Archive for ‘chaos’

March 26, 2021

Raw materials on the interdisciplinary paracurriculum

by Carl Dyke

The syllabus is not the class

The process is the goal

A world full of people

Each class picks a little thing about MU to examine. A meal; a bathroom; a requirement; a building. Let’s figure this out, all of it. Faculty get to geek out on their part, but it’s just a part. What’s the food science of this? What’s the literature of this?

Pulling together the classes they’re taking – how do they relate? What do they contribute?

How is this fun? Interesting? Worthwhile?

“There must be some way this is / to make this simple” vs ok it’s just wicked complex

Being in that world vs trying to act on it

“It works when teachers care about the students, not the material.” – Tavares

Caring in education is learning and growing focused. It can’t stop at validation. We love them as they are and as they’re becoming.

How to learn and grow?

Not knowing, but finding out

[Library competency –> research competency, not a class but a project]

Feral connectivity – conspiracy, intelligent design – vs ecosystems, complexity

Wanting to know, wanting to belong, wanting to be ok

BE POSITIVE, opportunities not threats and deficits

Something to do, someone to be, having / knowing your place, connection / community, self/making – the spectrum of identity services. We are MU / Make MU Great +++

Hypothesis 1: people do better when the work is challenging and meaningful. Rising / growing to fullest. (Final potential may be fixed, but we’re not there yet.)

Hypothesis 2: people find ways to drag and shirk when the work is not challenging and / or meaningful.

The reward platter: nutrition vs sugary treats. Feedback logics – how do I get more sugary treats?

Social learning / family dynamics and metaphors. Getting stuck in the child / mom / dad, pupil / teacher, drudge / boss games.

Playing games vs changing games. Partners, colleagues, finders, learners. Relationships and flows vs hierarchies.

Not all active learning has to be kinetic. Sitting and paying attention works too. Miss Marple ethnography vs Indiana Jones. Divide the dispositions and the labor.

In a (civic) ecosystems view, “burn it down” is the dumbest thing anyone can say. But fire is one of the healthy dynamics.

Online makes crossing / blending logistics much easier

– set this up for experiment / piloting opportunities

Why doesn’t interdisciplinarity ever work? It’s a meta-wicked problem.

Surf not grind, infiltrate not attack, wiggle stuck drawers

Interdisciplinary is not the end but a means, dictated by the field of discipline. They will defend themselves. Why?

How is discipline a resource? How can it be queered without activating the defenses?

Material at hand.

Loose goal, local knowledge – what’s the value added?

Ask – what are your challenges? How could this solve a problem for you? Think big!

Stay away from the Center – edges, networks, flows, rhizomes (reinforcing loops, how systems snap to grid)

The enduring problems of the humanities and liberal arts are enduring because they can’t be solved – they are wicked problems. Difficulties, dilemmas, conundrums, impasses.

Especially in the modern world the tendency of the hard sciences and stem has been to think of the humanities and the liberal arts as the soft dumping ground for unserious questions and projects. What wicked problems and complexity offer is the opportunity to rethink the humanities and the liberal arts as resources for recognizing and managing wicked problems. The wicked problems framework frames citizenship as participating in shared complexity (the civic ecosystem) responsibly and intelligently. Not mastering but learning understanding and adapting.

Self centered, personal interest, leaning in to disconnection

Superficial / ignorant problem solving, dopey eliciting exercises

Rubrics, notecards, prompts, citation formats and plagiarism, hoop after hoop, how-to suck passion out of any topic

Everything is fine but the focus is on disconnected technical requirements rather than the project as a developing accomplishment linked to larger systems of attention. This is consistent with the pattern throughout our curriculum and academic support efforts, which features many interventions with no necessary connection to authentic projects and goals.

With this in mind, adding another disconnected intervention is an exercise in path dependent failure. Ours is a pattern of wasted effort we need to break, not multiply.

Ecology / microcosm

A world full of people

Start w/ one of the cameo histories, e.g. cod, lobster, sushi. Read as model for tracing networks. Everyone picks an ordinary object and does the full global history of it – the materials, the compopnents, the assemblages at various scales; culture, society, politics, economics, world systems. History of interconnection, interdependence, embedding.

