Archive for ‘analysis’

December 15, 2010

Diffusion of Informational Contents

by Jacob Lee

Research into diffusion processes permeates disciplines as diverse as computer science, anthropology, sociology, economics, epidemiology, chemistry, and physics[1]. Much recent work, in the last fifty years or so, has been explicitly network oriented and has sought to better understand how network topology and transmission mechanisms determine properties such as the rate of diffusion and the various thresholds at which diffusion processes become self-sustaining.

Despite the many apparent similarities between different diffusion processes, it is important to be attentive to the particulars of each kind of diffusion process. Commercial products diffuse among consumers in ways different than do news articles or news topics in the blogosphere (see Dynamics of the News Cycle). Behaviors like smoking spread across networks of friends in both similar and contrasting ways as those of sexually transmitted diseases. And routing information in a sensor network propagates differently than routing information in a mobile phone network.

Diffusion of Semantic Content

The diffusion of information or more generally semantic content has been a cross-disciplinary concern, and has been treated in a variety of ways, depending on the domain of application. It is generally recognized that such content exhibits properties that distinguishes it from the diffusion of other phenomena. For example, it is recognized that the sharing of semantic content, unlike commodities, does not necessarily incur a consequent loss of that content for the sharer, and that information is often shared preferentially with those for whom it may be of interest or desired[2].

Nonetheless, in more general settings the implications of the properties of semantic content for its diffusion has to my knowledge not yet been formally investigated. Content is typically treated as a non-relational item whose diffusion-mechanism is essentially content-neutral, except perhaps in its differential transmissibility or mutability. Furthermore, it frequently restricts its models to the diffusion of isolated pieces of content in an otherwise content-less context. Consequently, it confounds the diffusion of content vehicles with the diffusion of the semantic content itself, treating content vehicles as having an intrinsic meaning or significance.

It is true that the transmission of content vehicles is easier to understand, and that this simple approach probably does a fair job of approximating the diffusion of semantic content at a unit of content or level of abstraction at which the applicability of a more rigorous approach may not be either readily apparent or especially necessary. Yet it has the unfortunate effect of potentially blinding us to the way in which the relation between contents and cognition (or computation) can generate a second, more leaky, means of content diffusion, or can inhibit or transform content. For example, it is entirely possible for  multiple agents in a network to independently infer the same piece of information without that  piece of information ever having been explicitly communicated to them. It is also, I might add, entirely possible for two agents to receive the same communications and infer entirely different things, or fail to interpret the message correctly, as anyone who has had to try to collaborate with others by email can readily attest.

[1] See my recent blog post Processes of Diffusion in Networks

[2] Unlike disease, which neither the giver or receiver desires!

August 19, 2009

Meme vaccine

by Carl Dyke

Over at the really excellent Neuroanthropology, where I always learn something, Daniel has been kind enough to include some of my posts in his Wednesday roundups. (Dude, time to get me on the blogroll!) I’d been meaning to reciprocate and the occasion comes with this week’s links to my and Larval Subjects’ posts on memes.

If this is a topic that interests you, please go and also read Daniel’s post Engaging & Dispatching Memetics, which reviews and links Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s discussion of the topic in his book Engaging Anthropology. The short version of the critique is that memetics is pop anthropology and it’s more complicated than that; but saying so must then invite a more comprehensive and holistic anthropological practice that is also sensitive to getting the word out publicly. That is, the meme meme needs to be shouldered aside in popular appropriations of anthropology by something better. Daniel thinks that with some tweaking of the brand neuroanthropology can fill that bill, and I’m all for it.

January 12, 2009

How to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments

by Carl Dyke

A short, droll post by Kathy at Edge of the West concerning an instance of the “plagiarism-industrial complex” has, as is the wont of that site, produced a lively and interesting discussion in the commentary. Much of it concerns the merits of the commercial plagiarism-detection services, including their helplessness to detect truly “artisanal” plagiarism. If you’re willing/able to pay enough to have someone else do boutique work for you, and you’re careful never to submit any of your own work for damning comparison, that will probably work for you. Getting other people to do your work for you being the chief advantage of wealth, after all.

(Sad/amusing aside: a number of us suspect one of our best students of the past decade of ghosting papers — not for money but as a favor for friends. Oddly enough, this special critter was a compulsive perfectionist and almost never turned in its own work no matter what inducements we tried — and we became pretty creative — so if we’re right, we only got to enjoy its gifts at an odd second-hand.)

I’ve made a couple of brief comments there about why I don’t use the plagiarism police. For one thing, I think inconveniencing and anxietizing the honorable to intercept the dishonorable is an ugly way to live. For another, on (quixotic) foucauldian grounds that participating in the creation of docile bodies through the installation and extension of surveillance regimes is profoundly self-defeating. But my main reason I’ve only been able to sketch there, and want to elaborate here: I don’t use the plagiarism police because my assignments are functionally plagiarism-proof.

Howzat? There are a couple of key strategies that I’ll get to in a second, but let’s start with an ethos. You have to be loyal to students learning, not to covering content. It’s not impossible to do both, but starting with the second tends to fubar the first. And you have to give up the idea that there is essential content every student must master. Standardization of content outcomes is the single greatest stimulus and enabler of plagiarism there is. What you’ve got to want is for students to learn critical uptake, thinking and production skills in relation to content, where the skills are essential and the content is contingent. If you’re stuck with essential content, you’re stuck with some plagiarism. Take a moment to make sure there’s no way to get unstuck. I’ll wait.

OK. The first thing to notice is that shifting your loyalty to students learning (note: ‘students’ learning’ is a different subject) changes the moral environment of the classroom. Why? Because now what you care about is each student, not the material; which, if you communicate this properly and consistently, creates a social psychology of reciprocal obligation among you. It’s just much harder to cheat on someone who cares about you than someone who’s using you as a means to other ends (reproduction of content outcomes). There’s nothing magical or foolproof about this, however, so if you stop here as some of the more touchy-feely teacher ed. fads do you’ll still get plenty of plagiarism; maybe more, once they figure out what a lightweight you are. Furthermore, although it’s good and right to care about the students as whole people, it’s essential to care specifically about their development as thinkers and doers, which means they don’t get to derail the process or skate to passing grades just by dropping by your office to chat about the weather or tearing up over their abusive childhood.

