Archive for ‘analysis’

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 14, 2016

The recombinant DNA of our political discourse

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

homelitesuperwiz66003

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

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

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

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 30, 2014

We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

As Carl knows, I’m not much of a lecturer – and don’t like to do it. But in some of the upper level courses I teach I just have to do some talking to get things set up. On the good days, my talking gets to be a dialogue pretty quickly; and on the best days a polylogue. If I’m given a starting point by a student, that’s where we start. Any “exposition” of material is one of very many variations on the theme you’re trying to play, so why not their variations from their starting points.

My course on the development of Western cosmology is at the extreme in terms of what I have to “present.” In particular, there’s a lot of mathematics that has to be loaded in so we can understand Plato’s Timaeus, Galileo and Newton, and on to SNa’s as standard candles and the contribution of “dark matter” to the weight of the cosmos. The ancient math is in a style they haven’t been exposed to; the rest is basic algebra and trig that they’re supposed to know as an entrance requirement; but it all has to be (re)activated. Given the realities (lots more Philosophy majors than science majors, for example) the more graphic, visual, and dramatic it can be made, the better. Wizardry trumps orthodoxy.

So the other day, with Carl’s new post on Attention Surplus running through my head, and the task of revealing the magic of the stretched string on the immediate agenda, I sat thinking my way through the array of possible scripts that would lead from the dread monologue to the promised land of polylogue. At some point, a new slogan for my courses popped into my head:

WE BRAKE FOR EPIPHANIES

At its simplest this just recapitulates some of the major themes already developed in AS: “coverage” is secondary (and can take care of itself, a lot of the time); it’s more important to listen to the students than talk at them; and act like a synchrotron: once you see a ball get rolling, give it an accelerating kick. I have to add that the other important element is being attentive to and reading faces and other body language. If you can’t recognize an epiphany when you see one, none of this works.

Once you do recognize it, the epiphany can do an amazing amount of work. First off, the epiphaner (epiphanist(?)) needs to understand its epiphany: talk it through out loud to find out if it’s genuine or mere brain fart; then epiphanies are contagious if brought out into the open. In fact, the one that actually occurred in the revelation of the stretched string was absolutely virulent. We even smoked out a card-carrying Platonist who was absolutely outraged that a cruddy little piece of string was placed in the position supposed to be occupied by the denizens of the world of Forms – even to be thought of as the central and decisive element of Proof. Her heartfelt (and aggressive) attempts at exorcism failed; but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her objections. Or, at least, I hope we haven’t; but I’m pretty sure I can stir them up again when I need them for, say, the big bang.

December 11, 2013

Figuring out figuring it out

by CarlD

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

May 10, 2013

What counts as success

by CarlD

Reading final papers and course journals now, this smacked me between the eyeballs. For better or worse, this is what counts as a major success to me (from an introductory world history journal, so don’t sweat the typos). Our topic this semester has been ‘conditions of work’:

The last couple weeks, in class, we have investigated the research process and our second papers. I am learning that no matter what time period we are individually studying or what country, most of the same rules apply. There will always be a certain “group” within a population that is getting miss treated because they can be. In most cases, victims are not victimized because of some racial intention or ill-will, it’s because of necessity. I think that when something needs to be done that no one else wants to do, society “volunteers” people to do it. If that group doesn’t have the power or will to object, they fill the void. Once this precedence is set, the negative connotations follow.

Is that the end of the story? No, of course not. But to me, at least, this cleans out the hero/villain juvenilia and the ideological just-so stories and gets the line of investigation pointed toward increasingly better understanding. Yay you, unnamed student.

March 3, 2013

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

by CarlD

I’ve been thinking about democracy lately as one of a collection of strategies for managing complexity. The proximal stimuli are the recent American elections and their associated issues; the Eurozone ‘crisis’; and the Italian elections just now concluded. The immediate stimuli are an application I just wrote for a really interesting NEH summer seminar in Rome, titled “Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento – New Perspectives,” and a discussion of “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber.

Let’s stick with Italian politics. I’ve personally been following them more or less closely since the early 70s, when I was in Italian public school. The chronicle of this period is quite rich and contested, with the movement of the Communist Party into play for inclusion in the government (the ‘historic compromise’), right-wing paramilitary backlash sometimes called the ‘strategy of tension’, left-wing student and paramilitary activism, and in general lots of splashy violence, all of it collected under the rubric of the ‘years of lead’. This was clearly a period of crisis, although I must admit that it was not much visible in the lives of the kids I was hanging out with.

When I went back to Italy for a semester as an undergrad, Dyke the Elder plotted my political education by giving me the task of keeping a journal of the Italian press from left to center to right. Every day I would go to the newsstand and buy at least three papers, most commonly “Avanti!” and/or “il manifesto,” “Rinascita,” and “Il Secolo d’Italia.” Two things struck me at the time and have stayed with me since. The first was that having this range of explicitly partisan press in easy newsstand juxtaposition did a lot to discipline all sides’ relationship to ‘the facts’, so it was possible to get a pretty reliable skinny of events from any of the papers, accompanied with explicitly polemical analysis. The second was that Italian politics were again in crisis, this time most prominently over NATO and the placement of nuclear missiles on Italian soil, and the movement of the Socialist Party under Bettino Craxi into a position of leadership; according to many, at the expense of anything still resembling socialist principles. I could always get a good political tirade with my coffee, Totocalcio and groceries, but life went on.

When I was in Rome for my dissertation research Italian politics were in crisis over the collapse and fragmentation of the Communist party. More recently of course Berlusconi and the populist/nativist Northern League created a new state of permanent crisis, the media-savvy prime minister presiding over a circus-like political spectacle nicely foreshadowed by the notorious Cicciolina. At this point the common, and often at least half-accurate, perception of Italians that their politicians are a pack of grossly incompetent clowns who somehow also manage to enrich themselves with ruthless efficiency at public expense became the near-explicit basis of government; Berlusconi’s point being essentially that if it’s going to happen anyway, you might as well at least get some entertainment and vicarious wish-fulfillment out of it. That this shameless affrontery made enough sense to enough people to keep him in power for as long as it did (and maybe again now, even after his ‘ultimate’ disgrace less than two years ago) says something important, I think, about what sorts of functions Italians outside the talking classes take politics to perform. That more morally rigorous aspirations have been consistently damped and absorbed through succeeding regimes (see, e.g., Machiavelli, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Crispi, Turati, Gentile, Togliatti, Berlinguer, Pertini, Craxi, ‘mani pulite’ and the Second Republic) says something more. Grillo is unlikely to be a game-changer in this arrangement, but he’s the usual sort of fun intervention.

During most of this time I was also becoming a historian, which involved learning about all the ways Italian politics had been in crisis since the Risorgimento, which itself effectively created a national overlay for the regional and factional crises that had been going on since at least the Renaissance. In short, if you want to you can construct an account of Italian politics in permanent crisis for at least 500 years; although as we can see by my own short experience, the details vary quite a bit from time to time. And of course it’s self-evidently silly to call a dynamic that persistent a crisis, so it helps that the social history of Italy can be told as an account of long stretches of relative stability, relatively untroubled by the frantic political sideshows. I would now say ‘metastability’, however, since ‘the same’ outcomes kept being produced by ‘different’ means, hence the Lampedusa quote in the title. That is the story I now find the most fascinating.

To put my thesis bluntly, no one has ever gotten what they wanted out of Italian politics unless what they wanted was what they could get. I’d recommend that as a general orienting hypothesis about a lot of things, for example Iraq, Iran, Arizona, Russia, China, Baltimore, Britney Spears, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and women’s rights. What is the possibility space? How are agents built, e.g. constrained and enabled, in relation to the possibility space? What can we read back about possibility from how agents act? It seems to me that our analytical contrasts are severely distorted by the notion that intentions are a special kind of cause exempt from all the formation and interaction dynamics of complex systems. Let’s see if we can do better than Feuerbachian pseudo-theologies of empowerment, flattering though they may be. In any case, here’s how I put it in my NEH application, in pertinent part:

I’m assuming I’ll learn lots of new things and reconfigure some old ones, so any plan of study is necessarily speculative. But going in, I imagine it would be interesting to think forward from Gramsci’s contested analysis of the Risorgimento as a ‘passive revolution’ driven from above by elites, and connect that with recent developments in complex systems analysis. I’m thinking, for example, of Terry Deacon’s contrast between dynamical systems and self-organizing systems in Incomplete Nature. Just to gesture at that here, it seems to me that there’s only so much an active/passive agency analysis and abstractions like ‘modernity’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the state’, and so on can tell us about nation-forming and -forcing processes. At this point we could be looking for the kinds of emergent, self-organizing poly- or para-intentional actor networks and assemblages Gramsci was starting to notice and trying to reconcile with the structure/agency constraints of the Marxist revolutionary project and conceptual vocabulary. I guess if I were to frame this polemically I might say something about getting out of the agency metanarrative without falling through its structuralist or post-structuralist looking-glasses, but that all seems a little tired now and I’m much more interested in theories as hypotheses for figuring out what was going on and how it was going on, at various scales.