Complexity: the mobile. Note distinction of functional, aesthetic, moral analyses. How does it work? Is it beautiful? Is it good/bad, right/wrong? Note tendency of each set of questions to try to take over (e.g. function is also beautiful and good).

“I have taught a course called Science and Politics for a number of years and
one year in particular, it was very early in the morning, a big lecture class
at 8:00am. To get to the lecture hall we all passed this little shop that sold
good coffee and chocolate croissants. . . . And just as a way of waking up in
the morning, I would ask people to unpack objects, to take a chocolate
croissant and lead me through flour and chocolate and butter and sugar and
coffee and connect us to world histories that way. I would ask people to pick
an object, the T-shirt that the person sitting next to them was wearing,
what was printed on it, the label, the very fact of labeling, the fibre com-
position. If it’s got polyester, then take me through the history of Purity
Hall and research labs at Du Pont; you know, back me up into nitrogen
chemistry. If it’s cotton, then back me into pesticides and the California
water projects and where cotton is grown and the length of the fibre and
what about what you are wearing on your chest? I would ask people, as a
way of talking about science and politics, to take a pencil, a piece of paper,
the architecture of the lecture hall that you walked past; pick something and
get the class started by giving me an account of it.”
—Donna Haraway, in Live Theory (via Dumit, Implosion)

NB limbering exercise – is that what IDS is for?

How many people had to do their job for you to (x)?

Resources: their experience, networks, previous classes, classes now, instructor expertise, informal and formal research

Modalities

Hybrid / asynchronous enables all kinds of connecting and blending. Team teaching, project based learning, topic walkabouts. Plenary + breakouts / work teams, multimodal engagement.

To start with use interdisciplinary stuff as connective tissue. Student level, inherently customized, no need for faculty/major involvement.

Process not outcomes. Get curious about something and explore. Understanding vs problem solving.

“It was fun and challenging to work on such an interdisciplinary project. As a physics student studying biological systems, I had never expected myself to use concepts from economics.”

https://phys.org/news/2020-11-unexpected-similarity-honey-bee-human.html

Prompting exercise: use this as a mad lib:

“As an X studying Y, I never expected myself to use concepts from Z.”

Thinking of disciplines as boxes of tools and resources rather than domains / turfs.

Research teams:

Figuring out the life

How did they feed themselves?

How did they think about things?

How did they organize themselves?

What did they do for fun?

How did they care for themselves?

How did they handle disputes?

“What we’re trying to do is to get managers to set up strange attractors, so that you get relevant behavior without somehow identifying a point in advance where you want the system to go.”

https://journal.emergentpublications.com/article/vol1-iss1-1-4-pr/

March 22, 2021

The nightmare of dead generations

by Carl Dyke

When I was a young intellectual in college I was really excited about the power of ideas to change the world. Just as the ruling class thinks rules are very important and the working class thinks work is very important and mothers think nurturing is very important and warriors think violence is very important and pigs think mud is very important, eggheads think thinking is very important. Sometimes you just have to smile and nod politely when people say their little thing about how the world works. It takes all kinds.

So a popular idea about ideas in coffee shops, brew pubs, and philosophy departments is that ideas make things happen. This idea should die the first time you try to make it come true, but it’s easy enough to avoid this confound if you only ever have ideas and never try to make them come true. You can also play all sorts of association games, where things were happening and meanwhile people were having ideas that sort of resembled the things that were happening, and so there we have it, ideas making things happen. Never mind the same sorts of ideas were around in other times and places without kicking up much dust. This is really easy to see with, say, Nazism. Nazism itself is a portmanteau of all kinds of garbage that was around in European thought and practice for at least hundreds of years. Finding Nazism precursors is like shooting ducks in a bucket. It didn’t just go away when Hitler blew his brains out in the bunker, either. Naziform thinking is as routine as lawns and registered animal breeds and thinking it means something to be from Pittsburgh. Japanese Buddhists of the early 20th century were basically Nazis, as it turns out, because they were zeeeennn with obeying orders and committing genocide. Yes, bonsai is a little creepy. You know what’s completely normal as part of the distribution of human thoughts and feelings? Control freaks and motivated reasoning and being just fine with other people’s suffering.