As thinkers and doers students in my experience are a pretty mixed bunch. The ones who already have some critical uptake, thinking and production skills are rarely the plagiarizers, especially once you get them on the hook by caring about them. They can do the work cheaper and better themselves without plagiarizing. So once you’re caring about students learning and you get the moral environment sorted out so they care back, plagiarism becomes obviously something the ones who do it are driven to by missing elements in the necessary skillset. The task then becomes filling in those skills. Essays shift subtly from being a ritually formalized way to test content knowledge to being part of a longer process to develop practical intellectual capabilities. (It helps a lot to ‘sell’ those skills. All but the geekiest of them, who will become us later, think the various specific contents of the humanities are useless, they’re right, and trying to argue otherwise is counterproductively delegitimating.) This process orientation means among other things that for students at all but the elitest schools there will probably have to be lots of explicit instruction on how to write papers as a way to organize and communicate thought, including not just rules and recipes but rationales; peer reviewing of drafts (I do both intro paragraph and full draft); and a rewrite option, at least for the first paper until they get their chops together.

Classroom time has to make the same subtle shift. There are probably a lot of ways to do that. What works for me is to teach content through skills. So for example in World History I might want to cover some modern African history in relation to the Atlantic complex. Let’s say the skill we’re working on today is reading critically, and we happen to be doing that this time around using a 16th-century letter from the King of Kongo to the King of Portugal. This letter is a pretty subtle little piece of work, with a lot of information to be gleaned about culture and politics in Kongo; activities and attitudes of Portuguese merchants there; early phases of the slave trade; and so on. Of course we’ll need to crack the textbook to fill in some context to better understand what the Portuguese were doing on the coast of Africa, why they were welcomed by the Kings of the Kongo in the first place, what the slaves might have been needed for, etc.

Small groups and competitive/cooperative reporting are good ways to get most of the students involved and invested in the process of puzzling it all out. Classroom work has to be personal and recursive, including for example lots of interaction with the groups during their investigations and pauses to allow students who don’t know answers to find them or think them through, so that each student develops a personal class voice and habit of analysis that carries over to written work. Reasons and foundations always have to be specified, by them and us. Expectations should start high and get higher, so there’s always something of value to be accomplished for every student to be proud of. It’s a lot easier to convey the importance of scholarly apparatus to respect and communicate other people’s authority when the students are in touch with their own. I’ve done this directly with classes as large as fifty, by the way, and with discussion sections for classes in the hundreds.

And still all this is not enough to plagiarism-proof your essay assignments, although it’s a pretty good start. To knock out the last lingering vestiges of moral depravity, bad habit and performance anxiety, the last line of defense is to make it harder and riskier to plagiarize effectively than to write the paper straight. Here’s one way to do that with actual pedagogical value: design essay assignments that are unique to each class, its discussions and resources.

The simplest trick is to require students to write source-supported essays, to use only the course texts as sources, and to use more than one. By ‘require’ I mean if they don’t do it, they fail. This has the pedagogical value of forcing them to: engage with good sources you selected on purpose; mine available sources thoroughly rather than skipping around superficially; crosscheck sources rather than taking one at face value; synthesize information into their own analysis rather than just doing stock book reports; and appreciate the difference between mere opinion and informed opinion. All of these skills are supported by the reading work in class. By the way, this doesn’t help much if you don’t mix up your course texts. Publishers’ text ‘n’ source suites are a nice convenience for lazy teachers and plagiarizers alike, as is keeping the same texts and topics year after year. And stay away from stereotypical topics and sources. The easiest and most tempting paper in the world to plagiarize is yet another reaction paper on famous poem/article/book/event X. When you can google your topic and the first hit is a plagiarism site, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

The idea is to make it vanishingly unlikely that they’ll find any mass market boilerplate that adequately addresses your assignment. Here’s an example of such an assignment: “Using only the course texts for evidence, analyze the relation of agency to happiness in rural Ming China,” where the course texts are a primary source reader from one publisher and a world history text from another. (Research comes later in the term once skills and habits are better, but course texts are always required.) What would it take to plagiarize this? Most of the standard strategies – cutting and pasting generic information on China, e.g. – would result in an incoherent, nonresponsive paper that would fail on its own merit without getting into plagiarism detection. Furthermore, they’d fail without regular and accurate citation of the course texts. (I usually get about a third with this error, innocent or otherwise, in the first batch of papers. I don’t even read papers with epic fails, I just hand them back to be fixed. Obviously you have to know, communicate, and enforce your standards for this to work.)

OK, here we are at the end of this post and I have to confess, it’s still not impossible to plagiarize under all these conditions. Easy, in fact, for the resolute scallawag. Here’s how. As mentioned above, they can pay an artisanal plagiarizer big bucks for completely customized papers. At least three of them, in my classes, which would only be prohibitive for really rich scoundrels if all my colleagues were also plagiarism-proofing their assignments. Or if the determined rabscallion wants to save that bling for beer, they could scour the ‘nets for snippets of information about agency and happiness in Ming China, stitch them together with topically-relevant analysis, then invent plausible citations to the course texts. To do that, all it would take is to understand the assignment and its rationale, properly identify relevant information, produce focused and coherent analysis, and know the course texts well enough to target the fake cites effectively. And at that point they might as well write the A paper those skills indicate they’re capable of writing.

December 23, 2008

Wanted: Prof Whisperer

by Carl Dyke

A couple of remarks by Profacero here and olderwoman at scatterplot are coming together in my head with many such from over the years, to the effect that establishing authority in the classroom is a different challenge for women, race/ethnic minorities, and other stigmatized groups than for white men.

This is now an orthodoxy in the liberal academy, so like all orthodoxies I’m going to try to trouble it here. But it’s also true. It’s undeniable that since Columbus us white boys enjoy an entry privilege as authority figures, especially if we’re ruggedly handsome, brilliant, charismatic and naturally great-smelling like me. A big chunk of this is visually inherent as a function of habits of symbolic ranking and emotional identification. It’s also undeniable that for some fractions of our audiences only white men will do as authority figures, as the underbelly of this last election showed well enough.

It’s important for navigational purposes to understand where these structural reefs and shoals are, but agency at any particular moment is about where we can go, not about where we can’t. Dynamiting Scylla and Charybdis is a worthy project for special occasions but trying to do that daily will wear you out quick, which is one of the worst compounding effects of deprivileging. So in a practical, quotidian sense the question is how authority works under less-than-ideal conditions.

Here I think it’s helpful to come at the question a little bit sideways from the usual focus on qualifying privilege and disqualifying stigma. Things look pretty desperate from that standpoint. We see white guys living it up in the lap of esteemed luxury and ‘others’ struggling, and it looks like the single effective variable is whiteguyness. Looks like we’re stuck with the exhausting dynamite campaign. But wait – what do we do with all the white guys who struggle in the classroom? And what do we do with the race/ethnic/disabled/women/etc. who get in the classroom and kick some ass, without blowing up everything in sight or even breaking a sweat? Don’t we all know some of each of those? Maybe it’s possible to factor out the structural race/gender variable and get comparable positive and negative results across categorical populations! Jeepers, a playground for agency!

