Author Archive

August 15, 2019

The origins of shovels

by Carl Dyke

If you have some shit to shovel and because you’re shoveling shit you pause to wax philosophical, and the question is “where do shovels come from,” “the Home Depot” is in some ways a good and correct answer but also not even close to a good and correct answer.

July 1, 2019

Complexity and clay soil

by Carl Dyke

From time to time I’ll post things here from the works of Dyke the Elder (Chuck Dyke). This one is from his series of reflections on Hesiod in collaboration with his friend Yrjö Haila:

Just to fill in some of the blanks on clay soil. Hesiod leaves a lot to be said on the topic. My direct experience with Mediterranean soil is all from Italy, with basically volcanic soil the norm, and sandy soil in second place. Of course we know there’s clay in the area (Crete): it would be hard to account for all the pottery otherwise. The sources simply say that clay was readily available everywhere, with some better than other because of the presence of particular metals.

Clay is also readily available all over my property. In fact, Bucks county is famous for its clay soil. Yrjo is absolutely right about the waterlogging issue so we’ll start there. Our clay soil, left to itself has two attractor states: mud, and adobe — unbaked brick. So something has to be done about it. How much has to be done depends on scale and crop. Acres and acres of feed corn (maize), as well as sweet corn, are still grown all around my area, even though the dairy farms have all but disappeared. Probably by now everyone knows what varieties to plant for high clay conditions, so the corn is successful most of the time. But for obvious reasons, either excessive wet, or drought, or both will give you a bad year. The excessive wet is worst in the Spring, because you can’t get your equipment into the fields to prepare them. There’s hardly anything more character building than getting your tractor in up to the hubs in waterlogged clay, and having to somehow pull it out. So the farmers are always moaning about the “late Spring”. The droughts are a late July and August phenomenon. Even if you’ve been lucky enough to plant your corn in good time, and it’s thrived to the point where it’s knee high or taller, midsummer drought can stop its growth in its tracks. Of course irrigation is an option – but watch out. If you irrigate and it then starts to rain, you may not be able to get your equipment into the field for harvesting.

One of the most conspicuous consequences of climate change around here is that, in effect, the seasons have precessed a month. What you used to be able to do in March, you now do in April; and what you used to have to do in October can now wait until November. (I’m writing this on March 19. Yesterday I tried to get some things done outside, but the ground is still frozen, and the temperature below freezing.) As we’ll see in a moment, I can wait, though not patiently, but the farmers are already getting edgy.

About five years ago it became obvious that if I was going to be able to get a good start in the Spring, I’d have to do something about the excessive wet. It was showing signs of being the new norm. Now, it has to be remembered that I’m growing things on a significantly different scale from that of the farmers. Strategies are available for me that would make little or no sense for them. So I dug a drainage trench across the bottom edge of the garden: deep enough to affect the drainage from the plot, and in a position that would considerably increase run-off. It’s made a big difference: several weeks, I think. Sure enough, the excessive wet has become the norm – something I can reasonably count on. We’ll see in the next month or so ….

However, the best thing I could do, at my scale, was improve the clay soil by adding large amounts of organic fertilizer. In the old days, especially when there were many dairy farms, the farmers could do the same, as Hesiod could have done. These days they use chemical fertilizers almost exclusively. Thus they lose the contributions to soil texture that organic fertilizers provide. But what with all the manure, compost, and organic mulch I use, I’ve been able to reduce (over forty-odd years) the clay-ness of the soil, as it were. It doesn’t make as good adobe bricks as it used to, but roots have an easier time growing through it. The good black dirt is by now about 8 to 10 inches deep in the garden.

Now is where we have to start to think of the “non-linear dynamics” of this whole situation , where the phrase “non-linear dynamics” means, for present purposes, that you can’t do something straightforward to fix one problem without affecting (and often causing) other problems. For, that wonderful 100 square meters of black dirt is, in effect, a shallow well within the surrounding field of clay. If you were a drop of water, where would you want to live? Well, the point is that the improvement of the soil exacerbates the wetness problem even as it helps with the clay-ness problem. It’s well worth it; but it starts another round of improvements we’ll get to in a minute. First, a parallel non-linearity:

Clay soil is naturally very acid. Some plants like that, or don’t mind it much; others hate it. On balance, clay soil is too acid. Adding all that organic matter makes the soil more acid still. So you find yourself buying a whole lot of powdered limestone, and spreading it around. Fertility of clay soil – the kind of fertility you really want – depends on lime. Since it dissolves easily a lot of it runs off with the drainage, reducing the efficiency; but the grass below the bottom of the garden is nice and green (good for the mulch, so you get back what might just have drained away). So, you can’t deal with tilth and fertility without increasing your drainage problem, which has to be addressed further. This leads to the final two important moisture management strategies: hills and valleys, and mulch.

We return to the shallow well filled with good black dirt. The ground water slowly oozes in from the clay field outside, gently slides from the high to the low side of the garden, and, to some extent, drains into the ditch; but not nearly quickly enough, especially during really wet weather. Furthermore, the wettest times are early in the season, at planting time and just after, when the plants are most vulnerable to being swamped, and, in the worst case, to rotting out. So, after I’ve tilled the garden I get out the hoe and build a system of ridges, in and upon which things are planted. The tops of the ridges end up about a foot above the low stretches between them, but settle a few inches over time. The bottoms of the holes into which the young tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants are set are about 3 or 4 inches above the low stretches. Beans are seeded a little deeper than you’d plant them on flat ground.

A short way to put the point of the system of ridges is that the aim is to buffer against extremes of wet and dry. Tomatoes, for example, develop one kind of vascular system under dry conditions, and another under wet conditions. You can tell that from the texture of the stems. The dry weather stems don’t work well in wet weather, and vice versa. So you don’t want the tomatoes to have to try to switch back and forth between the two kinds of stems. With the ridges, my tomatoes start their major growth under moderately moist conditions, and, as you’ll see in a minute, live their maturity and fruit production under moderately moist conditions. The same holds for the beans and everything else. Occasionally, if the time after seeding brings no rain, I have to keep the seeds on the tops of the ridges moist: a couple of watering cans usually does the job: no extensive irrigation.

Meanwhile, the grass in the field and the lawn is growing. It gets cut and dumped into the garden: first in the low stretches then over the ridges themselves. This doesn’t affect the drainage, but, obviously affects the amount of evaporation considerably. I mulch four to eight inches deep. That’s the last part of the puzzle. The result is that I never have to do a whole lot of watering, sometimes if it’s really dry the squash are happy with a bath, and sometimes I never have to water at all. By the time dry weather comes, of course, everything has sent roots all over the place, well below the surface of the low stretches. Under the conditions I’ve created, the clay down deep can actually become an ally, holding water, and releasing it slowly. My friends the earthworms do the rest.

Well, isn’t that a long song and dance just for a little garden! Yes. It takes time and patience to write it down; it takes time and patience to read it; and it certainly takes time and patience to do it. But that’s what it takes to deal intelligently with a complex system of interacting and largely competing requirements and problems. It’s also important to see that the song and dance it takes me to get things right is particular to my circumstances. The farmers growing corn couldn’t, and shouldn’t do what I do. Then, there are really good gardeners in my general area who do things differently. For instance, you may have heard or read about the (originally French) “raised bed” system. Some gardeners around here have come to use that system very successfully in their circumstances. Isn’t that what I’m clumsily groping for? No. I’ve thought a lot about using the system. It has some real advantages. For instance it’s a lot less work than what I do (especially if you can get someone to make the raised beds for you). But I don’t move to it because it doesn’t answer complexly enough to the tangle of interacting requirements and problems I have. The people who use the raised bed system “swear by it”. I’d probably swear by it too, in their circumstances. But one size doesn’t fit all. That’s one of the major messages to gain from the study of complex systems, even little ones like my garden. Yrjo and I have been thinking together about such things for a long time now, so the best possible example of one size not fitting all is to compare my account to his account to which this is appended. What he knows, and what I know, is that he’d have to be crazy to try to manage his garden the way I manage mine.