Getting down to cases and figuring stuff out is what my teaching is about at this point. So I would want to translate what I learn about the Risorgimento and its transnational linkages back to my classes in World History and Modern Europe both as content and as a model of how to do good analysis; and then extend those practices to other cases. For example, perhaps to look at trasformismo in comparison to other self-organizing, quasi-political strategies to manage the intractable complexities of modernization; or to investigate in my “Gender and History” class how the particular gender formations of modern Italy evolved around and through the opportunities and constraints created by the ‘fare Italiani’ project in its local, regional, national, and transnational contexts.

I’m out on so many limbs here I have to hope they weave together into something that will support a little weight. But I really like the idea of taking the stuff we’ve all been thinking about here at DV for quite awhile and focusing it on a notoriously hairy case study. Maybe the hair is inherent.

Which brings me to “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber. I haven’t read the book by Colin Crouch that’s under discussion, but it seems to me that to call the advanced industrialized countries ‘post-democratic’ they’d have had to once be democratic and now not be. And at least in the Italian case I’ve just sketched out, I’m not sure anything like that sort of categorical delimitation of the discussion can do anything but confuse us. Italy right now is more or less just as democratic as it’s been at least since the Risorgimento and arguably since the Renaissance, which is to say, not at all if we mean by democracy a formal system in which popular votes lead directly to explicit policy outcomes and intentional transformations of collective life; and amply, if what we mean by democracy is one domain of self-organizing dynamical systems – like markets, patronage networks, trade complexes, families, fashion – that take unmanageably complex inputs and constrain them into orderly outputs. And we can notice that while each of these systems creates means for human intentions to be effective, they do so by radically constraining what humans are able to effectively intend, in relation to more comprehensive systems that work the same way. Freedom is the recognition of necessity after all.

December 24, 2012

The rhetoric of commodities

by CarlD

Does the commodity speak? Generally nowadays, thanks in large part to Marx, Durkheim and Mauss, we would take for granted that it does. But how it speaks, in what language; and how to speak about it vary quite a bit depending on whether you’re in Marx’s discourse community or Durkheim’s. Here’s a fun example, from a widely-cited article I’m currently reading (pdf) (and stopped reading to write this): Igor Kopytoff, “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process,” in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective (1986).

I’m going to quote Kopytoff at some length. For what it’s worth, I think what he’s up to is very interesting, and in a way, quite good. That way is the Durkheimy, or perhaps more generally the ‘liberal’ way. If you’re familiar with Marx, see if anything pops out at you. I’ll quote some relevant Marx further along. Here’s Kopytoff:

I assume commodities to be a universal cultural phenomenon. Their existence is a concomitant of the existence of transactions that involve the exchange of things (objects and services), exchange being a universal feature of human social life and, according to some theorists, at the very core of it (see, for example, Homans 1961; Ekeh 1974; and Kapferer 1976). Where societies differ is in the ways commoditization as a special expression of exchange is structured and related to the social system, in the factors that encourage or contain it, in the long-term tendencies for it to expand or stabilize, and in the cultural and ideological premises that suffuse its workings.

What, then, makes a thing a commodity? A commodity is a thing that has use value and that can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a counterpart, the very fact of exchange indicating that the counterpart has, in the immediate context, an equivalent value. The counterpart is by the same token also a commodity at the time of exchange. The exchange can be direct or it can be achieved indirectly by way of money, one of whose functions is as a means of exchange. Hence, anything that can be bought for money is at that point a commodity, whatever the fate that is reserved for it after the transaction has been made (it may, thereafter, be decommoditized). Hence, in the West, as a matter of cultural shorthand, we usually take saleability to be the unmistakable indicator of commodity status, while non-saleability imparts to a thing a special aura of apartness from the mundane and the common. In fact, of course, saleability for money is not a necessary feature of commodity status, given the existence of commodity exchange in non-monetary economies (68-9).

There’s a lot to notice here, but the first thing I want to call attention to is the “of course” in the last sentence. Given how Kopytoff has defined his terms, he is of course right, albeit circularly and perhaps trivially. But I think it’s pretty clear that no one who has read Marx could possibly use the phrase ‘of course’ in this sentence in this way, since the whole weight of Marx’s critique of capitalism and several hundred pages of close analysis in Capital rest on showing that the commodity is a contingent historical formation specific to capitalism and not, of course, a ‘universal cultural phenomenon’. He may be wrong, but he’s not wrong ‘of course’. By the way, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem that Kopytoff is oblivious to Marx – although for those of us who aren’t, the discussion here is surreal, especially in the context of a confident general definition of terms for a universal economic anthropology. The usual move in this kind of discussion is to jauntily refute profound misunderstandings of Marx, so ignoring him completely is actually refreshing. [Update: I take it back – those jaunty refutations occur on pp. 70, 83, and 84. I’m not sure whether to be happy or sad that Kopytoff plays to type after all.]

To foreshadow later discussion, I also think Kopytoff is actually up to something overlapping with Marx, but in a quite different critical environment that prompts a different strategy. But let us first proceed to the demonstration of the contrast, quoting Marx:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical niceties…. A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour…. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities….

Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not in their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning. Consequently it was the analysis of the prices of commodities that alone led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and it was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their characters as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money-form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of the private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers…. The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production (Capital, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”).

At the most basic level of contrast, we could just say that these fellas have defined the term ‘commodity’ differently. Whereas for Kopitoff it’s any thing in its moment of exchange between people, for Marx it’s the specific kind of thing produced for exchange in the market. M-C-M’, baby. But does that specific kind of thing need its own word? Kopytoff seems to think so, because he says that’s what we mean by commodity in “the West” as a matter of “cultural shorthand.” He wants to transcend this cultural localism, and he’s going to do that by embedding this narrower concept of ‘commodity’ in the larger one. What we’d then call the specific Western version, he hasn’t said yet in the part I’ve read.

This would seem to accomplish a purpose at least parallel to Marx of demystifying the commodity, specifically by bringing it into essential relationship with “other forms of production,” as Marx says; albeit at the risk of treating as ‘natural, self-understood, and immutable’ the universality of the commodity form, and therefore ‘concealing, instead of disclosing’ its social character – chasing its eternal meaning, not its historical contingency. But he seems to intercept this danger by his treatment of the market form of the commodity as a mere Western cultural shorthand.

Let’s go back to Marx. Why does he think ‘commodity’ needs to refer specifically to this ‘Western cultural shorthand’? Well for one thing, he doesn’t think it’s just a cultural shorthand, nor would he think that treating it as such is adequately demystifying. As a matter of historical fact, he tells us, ‘the commodity’ as a thing characterized by its relation to exchange is not at all a cultural universal, but a specific artifact of a specific mode of production, the capitalist one. Of course people have been exchanging things in various ways, including money sale in markets, throughout human history. Those forms of exchange correspond to modes of production, which are generally mixed but tend to be dominated from place to place and time to time by one characteristic mode. So the Vikings had artisans, but their dominant mode of production was plunder, their dominant form of exchange gift-giving. (I’m being silly here. I know nothing about Vikings.) Medieval cities had merchants and markets, some of them global, but the dominant mode of production was agrarian communalism, the dominant mode of exchange extractive rents and dues. (I’m not being silly here. I refer to a vast and occasionally intelligent literature with which I have some familiarity.)

What makes the modern West distinctive, for Marx, is that it’s taken the very particular kind of transaction called markets, visible and generally benign throughout most of human history as a localized form (Marx is not refuted by finding money and markets here and there), and transformed it into the universally dominant and profoundly problematic mode of production. “The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image” (The Communist Manifesto).

So, to get to the heart of the matter, what Kopytoff and Marx both want to do is to get the West’s version of economy and economic discourse demystified, and properly situated as a distinctive but not dispositive localism. The difference is that Marx thinks this distinctive localism is, in fact, historically dispositive, in the concrete historical sense that its specific way of defining and enacting things and the exchange of things has an expansive logic that forces itself upon all others – tending to reduce everything, as he said, to the “cash nexus.” The production of things for sale so carefully contained and often actively stigmatized in other historical societies has been made, historically, the dominant form of global economy and human relationship in the capitalist world order.

