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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
I don’t suppose I’m hiding my disdain for Trump and (qualified) support for Clinton very well. And yes, I think there is a lot of bad stuff you have to ignore or explain away to be excited about either of them, but so much more so with Trump that there’s no reasonable comparison.
But the world keeps turning. Yesterday I was clearing two big trees that fell across our driveway when two pickups pulled in and spilled out neighbors we hadn’t met yet, equipped with big chainsaws and neighborly fellowship. A job that would have taken me an hour took us ten minutes, and then off they went looking for more people to help.
The conversation made it clear they were Trump supporters – pretty much all our neighbors are – but I liked them very much and not just because they were helping me. They were no nonsense and capable, thoughtful and droll.
It sort of amazes me that good folks like this can’t or won’t scale their sense of helping out to the national level. I know that who needs help, and when, and by whom, and for how long, is a complicated question. Why people need help is even more complicated. Unless it’s a tree across the driveway. On that we can agree.
What does this agreement mean? Holland says that what I’m going to call understanding, which is a transformed relationship to the world, comes from the kinds of overlap that enable exchange, and that change emerges routinely from these swaps.
It has been observed that innovation in CAS is mostly a matter of combining well-known components in new ways (Holland).
So one overlap in my story is “chainsaw,” and it’s actually a critical one for this particular interaction. There’s even political information of a kind in it, since owning your own chainsaw and being usefully skilled with it express a position in and relationship to the world. These guys got a lot more comfortable once they saw me whacking off limbs and logs without a lot of fuss, and vice versa. This overlap then enabled later bantering swaps in which we explored (scant) overlaps in our gender and family systems via their assumption that my hatchback, trapped behind the trunks at the bottom of the driveway, must be my wife’s car. The rescuing the little lady narrative got weird for a second. It got ok again once it was the commute vehicle, and a diesel, and we could talk about retrofitting an electrical fuel pump on old Jettas to improve reliability.
The guys were grandfather, father, and son. Grandpa mostly sat and watched, Dad ran the main saw (he said they had “bar and bow,” which I didn’t properly understand until he pulled out his rig, learning and growing),
and Son sort of puttered around moving cut branches. In the following conversation, Dad talked modestly about a life of extraordinary accomplishment as a builder, mechanic, and entrepreneur. Son had the same easy feel of quality but turned out to be one of the completely useless young men I’ve written about before. He’s got a degree in History, so we overlapped there, and on our assessment that no one in their right minds would go into teaching in the current educational environment. Just a whole lot of overlap there, to be honest. He noticed my Farm Bureau Insurance cap and connected it to his pragmatic pursuit of insurance agent certification. There were no illusions about the redeeming value of this occupation, and here Dad made a crack about getting right with Obamacare and the mirage of “free” insurance, which is one of the branching tags of our current politics.
OK, so this is a blog post and can’t noodle around in anecdote forever. What about the recombinant DNA of our political discourse? The overlapping tags for us were the American classics: community, individual, opportunity, threat. In some sense we agreed on all the basics; that is, our ideas were composed of the same elements. Our political divergence was in those tags’ recombination across different environmental and developmental histories. In the right situation we could get the community and opportunity tags to overlap pretty robustly, but what became clear is that for a whole range of situations, that was not the effective exchange zone, branched especially by where we put the threat tags.
Roughly speaking and allowing for all the partial overlaps, conflations, and plain misses I think this is basically right, but I’m no more sure it’s usefully right than noticing that monkeys, apes, and humans share 98% of their DNA, or whatever it is. As Holland might say the vocabulary needs the grammar to emerge into meaning. On the other hand there’s always that idea of kinship that’s so easy to lose in our biological and political discussions. It’s not that conservatives don’t have the individual tag, it’s that it’s assembled differently with the community and threat tags. We could work with that, maybe. And as usual this is me thinking out loud where, if we can get the tags to overlap, others might be interested to think with me.
One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!
In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.
So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.
A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularism. Secularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.
Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.
What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.
All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.
Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.
But no, look, not complex systems, complex systems. Complex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.
Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.