While particular solutions don’t travel well in complex circumstances, the overall message – that they don’t travel well — is itself pretty general. I just read a book that documented the same point as it’s sinking in among people who worry about foreign aid, and look for new ways to make it more efficient and increase its staying power. The message is a frustrating one, for obvious reasons. The task of “finding a solution” gets dauntingly hard at the scale and scope those people work. If you think of throwing money at problems as you’d think of pitching baseballs, then it might occur to you that not all hitters were the same. So finding a pitch and a location that worked with one hitter might not convince you that you ought to throw the same pitch in the same location to the next hitter. Baseball is usually more complex than that – unless you’re Sandy Koufax, and never have a bad day.

June 12, 2019

Financing regenerative agriculture

by Carl Dyke

Three articles turned up in my feeds today that taken together, illustrate the state of play with regenerative agriculture, and in particular its possibilities of expansion from the latest romantic back to the land fad to a serious challenge to industrial agriculture. Here at Slow Farm NC we do regenerative ag with the modest ambition to build a nice little life for ourselves, our critters, and our land in general harmony with the surroundings. We don’t think we must or can find some way to become world-changing in this. But it is fair to say that the contrast of regenerative and industrial agriculture is currently stark, and perhaps existentially consequential. How that shakes out is a matter of larger concern whether we like it or not.

Our land is right on the edge of two geological zones, the North Carolina Sandhills and the Piedmont. We’ve got a substrate of the red clay and overlay of ancient seabed sand that makes the local metropolis of Sanford the “Brick Capital of the USA”.  Our dirt is officially characterized as loamy sand, which essentially means that we start with a relatively poor soil with no particular alluvial advantages and a relatively short natural history of organic cycling. This is not amber waves of grain dirt. As a result this area didn’t have much in the way of large scale plantation agriculture, nor was there immediately a mass market crop after the local longleaf pines got logged out and boiled down for their “naval stores,” tar, pitch, and turpentine.

Somewhere around a hundred years ago, like lots of others in this area our plot was turned over to tobacco production in a family farm format. We know an old local guy who fishes our pond sometimes who ran a mule team here when he was young, and we’ve spoken with lots of older locals who talk with a distinctive mixture of fierce pride and wistful trauma about childhoods lost to the rigors of small scale tobacco production. It was a living, as they say.

Tobacco grows well in the local climate, but it beats the hell out of soil. Decades of intensive tobacco cultivation essentially strip mine all of the natural mineral and organic fertility out of soil, leaving an inert growth medium into which each year’s crop has to be artificially input as “fertilizer.” Weeds, blights, and pests are obliterated with poisons. This chemical assault finishes the job of killing off the biology of the soil that was started by the depletion of its food supply. Make no mistake, this works: one of our neighbors continues to get a big tobacco crop each year, another does well with mostly sorghum, and the third is a wizard with field peas and mixed vegetables, conjuring them from the ashy ground in astonishing abundance.

It’s a living, but not for the communities of the soil, so in the meantime big stretches of our dirt are essentially dead. On the plus we have woods and wetlands that remain biologically active and give us a head start on regeneration, and a few years of doomed horse farming by our predecessors got some manure on the ground and grasses established. In our own regenerative practice we aim to enable and support the whole biological community, from the bacterial and fungal microbiomes of field and gut and rumen that do the actual digestion at the heart of biological fertility, to the plants that pull in and convert sun and atmospheric gasses into organic materials, to the bugs and mixed livestock that eat it all and poop it back out again as composted fertilizer. It’s a bigger, fuller living, we like to think.

We call our place Slow Farm because all of this just happens if you set things up for all of the critters to live and do their things together, but it doesn’t happen quickly or in any immediate sense “pay off” except in good will and warm fuzzy feelings. After nearly four years our soil is still mostly dead and ashy, we still only rarely see dung beetles, stray worms are still cause for remark and rejoicing, and the livestock dung still mostly sits on the ground washing through and drying out rather than getting trampled in and feeding bugs and worms and processed into rich soil by the microbiome that still, mostly, just isn’t there yet:

drygoatpoo

Fossil goat poop or Kix cereal? Who could tell?

We don’t have a crop or anything to sell, really, nor is that our model, really. In some sense the essence of regenerative ag is that you not be removing any valuables from your environment, but rather keep cycling them back in. You can fudge and claim the sun and the air as universal commons, and of course you’re buying in feed and fuel and so on to make the books kind of balance. Because our livestock team includes chickens and ducks and pigs we love, we sell some eggs and we do a fine business in heritage breed kunekune piglets, who leave young without taking too much of the place with them. But I’ve just gestured at the fact that the economics of regenerative farming are inherently odd, which brings me to those articles I mentioned at the top.

This article from Modern Farmer is a genre piece celebrating the plucky agricultural ingenuity of a new small farmer, and bonus! – it’s a woman. She came to regenerative agriculture through a series of happy accidents and associations, working her way from a window planter to a half-acre farm-to-table vegetable plot to the organic cannabis industry. She’s thoughtful and good at it, there’s passion of course, and it’s honestly an impressive and inspiring story.

Obviously in the larger scheme of things one good farmer more or less isn’t much, but we’re all meant to nod and wave our hands around and solemnly proclaim that “It’s a start!” But no, actually it’s not a start. Romantic holism and back to the land movements have a long history. There are always these people around, they’re always figuring stuff out and being creative and bucking the trend, it’s always cool and admirable, and there’s always the hippie dream that you can scale up from these little serendipities to changing the whole world. And for many, many reasons, the next time that actually happens will be the first. When this kind of story becomes interesting as a data point of transformation is when there are so many of her that she becomes ordinary and unremarkable. “Local man chooses SUV over minivan” is the scale we want this story in. “Local man rides recumbent bike to work, thinks you should too” is a freak show, and so is this. But good for her, bless her heart.

Next we have an interview in Time with filmmaker, TV director, and regenerative farmer John Chester, whose documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” I have heard great reports about but not yet seen. The interview itself is brief and can’t possibly show Chester in his best light, but hopefully shows him at his hand-waving, talking point spewing worst. Chester and his wife have 200 acres where they grow “about 250 different things.” Extractive industrial ag is unsustainable and crazy. The farm doesn’t make money, but they experiment and they get $15 for a dozen eggs and they have investors. “And the meaning that is derived from the reconnection to nature is by far superior to any form of dopamine feedback loop that I know out there.”

We should be shopping at farmers’ markets and composting, Chester says. He may never have lived in a city or eaten on a budget. It is certainly true that mixing our organic wastes with toxic ones and burying them in sealed landfills or flushing them out to sea is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. But framing this as a matter of individual choice and virtue is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. For lots of people, the infrastructure of collection and distribution to make composting a real option does not exist. Composting our own sewage is a challenge at yet another odor of magnitude. Ironically, he likens composting to recycling, which as you know Bob has recently turned out to be quite a headache even at the relatively small scales at which it’s practiced. This is another of those places where “it’s a start” thinking is just pragmatically wrong.

