Playing limpy

by CarlD

That’s what my friend Tom in grad school called the kind of PITA I’ve just discussed as strategic incompetence. In the field of education this game is sometimes what Geertz called ‘deep play‘ (pdf), in which the provision, seeking, and evasion of education are about much more than just the transmission of skills and knowledge. In ‘honor’ of me, my students, my colleagues and our administrators as an exciting new academic year fixes to open, here are a couple of videos:

The first is courtesy of Donna, with whom I play mixed doubles. Her job is to design computer tutorials for a big corporate law firm so that the attorneys can actually use the fancy software the IT guys afford them. We’ve bonded over the unique kind of stupid highly specialized professionals can be. The second leverages my favorite metaphor for the same thing.

The real horrors of education are not brought by people (teachers, administrators, students) who are just plain dumb. They’re doing their best, bless them, we help as we can. Intelligent people may also just disagree about priorities and practices. No worries there. Talents differ; this can be worked with. No, it’s people whose smarts and talents are blocked or diverted somehow that buckle one’s knees and blur one’s vision.

When irrational waste is occurring Geertz tells us to look for ways in which people’s sense of social honor is at stake. Sometimes the particular equipment in play — cocks, novels, philosophical systems, histories, footballs — is far less important to the players than “the dramatization of status concerns.” Certainly we can see this logic being played out in the Olympic games — how else to explain the enormous economic and political capital being spent over dubious accomplishments soon forgotten? A “status bloodbath,” as Geertz quotes Goffman. But can we see this sort of game being played in our own meetings, hallways and classrooms?

Btw, in a nice irony, Geertz’ famous article is apparently so often and stereotypically assigned as a paper topic that several of the top google hits for it are commercial plagiarism sites.


10 Responses to “Playing limpy”

  1. I love the IT video. The males in my family don’t understand anything mechanical or electronic and always take the stance that it’s the designers, not us, who are to blame, so I can relate to the frustrated user of biblio-technology.

    I like your argument that incompetence not due solely to inability is typically related to status issues–though I might frame the argument psychologically rather than sociologically. I think there’s also another category, i.e. those who have such a passion for one thing that they don’t do the mental processing that is required for a minimally adequate performance in any other areas of life. Some people seem chronically in that state, whereas others only periodically so. When in my teens and twenties I got so fascinated with some books that I read them rather than sleep, study, bathe, etc., was I really doing so to enhance my status vis a vis others? I certainly did plenty to deal with status issues, but those activities seem to be of a different sort.

  2. Great point, Bob, I think you’re right. And I suspect that your category can be further subdivided (perhaps as a continuum) into the mono-talented, the serially passionate, and the true OCD. Then there are the functionally hyperspecialized professionals, e.g. us and attorneys, who like queen ants (or teenagers) are surrounded by an army of workers tasked with the various enabling functions that make our splendorous single-mindedness possible.

    Another great example: at Savage Minds Rex has been reflecting on Olympic athletes along these lines:

    “Everytime I see a swimmer dive into the water at the start of a race I sort of imagine them being shot out of a gun composed of trainers, family, friends, swimsuit manufacturers, and chlorine manufacturers. Anthropology, I think, would insist that individual performance is the result of collective effort.”

    Amen. Is the same true of individual non-performance?

  3. I’m sure it is. In my practice, I’ve had a chance to get acquainted with plenty of non-performers, and pretty much without exception they have to share credit with a supporting cast, referred to especially for the substance abuse variant as “enablers.”

    I like the image of the swimmer and his or her supporting cast. The idea of the overspecialized person is just the notion of civilization taken to an extreme, though; doesn’t being civilized mean being incompetent in some areas?

  4. In that context it’s odd, isn’t it, to call them ‘enablers’ and not ‘disablers’. But the question is always ‘able to do what’ in relation to a process of training, so I guess one can’t be disabled if one was never abled in the first place.

    Your second point is exactly what Durkheim says in The Division of Labor, but it’s also funny to think about in terms of a commonplace about the emergence and definition of civilizations, that they produce monumental architecture (that is, architecture whose function is symbolic, not immediately pragmatic). So in terms of the division of labor academics, artists and other hyperspecialized virtuosi are like palaces and cathedrals: nice to look at, but hideously expensive and hard to live in/with.

  5. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  6. Welcome and thanks, Sandra! Looking forward to hearing more from you as the spirit moves you.


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