The problem with how these discussions go is that they tend to be informed by a lot of reciprocal ignorance and mythology. It’s well-established at this point that hetero white guys don’t know squat about what it’s like to be black/female/queer/etc. We drift around in a happy daze at the gravitic null-point of all social stratifications, unburdened and oblivious to the burdens of others. And relatively speaking, which is all I ever do, this is true. But as Goffman tells us at some length in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, it’s also relatively speaking false. The ideal, unspoiled, unstigmatized identity imagined by disgruntled white-guy voyeurs is a mythic construct not embodied by any real person (this is, for example, the founding joke of “American Dad”). Being a white guy helps a lot in some ways, but it looks better from outside than inside; and if you’ve never been one, you’ll have to take my word for that. We’re all vulnerable in big ways and small, Goffman says (Foucault agrees), and each social interaction is the opportunity for anxious and reciprocal attempts to deploy/negate strengths and conceal/discover weaknesses.

Students looking for an edge against a professor just bump on down the checklist until they find something that will work for them. Race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability make things easy, but it’s a poor strategic interactant who stops there. Nor is whiteguyness much help, after the moment of entry, when there are other white guys around to cancel that advantage out. We’re a dime a dozen, and when we think things are at stake we rip on each other something fierce. We know each others’ weaknesses. So when white guys succeed in the classroom, it’s helped us at first to be white guys but then it almost instantly hasn’t, and we’ve had to deploy some other strength. What is that?

As olderwoman perceptively noted, classroom success comes to those who “carry privilege, a presumption of competence and authority with them into the classroom.” This is the ‘other strength’ that intercepts the stigma game. She ascribes this to upper-class white men, but notice that what’s being described here is not categorical identity but what Bourdieu calls disposition: an acquired scheme of perception, thought and action. Now, categorical identity is still significant because the dispositions of competence and authority are native products of the rich white boy habitus, and are interactively recognized as such. The nature of white boy privilege is therefore a kind of symbolic capital that is enforced through symbolic violence or its threat. It is in this sense that olderwoman is entirely correct that “[p]eople whose status is unquestioned can afford to be Mr. Cool with students,” because the threat of symbolic violence is understood and gratitude for its forebearance is ritually extracted. And this dynamic is what allows symbolic capital to be converted to economic and social capital, in the form of access to careers, advancement, esteem. Thus structure is produced and reproduced in everyday relations.

If we let it. Here’s where I agree with Marx that our conscious human history has not started yet. The dynamic of dispositions and habitus I have described above does not take us very far past the pack behaviors of dogs. In this connection it’s fascinating to watch the Dog Whisperer. Like the Nanny with children and parents, Cesar Millan’s whole insight is that when subordinates are getting unruly it’s not a follower problem, it’s a leader problem. The show gets old quick because it’s always the same schtick – come into a house, find owners fretting about ‘problem’ dog, discover the dog’s just confused about who’s in charge, train owners how to be in charge. Bingo bongo. And the real problem quickly emerges: white, black, man, woman, straight, gay, lotsa lotsa people have no idea how to be in charge of themselves, let alone others, even just dogs!, and anxious yapping ensues.

Cesar teaches the acquirable big dog skills of authority and competence to folks who for one reason or another perceive, think and act like little dogs. That is, he backfills the dispositions that make white guys winners in the big everyone stigma game, and alpha white guys winners in the little white guy stigma game. There’s nothing magical or mysterious about it, either. “Cesar counsels people to calmly, assertively, and consistently give their dogs rules, boundaries, and limitations to establish themselves as solid pack leaders and to help correct and control unwanted behavior.” That’s what the Nanny says about dealing with kids too. That’s what Obama did in this last campaign.

Calm assertion; clear, consistent boundaries. Not grand gestures, not puffery, not loud yapping. Those say ‘not trusting my own authority and competence, overcompensating’. Not negotiation, pleading or resentful disengagement. Those say ‘power vacuum here, please fill it’. Cesar thinks everyone can learn this. I hope so, because I don’t think we get over these pack-power games and get to human together until we do. And until we do, all of those categorical accounts of why things aren’t going right for us, even when they’re true, are little more than theodicies.

December 9, 2008

Community, agency, networks, happiness

by Carl Dyke

This semester as a collective project my school of Arts and Humanities worked in various ways toward a better understanding of what we called our Big Idea, “happiness.” One is Bob Ritzema’s excellent blog, Life Assays.

In my classes I plugged happiness in as the topic of the final papers, then sequenced the semester’s shorter papers as topical analyses leading to happiness as the synthesis. In my introductory World History classes the topics were community and agency. The students tended to struggle with the concept of agency, which I spent a lot of time walking them through as an umbrella term for power, control, choice, action, reaction and the like, but kept coming back at me informed by the folk definition of bureaucratic functions. Eventually I realized I was doing them no favors shielding them from the framing problematic of the structure/agency question, and this seemed to click; whether because it was the right way to teach it all along or they were ready for it from what had come before would be hard to untangle.

In general I find students have some trouble getting past definitions to concepts, and from concepts to cases. Of course it’s a cognitive mistake to linearize that way, so we also work from cases back to concepts, which does complicate the instruction. When introduced to abstraction they’ll spend a whole paper defining their terms if you let them; I call this throat-clearing. It takes a lot of patience and individual attention to get many students comfortable with a dialogue between the concrete and the abstract.

In my Contemporary World History seminar I added a third topic, networks. For the community module we primarily worked out of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, a wonderful ethnography of failures to communicate between Hmong immigrants and social service providers in Merced, CA; for agency we worked from David Reynolds’ nice global history One World Divisible; and for networks we had Donald R. Wright’s The World and a Very Small Place in Africa, which uses a world systems approach to work through how Niumi on the West African coast has been tied into the Atlantic Complex over hundreds of years.

This was a good group with good materials to work with, so we had a blast. One of my students is a community organizer, a real smartie attuned to the discourses of exclusion and oppression. She thought along with me all semester and had a whole bunch of clicks about how what we were talking about related to her work. Here’s one of those, from her network paper:

Taking oneself out of a network is near impossible. A person may be a socialist, but unless he moves to a remote location and begins to grow his own food, make his own clothes, defend himself, he is still living and functioning in a capitalist system that works by allowing people to mentally compartmentalize their actions. A group of activists may take up a cause, but in these times, it is near impossible for them to work outside of the non-profit industrial complex…. The institutionalizing and invisible nature of networks create an environment where people become so dependent on each other it is impossible to unsubscribe from the relationship.

Yup, we’re stuck with each other and in some pretty complex ways. I can’t wait to see how she finds happiness in this.