I just did this job, and because I didn’t find much specific help on the internet, and because I learned some things while doing it, I’m leaving notes here in case they help someone else later. I am not a mechanic, so this is strictly diy stuff.
The starter is an easy job. What was hard for me was figuring out how to make it an easy job. That took two days. Once I figured it out, the job itself took maybe an hour. Here’s what I figured out:
- Unbolt the flywheel cover
- Get as much slack as you can on the wires
That’s it. Compared with the starter, the shocks were really easy. Here’s what I learned:
- Be ready to cut the top nut off
OK, now if you’re interested here’s my story, starting with the starter. The shop manual and the internet both explain the job in a sentence or two. Unbolt the starter; disconnect the wires; installation is the reverse of these steps. All of that is true, but unhelpful. Almost as unhelpful as this video:
The reason it’s unhelpful is because the starter is puzzle-pieced into this tiny space on the passenger side between the engine and the frame and the shock mount. You have to come at it from underneath. The two mounting bolts themselves are easy enough to access and remove, but then actually physically pulling the starter out is amazingly difficult. With the solenoid on top and the wires connected the range of motion is very small, the shapes are eccentric and ill-matching, everything catches on everything else, and the business end is wedged into the flywheel housing. And if you’re lying on your back with your arms all cramped up and only really room to bring one hand into play, well. And it’s heavy, so it keeps trying to drop out of the tiny little manipulation zone. Let’s just say it was only by sheer stubbornness and unfathomable luck that I got the thing out of there, after having at it and taking breaks to not yell and break things and looking for guidance on the internet (to be honest, I did not watch every available video, so I may have missed the perfect one. Because I prefer to read my instructions and I can only take so much of guys with great hands and senses of spatial relations but primitive people skills stumbling through endless inane introductory remarks followed by stilted explanations in that dumb teacher voice they all think they have to do; see above).
AutoZone had a cheap remanufactured starter with a lifetime warranty in stock. They insisted on testing the old one, because for some reason the tech thought he couldn’t sell me a new one if the old one still worked. Well of course, the old one spun right up on the bench. Between the shop manual and the internet I had worked out that the probable problem was a faulty overrunning clutch, which as I understand it was keeping the spin from being translated from the starter to the flywheel. (Interestingly, the encouragement to just go ahead and replace the starter for this fault came from a forum thread of military guys talking about the same problem with their humvees. I think – the jargon was pretty thick.) I told the tech this and he contrived to get a fail out of his rig somehow, and he winked at me and sold me the starter. So that was day one.
Day two, I’m back under the truck trying to recapture lightning in a bottle and get the new unit back up in by whatever miraculous path I got the old one out. Nothing, no chance. The exit and return paths are not symmetrical. You can either have the wires connected or you can have the starter in position, but you can’t have both. When they’re connected the wires take in just enough of the range of motion to defeat insertion. But the solenoid is positioned on the top of the unit, buried between the frame and the engine, which meant there was just no way I could see or read about to get the wires connected once it was in place. Which doesn’t stop numerous web sources from helpfully explaining to insert the starter, then connect the wires.
Around this point the friendly old local guy who comes and fishes our pond sometimes stopped by for a chat. He saw I was working on the truck and a long conversation ensued, extolling the virtues of Chevy trucks and reminiscing about the ones he’s had. In the course of this, he learned that I was working on the starter and his face broke all out in sympathy. Nasty job, tiny spaces, did it on his daughter’s Pinto once and practically had to take the engine out to get at it. So that made me feel a little better, because honestly I was starting to think that I was just being stupid somehow in a way I didn’t even know how to notice.
I’m not equipped to remove the engine. I don’t even have a floor jack to loosen mounts and move it around where it is. So back to the internet, playing search term roulette. Here is where I turned up the suggestion on some discussion forum or other to remove the flywheel cover. The usual laconic gear yoda, who explained there are four bolts, two up two down, then swing the something something out of the way. Well on my truck, I could get at the four bolts (plus another on the clip for some rigid conduit that wasn’t going anywhere but wasn’t fatally obstructive); but I wasn’t seeing anything I could swing out of the way, and as far as I could tell I’d have to remove the exhaust to get the cover all the way off. Which is a whole other level of never mind. However, taking the bolts out freed the cover to move a bit in place and gave me a half inch or so more wiggle room, which made a lot of difference for getting the business end of the starter up and in. Not quite enough, as it happened, so that was day two.