$15 eggs make sense if you think about how much it costs to maintain land and structures and practices for chickens to live pleasant and fulfilling lives. The cheap egg industry is indeed a horror show. Farmers’ markets are great for local produce in season. They’re also, of course and for good reason, a much more expensive way to buy produce. Treating this as a matter of choice treats household consumption as a wonderland of ethical optionality, not the anxietizing minefield of constraint and consequence it is for most of us. I can illustrate.

A couple of years ago, being small farmers ourselves and knowing full well all of the things about the ethics and economics of small farming, we contracted with a fellow local farmer to buy our Thanksgiving turkey from her. The price was something like $10/lb for a happy, pasture-raised, humanely slaughtered bird. At that price and with a lot of other similar products, along with a whole lot of hustle, this farm is making it for the moment.

The total price of the bird was a bit north of $100. It was robust and flavorful, a good feed. Upon reflection, last year I bought a factory farmed frozen turkey from Aldi’s. It was about the same size, and cost a bit north of $6. Although not as robust and flavorful as our friends’ bird, it was also a good feed. It should be noted that even with optimal distribution and minimal middlemen, the farm that grew the Aldi chicken got a maximum of $3 for that bird, and probably much less. Why they grow them fast and cheap and in very great quantity becomes easy to see.

Relatively speaking we are rich people, and we can “afford” $100 for a turkey once a year. But like a lot of people our wealth is highly leveraged. The bank owns most of our farm and the mortgage is a non-optional expense. Rachel has student loans from undergrad and graduate school in the tens of thousands of dollars. We bought the farm’s tractor, an essential piece of equipment to manage 47 acres with just the two of us, with a home equity loan. I got a nice deal on a used machine, but still that’s $10K to pick at when other expenses like vet care for the critters and repairs to the vehicles don’t chew up the surplus. We’re responsible people so everything has to be insured, including Rachel’s health, which since she works for an arts organization and for the farm we are self-funding.

In short, while we can always find $100 here or there, our monthly budget is tightly spoken for and any “extra” should go to debt reduction. Any money we don’t spend on debt reduction continues to cost us the rate of interest. At about 6%, $100 that I spend for a turkey rather than flipping to the home equity line quickly compounds, so two years later has grown to at least $112 and climbing. It’s entirely possible that we will have paid $200 for that one turkey by the time it’s all settled up. Meanwhile, the Aldi’s turkey is still south of $7, minus the debt retired with the saved $93 and its future compounding.

My point here is that no one but the independently wealthy can afford $100 turkeys or $15 eggs or any damn thing you can buy at the correct price for sustainability of regenerative practice at the farmers’ market as a matter of pure ethical optionality. It’s only in the brutal trade-offs of domestic budgets and finance that those costs can, rarely and exceptionally, be absorbed. And this means that regenerative agriculture at scale simply cannot be funded out of household consumption. All of that money is tied up elsewhere in those budgets, obviously all the more so for people less wealthy than us. Personal choices and virtues are powerless before this brute fact. “Rarely and exceptionally” is not the right scale for transforming a food system.

Chester may be oblivious to all that. Of course he’s not responsible for changing the world, and he’s got investors who are currently willing to fund his losses in the name of experimentation. It remains to be seen if being a hobby farm for rich do-gooders is sustainable for him, but it certainly isn’t a transformation model for the rest of us.

The bottom line here is that the money is in all the “wrong” places for regenerative agriculture to become anything but kewl marginalia, feelgood human interest stories, or peak experiences for yuppie dopamine junkies. Transforming the food system will be unbelievably expensive, which makes it prohibitive to people whose only relationship to money is to spend it. This may mean it’s just not going to happen, but for it to happen, the big money is going to have to become heavily involved, which means finance and ultimately the government. What changes the world is shifting trillions of dollars of finance from one profit regime to another. And right about here someone starts going on about capitalism and neoliberalism and Monsanto or maybe regulatory capture and the nanny state, and all that sort of mystical nonsense you can usually smoke out if substituting “Satan” as the name for the Big Other doesn’t significantly change the gist of the screed. “Satan is corrupting everything and ruining our lives!” Yep, right. Good luck with that, bless your heart.

The final article is a puff piece by a corporate shill at General Mills about regenerative livestock management and carbon sequestration at a lovely little place called “White Oak Pastures.” It’s earnest and informative and obviously serves the PR purposes of the food industry by recasting their profit-seeking practices as environmentally responsible research in the public interest. What this means, and it is by no means a sure thing or without the usual costs, is that the smart money is moving into position to fund regenerative agriculture. If they can find profit in it, and we can elect people who will move the fiscal and regulatory and subsidy incentives toward it, a lot of ifs there, it might be we can get something done. At least it’s a start.

May 15, 2019

Imperial disciplinarity

by Carl Dyke

One of the interesting things you learn if you hang out with disciplined people is that although they understand there are other disciplines which do some stuff or other, they generally think their discipline is the master discipline. So to take a small subset of examples, people in the Literature discipline tend to think of everything as literature, and people in the Philosophy discipline tend to think of everything as philosophy, and disciplined historians will point out that everything is or is becoming history. And physicists think everything is physics, and engineers look at the world as a series of engineering problems, and lawyers always gotta be lawyerin’, and so on and so on. Of course they’re all right.

The funny thing about people who are disciplined in this way is that they think their discipline, as the master discipline, is already interdisciplinary. History is something literature folks obviously pay close attention to as they examine the writings of, set in, and about the past, so really they’re also historians, and historians are just slightly confused adjunct literature scholars who, if we’re being collegial, are just focused on reading and interpreting somewhat less interesting sorts of texts.

We can assume no actual person actually thinks any of this nonsense and that I’m just ranting and waving my hands in my usual undisciplined way. In any case we’ll call this straw man imperial disciplinarity. And I think imperial disciplinarity goes a long way toward straw mansplaining the routine inconvenient fact that no matter how much people in the academy say they’re excited about interdisciplinarity, which is a lot; with no durable exceptions I’m aware of (and I’ve been paying attention to this question for the better part of forty years now), interdisciplinary efforts predictably fizzle out. Because you yourself are already splendidly interdisciplinary, and your discipline is the master discipline that embodies Education, Culture, Rigor, The Liberal Arts, Science, Knowledge, Wholeness, Purity, The Good, and The Fresh Scent of Newborns. And why would you want to work closely with people who when it comes down to it are just narrow and deluded subset knockoffs of all that or, like, wrong?

But there’s another inconvenient fact, which is that the presence of physics in literature (and vice versa) does not actually confer any particular knowledge about physics. Or history, or philosophy, and vice versa. So while we may imagine that the storm in “King Lear” fictionally performed according to correct meteorological dynamics, reading or better seeing or better yet acting in “King Lear” gives one exactly zero substantive expertise in meteorology. Of course! This is not a flaw. But the literature of physics is in math, isobars and gradients and whatnot in this case, and math is the discipline those of us who like to read books took lit classes to avoid. Point being, as soon as the substantive expertise of a field is in play, the claims of each of the imperial disciplines are revealed to be just plain silly, and embarrassing. And then the abyss of just slightly less than infinite ignorance yawns and says, time to wake up?