In this frame, what we call this particular form of production and exchange is not a trivial matter of local prejudice. Nor, Marx would say, can it just be defined or abstracted away, a form of magical thinking he lampoons in the showy but failed criticisms of Proudhon, the utopian socialists, the Young Hegelians, Bakhunin and the anarchists, and so on. In this frame, eurocentrism is not a form of accidental cultural gaucherie to be corrected with more inclusive language, as Kopytoff appears to think, but the ideological correlate of material domination. And this then has been the Marxian critique of well-meaning culturist universalisms like Durkheim’s and Kopytoff – that the standpoint of critique is imaginary, the means of resistance a hocus-pocus of incantations and good intentions. Not so much that they’re wrong as powerless, and distractingly powerless.

Is this a fair takedown of Kopytoff? Sure, if transformative social revolution is the agenda. If it’s not, then Kopytoff’s piece does some satisfying decentering of the economic discourses of capitalist eurocentrism, pitched nicely to trouble the more narrow universalist assumptions of lots of textbooks in economics and international relations. Like those textbooks, Kopytoff reads the categories of bourgeois economy back into history; but he does so in an essentially decommoditized form that gives the cultural imperialism no traction, a move he then builds on by calling attention to the historical processes whereby particular things are dynamically commoditized and decommoditized from place to place and time to time. A strategy Marx would appreciate, I think. And therefore in this contrast with Marx, who haunts him silently, Kopytoff also shows something fun and ironic about how discourse communities work to narrow and precondition the construction of knowledge; but also how leverage may be enabled by precisely that constraint.

September 23, 2012

Things, relations among things, relations

by CarlD

There’s a really interesting discussion of David Graeber’s recent book Debt going on at Jacobin, including an original review by Mike Beggs, a reply defending Graeber by J.W. Mason, and Beggs’ riposte. The discussion is terrific on the merits and the ways Mike and Josh agree and disagree about how to specify their objects add up to a brief and pithy education on issues in modern economic theory. But it seems to me that they’ve kind of missed an antecedent point that would help clarify the discussion significantly, that being the distinction between object-oriented ontology and relation-oriented ontology.

Are they talking about things, are they talking about relations among things, or are they talking about relations? It seems to me that they’re trying to talk about relations, but because they don’t understand this to be the ground of their work they keep getting sucked into talking about relations among things. What’s the difference? Well, if you’re really working in a relation-based ontology, there are no such things as things. Or to put that another way, things ARE relations that for a certain kind of utilitarian cognitive convenience we’ve just settled at a particular scale and moment. You can find this sort of thinking threaded throughout intellectual history, but for modern economics the central figure is Marx – who neither Mike nor Josh quite understand this way, as N. Pepperell tells us is characteristic of even some of the best Marx scholarship.

Anyway, the problem with object-orientation, thinking through things and ‘their’ relations, is that to get things to stay things you have to pin them down to particular scales and moments, and then treat their dynamics as contingently supplemental rather than constitutive. (Or you can treat the dynamics as separate ‘things’, which is quite common and super weird.) In this sense, there is nothing more abstract and Platonic than a real, concrete, actually-existing thing. Both Mike and Josh feel to me like they kinda understand this, but they don’t have a language of relation-orientation that makes it clear. (Neither did Marx, hence repeated pointers, e.g. about reification, that seem quite cryptic if your orientation is objective.) So they can’t fully appreciate each others’ argument because each thinks the other is talking about things when in fact they’re talking about relations. And therefore they keep trying to teach each other to at least think in terms of relations among things, rather than getting on with thinking through how to talk about relations. This disconnect happens all the time; it’s one of the ordinary ways we misunderstand each other.

I’ve got journals to read so I’m going to have to leave this thought sketchy here. If it seems interesting, maybe we can work on it more in the comments.

July 8, 2012

Constraint and the perfect shot

by CarlD

Watching Andy Murray play Roger Federer (Wimbledon 2012) I’m struck by another case of constraint causation. The court, the surface, the net, the weather, the opponent, the rules of the game and a million other factors large and small create the conditions of the game in general and its particular instance in this match. They do so by ruling out all the things the game isn’t (backgammon, a brit milah, a French Open quarterfinal between Williams and Sharapova) and all the people who haven’t ‘earned’ their way there, so now it’s Fed and Murray in the Wimbledon men’s final.

All this sets the scene for both the match and my observation about it, which is that sometimes Murray second-guesses himself in the middle of a shot. Every point begins with a highly constrained space of possible plays – the serve – which then has a virtual infinity of permutations of speed, spin, angle, target. This wave function of possibility collapses into an actual serve which is just one of the shots it might have been, calling forth in turn a service return that has a possibility space constrained by all the conditions previously mentioned plus the particulars of the instant serve.

It is of course impossible to hit your return both crosscourt and down the line, both hard and soft, both topspinned and underspinned, although in theory and early in the process all of those are live and potentially good options. Every shot works like this – a big but constrained space of possibilities that must be collapsed into a single actual shot. And this is the thing that Murray sometimes fails to do – he seems to stay aware of options through the point of execution, consequently hitting shots that are trying impossibly to be both or all of the good options he needed to pick between.

The perfect tennis shot only becomes so by rigorously not being every other possible shot.

June 26, 2012

Constraint and utopia

by CarlD

There’s a dataset for constraint causation making the pop culture rounds right now, emergent from long-existing elements but catalyzed by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter quit a bigtime job at the State Department because she found it pretty much ate up her whole life. From this she concludes that the ‘women can/should have it all’ narrative of [second wave, liberal] feminism (or, more accurately, the marketing spin on the entitlement movement of which that feminism is a part, as Stephanie Coontz astutely notes) is still not enabled by the intentional decisions of our society, culture and economy.

I’m not sure how much blood and treasure I want to spend on this, so I’m going to frontload the thesis here and say that Slaughter is simply correct, but that her simple correctness is utopian in at least two ways: because ‘having it all’ is a fantasy of infinite resource; and because specialization is enabling in ways that have to be accounted for in rejecting it (again as noted by Coontz). I should say that by ‘utopian’ I don’t mean ‘bad’, I mean ‘analytically irrelevant and of only a certain limited rhetorical utility’. Anyway, I take it as virtually axiomatic that all serious conversations about what’s haveable start from a ground of raw possibility (structural conditions) and then get right to trade-offs (intentional decisions). Those trade-offs then structure the possible into one or another actuality, enabling some things by disabling some other things and creating in part the structural conditions for the next round of intentional decisions.

So it should go without saying in serious conversation that no one has it all: because no one commands infinite resources, because there are some havings that are contradictory to other havings, and because some havings are simply impossible. The I-can’t-have-it-all critique is a give-up critique, a blast of generic anomic discontent that’s always true but only trivially so. And gratifyingly the conversation about Slaughter’s article has swiftly coalesced around this point. Everyone seems to get it that resources are not infinite and that choices inevitably involving trade-offs will be required. As Coontz concludes,

It was a great victory for gender equality when people finally stopped routinely saying “she’s awfully good at her job — for a woman.” The next big step forward will be when people stop saying, “It’s awfully tough to balance work and family — for a woman.” It’s tough for men and women. We need to push for work-family practices and policies that allow individuals to customize their work lives according to their changing individual preferences and family obligations, not just their traditional gender roles.

I like this, but let’s look at it. One of the really neat things to come out of feminist analysis over the last few decades is the observation that men’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of women – as the ruling class’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of the working class, white people’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of race/ethnic minorities, colonial cores’ achievements are predicated on the enabling effort of colonial peripheries, humans’ achievements are predicated on the enabling effort of the ecosystem, etc. etc.. To enable some, others are constrained. When Coontz talks about individuals ‘customizing’ their lives, she is talking about the kind of relative autonomy that historical elites have enjoyed only at the cost of heteronomy throughout the rest of the system. Of course as Hegel and his followers have explained, this carries significant costs and constraints for the elites as well, which we can notice without feeling any need to sympathize. In any event, on this account choice has historically been a luxury that comes at great cost. Making it available to everyone is not a trivial exercise of moral will but a world-historical transformation of the fundamental operating dynamics of our lives.

A cautionary tale, this. As humanists we have to worry that constraint is behind every enablement. Furthermore, every enablement (every choice, if you like) becomes a new constraint on future possibility. The exercise of freedom is inherently constraining; every choice is an exclusion. When I chose my wife I chose against every other woman in the world. All of whom were, of course, available to me – albeit not simultaneously, for reasons having to do with culture, biology and physics….