Day three dawned and I’d been doing some thinking. The wires were now the problem. Is there a tool that would allow me to reach in and attach the wires while the starter is in place? Someone sensible on a forum pointed out that if you need some heroic tool to do a job like this, you’re probably doing the job wrong. So I committed to what I knew about why I couldn’t get it done, and I went back in from the front side of the engine to see if there was any way to get even just a little more slack on the wires, so I could get the unit in with them attached. Well the ignition wire was already maxed out, and part of a harness I wouldn’t want to have to mess with at my skill level. But I could pop a couple of clips and get a little more play from the battery wire. And that turned out to be just barely enough to slide the sucker right in, as if it weren’t no thing. Put everything back together, squinted real hard, turned the key, and it started right up. No need for shims, for which I was grateful.
Total elapsed time: chunks of three days. Total effective job time to unbolt the flywheel cover, loosen the battery wire, remove and replace the starter, and tighten everything back up (not counting the AutoZone trip): about an hour.
As for the shocks, I knew from very little research that the top nuts could be frozen. Which they both were. So after giving WD40 a fair chance on both sides, I went to work with the Sawzall and a cold chisel. The saw was a bit fiddly again because of tight spaces, so I wasn’t able to align for an optimal cut, which is why I had to finish up with the chisel. But all that took about five minutes a side.
Then, I had read that you need something to compress the shock while bolting it back in at the bottom. Another place a floor jack would have come in handy. But for what it’s worth, I was able to do it by hand with some heaving and grunting. It was just a matter of shoving the shock up with one hand and getting one bolt started with the other, then using that one to tighten down enough to get the other one in. So now the truck doesn’t wallow, which was sort of charming really, except it made my wife seasick.
Why did I do it? The farm is already full of learning curves. My friend Patrick keeps telling me about my pay grade and just letting fellow pros do their thing. Which I mostly agree with. But with it being summer, the opportunity costs of my time are pretty elastic. And we saved maybe $500-$600 altogether, which is not trivial ever, but especially when the refi is still in process and we have all sorts of farm equipment and supplies to spool up. Plus we don’t have a trusted new mechanic at our new place, and at the end of the semester I was in no brain for the kinds of social situations that search involves. Finally, I just like that I can do it and I did do it. Not every time, certainly, but some times. Like blogging!
This morning Rachel left at 6:30 as usual to get to Chapel Hill in time for her 8am sculpture class. I got up somewhat later. I checked the chicks and cleared the shavings and shit out of their water dispenser. Then I took Mo the porch dog for a long walk by the pond and around the big field.
Then I let the the goats, Zilla and Toots, and their herd dog Bumbles out of their stall and led them over to their pasture for the day. Everyone got pets, and Zilla tried to eat my jacket.
Next I dug and cleaned some cat’s ear for the adult chickens and collected the egg they laid overnight. Fed Mo. And chores done, time to feed me too. I decided on potato pancakes with fresh eggs and veggies. Which brings me to the peeled garlic.
Peeling garlic almost always reminds me of my friend Minu. She was a fellow adjunct in the Sociology Department at Cal State Hayward (now East Bay). We used to go out together for snacks and chat. She was smart and interesting, and we would usually share the nachos, and she would order a big side of jalapenos and eat them like candy.
Eventually she invited me to her house for a meal and to meet her husband Ashok. Incidentally, Minu and Ashok were my first (as far as I know) acquaintances whose marriage had been arranged. She taught me a lot by contrasting that system favorably with self-selected, romantic marriage, which she pointed out was a recipe for disaster compared to letting older, wiser people who knew you well make a considered choice of life partner. I certainly didn’t get my own love life in order until I was older and, erm, wiser. And for what it’s worth, I observed a warmly affectionate couple with some of the usual mutual tics and irritations. Yup, lots of ways can work, and not work.