Which is why, again, no actual person actually believes any of this. Because if anyone did believe this they would have sealed themselves off from thinking too hard about what it means to be educated, which of course is not just to be disciplined but to have at least a conversance with disciplines other than one’s own. Enough at least to understand in broad outline what those folks are up to, that it’s wicked important stuff, and how it is very definitely not just a narrow and deluded subset knockoff of whatever your thing is. Enough to take interdisciplinarity seriously as a primary educational imperative and the lifelong commitment of educated people rather than brushing it off as something you already do and a kind of optional ornament to a proper master disciplinary training.

April 2, 2019

Chuck Dyke, Themes in Existentialism

by Carl Dyke

 

This was a cool course, and important for at least a few people. I’m posting the syllabus here to archive it publicly. Neither Chuck nor I have/had any patience for the idea that a syllabus adequately describes a course as a social setting and process. Notice and discussion of Chuck’s inevitable fate can be found here.   

 

PHILOSOPHY 3186  FALL 2010  DYKE

THEMES IN EXISTENTIALISM

Office hours: Mon 3:00- 5:30  Anderson 721

Premise: As a narrative art, film is as legitimate and powerful as the written literature that preceded it and lives alongside it.  In both literature and film, some works are masterpieces, some are garbage, and most range in between.  In this and every other comparison, film can hold its own.

This means that good films ought to be watched and thought about with the same care with which a good book ought to be read and thought about.

 

Existentialism: The family of views you get when you ask the question “What does it all mean?” and find that the answer you get is “Nothing.”  There are and have been, in fact, very few honest existentialists.  Clustered around them are a number of thinkers (De Sade and Dostoyevsky among the earliest) who are afraid that “Nothing” is the answer, but wiggle and squirm to avoid it.  For example, Heidegger is the godfather of a group who use the answer “Nothing” as a springboard for the mystic leap to the godhead (and, in his case, maidenhead).  Others, like Sartre, try to sneak around the corner of the answer to re-install some version of more or less traditional rationalism.  If you’re going to be an honest existentialist, it helps to have a sense of humor; and Sartre had none.

Overall, there are far more honest existentialists in the narrative arts than in philosophy.  There are good reasons for this that will emerge over the course of the semester.

 

The Absurd: The primary meaning of “surd” is “rational,” as in “surd number,” i.e. one that has a square root.  The primary meaning of “absurd” is “non-rational” (not necessarily “irrational”).  Rationalists, of course, want the primary contrast to be that between the rational and the irrational, but that’s obvious ideological hype.

Over the course of the last two centuries there have been many conceptions or varieties of the absurd.  Two that we’ll observe particularly closely are Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, and Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.  Because we’ll be dealing so much with imaginative narrative, we’ll also be constantly in the midst of Pirandello’s variety of the absurd: the creation of character.

 

Dealing with death: Facts being as hard to come by as they are, we can be thankful for one modest certainty.  We’re going to die.  Of course we spend fortunes trying to avoid it, and creating the illusion that it doesn’t exist; but that just makes the point.  The seminal (as it were) works along these lines is the Marquis De Sade’s “Dialogue between a priest and a dying man,” and Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.  In the films, we’ll come across one instance after another of this dialogue — one of the main themes of existentialism.  In fact, by the end of the semester you will have seen so many of these dialogues that you’ll be ready choose one of them to compare with the original – as a final exam.

Meanwhile, you’ll plunge right into the world of film analysis and criticism, by writing six (6) short studies of six (6) of the films in the course.  1000 words each.  You are not trying to tell Mr. and Ms. Middle Class what to rent for the weekend.  You are engaging in an intellectual dialogue with a circle of frightfully knowledgeable, ruthlessly critical students of film and society.

Three of these studies must be handed in before October 22.  Failure to provide all three will constitute failure of the midterm.  This doesn’t have to mean that the three are on movies we’ve talked about in class.

Finally, you’ll choose either Nietzsche or Camus, and find some way to insinuate them into a term paper of about 10 pages.  This will be due on the day of the last class meeting.  We’ll talk at length, as we go along, about the term paper – and about writing in general, for that matter.

 

Reading:

De Sade, “Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man” (Blackboard)

Camus, The Stranger; Exile and the Kingdom

Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche

Dostoyevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor”

[For those with prurient interests, my take on The Stranger and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly can be found on my web page in the department website.]

 

Pattern of class discussion:

Each Monday, the first topic of conversation will be the film of the week (So, on Sept. 6 we’ll start talking about Kowalski).  You’ll be expected to have watched the film.  There are so many sources these days, and all twelve are readily available.  In a number of cases, if you have a VHS I’ll be able to loan you the film.  We’ll always have the DvD’s in class to refer to, and clips will be shown.  (The opportunity for weekly film parties is obvious – at your own pleasure and convenience, and, for some, the sharing of expenses.)

During the discussion, existentialist themes will arise and emerge.  Many times that will lead to the specific assignment of sections of Nietzsche, and that’s how his work will be used.  The other readings are required in full, and as quickly as you can do them, so they can put more meat on the bones of our conversation.  The conversation will continue on Wednesday and Friday.

Everyone participates in class discussion in their own way, but each has to find a way to participate.  Some solipsists find this difficult, others find it easy.  That’s (obviously) their own business.  Absences, on the other hand, are, as they accumulate, mini-failures, and cause inevitable subsidence in your final grade.  The same goes for those who habitually betray an ignorance of the films and readings.

 

THE FILMS

 

1                                   Sarafian, The Vanishing Point

An introduction to meaninglessness: the foundation.

 

2                                    Bergman, The Seventh Seal

The one representative (perhaps) in the course of religious existentialism: by Kierkegaard out of Strindberg.  Some students might well want to pursue this line of thought far more than is done in the course proper.  This film is presented at the beginning to suggest and legitimate the possibility.

 

3                                   Jarmusch, Stranger than Paradise

The excitement of existence.

 

4                                   Leone, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The greatest Nietzschean film ever made.  Don’t underestimate it.  Leone had won the right to make this one.

 

5                                   Greene/Reed, The Third Man

The bleakness of post WWII Europe was the scene existentialism matured in.  All the themes are here.  Western obligato.

 

6                                   Fellini, The Nights of Cabiria

Our first look at Sisyphus happy.

 

7                                   Traven/Huston, Treasure of Sierra

Madre

Our second look.

 

8                                   Clouzot, Wages of Fear

Sisyphus too happy.

 

9                                    Kosinski/Ashby, Being There

“Being there” in German is “Dasein.” Nobody ever said all there.  Where does wisdom lie? What does a song of innocence really sound like?

 

10                                  Wilder, Sunset Boulevard

The creation of self and world; being, and not being, in time.

 

11                                Antonioni, The Passenger

          Closure: The eternal recurrence of Kowalski: this time at a reduced speed.

February 5, 2019

Teaching to the fences, or what I’ve learned about world history from pigs and goats

by Carl Dyke

There’s nothing more obvious to a livestock farmer than using fence to control the movements of critters. You don’t just let them go wherever they want. There are some places you want to keep them in, and some others you want to keep them out, and rotations among those from time to time as a field gets grazed out or breeding and birthing is taking place, and distinctive forage patterns for each sort of critter, and so on. To a farmer it can only be shockingly surreal to question the value of physical barriers as an elementary tool of responsible stock and flow management.