December 7, 2008

Readability: Hitler

by Carl Dyke

The Dec/Jan 2009 issue of Bookforum has an interesting interview with Timothy Ryback about his book on Hitler’s Private Library. (In Pierre Bayard’s readability system as discussed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, to which I will be introducing my students in the sophomore seminar in the Spring, Ryback’s is an HB+: a book I’ve heard of and have a good impression of.) Ryback was able to identify a number of Hitler’s most personally significant books from more than a thousand housed at the Library of Congress; and prompted by Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” he was able to use them to figure out some things about Hitler as a reader and a thinker.

Most notably, Ryback found that “Hitler was animated not by the excitement of the autodidact discovering a vast world of knowledge but by the intellectual insecurity of a high school dropout who needed to overpower everyone else in the room.” (I know plenty of Ph.D.s with the same insecurity, but the point is we know this type.) Hitler’s genius was for collecting very broad, very shallow knowledge. He liked encyclopedias. He was not a critical reader or thinker; he took what he read at face value and lumped everything together without distinction. In conversation he was a dazzling reciter of facts, constructing detailed but superficial comparisons by juxtaposition.

So far so good – a nice triangulation of something we already knew or at least assumed about the guy. Perhaps the surprise is that Hitler was a compulsive reader; we might have thought him even more shallowly absorbed in his own wacky thoughts and the echo-chamber of his cronies than that. But here’s where Ryback seems to get into some trouble. Ryback is an old-school liberal artist and bookworm – one imagines corduroy, tweed and elbow patches – who struggles to imagine how reading could not be positively transformative. “‘We believe literary reading is an ennobling enterprise,’ he says. ‘The underlying assumption is that we are better people for reading. What’s shocking about this is that we had a man who read to fuel exactly the opposite, everything that was destructive to intellectual processes. Out of this imbibing emerged such evil that it flies in the face of what we believe reading actually does.'”

Not so fast with that “we,” Tim. We’re not all congregants in your religion; books do not light up all rooms with their halos. If books are sacred things you might be right, but if they’re human things, not so much. And sure enough, books are read, and first written, by human beings, who are what they are before they write or read any particular book. Good humans usually write good books, and bad humans generally write bad books, although the reverse can sometimes be true. Good humans tend to prefer to read good books, and bad humans gravitate toward bad ones (Hitler was a big fan of Henry Ford’s and Madison Grant’s racist tracts); but also good humans may read bad books well, and bad humans may read good books badly. Nor is it a simple thing to sort out ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with respect to humans or books. One needs a moral system for that, and moral systems are contested.

We are riddled with confirmation bias, hard-wired for jamming new data into old schemata. Of the three basic kinds of analytical thinking – habit, belief, and theory – only theory is readily subject to disconfirmation by new information. I sometimes tell students that the way to tell if your theory is a good one is to track your surprise. A good theory will prepare you for reality, a bad one will leave your head spinning every time something that doesn’t fit happens. By this standard, the theory about the ennobling powers of literary reading is a bad one; but of course, if it’s really a “belief,” as Ryback says, and not a theory, his surprise will motivate no substantive transformation of his thinking. And sure enough, his own reading will not have ennobled (or better, enlightened) him, either.

November 3, 2008

Liberal bias in the liberal arts

by Carl Dyke

No one much disputes that academics are disproportionately liberal, although it may be the case that we are swinging back toward moderate. But does this mean that we indoctrinate the young?

According to three new studies surveyed by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, the answer is no.

The notion that students are induced to move leftward “is a fantasy,” said Jeremy D. Mayer…. When it comes to shaping a young person’s political views, “it is really hard to change the mind of anyone over 15,” said Mr. Mayer, who did extensive research on faculty and students.

“Parents and family are the most important influence,” followed by the news media and peers, he said. “Professors are among the least influential.”

This squares with Tim Clydesdale’s work on first year students and the college experience (previously discussed here), in which he found that students put their core values in an “identity lockbox” and that very few students find a liberal arts education deeply transformative.

And it squares with the research (previously discussed here) suggesting that undecided people have really already decided, and with my observations about default theories.

And it squares with my own experience. If anything, higher education has made me more conservative over the years, as marination in the value of balanced critical thinking and seasoning with diverse perspectives (including outside the academy) has mellowed the strong flavors of my youthful radical certainties. Of course, balanced critical thinking and respectful attention to diverse perspectives are themselves liberal values, ones that are at the heart of the liberal arts. But there’s no traction in them for making anyone change their mind, because whatever you think already is part of what needs to be respected and understood on the way to a more comprehensive understanding. As conservative professor James Joyner wryly notes,

Even attending a state school in the Deep South, my political science and history professors were predominantly (but not exclusively) liberal. But debating them tended to reinforce my conservative leanings. Years later, teaching political science courses to predominantly conservative students, I oftentimes found myself taking a Devil’s Advocate stance simply to force them to challenge their own preconceptions. (Which, on reflection, made me wonder if my own profs hadn’t done the same thing.)

Yeah, I can work with that guy.

October 21, 2008

Margaret and Helen

by Carl Dyke

On October 3rd, after seven posts covering family Thanksgiving, Fall leaves and shooting raccoons (and a few even more personal that have since been removed), Helen “Philpot” wrote “Sarah Palin is a Bitch… there I said it.

Her post has received over 1,300 comments to date. Overnight a blog set up by a grandson to allow his grandma Helen and her best friend Margaret to stay in touch became a viral sensation, complete with a raft of google hits as ‘favorite blog ever’. Less than three weeks later, seven more posts in a similar vein and referrals by the likes of Rosie O’Donnell have produced almost 400,000 blog hits.

Margaret does not post; she prefers the telephone. Helen has a nice direct, pungent style and a good feel for homespun rhetoric. She scores some familiar zingers within the internal liberal conversation, distinguished largely by the saltiness of her language: Palin is a “stupid, conniving bitch;” “a weak, pathetic woman who thinks big hair, winking, baby talk and self deprecation is somehow becoming of a woman who wants to lead the free world;” a hypocrite and “the worst kind of politician.” She’s a sham governor, a bad mother and a whiner.

It’s safe to say that Helen is clueless about Palin’s appeal, even though she has the more conservative Margaret to talk to. She certainly does not think Palin is her kind of babe, a representative of strong frontier womanhood and plainspoken traditional values. Writing from Texas, Helen seems to be more of an Ann Richards kind of poo-kicker than a Barbara Bush kind of matriarch.

