting to think that I was just being stupid somehow in a way I didn’t even know how to notice.

I’m not equipped to remove the engine. I don’t even have a floor jack to loosen mounts and move it around where it is. So back to the internet, playing search term roulette. Here is where I turned up the suggestion on some discussion forum or other to remove the flywheel cover. The usual laconic gear yoda, who explained there are four bolts, two up two down, then swing the something something out of the way. Well on my truck, I could get at the four bolts (plus another on the clip for some rigid conduit that wasn’t going anywhere but wasn’t fatally obstructive); but I wasn’t seeing anything I could swing out of the way, and as far as I could tell I’d have to remove the exhaust to get the cover all the way off. Which is a whole other level of never mind. However, taking the bolts out freed the cover to move a bit in place and gave me a half inch or so more wiggle room, which made a lot of difference for getting the business end of the starter up and in. Not quite enough, as it happened, so that was day two.

Day three dawned and I’d been doing some thinking. The wires were now the problem. Is there a tool that would allow me to reach in and attach the wires while the starter is in place? Someone sensible on a forum pointed out that if you need some heroic tool to do a job like this, you’re probably doing the job wrong. So I committed to what I knew about why I couldn’t get it done, and I went back in from the front side of the engine to see if there was any way to get even just a little more slack on the wires, so I could get the unit in with them attached. Well the ignition wire was already maxed out, and part of a harness I wouldn’t want to have to mess with at my skill level. But I could pop a couple of clips and get a little more play from the battery wire. And that turned out to be just barely enough to slide the sucker right in, as if it weren’t no thing. Put everything back together, squinted real hard, turned the key, and it started right up. No need for shims, for which I was grateful.

Total elapsed time: chunks of three days. Total effective job time to unbolt the flywheel cover, loosen the battery wire, remove and replace the starter, and tighten everything back up (not counting the AutoZone trip): about an hour.

As for the shocks, I knew from very little research that the top nuts could be frozen. Which they both were. So after giving WD40 a fair chance on both sides, I went to work with the Sawzall and a cold chisel. The saw was a bit fiddly again because of tight spaces, so I wasn’t able to align for an optimal cut, which is why I had to finish up with the chisel. But all that took about five minutes a side.

Then, I had read that you need something to compress the shock while bolting it back in at the bottom. Another place a floor jack would have come in handy. But for what it’s worth, I was able to do it by hand with some heaving and grunting. It was just a matter of shoving the shock up with one hand and getting one bolt started with the other, then using that one to tighten down enough to get the other one in. So now the truck doesn’t wallow, which was sort of charming really, except it made my wife seasick.

Why did I do it? The farm is already full of learning curves. My friend Patrick keeps telling me about my pay grade and just letting fellow pros do their thing. Which I mostly agree with. But with it being summer, the opportunity costs of my time are pretty elastic. And we saved maybe $500-$600 altogether, which is not trivial ever, but especially when the refi is still in process and we have all sorts of farm equipment and supplies to spool up. Plus we don’t have a trusted new mechanic at our new place, and at the end of the semester I was in no brain for the kinds of social situations that search involves. Finally, I just like that I can do it and I did do it. Not every time, certainly, but some times. Like blogging!

March 23, 2016

Peeled garlic, burned rice

by CarlD

This morning Rachel left at 6:30 as usual to get to Chapel Hill in time for her 8am sculpture class. I got up somewhat later. I checked the chicks and cleared the shavings and shit out of their water dispenser. Then I took Mo the porch dog for a long walk by the pond and around the big field.

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2015-11-29 13.59.112015-07-20 13.14.20

Then I let the the goats, Zilla and Toots, and their herd dog Bumbles out of their stall and led them over to their pasture for the day. Everyone got pets, and Zilla tried to eat my jacket.

Next I dug and cleaned some cat’s ear for the adult chickens and collected the egg they laid overnight. Fed Mo. And chores done, time to feed me too. I decided on potato pancakes with fresh eggs and veggies. Which brings me to the peeled garlic.

Peeling garlic almost always reminds me of my friend Minu. She was a fellow adjunct in the Sociology Department at Cal State Hayward (now East Bay). We used to go out together for snacks and chat. She was smart and interesting, and we would usually share the nachos, and she would order a big side of jalapenos and eat them like candy.

Eventually she invited me to her house for a meal and to meet her husband Ashok. Incidentally, Minu and Ashok were my first (as far as I know) acquaintances whose marriage had been arranged. She taught me a lot by contrasting that system favorably with self-selected, romantic marriage, which she pointed out was a recipe for disaster compared to letting older, wiser people who knew you well make a considered choice of life partner. I certainly didn’t get my own love life in order until I was older and, erm, wiser. And for what it’s worth, I observed a warmly affectionate couple with some of the usual mutual tics and irritations. Yup, lots of ways can work, and not work.

I asked if I could do anything to help with the cooking, and Minu gave me the garlic to peel. I proudly remember her being impressed that I had half of it peeled while she was still deciding whether she needed to tell me how to peel garlic. So having established my bona fides, when she stepped out for a couple more ingredients she asked me to watch the rice.

At this point Ashok suggested we play some chess (I have since detected a little pattern with Indian men and chess). Whereupon, absorbed in the complications of holding up my end at chess against a much more skilled opponent, and sorting out a relationship on the fly with Ashok as both a person and the husband of a colleague, I completely forgot the rice. And it burned.

When she returned, Minu was disappointed but hospitable about it. I’ll admit that I don’t remember the meal at all, although I’m sure it was delightful. I was already well on my way to being overwhelmed by permutations of awkward and failed sociability in at least two cultures, so once the rice burned I suspect I clicked into some kind of minimally functional autopilot.

In my usual intellectualizing way, it’s always seemed to me there was much to learn here about social interaction, ritual, and gender. Various norms were enacted, complicated, and violated. But mostly, I remain deeply sad and embarrassed and sorry that I burned the rice.

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by CarlD

Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.

What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.

So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”

It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)

Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.

But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).

So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.

But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.

(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)

The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.

The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.

P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.

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.