On the farm our goats are, more or less, free ranging. We have fenced pastures and some perimeter fence, we have doors we can close, we fenced in the garden. Realistically the goats can defeat any of these barriers and occasionally have. For example they were well contained in our bottom pasture until suddenly they weren’t. They figured out how to get under the fence and jailbroke it in multiple locations. We could have firmed that up, notably by adding a couple strands of electric wire, but instead we accepted that they were out and about and that’s mostly worked fine.

sf goats 1

The younger pigs were out for awhile too. That was a lot of fun – kunekune pigs are delightful – but in their case we have a much stronger incentive to constrain them, to manage breeding and pilferage of the other critters’ snacks.

sf porch pigpile

The pigs are pretty content to stay put in a fenced pasture as long as they’re getting fed adequately. Kunes mostly graze, and we supplement with grain. They enjoy some room to spread out and we don’t crowd them. Once our boar Chubs got a whiff of the hot piggie girls the next pasture over he quickly figured out how to put the fence on his snout and shrug under it, so it’s pretty clear fence is just something they accept about their world rather than an actual impediment. Other farmers confirm this – motivated pigs are rough on fence. We try to arrange things so they’re not motivated.

The same could be said for the goats, but we’ve learned it’s a little more complicated with them. Goats are not grazers so much as browsers. A field of grass is not their idea of a good time for long. They’re happiest and healthiest when they have free choice of many different types of vegetation. They do a lot of sniffing and nibbling and are quite selective. They even eat things that the internet assures us will kill them dead. We’ve learned that they are actively managing their rumen for nutrition, body temperature, microbiome symbiosis, and parasite control.

The goats range pretty widely, but they’re able to get all they need from the top half of the farm, which is a mixed environment with field, woods, and wetland. Once they got out of their pasture they settled into a circuit where they amble around and hit all the zones. Other than the garden which we fenced defensively, they devoured every single thing we had planted on purpose, demolished the scrub, and cleaned up all the trees from ground to adult-goat-standing-on-hind-legs height. As landscaping goes it looks sparse but quite professional. Toots and Remy in particular have a taste for cardboard so package deliveries left on the porch are not safe, but after a couple experiments they’ve shown no particular interest in defeating the perimeter fence and eating our neighbors’ crops. There’s nothing over there they can’t get over here.

Barriers come up in world history too. In my Contemporary World History class we spent some time pondering the question why medieval cities had walls, but modern states do not. There are a lot of parts to that answer, having to do with the costs and benefits of controlling stocks and enabling flows. Roughly speaking, you get a lot more economy out of enabling flows than you do out of controlling stocks, but you need the larger security environment afforded by states to fully tap into that dynamic.

In my introductory world history class we’ve been trying to understand how the Europeans got into the exploration business in the 15th and 16th centuries.

major_trade_routes_of_afroeurasia_c1300_ce

You can see the bottleneck around the eastern Mediterranean. A lot of stuff becomes clear about early modern history if you look at the flow pattern of trade over the Silk Road, and then plop the Ottoman Empire down into the middle of it. Eurocentric kitsch about heroic exploration and the spirit of adventure doesn’t survive looking at the map. When the Turks fenced Europe off from the goodies of the East, some of them put their noses down and grazed in place, some started pushing and digging, and some went looking for another way around. Portugal in particular was left dangling off the edge of the world, but with free flow to the route south around Africa. Browsing their way down and around the coast and devastating the shrubbery is the sort of thing a goat might do, and the sort of thing it would be hard to keep a goat from doing.

Columbus was a known crackpot and a low cost dart throw for a queen flush from the completion of the Reconquista. Once the Spanish piggies got a whiff of the Americas though, they got the Atlantic up on their snouts and shrugged right through it. In deference to the scale of human misery that followed I’ll just drop that analogy now. But here is another case where you could see why the locals might have wanted some wall, and why it was unlikely to do them much good.

I make a point of not taking political positions in class. But I talk about the taking of political positions a lot. You can really see why it would make sense for people close to the management of livestock and with shrubbery to lose to default to fence as a solution to inconvenient stocks and flows. You can see why people habituated to modern cities in the context of states and international systems have no feel for fence. Free ranging is delightful and works great if forage is distributed and fungible. It’s not so great when the goats crash the corn field. No one pushes fence when there’s plenty on both sides. And when there’s not, there will be the violence of exclusion or the violence of invasion no matter what.

August 27, 2018

Memory work

by Carl Dyke

Recently I bought a load of driveway gravel from a local landscaping yard. The guy was an efficiently skilled tractor operator so it was the work of five minutes to get two buckets of mixed gravel and base into the bed of the pickup. For the next hour I leaned on his loader frame and he talked his thoughts and world at me.

Not surprisingly a lot of it was paranoia and racism. I learned loads about how hard it is to make a living in landscaping when your competitors are undocumented immigrants who can bid jobs without factoring in the costs of bonding, insurance, and taxes. I learned that some tractor sales and service companies will deliberately sabotage your machine to make a buck on the repairs, and that when your equipment goes down in the middle of a job you have to pay top dollar to have it seen to right away. I learned that if you buy your cars from the same dealer over a period of years they start to take you for granted, and that they’ll deliberately delay a repair until you’re out of the warranty window. I learned that you can admire and remain friends with people who do you this way. I learned that 98% of us white men voted for Trump because he says the things we aren’t allowed to say. I learned that bush-hogging is a terrible job because who knows what equipment-destroying solid objects are hidden in that underbrush you’re clearing, and that no one wants to pay you for this risk. And I learned that it’s much more efficient to shift piles of material by pushing and pulling with a blade than by picking it up and putting it down with a bucket.

Somewhere around the hour mark it seems to have occurred to this fella that I might have somewhere else to be, and I allowed as how I might want to get to work soon. He asked where that was, and I told him teaching History at the local university. So then we had to have the conversation where he told me everything he thought about education and unpacked his own history as a student.

His most vivid memory was high school English class in eastern North Carolina, tobacco country, in which he did a lot of what he called “memory work.” The chalkboards on three sides of the room would be filled when the students came in, and they were to memorize all of it. He mentioned in particular the Beatitudes, selected Corinthians, and Shakespeare. There was drama over his recitation of the Beatitudes, which he attempted three times without the teacher marking credit in the grade book. This was an exercise of arbitrary authority, but also completely normal and just to be expected.

I remember doing a lot of memory work in Italian school when we lived there in the early 70s. I don’t remember what, exactly. I have a phone in my pocket now with 32 gigabytes of memory, enough to store every bit of text ever produced by the human race until we started texting “‘Sup?” “Not much” at each other by the terabyte.

Here are the Beatitudes, from Wikipedia:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4)Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5)Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (5:6)Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (5:8)Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. (5:9)Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:10)Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 5:11-12

August 10, 2018

Really great lectures!

by Carl Dyke

A lot of electrons have been spilled over the pedagogy of lecturing. As a matter of research, I’m persuaded by the physicists and other scientists who have given up on lecture because they find that people who have been lectured at can answer lots of questions about physics but can’t actually do physics. I’m also too much of a dispositional anarchist to feel at all comfortable sharing a room with a bunch of other people and rudely hogging the conversation.

I do see what people like about lecture. In my own education I was fortunate to study with a number of really excellent lecturers (and a whole lot of really dreadful ones, who you might think would explore other options out of self defense). Maybe the best lecturer of them all was Rod McGrew. When I was an undergrad at Temple I took several courses with McGrew, including a really great one on disease in history and a couple on Russian history I would otherwise not have been much interested in, in large part because he was such a dynamic, compelling teacher.