But we also have to look carefully at what’s enabled by constraint. My happy marriage, for one. Slaughter rues the home-life she had to abandon to devote her every waking moment to the business of running America’s foreign affairs. She is grateful to her husband for enabling this by taking on management of home and family. She imagines, Coontz imagines and we can easily imagine a more humanely balanced work/life system in which Slaughter and her husband both do their jobs at a level of intensity that enables significant and shared effective participation in family life. What we can’t imagine if we do that is either of them being optimized for either their job or their home life. If we want people to be really, really good at running America’s foreign affairs we need to enable them to do just that by providing a small army of support staff to take care of everything that isn’t on task, in the process disabling all other attention and effort. That is, we have to radically constrain that life in order to bring it to its fullest targeted development. Perhaps creating monsters. And if we want people to be really, really good at managing home life, we need to both enable and constrain them accordingly, by providing for their material maintenance with a staff of other persons so dedicated (breadwinner, plumber, grocer, mechanic, etc. etc.). Making it their choice does not change this basic fact, once that die is cast it’s cast, and no one in such a system has or can have it all. So as another datapoint, Rachel and I trade off a basically entropic home life for greater dedication to our respective careers as artist and educator. Wives are useful things – we wish we had one.

Choosing at the individual or cultural level for gender equity and balanced lives is therefore unavoidably a choice against the full advantages of focus and specialization, and therefore as feminists have also noted about men with dedicated domestic staffs, it creates a disabling competitive disadvantage. It is a luxurious choice in this sense, dependent on enabling constraints elsewhere in the system, a plenty that had to cost someone (else) something; or at least a judgment that we can afford to have the task in question performed suboptimally. It may be that we can evolve new systems (Marx envisioned this most explicitly in “The German Ideology”) that either don’t require constraint to enable excellence, or that are so exquisitely distributed that everyone’s excellence is joyously enabled by everyone else’s. I’m all for that, in principle. In practice I think the best we can do for the next little while is to distribute both constraints and enablements more equitably, and accept the costs of foregone excellence that follow.

May 23, 2012

Deacon, McGinn, and the problem of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder

by Asher Kay

It would be easy to dismiss Colin McGinn’s review of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature as a bit of grumpy get-off-my-lawnism. But I think that by taking a closer look, we can gain some insight into the difficulty of communicating across disciplines.

As cognitive, neurological and complexity sciences burgeoned over the last few decades, scientists started encroaching on land once firmly occupied by philosophers. These scientists are eager to take a crack at some of the questions about human consciousness that have been vexing pretty much everyone pretty much forever. Beyond the obvious territorial concerns, this influx of foreigners creates some serious communication problems. McGinn’s review of Deacon, I think, is a fascinating case in point.

What we have is a philosopher in the field of “Philosophy of Mind” reviewing a book about the emergence of consciousness written by a scientist in the field of biological anthropology. What symptoms of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder (CDCD) might we expect to see? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A tendency for the discomfort and difficulty of understanding the scientist’s text to manifest in emotional ways like blame, offhand dismissiveness, derision, and imputing negative motives to the scientist.
  2. An aversion to the more wonkily scientific parts of the book, where the philosopher is likely to feel less sure of his rhetorical footing.
  3. A tendency to fault the scientist for his lack of knowledge concerning previous work done in philosophy on the questions the scientist is attempting to answer.
  4. An unexamined projection of philosophical terminology, conceptual frameworks and exegetical norms to the scientist’s text — In short, an assumption that the scientist is writing a work of philosophy.

If these are reasonable, it’s pretty clear from the review that McGinn has a nasty case of the CDCDs.

It’s not my intention to lay this all on McGinn (although his review is snotty enough at times that he arguably deserves some ribbing). For each of these symptoms, there’s a corresponding symptom that we’d expect to see, either in the scientist’s book itself or in his responses to philosophers’ criticisms. For example, the scientist might avoid philosophical ideas and approaches for the same reasons the philosopher avoids scientific ones. But if Deacon wants to create a cross-disciplinary work – if he wants to engage philosophers as well as scientists – he needs to be aware of the problem and find a way to communicate clearly with both groups. This is no easy thing — even less so since both groups have multiple sub-groups with their own communication problems. I think Deacon succeeds in some ways and fails in others. I’ll try to point out both as I go along.

read more »

February 14, 2012

Aggregate, Arrange, Assemble

by CarlD

Today I had an ambitious day. I described paper writing to my intro World History sections as a process of aggregation, arrangement and assembly similar to the formation of stars as they collect atoms, compact them to fusion and burst forth in light. Then I told them about the episode of “Trailer Park Boys” in which Ricky breaks into a house to pick out an engagement ring for Lucy (aggregation = research), swallows the ring so he won’t get caught by the cops and throws it up again once they’re gone (arrangement = analysis), then hands it to Lucy and says “So, you want to get married or something?” (assembly = writing).

We talked about what’s wrong with stealing the ring (this would be the ‘plagiarized’ paper) and whether making Ricky a Viking who ‘plundered’ rather than ‘stole’ it made a difference. We considered why Lucy might have preferred a more ritualized arrangement of their eventual assembly, concluding that in this case the value of ritual lay at least in part in its enactment of focused competence and commitment in making arrangement for the assembled couple’s needs. It’s about credibility. We all agreed that the same ring might be stolen, plundered, bought or fabricated, transported in one’s guts or a velvet box, delivered via slingshot or placement in a glass of champagne, with each permutation of aggregation, arrangement and assembly making a significant difference in the meaning and value of ‘the same’ ring.

I took out some nice artisan multigrain bread I had aggregated to myself earlier and ate some. We talked about the process of chewing and digestion whereby the previous arrangement of the bread is broken down, rearranged into more directly nourishing compounds and waste, and ultimately reassembled into poo and me. We laughed a bit about making sure that these two assemblages not become mixed, and considered the consequences of substituting Skittles for bread in one’s regular diet. We talked about the paper that would result from just vomiting the bread back up or pooping it out without nutritional processing.

They may not immediately have digested all this, but they were intrigued and I had lots of fun.

January 30, 2012

Describing Tradition: A Problem in Anthropological Method

by johnmccreery

The following remarks are cross-posted from Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). It seemed serendipitous to receive a message reminding me that not yet a year ago we were discussing postmodern Christianity. Suppose that you are an anthropologist. You observe and participate in a local festival. Then you have to explain it.

It’s that time of year again. Mitsusawa High Town, the condominium complex in Yokohama, where my wife and I have lived since coming to Japan in 1980, has once again held its annual omochitsuki (pounding of the rice cakes). On Saturday I pitched in and helped to pull the necessary equipment out of the storage shed and get it washed and ready for use. That was a job for the men to do, outside, scrubbing and rinsing with cold water. Inside the High Town’s public meeting room women were gathering, bringing down pots of glutenous rice that had been parceled out among them for soaking overnight, chopping and wrapping sweet potatoes, first in damp newspaper, then in tin foil, ready to become yakiimo (roasted sweet potatoes) the next day, then chopping the vegetables that would go into the tonjiru (pork soup). A lot of people showed up. Many hands made light work, and the preparations were complete well before noon.

Sunday was the day of the mochi-pounding proper. A few hardy men were up to start the fires at 7:00 a.m. I drifted in around 8:00 a.m. and joined a crew busy pulling nails from the used lumber being used as fuel for the fires. The yakiimo crew had already started roasting sweet potatoes. The big wooden usu (mortars) and kine (wooden mallets) were already in place. After the nails were pulled, I drifted out and saw that the big steel soup pot (I’d guess 50 gallons or so) full of tonjiru was starting to bubble. The first batches of rice were steaming. The ladies in charge of distributing the finished mochi treats were setting up their table. Others were back in the meeting room, getting ready to assemble the treats. The former, who got to stand in the cold, looked younger than the older women who were making the treats in relative comfort.

An older man, locally regarded as the expert on mochi-pounding was teaching the art to a couple of younger men. The process begins (1) when a mass of steamed glutenous rice is placed in the mortar. Then it’s time (2) for one or more guys to grind it, pushing down hard as they rotate the heads of the mallets through the rice. This is the hardest work to be done. Next comes the pounding. The proper form involves a man who wields the mallet, raising it over his shoulder and slamming it into the rice, while a woman reaches in between strokes to fold the mochi back onto itself. Men will step in to do this if a woman is not available. Finally, (4) the pounded mochi is taken off to the meeting room where the older women shape it into mochi treats that reappear on platters delivered to the younger women at the outdoor tables, who are dipping in them in ground radish sauce (a savory version), rolling them in kinoko (ground soy bean) powder, or coating them with sweet azuki (red bean) paste. People who want to eat the mochi line up and pick the varieties they like.