The personal politics of this are probably not very interesting. Strong personalities with sharp tongues get attached to the whole spectrum of political passions. But I wonder what void Helen filled in the lives of those hundreds of thousands of folks who tumbled so suddenly to her site and instantly saw there a special voice of wisdom and sanity? Perhaps the aura (or miasma) of virtuous traditionalism Palin exudes could only be dispelled by someone with superior cred, an older woman and a fellow outsider? The best counter for charisma is charisma, and Helen’s got it. But she’s preaching to the choir, in fiery tent-revival style. She’s unlikely to change any minds; the negative rants in the comments show how easy a “fat old woman” is to dismiss if you don’t like what she’s saying. Then again, changing minds is not generally the point of political commentary, as I’ve been discussing for the last few posts.

October 17, 2008

Sesame Street Palin

by Carl Dyke

Sarah Palin is, as far as she’s showing, ordinary. She’s not dumb but she’s not especially bright. She doesn’t know much but she isn’t completely ignorant. She manages to get some things done but she’s not notably competent; and when she gets things done it’s not clear they were quite what she had in mind. When she talks I hear the muddled, impressionistic conservatism of a hundred satisfactory human beings I know, the perfect counterpoint to the muddled, impressionistic liberalism of another hundred sterling folks of my acquaintance. As I’ve just said in my last post, this disqualifies her for a philosophy degree but makes her pretty effective as a demagogic rhetoritician. Not great at that either, though, just, well, good enough.

What makes Palin special is therefore nothing about herself; it’s that the juxtaposition of her ordinariness and the historic role she’s been thrust into is confusing according to a couple of schemas that ought to have her nicely boxed up. She’s a monster because she’s a historically successful woman who isn’t a feminist; and a conservative proponent of women’s domestic calling who isn’t a housewife. She’s loved by who oughta revile her and reviled by who oughta love her. She’s the one of these things that doesn’t belong here.

As a category-buster, Palin changes the game just by existing, like hermaphrodites change the game of sex and gender. She embodies an attack on a central myth of pop feminism, in many cases a reality, that to be female is to experience oppression and carry at least a latent progressive consciousness. This is not her narrative. Shall we say that she suffers from false consciousness? But isn’t failure to take seriously what women tell us about their lives the characteristic power play of the patriarchy? She’s a woman who’s a feminist’s worst nightmare.

She is empowered, and not despite her femininity but because of it. This is a central myth, and in many cases a reality, of the normative traditional gendered division of labor, as Muck and Mystery reports:

That’s the single most common subject around here when the cowboys run into one another while riding fence and so chat for a bit. She’s our kind of babe. We each know a dozen women much like her and have no confusions about their power. We’ve lived with them all of our lives and know that to a significant degree they run things.

For example, there’s old Ordel who was known far and wide as the best farmer to ever mount a tractor, and the sharpest business man to ever operate a pencil. He rose from being a two-bit Okie fruit picker to owning enough land for a boutique sized European nation. But as he aged his mind faded and his wife, Rita, took to doing most of the talking. It soon became apparent that Ordel’s nose for business was on Rita’s face. Those who knew the family closely had always known this of course. These women have never needed liberation. They are content with domination.

Men are big showy figureheads for these distaff masterminds. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain. But Sarah disrupts the myth by emerging from behind the throne to sit in it herself; and unlike Rita, not as a regrettable necessity. By default Palin will be showing that women can have it all: marriage, children, global authority. She’s a conservative woman who’s a conservative’s worst nightmare.

Careful what you wish for. To empower women in the public sphere is to empower all women, not just the ones who agree with you. Palin is an icon of feminist accomplishment; she’s just what we worked for, better late than never, warts and all. That she also undermines the program with her conservative views and policies is a cost of doing business in a pluralistic democracy. The tyranny of feminism would require a different political system than we have. But the offset is ironically pleasing. For Palin to subvert the feminist agenda she must first accomplish it; as a powerful woman out of the home she’s a genie out of the bottle for social conservatives. What kind of example is she setting? She can talk family and tradition all she wants, yet there she is in the suit, with the microphone, all eyes on her, executive power and looking for more.

Without being anything much but a hockey mom she’s not what she should be, at all. Fantastic.

UPDATE: For a better explanation of conservative feminism and sharp assessment of some problems with the liberal variety, with great links, check out The Kibitzer.

October 6, 2008

Bailure update

by Carl Dyke

There’s a nice post from Progressive Historians that draws a historical parallel with the collapse of the railway bubble in mid-19th-century England as analyzed by none other than old commie Karl. Marx points out that the speculative crisis is itself merely symptomatic of a crisis of overproduction, which it temporarily masks. Basically, as I understand it, when the market for goods and services saturates, capital has but two places to go: reinvestment on the consumption side in the form of increased wages and salaries; or increasingly leveraged speculation in increasingly shady financial instruments (described, creepily, as “products”) unbacked by production side fundamentals.

The latter works great right up until it doesn’t. Pop! The former carries the danger of inflation, and furthermore requires great discipline for individual capitalists to forego immediate speculative profit in exchange for eventual balancing and stabilization of systemic profits through renewed consumer liquidity and demand. Capitalists seem to understand only intermittently that they need to invest in the health of the consumption side (and not just by exploiting it further through the extension of consumer debt) if they want the production side to thrive. Jim Livingstone has been arguing something like this for a long time. Perhaps that lesson will be refreshed by the current unpleasantness.

Fascist corporatism, on the other hand, is characteristic of bootstrapping semi-peripheral economies and does not look to me like a likely outcome here until the rest of the world finds a way to wiggle out from under needing our economy to work so theirs can. And when that happens, fascism will be the least of our worries.

September 29, 2008

To bail or not to bail

by Carl Dyke

In the Communist Manifesto Karl and Fred Marxnengels famously hypothesized that “the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Like a rip saw this has since proven a powerful tool for rough work and a clumsy one for finer craft. As far as I can see this is true yet again in the case of the current ‘crisis’ of the U.S. finance sector and its political epiphenomena.

To review the broad outlines of the mess we’re in as I understand it from my non-expert perspective: A market economy is enabled or constrained, in part, by the liquidity to buy the goods and services that are produced. Liquidity may come in the form of solid assets or credit, nominally based on assets and functionally based on trust. (Money itself is a form of credit nominally based, nowadays, on the overall productivity of the nation that issues it as i.o.u.’s. You trust the money insofar as you trust the nation.) Economies based solely on the production and exchange of solid assets (barter) are highly constrained by time and space. Credit systems enable a relative transcendence of time and space and therefore, radically enable economic activity and growth.

Although the U.S. economy remains in many respects concretely productive, over the last little while its growth and its position as the consumption engine of the global economy (from which we all benefit, to varying and controversial degrees) have been largely driven by the invention of increasingly sophisticated means of expanding functional liquidity through the creation and manipulation of debt (in the old days called ‘margin’ and currently euphemized as ‘leverage’). Every time a loan is made, functional liquidity is multiplied: the loan money enters the market for use by the debtor, while also being retained with interest by the creditor as a holdable or saleable asset in the form of an i.o.u.. Consumer debt is an obvious example of the invention of liquidity out of thin air. But that’s nothing compared to the creativity that has gone into fabricating profit from the home mortgage market, in the first instance by giving home loans to increasingly risky borrowers, and in the second instance by packaging those loans for resale or as collateral for further loans (‘derivatives‘) – multiplying liquidity each time – in increasingly complicated and intermediated ways.