I asked if I could do anything to help with the cooking, and Minu gave me the garlic to peel. I proudly remember her being impressed that I had half of it peeled while she was still deciding whether she needed to tell me how to peel garlic. So having established my bona fides, when she stepped out for a couple more ingredients she asked me to watch the rice.
At this point Ashok suggested we play some chess (I have since detected a little pattern with Indian men and chess). Whereupon, absorbed in the complications of holding up my end at chess against a much more skilled opponent, and sorting out a relationship on the fly with Ashok as both a person and the husband of a colleague, I completely forgot the rice. And it burned.
When she returned, Minu was disappointed but hospitable about it. I’ll admit that I don’t remember the meal at all, although I’m sure it was delightful. I was already well on my way to being overwhelmed by permutations of awkward and failed sociability in at least two cultures, so once the rice burned I suspect I clicked into some kind of minimally functional autopilot.
In my usual intellectualizing way, it’s always seemed to me there was much to learn here about social interaction, ritual, and gender. Various norms were enacted, complicated, and violated. But mostly, I remain deeply sad and embarrassed and sorry that I burned the rice.
Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.
What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.
So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”
It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)
Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.
But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).
So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.
But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.
(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)
The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.
The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.
P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.
Tossed this off just now in response to yet another righteous refusal of the Sisyphean work of education, re: racism, sexism, etc. There are lots of things that everyone ‘should’ know. But as long as they don’t, there’s a boulder to push up a hill.
Among other things, the unfolding drama in Greece is a reminder that in the world today, and for quite some time past, there is not and has not been enough work for people to do. Rather than find some other way to organize and valorize human life, the response to this has been to make work.
In Greece, among many other places, this has taken the form of massive systems of neo-feudal governmental and quasi-governmental employment (farmers of government payments like the defense and health industries, for example), funded through various extractive and inventive strategies ranging from taxation to money printing to ‘public debt’. (Since the fiat currencies of the modern state are essentially circulating debt, there is no essential difference between these strategies except the levels of public confusion and therefore the pseudo-politics caused by each.)
Because countries like Greece are not big and scary enough to control their own narratives, this fabrication of life and value is commonly referred to there as ‘corruption’. In countries big and scary enough to control their own narratives like the United States and Germany, it is referred to as ‘the public sector’. But in all cases most of the work in question deploys the otherwise unemployed to provide each other, at each others’ expense, with ‘services’ the need for which is largely created by their availability.
Clearly this is not ‘gainful’ or ‘productive’ employment, except in the pragmatic and existential senses that life and value are created by it. As the story goes, truly productive employment only occurs in the ‘private sector’, where the work is driven by real market demand rather than corrupt and/or unproductive shenanigans.
Which brings me to landscaping.
Landscaping might be described as an inherently unproductive modification of land. Farms are not landscaped, they are worked. Lawns without sheep are an ecological monstrosity, and ‘yards’ need only be cleared enough to keep pests and predators from immediate contact with the buildings. Unremarkable local plants do the trick just fine with minimal inputs of effort. Spare land may well become valuable through garden planting, or left fallow. Of course flowers that attract pollinators, fix nitrogen, and the like may add splashes of color and texture. Productive land has its own beauty, as do the lumpy bodies of productive people. Human / land interaction is traditionally labor and attention intensive. Ordinary folks lived like this for millenia.
And yet, in the United States alone landscaping is an $80 billion ‘industry’. Some of this of course is public and quasi-public landscaping like government lawns and highway medians, but most of it is private and therefore market driven. There is a robust demand for landscaping.
The need to beautify commercial/residential property as a place for relaxation, entertainment or work, has long nourished the interest in landscaping. The worth added to the value of property by decorative structures, ponds, patios, and green-winding pathways too cannot be undermined. Keeping in view the growing popularity and importance of landscaping as an art, science, and commercial value proposition, it is of little surprise that landscaping services has now become one of the most important domains in the overall services industry.