By 10:00 a.m. or so, the men in the back, tending the fires, have already dispatched two large bottles of sake. Everyone is in a happy mood. The crowd is growing, filling up with people who come just to enjoy the festivity and free food. By noon the food is gone. The younger children, both boys and girls have had a chance to try their hand at wielding the mallet (a smaller one, their size). The festival is over. The organizers bustle about cleaning up. Both men and women participate in the clean-up. The division of labor is again along the lines of the men taking care of the outdoor equipment, the women the utensils used in preparing the mochi treats. Everything is tidy by 1:00 p..m., when the whole crew gathers in the meeting room for the uchiage “finishing up” party. The tables are laid with party snacks, mostly Japanese junk food, plus a few homemade items, and lots of beer, shochu (white liquor) and sake. The men congregate at one end of the tables, the one closest to the kitchen and back door that leads to the space where the men were doing their thing cooking the rice and sweet potatoes in the morning; the women at the other, the one closest to the front. Symbolic significance? Unclear. Should ask someone about that. The party goes on until 3:30 p.m. when most of the women and some of the men leave. A hard core of men, mostly members of the former softball team, hang around to finish off the booze. When I stagger home a bit after 5:00, I expect to be hungover the next morning.

Think of this as a field note. How does one proceed to extract information about “Japanese tradition” from what is described above?

Given that this is the 21st century, an obvious place to begin is a Google search for “omochitsuki.” It turns up 147,000 items. At the top of the list is the Wikipedia entry for mochi. It seems consistent with what I have observed. Ditto for a site designed to instruct Japanese-Americans on what this Japanese tradition entails. Things get more interesting when I start looking at other items, especially YouTube videos. Here I find an elaborate ritual that begins with a blessing from a Shinto priest in full regalia; then there is one with only a couple of guys in T-shirts, in what seems like an impromptu effort. I note how many of the videos depict what seem like all-male activities. I wonder what that’s about. I see stone mortars as well as wooden ones. Rice cooked on gas burners instead of wood-burning stoves. I could spend days checking and mapping the variations documented in this one source.

Therein, of course, lies the question. Is “Japanese tradition” an ideal type, imperfectly realized in all the variations? Performances whose nuances shift depending on actors, stagecraft and direction, while remaining fundamentally the same play? A grammar that allows a variety of equally legitimate forms, while excluding others as improper? An on-going series of bricolages/assemblages, to which new bits and pieces are constantly being added and subtracted?

Which is the better starting point? And which provides the best guidance when it comes to what to include and what to discard in writing up the final analysis?

August 15, 2011

What done sign my name?

by CarlD

Tim Tyson, following the old black spiritual, says it’s blood. Blood Done Sign My Name (2004) centers on the murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, east North Carolina in May, 1970. Marrow was beaten and shot to death by white merchant Robert Teel and his sons, supposedly for chatting up one of the sons’ wife outside their store. The actual tale of the murder takes up a few pages right in the middle of the book, most of which is historian Tyson’s autobiographical attempt to understand the event in context. He was 10 at the time, friends with another of the killer’s sons.

This is a rightly celebrated book (there’s also a movie). Tyson tells tales like someone raised in a rich oral tradition, which as the son and grandson of preachers he was. He’s at his best when he uses multiple narrative strands to frame each other, patiently weaving together stories and perspectives to create a densely layered reconstruction of a surprisingly complex situation. Tyson is not at his best when he gets impatient and steps outside the narrative to attempt more formal analysis. He has the genre’s understandable but unhelpful tendency to substitute moral preening for rigorous investigation, and like any ideology his liberalism and religiosity default to pat answers too quickly and easily.

I’m currently stuck on a section exemplary of both tendencies (I’m about 2/3 through the book, which I picked up in a thrift store and am reading as an homage to my colleague Peter Murray), so I’m kind of live-blogging here a little bit. Starting about p. 180 in the paperback Tyson sets up a lovely narrative contrast between three men, Robert Teel and two Tysons: Tim’s own father Vernon, Methodist pastor of Oxford, and his notorious second cousin Elias, aka ‘the Gator’. It turns out Teel and Vernon grew up a short distance from each other in virtually identical material circumstances; the same could be said for Gator. Yet they turned out very differently. Tim ponders this:

I have often contemplated the differences between my father and Gerald’s father, and how they shaped our lives. Daddy and Teel were within a year of each other in school and grew up only a few miles apart. Neither of them liked school worth a damn. They wore overalls, ate cornbread and beans, drank their iced tea heavily sweetened, and knew what it was to work hard in the tobacco fields from sunup to sundown. Each of them left eastern North Carolina wanting something better, something more.

Here we have one of those grails of explanatory analysis, the divergent effect from seemingly identical causes. Why, given all the common antecedents, did Robert become an angry, violent racist while Vernon became a decent, humane social activist? Here’s Tim:

The difference between them couldn’t be boiled down to socioeconomic class; neither of their families had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, as the saying went. In fact, while Teel had his G.I. Bill educational benefits to pay his way through any school, my father had to borrow and scrounge. But Daddy went to a liberal arts college founded by the Quakers, where he met pacifists, liberals, radicals of various descriptions, and black people far more educated than himself. More important, he had Reverend Jack Tyson for a father. At the heart of our differences, I think, stand the many-sided visions of Jesus that haunt the South. Although eastern North Carolina was awash in Baptist fundamentalism, the Teel clan did not seem to have had the softening influence of the gospel in their lives, at least not the same gospel that Jack Tyson preached.

Hm. I’m sure this is right, and I like the image of ghostly kaleidoscopic Jesus. But among other things we might like to know why Vernon pursued school even without liking it, why he picked the Quaker one and stuck it out despite all the cognitive dissonance, how the family got entrained on the ‘right’ version of the gospel, and so on. Here as usual Tim’s storytelling steps up to do the much heavier lifting.

The first thing that stands out is a rather different home life. Coming after dozens of smoothly flowing pages of the Tysons’ wholesome, affectionate, mutually respecting loviness, Teel’s broken home puts a squeal in the brakes. The missing father, the hardscrabble, woman-centered plan B, and eventually the worshipped stepfather and underage army enlistment all invite armchair psychologizing: arrested development, thwarted masculinity, status anxiety, joining issues. Tim wisely declines the invitation, spraying facts like aerosol and letting them settle into their own pattern. The account of his own father’s upbringing is occasion for some more gratuitous (albeit snarktastic) moral coup-taking, but in the process we find ol’ Grampa Jack actually reading the Bible and thinking about what it says, against rather than with received wisdom, a striking fact that clicks into the matrix of the Tysons’ multi-generational orneriness and disregard for common sense — supported by tale after tale of quixotic deeds — to suggest that bucking the tide is a Tyson thang, of dubious larger significance until conditions align for the greater enablement of such dispositional change agents. We can well imagine the same people becoming Communists or Anabaptists or Lutherans under different ideological conditions, but in the rural American South at mid-century the friendly reading of the gospels was the available conceptual framework for that contrary disposition.

In short, the Tysons are the kind of holy hemorrhoids who are doomed to frustrating irrelevance during normal times, but come into their glory when the poo hits the fan. Another cat who refused to be herded was cousin Gator, the cautionary tale, whose charismatic orneriness did not get channeled into oppositional intellectuality, perhaps slipping through the cracks as the beautiful baby of the family, and who therefore drifted into a highly successful but ultimately self-destructive amoral dissipation of boozing, fighting, gambling and womanizing. Tyson uses Gator to deliver a little homily about original sin. Much more of a herd animal but with no herd of his own or developed sense of how to function in one, Teel had ambition and saw that the main line of acceptance, success and influence ran through material accumulation and status conformity, not intellectual pursuit. He may have shared a dislike of school with Vernon and Gator, but unlike the former he had no positive models of deep thinking and also didn’t see the use of it; and in terms of the locally-dominant aspirational discourse, he was right. No doubt he was religious in the way Weber suggests lots of Protestants are religious, as a networking tool and symbolic guarantee of his trustworthiness in business. And no doubt his racism, clearly a subset of a more generalized anger and violence as stories of his various scrapes show, was motivated directly by the status anxiety of a climber needing backs to climb on, but it also has all the overcooked theatricality of an arriviste trying way too hard without any sense of nuance. It contrasts markedly with the more serene and subtle racism of the town’s old guard, who quietly shut down all the public parks rather than integrate them — probably as much as anything to avoid ugly scenes.

It’s not that Tyson’s religious explanation for the differences among these men is wrong; as Weber told us long ago in rising to the challenge of Marx’s materialism, ideas may often act as ‘switchmen’ among materially possible tracks. But we also want to know how elective affinities, as he called them, are established between particular circumstances, concepts and ideals, and how the particularities of disposition, experience, conditions and possibilities come together to produce actual life courses. I think Tim’s book does that, and it’s interesting for someone as tracked into complex formal analysis as I am to see it happening not in the analysis, but in the stories.