In class, which I skipped much less than was my usual habit, McGrew lectured almost exclusively. I sat in front, he was at the desk. He also sat, but leaned forward with his knees out, his elbows down, and his hands up. He had huge, gnarled hands and bony wrists that stuck out crazily from his suit jackets, and as he spoke he would grasp at the air as if he could massage understanding directly from the atmosphere. His skeletal old face would crease with intensity, his wispy forelock would bob, and his drooping lower lip would struggle to keep the drool in around the flow of words. It was like watching the tightrope walker flirt with death and greatness in Zarathustra. McGrew lectured without notes, cogently, brilliantly. To see someone at once so comprehensively learned and so freaking smart about how things work was profoundly inspiring. I LOVED that guy. Rod McGrew is singlehandedly why I went from a wifty interdisciplinary undergrad degree to a graduate program in History.

Really great lectures! I think it’s fair to say I don’t remember a single thing Rod McGrew ever said. At all. Granted it’s been a long time, but I can report with some confidence that I didn’t remember anything in particular he’d said even in graduate school just a year or two later. I couldn’t tell you without refreshing my memory from his publications what his general approach to history was. He told us an amazing amount of information, organized with exceptional rigor and analyzed with dazzling clarity. It was, almost literally, in one ear and out the other.

What I do remember is the research projects I did for McGrew’s classes. I can tell you about those without refreshing my memory. In the disease class I got interested in how endemic malaria and other diseases degrade a population’s ability to maintain ‘surplus’ activity beyond subsistence, and what this might mean about patterns of civilizational distribution, density, rise and fall. It was pretty broad brush but it was a good start on thinking about multidimensional dynamics in history beyond the scope of intentional human action. In the Russia classes I got interested in revolutionary intelligentsias and the dynamics of change. This is when I first figured out that people use ideas like tools and therefore that the particulars of this or that system of ideas are not in themselves the causes of anything much.

As a research mentor McGrew had a light but effective touch. He was first of all interested and supportive; the message was yes, go to it. As the project developed he would drop little analysis prompts and bibliographical suggestions, calibrated to how fast and well you were integrating the previous suggestions. So for example for the intelligentia project I read all of Venturi’s Roots of Revolution and from there a bunch of secondary stuff on Russian revolutionaries like Berdyaev and Chernyshevsky, as well as some of the primary writings, and then moved into the secondary literature on ideas and intelligentsias by people I would never have heard of or discovered for myself like Mannheim and Gouldner. But then he suggested I take a look at a new book on the Bengali intelligentsia, which I now realize was the next level up in developing an understanding of how context shapes dynamics, and I balked because it seemed irrelevant, too far afield. And so he didn’t make that kind of suggestion again.

In fact I got kind of stuck, because I realized ideas and intelligentsias weren’t really where the action was at, but I wasn’t ready yet to do the work to develop a better picture. So in the end I kind of dumped the half-hearted debris on McGrew as my senior project, and he was appropriately disappointed. But he must have written me a great letter anyway, because I got a nice fellowship from U.C. San Diego, and it certainly wasn’t on the strength of the confused mess my transcript and essays were. I expect he knew it’s a process, and there’s only so far and fast someone can go from time to time.

I know I’m weird, that the way my memory works is weird, that the way I engage with people, ideas, processes, and things is weird. I’m not going to say my experience works as more than a data point, perhaps way out on the long tail, and as general rules my intuitions are useless. Nevertheless, when I talk to other people about how they learn, and in particular when I talk with people who like lecture about what they like about lecture and what they got from lecture, I don’t get back the kind of specific content recall you would expect from a pedagogical mode explicitly oriented toward clear and efficient transmission of content. Mostly, people don’t remember anything in particular from being lectured, which makes the whole fretful ritual of carefully preparing them seem kind of silly to me. What they do remember is having their curiosity stimulated, and having their learning process supported, and whatever work they themselves did in that general sort of context.

So oddly enough, even though one of my favorite and most influential teachers was a really great lecturer, that’s not what made him a really great teacher. Which then leads me to wonder what work the lecture is doing at all, and reminds me where I want to put my effort and care for the upcoming year.

June 26, 2018

The very idea

by Carl Dyke

Last week, after a whole bunch of stalling, I went in to the local health care provider for my intake physical. We’ve been in our new location for three years with no primary care, but neither of us likes how the medical industrial complex works or how it works us, so we haven’t been eager to get ourselves reengaged with it. As usual I liked the new folks fine and everything went fine. That’s not what this post is about.

As part of the intake the screening nurse asked me a bunch of medical history kinds of questions. One of them was whether I’d ever had suicidal thoughts. Because I was in an honest question answering mode I said of course I have, routinely. This answer threatened to change the room and involve me in the kind of relationship to medicine I seek to avoid, so I spent the next couple tense minutes walking it back, until eventually I had never of course actually thought of actively taking my own life. Which, in a narrowly literal kind of way, is truthy enough and a workable compromise for all concerned.

The more robust truth is that to me suicide has always been an interesting idea. It seems like obviously among the live options under certain circumstances, and therefore well worth being mindfully aware of in case those circumstances. To me, and this is what the post is about, the idea doesn’t become real until it’s called forth as a real live option under real live circumstances. Until then it’s just an interesting way of being aware of and in the world, a kind of inexpensive experiment, and a way of being alive to possibilities not immediately in play. So I’ve thought suicide all the way through, many times, without so far reaching the pragmatic threshold where it’s what I might want to do right now. Have I ever had suicidal thoughts? Of course I have. I’m a thinking person.

In general this is how ideas work for me. They are not, at all, where my reality is. The idea of suicide has no power to kill me, any more than a recipe for hummus is a delicious and nourishing snack.

This is pragmatism. It’s also Marx snarking at the idealists in The German Ideology:

Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.

These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. ….

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.

Ha. So anyway, it is from this disposition that I react with dismay to people who, speaking with great moral conviction, hold that there is no reason to come to any kind of understanding with people who entertain and articulate certain kinds of dangerous, harmful ideas. There’s no such thing. This is just, literally, narrow-mindedness. But also, that’s an interesting idea to me – that ideas could be so important, so immediately real, that they need to be opposed in themselves, as such. I think the world must be a very different kind of place for people who experience ideas with such concreteness.

June 25, 2018

History of the essence

by Carl Dyke

This is a thing for the History tribe right now. Maybe worth talking about, maybe not. From the open letter to the College Board (AP World History) by the Medieval Academy of America. I’m not linking because I don’t actually want to fight at them, I just want to roll around in a little disgust among friends.

“”By beginning ‘world history’ in 1450, the College Board is essentially sending the message that premodern culture and events are unimportant. It is impossible to make sense out of the political and historical climate of the mid-fifteenth century without a grounding in what came before. It is especially unfortunate to suggest, with the 1450 start date, that “world history” effectively begins with the arrival of white Europeans in North America, coupled with the mass extinction (chiefly through disease) of substantial segments of native populations. A pre-1450 start date would facilitate study of a global Middle Ages, a period when regions such as China, Mali, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Egypt had great achievements, in conditions of relative parity, before the oceanic dominance of a few western powers (Portugal, Spain, Holland, England, France). We have all seen how misappropriation of medieval history leads to the advancement of dangerous, racist narratives. Only education can counter such misuse of history. Teaching the reality rather than the fictionalized fantasy of the Middle Ages has never been more important than it is today.””

Good lord this is vacuous.