From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Over 800,000 people are employed in just the direct provision of landscaping services such as “sod laying, mowing, trimming, planting, watering, fertilizing, digging, raking, sprinkler installation, and installation of mortarless segmental concrete masonry wall units,” over 15,000 in “death care services” alone. This does NOT include the production of landscaping supplies and equipment, agriculture of sod and ornamental plants, industry and academic study of same, fractions of transportation, water, and sewer infrastructure devoted to moving the stuff and the stuff’s inputs and outputs around, yard ‘waste’ removal, and so on. Taken all together, it would probably be safe to say that private demand for the inherently unproductive modification of land annually generates about a million jobs and about $100 billion dollars. Yay, markets!
As the husband and friend of artists I know that there are all sorts of ways to argue about the nature and value of beauty. As the (hopefully) soon-to-be owner of a farm originally set up for ornamental livestock (horses) that we hope gradually to convert to boutique farm-to-table production, I am aware that there are no clear lines between the production and productivity of aesthetic and alimentary experience. The other thing that folks did for millenia was eat gruel. And horseflesh.
But this is my point. If we take an old-school approach to productive labor, there’s very little of that left to do after the machines get done. MOST of the work that people do now, especially in the developed world, is makework. My job certainly is, in a way that’s obvious enough to produce real strains at the point of sale, and incredibly vulnerable by the productivity standards that waves of businessy types periodically try to enforce on it. For education (employment: 8 million+) in anything that required real productivity, tech schools and apprenticeships, largely taught by mechanical reproduction, would surely do the trick. The rest is landscaping.
And therefore, makework had better be alright. As much as I’d like to get on my high horse about Greek (or Italian) ‘corruption’, there’s none of my life that doesn’t participate in the same dynamics. I try to pay off, maybe in ways public sector employees give up on or never learn, but given the spread of outcomes that’s not much more than noise in the signal. What does Germany think it’s doing that’s so much better than what the Greeks are doing? For the life of me, I can’t work that out.
I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.
As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.
And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?
The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.
Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.
So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:
Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.
I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.
So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.
Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.
But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.
I’m reading papers at the local cafe, and one of the staff is looking around for a leopard print umbrella somebody left behind earlier. I helpfully informed her in my opinion it is a mistake to think one owns useful accessories. Umbrellas, sunglasses, and the like. I think of these as being in common circulation, withdrawn for occasional use and then recontributed when not immediately needed. Every so often we’re all responsible for replenishing depleted supply by buying more, which is probably where confusion about ownership comes from.
This system works so well it’s never clear to me why people think communism wouldn’t work. Umbrellas, cars, books, prom dresses, shovels, cufflinks, what’s the difference? We don’t all need one sitting around idly waiting for us to need it, we just need some to be around for when we do. Then we’d have plenty of resources left over to take care of the things we all do need all the time.
I’m not going to go check where exactly in the “Manifesto” Marx and Engels explain how stupid this all is. Back to reading papers for me.
I’ve been doing very little blog reading lately – I think this is temporary, as I feel my way toward a workable relationship between media feeds and meatworld obligations – but I look in on Crooked Timber and Easily Distracted pretty regularly. The latter because I find myself agreeing with Tim Burke about almost everything (plus he and his brother wrote the book on Saturday morning cartoons, a tome I keep in my bathroom and nostalge over fondly from time to time). The former because of the general quality of the topics, the bloggers, and the commentariat; and the grim fascination of the fact that although I agree with or at least see the point of them too most of the time, the people there who most exactly express my thoughts are routinely hounded out of the conversation as scoundrels and trolls.
Even at these high standards there are two particularly interesting conversations unfolding at these blogs that I strongly recommend. At Easily Distracted, Tim popped up from one of his regular bouts of blog exhaustion with a great series of posts called “Grasping the Nettle”. He’s been interested pretty much all along in the way progressive activism works both for and against progressive values, especially in online and academic communities. Among other things, these posts are about targeting, ‘allies’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘privilege checking’. Who gets to be in that conversation, and how – the ways progressive discourses and practices assemble inclusions, exclusions, trajectories, and positions. How to fight the ‘war of position’, in Gramscian terms.