For real-time analysis, my favorite figure so far in the book is Goldie Frinks, who apart from the awesome name was a civil rights activist and former nightclub owner who shows up on p. 150. A shrewd Wittgensteinian, Frinks specialized in seeing situations from multiple perspectives and changing the game to dissolve problems and create opportunities.

As he explained to [Tim] at his home in Edenton two decades later, Frinks understood that Southern whites could hardly present a united front. Few whites truly backed the movement, especially in their own communities, but there were many shades of weak support, moral queasiness, deep misgivings, and reluctant opposition, in addition to the fire-eating racists. “You couldn’t forget that you had some good white folks, and even the other ones wasn’t necessarily all bad…. They were cramped because of the age-old mores of time,” Frinks asserted…. Dr. King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” argued that such people were often worse than outright opponents. But Frinks saw them as an opportunity. “A lot of the good whites couldn’t just come down here and speak. ‘You’re wrong, Mr. Teel,’ they couldn’t say that, but they had what you might call a silence that I could hear. If you forgot that, you wouldn’t be nowhere. A man like Teel, getting his badge of honor from the murder of a man who had no cause to be put to death, that man was somewhat out of place.”

Somewhat out of place is a beautiful way to think about a guy like Teel, perceptive and without moral patness. Nor does it make Teel any less destructive or any less the queasifying instrument of a system of domination, which Frinks actively fought. But it’s a lovely reminder that giving people a sense of place is an important tactic and purpose of humanist activism, just like rudely displacing people and requiring heroic saintliness of them is not a promising strategy for positive change.

May 29, 2011

More on Channel Theory

by Jacob Lee

In my last post I introduced a couple of concepts from the channel theory of Jeremy Seligman and Jon Barwise. In this post I would like to continue that introduction.

To review, channel theory is intended to help us understand information flows of the following sort: a‘s being F carries the information that b is G. For example, we might want a general framework in which understand how a piece of fruit’s bitterness may carry the information that it is toxic, or how a mountain side’s having a particular distribution of flora can carry information about the local micro-climate, or how a war leader’s generous gift-giving may carry information about the success of a recent campaign, or the sighting of a gull can carry the information that land is near. In a previous post, we asked how position of various participants in a fono might forecast information about the political events of the day. One would hope that such a framework may even illuminate how an incident in which a person gets sick and dies may be perceived to carry the information that there is a sorcerer who is responsible for this misfortune.

In my last post, I introduced a simple sort of data structure called a classification. A classification simply links particulars to types. But as my examples above were intended to show, classifications are not only intended to model  ‘categorical’ data, as usually construed.

Def 1. A classification is a triple A = \langle tok(A), type(A), \vDash \rangle such that for every token a \in tok(A), and every type \alpha\in typ(A), a \vDash_{A}\alpha  if and only if  a is of type \alpha.

One might remark that a classification is not much more than a table whose attributes have only two possible value, a sort of degenerate relational database. However, unlike a record/row in a relational database, channel theory treats each token as a first-class object. Relational databases require keys to guarantee that each tuple is unique, and key constraints to model relationships between records in tables. By treating tokens as first class objects, we may model relationships using an infomorphism:

Def 2. Let A and B be two classifications. An infomorphism f : A \rightleftarrows B is a pair of functions f = \lbrace f^{\wedge}, f^{\vee} \rbrace such that f ^{\wedge} : typ(A) \rightarrow typ(B) and f^{\vee}: tok(B) \rightarrow tok(A) so that  it satisfies the following property: that for every type \alpha in A and every token b in B, b \vDash_{B} f^{\wedge}(\alpha) if and only if f^{\vee}(b) \vDash_{A} \alpha.

An infomorphism is more general than an isomorphism between classifications, i.e. an isomorphism is a special case of an infomorphism. For example, an infomorphism f : A \rightleftarrows B between classifications A and B might map a single type \beta in B onto two or more types in A, provided that from B’s point of view the two types are indistinguishable, or more precisely that for all tokens b in B and all types \alpha in A, f^{\vee}(b) \vDash_{A} \alpha if and only if f^{\vee}(b) \vDash_{B} \alpha^{\prime}. Note that this requirement does not mean that those types in A are not distinguishable in A (or more technically, are not co-extensional in A). There may be tokens in A outside the range of f^{\vee} for which, for example, a \vDash_{A} \alpha but not a \vDash_{A} \alpha^{\prime}. A dual observation may be made about the tokens of B. Two tokens of B may be mapped onto the same token in A, provided that those tokens in B are indistinguishable with respect to the set of types \beta in B for which there exists some \alpha such that f^{\wedge}(\alpha) = \beta). Again, this does not mean these same tokens in B are wholly indistinguishable in B. For example, there may be types outside the range of  f^{\wedge} classifying them differently. Thus, an infomorphism may be thought of as a kind of view or filter into the other classification.

It is actually rather difficult to find infomorphisms between arbitrary classifications. In many cases there will be none. If it were too easy, then the morphism would not be particularly meaningful. Too stringent and then it would not be very applicable. However, two classifications may be joined in a fairly standard way.For example, we can add them together:

Def 3. Given two classifications A and B, the sum of A and B is the classification A+B such that:

1.      tok(A + B)=tok(A)\times tok(B),

2.     typ(A + B) is the disjoint union of typ(A) and typ(B) given by \langle 0,\alpha \rangle for each type \alpha \in typ(A) and\langle 1,\beta \rangle for each type \beta \in typ(B) , such that

3.      for each token \langle a,b\rangle \in tok(A+B) \langle a,b\rangle {{\vDash }_{A+B}}\langle 0,\alpha \rangle \text{ iff a}{{\vDash }_{A}}\alpha and \langle a,b\rangle {{\vDash }_{A+B}}\langle 1,\beta \rangle \text{ iff b}{{\vDash }_{B}}\beta .

Remark. For any two classifications A and B there exist infomorphisms {{\varepsilon }_{A}} : A \rightleftarrows A+B and {{\varepsilon }_{B}}:B\rightleftarrows A+B defined such that {{\varepsilon }_{A}}^{\wedge }(\alpha )=\langle 0,A\rangle and {{\varepsilon }_{B}}^{\wedge }(\beta )=\langle 1,B\rangle for all types \alpha \in typ(A) and \beta \in typ(B) {{\varepsilon }_{B}}^{\vee }(\langle a,b\rangle )=b and {{\varepsilon }_{A}}^{\vee }(\langle a,b\rangle )=a for each token \langle a,b\rangle \in tok(A+B).

To see how this is useful, we turn now to Barwise and Seligman’s notion of an information channel.

Def 4. A channel C  is an indexed family of infomorphisms \{ f_{i} : A_{i} \rightleftarrows C \} _{i \in I} each having co-domain in a classification C called the core of the channel.

As it turns out, in a result known as the Universal Mapping Property of Sums, given a binary channel C = \{ f : A \rightleftarrows C, g : B \rightleftarrows C \}, and infomorphisms {{\varepsilon }_{A}} : A \rightleftarrows A+B and {{\varepsilon }_{B}}:B\rightleftarrows A+B, the following diagram commutes:

The result is general and can be applied to arbitrary channels and sums.

I still haven’t exactly shown how this is useful. To do that we introduce some inference rule that can be used to reason from the periphery to the core and back again in the channel.

A sequent \langle \Gamma ,\Delta \rangle is a pair of sets of types. A sequent \langle \Gamma ,\Delta \rangle is a sequent of a classification A if all the types in  \Gamma and \Delta are in typ(A).

Def 5. Given a classification A, a token a\in tok(A) is said to satisfy a sequent \langle \Gamma ,\Delta \rangle of A, if a{{\vDash }_{A}}\alpha for every type \alpha \in \Gamma and a{{\vDash }_{A}}\alpha for some type \alpha \in \Delta . If every a\in tok(A) satisfies \langle \Gamma ,\Delta \rangle , then we say that \Gamma entails \Delta in A, written \Gamma {{\vdash }_{A}}\Delta and \langle \Gamma ,\Delta \rangle is called a constraint of A.

Barwise and Seligman introduce two inference rules: f-Intro and f-Elim. Given an infomorphism from a classification A to a classification C, f:A\rightleftarrows C:

f\text{-Intro: }\frac{{{\Gamma }^{-f}}{{\vdash }_{A}}{{\Delta }^{-f}}}{\Gamma {{\vdash }_{C}}\Delta }

f\text{-Elim: }\frac{{{\Gamma }^{f}}{{\vdash }_{C}}{{\Delta }^{f}}}{\Gamma {{\vdash }_{A}}\Delta }

The two rules have different properties.  f-Intro preserves validity, ­f-Elim does not preserve validity; f-Intro fails to preserve invalidity, but f-Elim fails to preserve invalidity. f-Elim is however valid precisely for those tokens in A for which there is a token b of B mapping onto A by the infomorphism f.