The limits of reasonable risk in the granting and repackaging of loans are, in the short term, an empirical matter. You try it and see if it works; it may even be statistically probable that it will. The problem is that the whole bloom of liquidity in the mortgage resale market ultimately rests on trust in the value of the concrete real estate asset and its ‘owner’s’ ability to pay it off long-term. As long as real estate holds or increases its value, all is well even if some of the loans default. What has happened now is that real estate has not kept its value, in part because of a feedback loop from all the ‘sub-prime’ mortgages in the market; not just the defaulted ones, but severely impaired trust about the value of the undefaulted ones. And because the actual loans have been so cleverly chopped up, repackaged and intermixed with more traditionally-reliable paper, this suddenly ‘toxic’ debt has polluted the good stuff too, resulting in a crisis of confidence and a pervasive unwillingness to lend money based on uncertain collateral. This is the account of things that makes sense of the current bailout plan’s focus on buying out the toxic debt so that the credit markets can get back to work based on renewed trust in the paper that’s left.

No surprises here. “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones…. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.” – Communist Manifesto, ch. 1.

Since everything from parties to payrolls in an advanced economy like ours is financed in the short or long term through the credit markets, none of us is unaffected by this. Failure of credit markets would be catastrophic for everyone who didn’t live on a subsistence farm. Nevertheless, there’s lots of room for disagreement about how to handle the current situation. There are of course the mortal enemies of capitalism, for whom this is a moment of perhaps ironic triumph. There are various strains of outrage and fretting from the sections of the Democratic orchestra, more or less aware of their tunes’ contrapuntal texturing of the opus. But to finally get to my main topic here, what interests me is the fact that Republicans, the party of big business, cannot find a consensus. In fact, ‘they’ seem to be the main opponents of the bailout. What’s that about?

Well, what we’ve been finding out over the last four years, if we didn’t know it already, is that the Republican Party is every bit the motley hodgepodge everyone knows the Democrats to be. As with all collective identities, “Republican” turns out to be a convenient collector of myths and fictions that can sometimes, under the right conditions, be activated and leveraged to bring disparate persons together for a common purpose. This turns out not to be one of those conditions; quite the contrary.

So, for the libertarian fraction of the party, where the free-market fundamentalists hang out, the omnipotent self-regulation of the market is an unquestionable article of faith. Whatever drowning may be involved while we wait for the market to slosh itself back into its channel is a small price to pay compared to the stumbling disruptions of even well-intentioned regulation. And there’s the problem of moral hazard – once you mess with the market by removing the costs of risk, you forever destroy the market’s power to self-regulate risk by inflicting punishment on bad ones. If we’re not careful, we’ll kill the market and be stuck with a planned economy; and big government is bad.

For the social conservatives, rural in sensibility if not residence and already suspicious of rascally city-slickers, radical individual responsibility is a sacred value high enough to make taking down the economy a small price to pay for properly punishing the greedy corporate honchos who got us into this mess. They share the libertarians’ suspicion of big government. Moral hazard is a more tangentially compelling argument to these folks, not because they believe in the free market, but because they believe in sin and damnation.

For the national security/law and order fraction of the party this all starts as an embarrassing sideshow. But once they look deeper, they notice that the bailout money will have to be borrowed by the government, will probably come mostly from China and other foreign powers, and by putting us in their debt therefore further undermines our freedom of movement against whatever foes we may choose.

Not even the pro-business wing of the party, which turns out here definitively to be George W.’s, is entirely on board here. True, they’ll sacrifice the free market when it’s not working for them just as shamelessly as they promoted it when it was. But perhaps we should not be surprised that the representatives of capitalist enterprise would be lukewarm about a massive socialist nationalization of private equity, even if it does work to their short-term benefit. And it’s also worth remembering that it’s the finance sector that’s into trouble here, not business in general (yet); in fact, the finance guys have pretty much screwed things up for everyone else. So I imagine that for the manufacturing and service sectors and their political representatives a certain omerta’ is in tension with a touch of Schadenfreude or even outright vendetta.

Once again, it’s not safe to overlump the ruling class. Which is a good thing from the perspective of change, because as Marx himself knew, if they had their fecal matter entirely aggregated there would be little hope for an alternative.

September 19, 2008

Bechdel rule

by Carl Dyke

Thanks first of all to wicked anomie, I’ve caught the Bechdel rule virus. Of course I love that there’s a comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For;” and I think the Bechdel rule and its corollaries are good to think with. To refresh the virus here, the rule assesses whether a movie or tv show is worth watching:

* It has to have at least two women in it,
* Who talk to each other,
* About something besides a man.

This doesn’t seem like much to ask for; in real life this sort of conversation happens all the time, as various women commenting on the rule have pointed out. And since all movies/shows aren’t about men (are they?), and conversations between characters about whatever the movie is about are pretty much the norm for plot development, this sort of conversation would also look like it should happen all the time, by accident, in the flow of the flick. Right? So see if it does. Not so much, as I and many others have found.

There are some interesting lines in the commentary on the NPR site. Whether it makes sense to apply dogmatic rules rather than more flexible sorts of quality assessment is one. Another is whether we should expect edification or merely entertainment from movies and tv. And a challenge to the idea that race, gender and ethnic constituencies should prefer identification with characters to a more cosmopolitan celebration of diversity brought stinging ad hominem responses from the aggrieved. Perhaps not surprisingly given the venue, the latter debate failed to attract the usual libertarian wag pointing out that the media in a capitalist economy are not in the social justice business and provide exactly what the various niches of the market are willing and able to pay to see. I missed the customary reflexive retorting poo-storm of outraged moralisms so much, I almost stepped into that character for a moment.

Juvenile instigations aside, for me, with my roots deep in Gramsci, it’s most interesting to note the lag time between developments in high theory and their trickle down into popular culture. So I note that with the current viral popularity of the Bechdel rule, the popular culture of feminism has leapt from the ’50s to the ’70s, from Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949) to (almost) Wittig’s “One is Not Born a Woman” (1981).

For Beauvoir women are women always in reference to men – women are thus the “second sex” – with the feminism derived from (a superficial reading of) her work seeking equal recognition in that relationship. A famous and beloved scene of this retro second sex feminism is the one in “Waiting to Exhale” where Angela Bassett as Bernadine wreaks revenge for her husband’s infidelity by making a bonfire of his possessions. Bernadine’s empowerment makes sense only in relation to her ongoing emotional involvement with him, so although the tables are momentarily turned her dependence on a man to give her actions meaning is not altered.