“”By beginning ‘world history’ in 1450, the College Board is essentially sending the message that premodern culture and events are unimportant.”

It is essentially sending the message that premodern stuffs are nonessential. Since there’s no absolute grounding other than complete and comprehensive inclusion for declaring particular histories essential, this is unremarkably true. What’s needed then is a claim about premodern stuffs being important in this context, not aggrieved partisan handwaving. Here it comes:

“It is impossible to make sense out of the political and historical climate of the mid-fifteenth century without a grounding in what came before.”

Sure! But it’s also impossible to make sense of what came before without a grounding in what came before that, so this is an inane infinite regress. We must start somewhere.

“It is especially unfortunate to suggest, with the 1450 start date, that “world history” effectively begins with the arrival of white Europeans in North America, coupled with the mass extinction (chiefly through disease) of substantial segments of native populations.”

World history may start billions of years ago, depending how you count and what questions interest you. Modern world history, where all the questions modern people have are inescapably located, does plausibly begin around 1450.

“A pre-1450 start date would facilitate study of a global Middle Ages, a period when regions such as China, Mali, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Egypt had great achievements, in conditions of relative parity, before the oceanic dominance of a few western powers (Portugal, Spain, Holland, England, France).”

Neat! Seriously, good stuff! Rock on with that, professional past knowers! Write books, articles, and blogs for all who become curious what happened long ago to discover and revel in.

“We have all seen how misappropriation of medieval history leads to the advancement of dangerous, racist narratives.”

We have? While we were at it, did we see anything about shady linear monocausal argument by assertion? If I said, We have all seen how dangerous, racist narratives lead to misappropriation of medieval history, how might you go about disentangling this elementary causal loop? Is this the quality of analysis we can expect from careful study of the Global Middle Ages?

“Only education can counter such misuse of history.”

This is a religious statement, likely false, and possibly completely false. But let’s keep giving education a try in case it starts working this time.

“Teaching the reality rather than the fictionalized fantasy of the Middle Ages has never been more important than it is today.””

And here, at last, we can agree.

H/t Colin Drumm.

February 25, 2018

Charles E. Dyke, 1938-2018

by Carl Dyke

Chuck Dyke

Chuck Dyke died Wednesday afternoon, February 21, 2018, less than a month after multiple inoperable cancers were discovered. He slipped away quietly with his wife and life companion Linda reading by his side, as perfect an end as such a loving and sentimental man could wish.

Chuck was the only son of Robert and Thelma and grew up in Stoughton, Massachusetts. From his childhood came his love of horse operas and pie for breakfast, and hatred of boiled chicken and being told what to do. As soon as he could, he began making decisions for himself, eventually opting out of the local school system and paying his own way at Thayer Academy. He worked his way up a series of jobs, including camp counselor, soda delivery man, and emergency room orderly, contributing to his extensive and often surprising fund of skills and lore.

From Thayer Chuck went to Caltech, where he realized he had made a mistake within the first two days but lasted out the semester. The mistake was not STEM, which remained his lifelong passion, but the way it was taught in relation to how he learned. He returned east to Brandeis University, where he was introduced to Philosophy in the most Chuck Dyke possible way, by signing up for the elective the guy he was chatting with in line was signing up for. Collaboration and saying yes to learning new things remained defining dispositions.

Graduate school was at Brown for training in analytic philosophy and a “doleful dissertation” on Rawls, Arendt, and civil disobedience. The undoleful thunderbolt of romance struck when Chuck knocked at a fellow philosopher’s door and her sister Linda, a biologist and St. John’s graduate, opened it. As soon as social proprieties allowed their two sons appeared: Carl, a historian, and Alex, an environmental engineer.

More on Chuck’s education and career can be found in the excellent interview by John Protevi at the New APPS blog.

In the happy days of the early Sixties the academy was still in full mid-century expansion. Chuck had his choice of jobs and settled on Temple University in Philadelphia, where he spent his entire career. Chuck and Linda looked at the local commuter rail system (pdf), drove out a little farther from the farthest stop, and bought a nice old house with a barn and an acre and three quarters out in Bucks County farm country which is still the family home. The mortgage was about $90 a month, which for thirty years was a source of increasing amusement as the bank tried frantically to get them to refinance. This homestead hosted many, many gatherings of colleagues and students over the years.

In the early 70’s, during the oil embargo and the World Cup, Chuck accepted a two year posting at Temple’s Rome campus, another typical embrace of an opportunity to learn new things, and a life defining experience for the whole family. He read Machiavelli, Mazzini, and Hugo Pratt, did the hard crossword puzzles in Italian, figured out how to launder a car registration through Switzerland, and made friends with local scholars who showed him how to find the best regional wine. In those days he was “Baffone,” Big Moustache, and carried his hand carved pipes in a tooled Italian leather holster on his belt. Linda began to become an art historian, the kids went to Italian public school, and everyone looked at more triptychs of the Madonna and child than is good for anyone’s sanity. For summer vacations he packed the whole family of four large Americans into one of these:

fiat 126

Fiat 126, circa 1973

It was a tight fit. The family insect collecting equipment went on the roof rack, which led once to an amusing loss by theft of multiple boxes of dead, pinned insects.

Although he was professionally housed in Temple’s Philosophy Department, Chuck never identified with that or any other discipline. His genius was association and he went where association, collegial and intellectual, took him. His early interest in collective decision-making evolved into concern for the broader fields of relationship and possibility in which decision-making communities emerge, to the evolutionary dynamics of complex adaptive systems, nature, ecology, and climate. He was deeply concerned, broadly speaking, with how humans are systematically fucking things up for ourselves and everyone else, and with finding ways to make this plain enough to do some good.

At home Chuck was a gardener and an artist. He spent decades of attentive digging, fertilizing, rotating, composting, and mulching, transforming an unpromising clay slab into an intensely fertile garden that left him no alternative but to sneak up to neighbors’ doorsteps late at night and ply them with produce by stealth. His art encompassed any useful and interesting thing that could be rendered in carved wood, ranging from pipes for his own iconic use made from everything from brier to salvaged barn wood, to Appalachian chain carving and caged balls,

IMAG1136

Chain carving from the Bells and Whistles series. Collection of Carl Dyke and Rachel Herrick.

mobiles, finials, tools, knockers, handles, distributed copiously and freely to friends and family, to finally his award-winning abstract sculptures in cedar and walnut. As he did in all his teaching and collaboration, he let the wood speak to him, worked with what it was, and prompted the best of what it brought to their partnership.

Chuck was a huge human being of many parts, relations, and situations. If you knew him, please add to these remembrances in the comments so we can assemble a more complete record of him together.

February 8, 2018

People, bodies, characters

by Carl Dyke

Dyke the Elder recommended a fun book recently, The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis C. Rasmussen. It’s about the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith and I’m looking forward to reading it. As we were talking about it I also thought of the book I’m using as the core text in all of my classes this semester, the Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America, from the year 1772, to 1777 : elucidating the history of that country, and the description of its productions, viz. quadrupedes, birds, fishes, reptiles, trees, shrubs, fruits, & roots; with an account of the indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea. By Captn. J.G. Stedman. Illustrated with 80 elegant engravings, designed from nature, by the author, 1796. I am not an expert on this text! I’m teaching it so I can learn new things.