And at Crooked Timber, the always-pithy Belle Waring called a stand-down on the circular firing squad of progressive righteousness to create a safe space for everyone to say their “unpopular thoughts” about feminism and the left, without that fear of being hounded out of the conversation for missing a locked step. (Trigger warning: unpopular thoughts. Also, rape testimonies.) The resulting conversation is so much better than the doctrine-policed ones, so much friendlier, richer, more relaxed and inclusive and nuanced! Everyone is presumed to be speaking in good faith; lots of education is happening, without the customary shaming and shunning.
Still, other than ‘don’t be an asshole’ it all doesn’t really point at any particular programme for progressive practice; nor does Tim’s stuff.
I was muchly impressed by this recent interview with Chris Rock, a comedian and cultural commentator I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to before. (Mostly, my inattention, because his voice reminds me of the stock overexcited kid cartoon voice that I find so irritating. Sorry Chris, my bad.) Among the many striking points he makes, he talks about how he stopped playing college campuses.
…I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.
In their political views?
Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.
When did you start to notice this?
About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.
Well, you know, college campuses are perhaps uniquely the places where you can talk about things. So, this is a funny development, and by some way of reckoning a self-inflicted wedgie. On my campus some folks are worried about the liberal arts being under attack. By whom, by whom?
Rock talks about how there’s no backstage any more, nowhere or way to workshop ideas without the glare of righteous judgmental scrutiny. Of course we may be glad that cops don’t get to workshop their ideas about authority and power without fear of video capture, and once we grasp that power and authority work through informal systems, and that the personal is political, none of us can in principle claim a free pass on abuses of situated privilege. Where’s Power? Where’s Authority?
When she was almost 7, Rachel had a serious health crisis, ultimately involving (and perhaps resolved by) a series of spinal taps. Click through for details and some amazing reflection. The way the health professionals treated her and her family reminds her of how the NYPD treated Eric Garner. No wonder she’s interested in how doing right can go wrong! I asked her when spinal taps might be available for laughing about. That was a puzzler.
And Dyke the Elder finally just retired this semester, after around fifty years in the saddle. The precipitating event was a kerfuffle over a student who took offense to Rachel’s multimedia art project, the satirical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies, as a discussion piece in a class about meaning in the arts. It went to the Dean, the Provost got involved, and rather than anyone having a sense of humor or scholarly integrity, sensitivity training was suggested.
JohnM asks if the voles are really dead! Only as dead as we’re dead, I’d say, or as alive as we make ourselves. But I’ve been doing my micro-blogging on Facebook, so his comment jostled me to realize I could just go ahead and do some of it here to get things moving a bit.
I’m reading Murakami’s 1Q84, and enjoying it. Via Overdrive, btw, a cool library app. And I just came across this:
She entered the bar a little after seven. A young piano and guitar duo were playing “Sweet Lorraine.” Their version was a copy of an old Nat King Cole record, but they weren’t bad.
The use of ‘copy’ here is odd. There’s a general oddness of the prose, which is clearly a theme of the book. It may be a theme of Murakami, but I don’t have the background to assess that. In this book there seem to be adjacent dimensions in partial contact; the signal of this so far is that things are a little off. So is this one of those? Or does Murakami not know that a ‘copy’ of a song is conventionally called a ‘cover’? (No idea if that distinction exists in Japanese – John?) Or did the translator miss one here? Or are they both playing with similarity and simulation in a way that needs to be teased at in language?
Anyway, this then got me thinking about the first time I was introduced to the concept of a ‘cover’. I was young but already aware of music, and it was via our family friend Luther Dogan, the partner of Dyke the Elder’s colleague Paul Snyder. Luther was a professional musician who, if I remember correctly, did mostly backing vocals. He used the word ‘cover’ in conversation and then explained it to me when I was confused. I remember rolling it around in my brain quite a bit, probably one of my earlier exposures to metaphorical language that doesn’t map neatly onto the naive meaning it’s applied to.