Suppose then that we have a channel. At the core is a classification of flashlights, and and at the periphery are classifications of bulbs and switches. We can take a sum of the classifications of bulbs and switches. We know that there are infomorphisms from these classifications to the sum (and so this too makes up a channel), and using f-Intro, we know that any sequents of the classifications of bulbs and switches will still hold in the sum classifications: bulbs + switches. But note that the classification bulbs + switches, since it connects every bulb and switch token, any sequents that might properly hold between bulbs and switches will not hold in the sum classification. Similarly, all the sequents holding in the classification bulbs + switches will hold in the core of the flashlight channel. However, there will be constraints in the core (namely those holding between bulbs and switches) not holding in the sum classification bulbs + switches.

In brief: suppose that we know that a particular switch is in the On position, and that it is a constraint of switches that a switch being in the On position precludes it being in the Off position. We can project this constraint into the core of the flashlight channel reliably. But in the channel additional constraints hold (the ones we are interested in). Suppose that in the core of the channel, there is a constraint that if a switch is On in a flashlight then the bulb is Lit in the flashlight We would like to know that because *this* switch is in the On position, that a particular bulb will be Lit. How can we do it? Using f-Elim we can pull back the constraint of the core to the sum classification. But note, that this constraint is *not valid* in the sum-classification. But it is not valid for precisely those bulbs that are not connected in the channel. In this way, we can reason from local information to a distant component of a system, but in so doing, we lose the guarantee that our reasoning is valid, and we lose the guarantee that it is sound.

[1] Barwise, Jon, and Jerry Seligman. 1997. Information Flow: The Logic of Distributed Systems. Cambridge tracts in theoretical computer science 44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

May 4, 2011

Have Hammer Need Nail

by Jacob Lee

In the past month or two here on Dead Voles the notions of instance and of type have come up in several times (not always in the same place). I have become more keenly aware of this distinction, particularly in certain discussions of cultural anthropology, but also endemically in discussions of programming. More precisely, I have become more keenly aware of how often we slip between talking about the world in the language of types and in the language of tokens, without really being aware that we are doing it, and how difficult and fruitful it can be to discipline ourselves to maintain the distinction, especially when we are trying to analyze the social world.

The history of situation theory’s struggle to arrive at an adequate notion of information flow is perhaps a testament to the tendency to neglect one or the other. In particular, situation theory was introduced with just such a distinction in mind, with a division between situations, as concrete parts of the world, and infons as items of information (or types). And yet, for some quite defensible reasons, situation theorists chose to model situations as the sets of infons made factual by that situation, treating two situations as being identical (i.e., the same situation) whenever they supported precisely the same information. This move reintroduced an ambiguity between tokens and types so that it becomes difficult sometimes to know whether situation theorists are talking about infons or the concrete situations themselves.

But it may also be evident in how we go about interpreting human artifacts in terms of some presumed system of meaning and ignore the brute actuality of the artifact itself (which is why a sacred object can still be used as a paper-weight). It is not enough, as John McCreery tells us, to look for meanings behind the objects; instead we may well ask, why do the gods looks like that?

I have already mentioned the theory of information flow (called channel theory) of Jon Barwise and Jeremy Seligman in their book [1]. Here I would like to briefly introduce two of its main concepts, since not only does it take the distinction between tokens and types as fundamental, but it provides an interesting model of the flow of information.

It is also the hammer, with which I have been looking for a nail.

Let us first define a sort of data structure, that in some ways is not very remarkable. It is merely a kind of attribute table, and is somewhat similar to a formal context in formal concept analysis discussed here. The structure consists of a set of tokens, a set of types classifying those tokens, and a binary classification relation between them.

Def 1. A classification A is a triple A = \langle tok(A), type(A), : \rangle such that for every token a \in tok(A), and every type \alpha\in typ(A), a:\alpha  if and only if  a is of type \alpha.

The classification distinguishes itself from other similar data structures (and relations in general) by making both types and tokens first class objects of the theory. This allows an interesting morphism between classifications, called an infomorphism (also called a Chu morphism), which we define presently:

Def 2. Let A and B be two classifications. An infomorphism f : A \rightleftarrows B is a pair of contravariant maps f = \lbrace f^{\wedge}, f^{\vee} \rbrace such that f ^{\wedge} : typ(A) \rightarrow typ(B) and f^{\vee}: tok(B) \rightarrow tok(A) satisfying the fundamental property that for every type \alpha in A and every token b in B, b : f^{\wedge}(\alpha) if and only if f^{\vee}(b) : \alpha

The infomorphism defines a curious part-whole relationship that can be used to represent a number of interesting relationships, for example, between points of view or perspectives, between map and terrain, between the parts of distributed systems, and between concepts.

An elaboration must wait for a future post, since I have run out of time.

[1] Barwise, Jon, and Jerry Seligman. 1997. Information Flow: The Logic of Distributed Systems. Cambridge tracts in theoretical computer science 44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

February 15, 2011

Some information flows in the Samoan fono

by Jacob Lee
Idealized spatial organization of the fono

Idealized spatial organization of the fono

The fono, politics and space

A fono is a political meeting in the Western Somoan village. The fono is a spatially organized event: high ranking orators are seated in the front, low ranking orators and other low status and low rank persons in the back. High status chiefs and special guests are seated on the sides (tala).

A person’s location with respect to these three areas during an event may signal a variety of informational contents, some of them stereotypical and some of it sensitive to the particular situational context of the event. Within each area, the position of individuals can also signal various informational contents, particularly as relating to status. The precise boundaries between these three areas may not be well defined, and seating in an ambiguously defined location may itself convey interesting information.

What enables these sorts of information to be conveyed?

Cognitive Schema of the fono

Alessandro Duranti answers this by positing a cultural cognitive schema defining an idealized fono seating arrangement spatially organized in terms of various socially relevant classes of persons:

By matching the ideal plan for a particular occasion with the actual titleholders who occupied various positions in the house, one could obtain a first reading of the political situation and make a few predictions about the way in which the discussion might unfold. Thus, according to the kind of fono that was being held, a particular set of orators would be expected to sit in the front row. In such a system, every slight variation from what is considered the ideal plan is potentially significant. For this reason, as suggested above, the ideal plan acts as a cognitive schema that provides a key for the participants to interpret the contingencies of the day. The relationship between the ideal seating arrangement and the actual one gives a first approximation of the potential conflicts, tensions, and issues of the day. (Duranti p. 65)

This schema indicates various sorts of stereotypical information. If a person p is seated in the front F then one conventional item of informational content indicated by this fact is that p is a high-ranking orator.  Other informational contents are indicated too, of course. More interesting are occasions when an actual fono deviates (or is believed to deviate) from this schema. Subtle variations in seating arrangement, in conjunction with knowledge of the political situation, can indicate various interesting sorts of information. Throughout Duranti’s analysis, he draws us to the subtle political dimensions of the relative positions taken up in the political theater of the fono:

Samoans are in this respect true masters of spatial finesse, as demonstrated by the poisition occupied by the matai (JL: chief) who shares the title with Savea Sione, namely Savea Savelio. He sits in a position that is similar to Savea Sione’s but slightly “farther back.” This he explained to me as a sign of restraint: He should not take a foregrounded role in the fono proceedings given that the actions of the one we might call his alter ego, Savea Sione, were under severe scrutiny by members of the assembly. (Duranti p. 68)

and how an intimate understanding of this space provides informational cues for contextually relevant political positioning and interaction.