Wittig, writing from a lesbian perspective of life lived without reference to men, recovered Beauvoir’s full implication that ‘woman’ is a myth: “One is not born, but becomes a woman” only in this optional relation with ‘man’. When the Bechdel rule seeks a fully womanized relationality, it gets much of the way to Wittig by cutting men out of the picture. But it stops short by still embracing the defining category of ‘woman’ and therefore the mirror trap of contested gender power. As Wittig says, “Matriarchy is no less heterosexual than patriarchy: it is only the sex of the oppressor that changes.”

It will take a transformation of the second nature of gender categories in popular culture, still well beyond the horizon as we wiggle our way toward acceptance of a ‘woman’ as a legitimate candidate for top executive power, for us get to the conceptual ’80s. Judith Butler and the ’90s wait in the wings, but their act comes much later in this play.

September 10, 2008

Ninja reading

by Carl Dyke

I heard this great story about fundamentals a while back that’s been informing my teaching of late. A guy was talking about how he got excited about martial arts and wanted to be like the movie ninjas. He goes to a dojo, gets all the gear, and looks forward to learning the big impressive moves. Instead, all they work on is punch, block, kick. Over and over. Not so exciting.

He’s not a quitter so he keeps going and working on punch, block, kick. Eventually the sensei invites the top beginners to visit a master class, and this guy thinks now he’s going to see the ninja levitation skills. Awesome. So he goes to the master class and sure enough, they spend the whole time working on punch, block, kick. Only it’s at a completely different level of facility, ease, balance, and effectiveness.

I’m working on critical reading and thinking skills with my introductory world history sections. With the martial arts as a metaphor we’ve started with the fundamentals in reading primary source documents. For punch, block, kick I’ve substituted who (wrote this), when, where, and why. These are the fundamentals that establish the authority of a historical document and a solid foundation of understanding.

Today I showed my students how to turn those fundamentals into ninja moves by pushing through them to engage with the text in a series of critical dimensions:

*Text: What it (she, he, they) says and means (fully engaging with authority by adding what to the other w questions)
*Context: the environment or field in which the doc was written – from local to global (another level of where and when)
*Subtext: deeper or alternative meanings, reading between the lines (another level of why).

My example here was going to a used car lot. A guy in a loud plaid jacket runs out and says “I’m so glad to see you. What a good looking man you are.” They had no problem seeing that the text is a greeting and compliment. Interestingly, in each section some guy jumped to a homosexual come-on as the subtext. We used the contrast between a bar and a used car lot as context to disqualify that reading and conclude that the subtext is “give me your money.”

I told them that if they could master this series of analytical moves they’d be educated people who fully earned the higher salary employers are willing to pay to college graduates. Then I showed them the levitating ninja moves, not fully mastered even by many professional academics:

*Intertext: intellectual context, the conversations and networks a text participates in (another level of context and subtext)

*Countertext: I mentioned Derrida here because who knows, that landmind may explode for a few of them later. Reading texts against themselves (‘deconstruction’) because authors are agents of contexts and intertexts (‘discourses’) and do not fully control their materials and meanings. In some sense an ordinary historical insight – how else can texts be seen as ‘representative’ of times and places? We’ll use implied perspectives as the entre’ to this move; I pointed out that we’d already done this by reading a Ming Chinese family’s formal rules, written by elder males, against itself to discover the informal power women had in a system in which all formal power was patriarchal.

I just laid this all out, then had them get together into small groups of 4-5 to work through the full range of readings of an excerpt from the Sadler Report to Parliament on child labor (1832). With absolutely no lecture, background or prompting from me, with only the document, its short editorial introduction, and a general world history text to work with, here are some things they came up with so far, pending further discussion on Thursday:

*Who: A conversation among an official parliamentary investigator, asking leading questions, and various child laborers

*Where: urban England

*When: 1832, but including recollections from up to twenty years earlier

*Why: parliamentary fact-finding; to create public awareness; and create momentum and unassailabilty for politicians in preparation for enacting legislation against entrenched elite interests

*Text: the facts and horrors of long hours and abusive treatment in industrial child labor

*Context: early phases of the Industrial Revolution, transition from subsistence agrarian order in which children worked for families to capitalist order in which families work for industrialists; industrial takeoff leveraged by breakdown of traditional relations and creation of cheap desocialized labor pool

*Subtext: reformer’s moral outrage constructing worker ‘victimhood’ through leading questions about conditions the workers had taken for granted

*Intertext: the intersubjectivity of the interview process itself; debates about conditions of just work and the responsibility of elites to regulate fairly

*Countertext: the implied perspective of the industrialists; the mismatched moralisms of reformers vs. the pragmatic lifeworld of workers.

Not bad for a bunch of mostly freshman non-majors in about half an hour. The thing I liked best was that although not all of the groups clicked and got all the way through the analysis, there was ‘push’ in the assignment so that the ones who would normally have stopped at text developed things to say about context and subtext, and the ones who would normally have felt very clever to see some things about subtext stretched out to develop observations and hypotheses about intertext and countertext.

A couple weeks ago when we were just looking at who/where/when/why several students asked bemusedly if I read like this all the time. I said yeah, but it becomes a habit you do quickly without belaboring it or even thinking hard. I think they’re getting there, so by the time we’ve done this with a dozen documents over a couple of months they’ll be pretty locked in. Plus maybe they’ll know one or two things about world history.

“Communist Manifesto” next.

August 26, 2008

Default theories

by Carl Dyke

There’s a terrific post up at In Harmonium on “Epistemological Battlespaces.” Bouncing off a variety of sources, including an earlier post of mine, and drawing on years of research, Marc considers a series of ideal-typical “meta-epistemologies” that often underlie (or rationalize) conflicts. It’s a banquet for thought.

Marc’s work made me think of a discussion I often have with students when I’m introducing them to formal theory of whatever kind. As you may know, college teachers of theory are often met with wrinkled noses and squinted eyes when theory comes up; theory is something eggheads do far from the ‘real world’, at best sort of a cultural boiled spinach. So the first task is to yummy up theory by showing that it’s something we all do, for good reasons, and may want to do better. I do this by talking about what I call default theories.

Theories are basically ways of explaining or making sense of things. Like the C: drive on a computer, a default theory is the first place you go when you’d like to know why something happened or what it meant. Everybody’s got one. If your default theory promises explanation or understanding, you stop there, boot up the operating system, and don’t look any farther. This is obviously just a different metaphor for the ‘boxes’ we’re sometimes told it’s good to think outside of.