I also think of Luther frequently because one of the times I remember being just plain wrong was in a much later conversation with him about Ry Cooder, in which I confidently asserted that “Paradise and Lunch” was Cooder’s first album. I don’t know why I thought that, but it wasn’t, and Luther knew it. But he was very gentle about prompting me to reconsider, and graciously dropped it when I didn’t.
I also think about Luther a lot because he was the Black partner of a White man, which I later learned was supposed to be a big deal in several dimensions. But it wasn’t a big deal at all – they were just our friends Paul and Luther.
“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Existentialism is back on my radar, for a couple proximate reasons. First, because I’ve got a really good student at the moment who’s both motivated and capable to do something more interesting with feminism than tribalize her grievances. So I showed her to Beauvoir and prompted her to make sense of a feminism fundamentally critical of femininity. Second, because in my ‘isms’ reading circle we’ve just gotten to existentialism (via liberalism, conservatism, communitarianism, feminism, communism, and anarchism), so I’ve been re-reading some Sartre (“Existentialism is a Humanism”), Beauvoir (Second Sex intro), and Camus (“The Myth of Sisyphus,” The Stranger). And third, because Hannah Arendt has been popping up a lot lately, via renewed scholarly interest in Eichmann in Jerusalem and the ‘banality of evil’ thesis.
It’s of the latter I now write, motivated by equal parts fascination, perplexity, and pique. This being a blog I’m not going to get all scholarly and construct a ponderously authoritativish argument. For what it’s worth, I was raised by a guy who wrote a book on Camus, so my conversation with existentialists has a certain family at the dinner table familiarity to it. I haven’t read everything Arendt wrote any more than you read everything your scholar aunt wrote (sorry I haven’t read everything you wrote, Aunt Ann Ferguson). There may be surprises there and there are certainly disagreements, but the premises of the discussion are embedded deep down in the basic premises of pre-reflective selfhood. We argue about what to do with them, not about them. And there are ways of not getting existentialism that are, y’know, banal to me.
My first copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem was so marked up, so conversed with in the margins, so thoroughly representative in that intertext of how I think about the world, that I passed it on to my most cherished student when she went away to grad school and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again. Then got another copy and marked that one up too. When I first read it the banality of evil thesis gave me a tool for understanding the world that fit my hand right away, as if the calluses of that work were somehow epigenetically already emergent there. Its two strands – that moral personhood is only achieved through responsible, attentive engagement, and that no part of that project can be laid off on any other entity – seemed both obvious to me, and obviously damning to so many human outrages large and small. Yet also a reminder that I didn’t get to sit in easy, disengaged judgment; that the attentive engagement I was responsible for meant I needed to understand first, and that project is never done.
So. Corey Robin is, as usual, doing some good work of a sort with this at his own blog and at Crooked Timber. The issue in the particular post I just linked, a response to two recent books, is whether Arendt was taken in by Eichmann’s act: whether she was a dupe who failed to understand the enormity of his vocation for evil, and therefore wrote him off as a clueless drudge unaware of the scope of his crimes, rather than the intentional, calculating monster he was. There are several fatal confounds built into that last sentence, but for now let’s move on.
Robin’s good work is to show that it makes no essential difference to Arendt’s conclusion whether Eichmann was speaking himself truly or shilling a character at the trial. Either he was someone who in the first place wasn’t clear on the enormity of his crimes, or he was someone who in awareness of that fact thought he could get the court to sympathize with him, therefore not actually getting the enormity of his crimes. Either way, Eichmann was both ethically deranged and admittedly participant in enormous crimes. So either way he was evil, the Holocaust was evil, and Arendt was on it.
Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.
It’s really nice of Robin to translate Arendt into his own Anglo-American liberalism and make her intelligible there; this may even be appropriate, given that the attack on her comes from within the righteous quasi-religious certainties of liberal or social-democratic moralizing. But Arendt’s argument was not based on Anglo-American liberalism, nor even on ethical leftism. It was premised on a distinct kind of activist humanism in the Kant / Hegel / Schopenhauer / Nietzsche trajectory that also led to the existentialists Arendt hung out with. These folks knew their Nietzsche. They knew that God was dead. They had been beyond good and evil their whole thinking lives. They therefore knew damn well that there was something pathetic and clueless about slapping the evil label on troublesome stuff, as if that got it all nicely contained and managed – as if we knew already what that meant and how to handle it, as if delivering the j’accuse enacted a reality more fundamental than the messiness of our beings together.