An understanding of the locally engendered meaning of the seating arrangement for the day suggests that Moe’ono, as well as the other matai in the fono house, had ways of expecting, ahead of time, Tafili’s attack and her role at the meeting. If she is present and has chosen to sit in the front row, the place reserved for the more active members of the assembly, everyone knows that Tafili has come ready to speak and, most likely, to argue. Thus, even before a word is exchanged, Tafili’s spatial claim provided Moe’ono with clues about the forthcoming discussion and gave him some time to prepare himself for it. In this case, the regionalization of the interactional space available to participants can communicate just as much as words. (Duranti p. 72)

Information Flows

Jon Barwise and Jeremy Seligman argue that information flow crucially depends on regularities within distributed systems. Such information flows are present, but they will not necessarily be available to any particular cognitive agent nearby. Such agents must be attuned to those regularities to translate information about the occurrence of an event of one type into information about the occurrence of an event (possibly the same) of another type. This becomes particularly evident when one is displaced into natural and cultural environments outside our own experience and knowledge. One might not know, for example, that an increase in the number of insects indicates water nearby; a certain discoloration of the skin may indicate that a patient has a certain inflammatory skin disease, but only to a person attuned to the constraints between this kind of skin discoloration and the presence of that particular disease. Duranti describes his first encounter with the fono:

The first time I entered the fono house, I only saw people sitting around the eges of the house and noticed that some portions were unoccupied whereas other portions seemed crammed with people. (Duranti p. 64)

It was only after mapping many different fono events, and matching seating with titles and other relevant information, that Duranti was able to appreciate how much information about the political  events of the day was present in the seating locations of its participants. Standing back from this, we must recognize that every participant in a fono is thus situated, having their own information, and being attuned to some constraints active in the situation, and not others, and so on. This is particularly easily seen when on one occasion, Duranti intentionally seated himself  in a low status position in the fono, when as a guest he was usually accorded a high status position. In this case Duranti sat in the back of the fono (low status position) with low status men, and women. He was was served food last by young servers, and didn’t get any fish, until one of the high status chiefs noticed and directed the servers to bring some of his fish to Duranti:

My experiment was over. I had been able to show the relevance of the locally defined spatial distinctions (front vs. back region) for establishing the status of a participant in a public event. At the same time, I had proven to myself that the system was flexible. Different “parts,” namely the servers versus the matai, or the kids versus my adult friends, were acting on different premises. For the kids who brought in the trays with the food and for the untitled adults who were preparing the portions, it was safer to follow the basic spatial distinctions. They had no way of knowing the details about who was doing what on a particular occasion. The spatial arrangement in the house constituted a first key to know how to operate with a minimum assurance of appropriateness…In most cases, the seating plan works very efficiently to convey a first sense of order. Whether or not that order conforms to the relative statuses of the participants as displayed on other occasions is not something that low-status people must be concerned with. Their socialization teaches them that any hierarchy must adapt to contingencies, must fit their task…It is up to the more knowledgeable members in the gathering to complement or rectify the reading provided by the bare layout of the human bodies in space…The distribution of knowledge about how to act on any given situation is thus functional to the distribution of power within the community. On the one hand, the lower-status people act on more general and hence more easily amendable models, that is, models that need additional information in order to operate appropriately. Higher-status people, on the other hand, not only have access to more specific information about the nature of the activity and the expected and expectable actions, they also control this more specific knowledge by putting it to use when they choose to do so. (Duranti p.59-60)

The fono is a distributed system, with many different parts. Information about one part of the fono can give us information about other parts of the fono. But the information flows in this distributed system are relative to to the cognitive schemas by which the fono is conventionally understood by each of the participants. The information flows to which any participant is attuned depends on their assessments of how others are attuned to informational flows in the event. Duranti is able to assess the reasons for his not receiving any fish from the servers because his position in the fono conventionally indicated a low rank and status, and because the servers were not sensitive to other information relevant to interpreting Duranti’s behavior in any other way*.

In order to see Duranti’s choice of seating as an exception to the idealized arrangement presumes not only knowledge about the idealized arrangement, but crucially requires additional information that is inconsistent with that idealized arrangement. In this case, the fact that at one other such occasions Duranti had been seated toward the front. Like Duranti when he first began to participate in the fono, any stranger encountering the scene for the first time, especially one who was not familiar with the dynamics of agency and signification in the fono, would not know ‘what was going on’. That Duranti was unusually seated likely would not have impressed itself on such an observer as a fact worth pondering further. But the intelligent and culturally and situationally literate observer would have seen Duranti’s position as unusual, and possibly interesting, if noticed. The seating of any actual fono is set against the idealized arrangement given by the cognitive schema; the difference between them is a scaffold for signification.

Since deviation from the ideal is not infrequent, and is often interpreted this way or that, we might very well suppose that some deviations from the ideal are in fact conventional and well understood. Others may be less well-understood. When Savea Savelio sits slightly back from Savea Sione, Savea Savelio, and presumably many of the other participants understood, though Duranti may not have seen the reason until later. Yet,  while there may have been some conventional interpretation of Duranti’s sitting in the back, it is safe to say that that interpretation of his seating misunderstood Duranti’s unconventional objective. We may well doubt that anyone besides Duranti, or anyone he let in on it beforehand, correctly understood that his sitting in the back was  a behavioral experiment.

*It is also possible that the servers speculated on the reasons, but did presume to act on those speculations.

Citation

A. Duranti, From Grammar to Politics: Linguistic Anthropology in a Western Samoan Village, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

January 24, 2011

Lattice Model of Information Flow

by Jacob Lee

I am caught in a maelstrom of work and so I decide to play.

I have an excellent textbook on discrete mathematics on my shelf  from a course I took as a student a few years ago [1]. Its always useful to review such books to remind oneself of certain foundational principles used in computer science [2]. My thesis work concerns, among other things, the study of information flow and in the course of my work I found myself consulting this book to review the mathematical concept of a lattice [3]. Looking through the index of this text I found an entry reading ‘Information flow, lattice model of, 525’. Naturally, I was intrigued.

Funnily enough, the three paragraph section on the lattice model of information flow is only of tangential relevance to my thesis work; yet it was interesting enough. It discussed the uses of lattices to model security policies of information dissemination. Rosen presented a simple model of a multi-level security policy in which a collection data (the authors use the word information) is assigned an authority level A, and a category C. The security class of a collection of data is modeled as the pair (A,C). Rosen defines a partial order on security classes as follows: (A_{1},C_{1})\preceq (A_{2},C_{2}) if and only if A_{1} \leq A_{2} and S_{1} \subseteq S_{2}. This is easily illustrated by an example.

Let A = \{A_{1}, A_{2}\} where A_{1} \leq A_{2} and A_{1} is the authority level secret and A_{2} is the authority level top secret. Let S=\{diplomacy, combat ops \} [4][5]. This forms the lattice depicted in figure 1.

Figure 1: example security classification lattice

Figure 1

The objective of such a security policy is to govern flows of sensitive information. Thus, if we assign individuals security clearances in the same way that information is assigned security classes, then we can set up a policy such that an item of information i assigned a security class (A_{1},C_{1}) can only be disseminated to an individual a having security clearance (A_{2},C_{2}) if and only if (A_{1},C_{1})\preceq (A_{2},C_{2}).

Without looking at the literature [6], it seems that the obvious next step is to embed this into a network model. Supposing that one has a network model in which each node is classified by a security clearance there are a variety of useful and potentially interesting questions that can be asked. For example, one might want to look for connected components where every node in the connected component has a security clearance (A,C) such that (A,C)\succeq (A_{j},C_{k}) for some j and k. Or if one were interested in simulating the propagation of information in that social network such that the probability of a node communicating certain security classes of information to another node is a function of the security class of the information and the security clearances of those two nodes.

So far this discussion has limited itself to information flow as dissemination of information vehicles, contrary to the direction I suggested in my last post should be pursued. One easy remedy might be to have minimally cognitive nodes with knowledge bases and primitive inference rules by which new knowledge can be inferred from existing or newly received items of information. This would have several consequences. Relevant items of novel information might disseminate through the network (and global knowledge grows), and items of information not originally disseminated, for example because it is top secret, may yet be guessed or inferred from existing information by nodes with security clearances too low to have received it normally.

Moving away from issues of security policy, we can generalize this to classify nodes in social networks in other systematic ways. In particular, we may be interested in epistemic communities. We might classify beliefs and/or knowledge using formal tools like formal concept analysis, as I believe Camille Roth has been doing (e.g. see his paper Towards concise representation for taxonomies of epistemic communities).

Fun stuff.

[1] Rosen, Kenneth H. Discrete mathematics and its applications. 5th edition. McGraw Hill. 2003.

[2] Some undergraduates joked that if they mastered everything in Rosen’s book, they would pretty much have mastered the foundations of computer science. An exaggeration, but not far off.

[3] A lattice is a partially ordered set (poset) such that for any pair of elements of that set there exists a least upper bound and a greatest lower bound.

[4] According to Wikipedia such the US uses classifications like the following:

1.4(a) military plans, weapons systems, or operations;

1.4(b) foreign government information;

1.4(c ) intelligence activities, sources, or methods, or cryptology;

1.4(d) foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources;

1.4(e) scientific, technological or economic matters relating to national security; which includes defense against transnational terrorism;

1.4(f)USG programs for safeguarding nuclear materials or facilities;

1.4(g) vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructures, projects or plans, or protection services relating to the national security, which includes defense against transnational terrorism; and

1.4(h) weapons of mass destruction.

[5] An interesting category of information is information about who has what security clearance.

[6] Where fun and often good ideas go to die.