Default theories are also where you go back to if you try some other theories and they don’t work out. Usually our tolerance for failure is much higher for default theories than for the ones we learn later. Default theories get built into our basic input-output system, so they’re pretty rough-and-ready. We then build a whole worldview onto their kernel, and this can become quite elaborate.

Here are some default theories about how and why stuff happens, corresponding to several overlapping worldviews:

It was Fate
It was God’s will
It was me, I did it
It was them, they did it
It was the government/Trilateral Commission/international Jewish conspiracy
It was human nature
It was hormones
It was the Devil

I’d be tempted to call all of these species of theodicy except that they are accounts of good as well as evil.

From the standpoint of people living inside them, default theories are effective and comforting orientations toward a big, confusing, sometimes scary world. From the standpoint of egghead theories the defaults are delusional, incoherent garbage that needs to be thrown out, or at best accepted as raw data about the perhaps exotically beautiful ignence of the masses. In his post, Marc starts with an illuminating contrast between “civilized discourse” based on open-minded reasoning from facts and its opposite, a narrow “totalitarian way of thinking.” He declines to choose up sides about which is better, and I agree in this undecision; but it also seems to me that this is a choice that is already made for each of us, by default.

August 22, 2008


by Carl Dyke

It turns out that when we’re undecided we may not be. Science reports a study by Canadian and Italian researchers who used image and word association to tease out self-declared undecided people’s political precommitments with 70% accuracy.

According to Denise Gellene of the L.A. Times (via the N&O) “[t]he researchers said it’s all part of an unconscious decisiveness that manifests itself in the hundreds of mundane, snap decisions people make every day, such as choosing which shoe to put on first or which seat to take on an empty bus.”

Yah. And we don’t even need a fancy theory of the unconscious to explain habituated pseudo-intentionality, although we do need a cultural theory to explain why some people are so resistant to the unremarkable observation that much of our living and thinking is automated for ease of handling.

If, as the study suggests, we’ve all mostly made up our minds already, I wonder about the conditions (psychological, sociological) under which people are inclined to defer or not defer their moment of bringing decision to consciousness. A vulgar behaviorist might wonder if there are rewards and punishments for some people for being, or appearing, decisive, deliberate, open-minded or accommodating. A good study would probably find that these conditions are highly situated, so that people who are inclined to defer decision in one context may be much more decisive in others. The great speckled ditherer is probably a rare bird. Power is certainly in play, but there’s power in both deciding and not deciding, so that’s another situated analysis.

And if undecisive people have already decided, what does this say about decisive people? It may be that only in cases of fundamental ignorance or complete disinterest is persuasion possible. Otherwise, as William James said, when we think we’re thinking we’re merely rearranging our prejudices.

July 29, 2008

Top 10 ways to get stuff into two piles

by Carl Dyke

The simplest kind of analysis is the one where stuff is all the same, everything is one thing, or it all boils down to that in the end. One pile analysis. It’s all good, it’s all bad, or perhaps it’s all absurd. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

One step up the analytical complexity scale is when there are two kinds of stuff. In the classic version of two piles analysis there is no middle ground or mixing; the categories are mutually exclusive and mutually defining. It’s even been argued in structural anthropology that such binaries are the building blocks of all of our thinking. Of course, complexity sneaks in if the two piles can be mixed, or if they sit at the ends of a continuum of possibilities. Still we are not yet close to the analytical scope and flexibility of fields and networks. Pure binaries are not found in the wild, but they can still be helpful as an orienting fiction if we don’t mistake them for real; they can also be fully imposed on occasion if the alignment of conditions and forces is just right.

Here are ten of my favorites, in no particular order, only there are eleven.

1. Lumpers and splitters: This one is fun because it’s an attempt at a meta-binary that calls into view the whole process of categorization. Lumpers do few big piles, splitters do many little piles. Splitters think the lumpers are missing important distinctions, lumpers think the splitters are splitting hairs.

2. Folders and crumplers: Sort of a crude, buttwipey way of getting at the “odd couple” binary between orderly and chaotic personality types; metaphorically covers just about any performance of self. Planners and improvisers are in here. Freud called these types “anal-retentive” and “anal-expulsive.”

3. People with loaded guns and people who dig: Still one of the best meditations on the deficiency of simple categorizations in a complex world, and of the irrationalities produced by trying to get the categories to settle down into simplicity, is Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” This one is the last and most explicit of a series of contingent “two kinds of people in this world” binaries the movie contemplates, each only as successful as the violence that can be deployed to enforce it.

4. Foxes and hedgehogs: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” A quote from Archilochus, picked up by Sir Isaiah Berlin in a famous essay, adapted for various applications. Again, this binary threatens to split open the whole exercise, because hedgehogs will tend to put everything into one big pile and foxes will tend to make lots of little piles.

5. Positive and negative liberty: Again thanks to Isaiah Berlin. Negative liberty refers to individual freedom from constraint; positive liberty focuses on freedom to act within the context and for the good of community. Accordingly, the emphasis of negative liberty is ‘rights’, that of positive liberty is ‘duties’. These two different and possibly contradictory understandings of what it means to be free underlie a great deal of confusing political discourse.

6. Autonomy and heteronomy: Auto-nomy, self-regulation; hetero-nomy, other-regulation. From the perspective of normative autonomy, any restriction of my sovereign self-rule is a kind of oppression. The ‘other’ in heteronomy may be a person or persons, rules and concepts, environmental conditions, even one’s own habits, passions or desires (like body parts that have ‘minds of their own’).

7. Movement and position: I covered this one here. Some people are comfortable with dynamics and uncertainty; some people want things to sit still and behave.

8. Via positiva and via negativa: My thanks to Marc at In Harmonium for this one, more thoroughly explored there. He’s referring to mindsets according to which the focus is on what we can be (positiva) or can’t be (negativa) certain about. Positiva statements are accordingly about Truth, negativa statements about possibilities. Objectivity and subjectivity is a subset binary here; as Marc and others like Sandra Harding point out, the best solutions are a matter of adaptation and negotiation among perspectives.

9. Men and women: Look, as soon as men can be said to have a ‘feminine side’ or women who like sex and open doors for themselves threaten ‘masculinity’ this whole house of cards collapses into a messy pile of possible human traits. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most basic myths we use to organize our sense of who’s who and what’s what.

10. Public and private: In England the schools people call ‘private’ in the U.S. are called ‘public’. Sex is private unless it’s homosex, in which case it’s publicly regulated. Halliburton and Blackwater are part of the ‘private sector’, while the ‘public sector’ includes agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice that do some of their business in secret. Private names both my genitals and a rank in the army; public names kinds of libraries and enemies. A ball of confusion; see Weintraub.

11. Us and them.