As you know, Bob, all sorts of interesting stuff was happening in the late 18th century Atlantic World around the universal themes of freedom, rights, and humanity. And for just as long people excluded from the universe of propertied white men have been pushing back on their degradation to the service of their oppressors. The mismatch between the high pronouncements and glittering achievements of the Enlightenment and the grim practices of the colonial slave economy that financed it is clear enough to us now that it may even seem it was clear to everyone then, too. A book like Stedman’s is interesting because it’s right in the middle of the ideas and practices we’re interested in, but isn’t the product of hyper-elaborated cutting edge high intellection. What did a guy who was pretty much just a guy think about, for example, the personhood of enslaved Africans?

Stedman was an interesting nobody, a low level Atlantic World cosmopolitan born and raised in the Netherlands but identifying as an Englishman, a brevet Captain in a Scots regiment who couldn’t afford to buy himself a higher rank, who shipped out to Dutch Guiana because that’s where the action was for an ambitious guy of talent but little social or economic capital like him.

He was a smart cookie but he was little educated and no philosopher, so it’s interesting to see how he thought about the leading intellectual issues of the day, or rather, how he didn’t. His book was published as an abolitionist tract, complete with gorgeously gruesome engravings of slave torture by William Blake. But Stedman himself was untroubled by slavery, which he mostly didn’t think about, but when he did thought was convenient and patriotic and probably good for the slaves all in all. What bothered him was excessive cruelty in the treatment of slaves, which he reports with outrage and ascribes not just to the Dutch, but to everyone else as well, especially the Jews.

The front matter of the text is full of conventional hyperventilation about his poor literary gifts and the advantages of authenticity and veracity this guarantees. But in the same breath he tells us that

Here, in the different characters of a Commander — a Rebel Negro — a Planter, and a Slave — not only tyranny are exposed — but benevolence and humanity are unveiled to the naked eye. Here the Warrior — the Historian — the Merchant — and the Lover of Natural Philosophy will meet with some gratification; while, for having introduced my private adventures, I must make some apology — but none for those of the lovely Slave, who makes not the least interesting figure in these pages — as female virtue in distress, especially when accompanied with youth and beauty, must ever claim protection.

So are there any people in this text? Well sort of — there are characters, literary abstractions, some of them people-based, some of them (tyranny, humanity, female virtue) more directly concept-based. He certainly elevates the lovely Slave by treating her as a princess and a lady, but does he humanize her? It’s a better character than barbarous Jew, that’s for sure, and also than domestic labor appliance, and perhaps than mere “black body,” as we now say to dramatize the degradation of African humanity within systems of oppression. But characters dehumanize everyone. Her character certainly tells us nothing about her as a particular person nor, as feminist scholars have thoroughly established around the princess and lady tropes in our day, is it likely to lead there. She, whoever she was, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a damsel in distress. And when it turns out from Stedman’s diaries that he purchased her from her mom as domestic help, and abandoned her readily for a proper white wife (who he didn’t get along with and used for socially appropriate reproduction) on his return to Europe, and that he was just routinely having sex with all of the slave women when the mood struck him, there’s just not much human left under the romanticism to have anything like human rights, let alone all of the detail people have.

Compare all this to one of the first stories Stedman tells in the main text, in chapter 1. He’s on the ship taking him to Surinam, in the middle of the Atlantic. He’s just told us about some interesting sea birds and gunnery practice.

On the 14th, in the morning-watch, we passed the Tropic, when the usual ceremony of dunking the fresh-water sailors was ransomed by tipping the foremast men with some silver. About this time the Boreas most unluckily lost one of her best seamen, the boatswain’s mate, whose hand slipping by the wet, he pitched from the fore-yard-arm into the sea. His presence of mind in calling to the captain, as he floated alongside, “Be not alarmed for me, sir,” in the confidence of meeting with relief, attracted peculiar compassion, and even caused some murmuring, as no assistance was offered him; in consequence of which, after swimming a considerable time within view, the unfortunate young man went to the bottom.

The next paragraph covers trade winds and dolphins, which he thinks are superficially charming mooches.

Are there any people in this story? There’s the mate, the captain, and the compassionate murmurers. It might be more accurate to call all of these ‘roles’. Presumably the Captain, in his authority, made a cost benefit kind of decision between hauling the whole ship around and losing way vs. losing a boatswain’s mate, and found the latter loss more tolerable. In a split second of responsible decision this fine fellow finds his value, and it’s remarkably low. Glug, glug. Well, right about the same time you’d line up rows of guys like this a few paces apart and have them blast away at each other with muskets until one side or the other broke. Talk about bodies. That was Stedman’s world.

I think it’s fair to say that Stedman had nothing at all resembling an abstract theory of universal humanity, and so the discourse of dehumanization would have made little sense to him. People came in various characters, roles, ranks, types, uses, and situations. He seems to have been able to deal with them accordingly without making any conclusions about their further attributes or qualities, sort of like the Walmart checker and I do with each other. Killing rebellious Negros or any other sort of enemy was fine with him; making them suffer unnecessarily in the process was not. There was a person in those bodies, but for the most part he wasn’t concerned with who that was. In fact across the board, he seems to have thought that wasn’t any of his concern.

December 23, 2017

On knottiness

by Carl Dyke

It occurs to me while I’m out splitting firewood that this is another of those analogies for teaching. Not that we want to hit our students with axes, you understand.

If you have the right power machinery you can do anything you want with a pile of logs, make them any size and shape you need by application of brute force. This seems to be what a lot of people imagine teaching just is. Or marriages, or politics. But if you’re working by hand it’s fair to say that you have to work with the wood. It splits easily along the bias of the grain, whereas you can whack at it forever, make an ugly mess of it, and break both your heart and your ass if you try to cut across the grain.

So learning to read the grain is one of the basic skills of splitting logs (and indeed any sort of craft woodworking). As always the process is noticing, experimenting, and noticing some more. There are patterns and trends among types of tree and you can build a useful database of approaches and strategies out of that. Within those types there’s all kinds of variation down through particular trees to individual logs, ranging from the size and age of the tree, whether it had to cantilever to get to the sun or twist against its own weight, how it got stunted and adapted to the stunting. Branches make the grain flow in multiple directions at once and finding the splitting bias is either a matter of patient experiment or blind luck. Sometimes around lots of branches, injuries, and compensations, the grain is downright turbulent. That’s when it’s tempting to get out the chainsaw.

There are woods like maple and cedar that split so easily you only have to wave the axe at them. In contrast sweet gum, which we have a lot of, has a close, tight, one might even say grumpy grain and splits very reluctantly. You sort of have to work a suggestion of a split for awhile until it almost relaxes into releasing. Sometimes a piece of wood has set into a twist under some kind of pressure, and those will actually explode apart if you find the right seam. With big, tough old logs you kind of have to whittle them down from the outside in. No matter what, you can’t split a log with one blow. It takes a whole series of whacks.

You can split almost any sound log if you come at it right. But if the wood has been sitting outside in the weather for awhile it may have gotten soggy and rotten. You can’t split soggy, rotten wood. Same thing if the bugs and borers have gotten to it. I bust those up a bit and leave them for the chickens to pick over. My analogy may be breaking down a little bit here. I hope so.

Here’s one of my favorite videos. That’s nice splitty wood she’s working with there, but she’s also got this unbelievably skillful technique where she twists the axe slighty just after the moment of impact to pop the wood apart. That’ll learn it!

 

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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. 

read more »

February 5, 2017

Spitballing the abyss

by Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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.

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by Carl Dyke

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.

October 31, 2016

Let the tool do the work

by Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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),

homelitesuperwiz66003

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.