Camus didn’t talk about evil at all. As I’m reminded as I read through “Myth of Sisyphus” and The Stranger again, at the macro level he was interested in absurdity, the collapse and absence of any ultimate foundation for meaning or ethical choice. At the micro level he was interested in thoughtlessness, the brutalities and cruelties large and small we inflict on each other because we haven’t taken responsibility for ourselves in relation to others.
And why was Eichmann’s evil banal? Robin tells us: because it was thoughtless.
Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.
Good. But what does this mean to Robin? That Eichmann was, possibly, just a schlemiel. But that can’t be right, because big effects like the Holocaust can’t come from little causes like that. But that’s not what Arendt says, and strangely, it’s not what she means, either. Arendt is arguing precisely that big effects can emerge from little causes; in fact, that this is routinely what happens. This is why, for her, it doesn’t get any worse than thoughtlessness. Robin thinks he needs to rehabilitate Eichmann’s evil given that he might just have been a schlemiel. He reads thoughtlessness as a kind of bourgeois party foul, inattention to the magnitude of his crimes as a tic or trick that needs to be explained away to get to the heart of the matter. But for Arendt, like for Camus, the thoughtlessness and inattention ARE the heart of the matter. Eichmann’s dereliction of thought and attention meant that, no matter how cunning or effective he may have been or not been, he was incapable of responsible presence in the world with others. This failing is not minimized, but intensely magnified, if God is dead and we have nothing but our intelligence and relationships with others to construct an ethical life out of. Add some power and all scales of mischief ensue. Far from threatening to let Eichmann off the hook by calling him ‘merely’ thoughtless and inattentive, Arendt damned him as decisively as the conceptual materials at her disposal made possible.
It’s certainly the case that no one of a religious or quasi-religious cast of mind will find this a satisfying argument. If only the narratives of good and evil will do, have at it. But Arendt paid attention to Eichmann, and thought about him, rather than installing him as an outsize cause in a pat morality tale. And it’s thoughtless and inattentive to accuse Arendt of being a bad foundational moralist, when she had no interest in being anything of the kind.
Note: for a cool takedown of the liberal inability to understand distributed mass action except through inflated personal responsibility, and a partial takedown of Arendt for addressing this via Eichmann as an imperfect case to demonstrate the point, with bonus reflections on how Marx handled such partial theorizing through the concept of the fetish, see Uncomfortable Science.
I got crunched for time (I crunched myself for time) leading into submission of midterm grades, so I read a bunch of papers for assessment the first time and now I’m looping back to comment on them, which is actually the hard and time-consuming part.
It’s hard because I try to engage with the papers as actual pieces of scholarship, as the products of intelligent and developing minds. That means I can’t just take a red pen and mark all the errors to ‘justify’ a grade; I have to attend to what they’re trying to accomplish, and prompt them toward better accomplishments.
Many of this first batch of papers are doing what my colleague called ‘taking refuge in the facts’, reporting on findings with very little engagement or analysis. This is actually a victory compared to the wifty handwaving students can default to when they haven’t tuned in to the integrity of investigation – when they just think they’re jumping through hoops. These folks are getting that they should know what they’re talking about. But papers like this don’t bring the excitement yet – they’re dull recitations of data. And since I don’t ritualize very well, each one hits me right between the eyes like a soggy dishrag, and for each one I have to figure out some comment to make or question to ask that points at a way to DO something with the information they’ve found.
I didn’t assign the topics – they got to pick their own. And I’m prepared to be interested in anything. So there’s at least a potential dynamic of shared interest to work with. But when they don’t bring the excitement, mustering it up for them time after time can be a brain-wringing experience. Not to say that I consistently succeed, either.
OK, so rather than leaving this post in pathos, I wonder if anyone who’s paying attention has any stories to tell or strategies to share about finding the excitement?