The historical challenge is to get, say, Christianity, or communism, or free markets to be ideas that map cleanly onto the accomplishment of enumerated goals. If two thousand years later we’re still having trouble with loving thy neighbor, it might be the relationship between the Christian idea complex and the world of living and doing stuff is importantly indirect. If you actually want to change things, it’s incumbent to see what else might have been going on that murderously intercepted living together in freedom in the great 20th century communist experiments. And every time a free market gets ‘captured’ by dynamics other than the free and fair pursuit of individual self interest, shaking a finger and scolding people for doing it wrong are on the silly side of sociopathic wokeness. Don’t get me started on the Constitution.

It is just impossible to find any ideas in, say, 18th century Europe that didn’t have slavery and white supremacy as part of their effective context and content. Sometimes this is explicit, as in the case of pro- and anti-slavery tracts. More often it’s just that nothing about Europeans’ world in the 18th century was possible without slavery and white supremacy, although a lot of it had been true on other grounds some hundreds of years before. So you couldn’t say “I like a good ham sandwich” without saying “I like a good ham sandwich where cuisines and standards of quality in foodstuffs are marked out on a hierarchy with race at the bottom, and in a political economy that conditions their availability to the likes of me,” where that political economy included the labor and status and price and finance and power gradients of slavery and white supremacy. I’ve started to talk about how ideas are emergent in systems. And, you couldn’t say “I want freedom for X,” without saying that at least for the moment you were ok with conditioning that freedom on the continued enslavement and domination of global brown peoples. And you couldn’t say “that’s not what I’m talking about,” the way philosophers do as the special way philosophers get to manage their own ignorance as if it’s deep wisdom, by sealing off their special kind of thinking from their context, without baking the context that allowed you to think like that right into your ideas as their essential contingent precondition.

But, I haven’t said anything unique about Europe or the 18th century or white supremacy, have I. This is just how ideas work. The bits and pieces of them are floating around all the time, everywhere (who doesn’t like a good ham sandwich or rank people or want the world to be just so), but the specific assemblages of them have a time and place. If they make anything happen, it’s because they’re in the flow with lots of other stuff in context. And so it goes.

Not that eggheads ever need any particular context to think like eggheads do! So another dopey thing the people you would expect to think like this think in coffee shops and brew pubs and philosophy departments is that ideas, being powerful, don’t have contexts but are just ‘in play’ all the time. So to pick an example out of a gagillion, we could continue to be interested in Hegel as a live option for how to think about things. And find to our disappointment that he’s not only a racist like everyone else in Europe in the 18th century, but also a little fuzzy and maybe not great on the question of complex systems and emergence. Like, it’s in some sense tautologically true that the world develops according to its logic, which is by definition rational. So there we have it, the progress of reason. But this may not be helpful if we’re interested in how systems shift more comprehensively, which would have to involve contradictions within the logic of history. So we’ve reinvented the Young Hegelians and we’re well into the 19th century now. And then Marx blows it all up with the 11th thesis. You can describe the world any way you like, according to whatever logic suits your fancy, but none of that means anything unless you can get in there and change things. Which, we mostly still don’t know how to do, not least because we keep casting our wistful glances at kludgy old ideas with racism or whatnot baked into them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Being a practicalish kind of guy with limited time for other people’s descriptions of the world in various ways, I think it’s kind of fun Hegel might have been on the trail of complex systems, but it wouldn’t occur to me to try to get Hegel to be relevant to that discussion now. I’d start with Poincaré, who was just straightforwardly trying to figure out complex systems early in the game called complex systems. But I really wouldn’t start with Poincaré either, first because he’s pretty mathy, and second because there’s an intervening hundred years of smart people working that angle. I don’t look to Darwin for the state of the art on evolution either, although you can find plenty of dingbats on social media doing just that and heroically refuting 19th century science. So I might start with Prigogine, or the early systems theorists like Wiener, as my dear papah Dyke the Elder suggested I do back when I first got sick of chasing the magic of ideas and started poking around at what else was going on. But really I’d try to catch up on what people who study complex systems have been learning about complex systems over the last twenty, ten, five years. Which, is what I do. I don’t expect Hegel to come up anywhere in there, although there’s always some romantic who remembers freshman philosophy and thinks he can get hot dates by connecting the dots.

August 27, 2020

Corona and Deacon

by John Doyle

It’s been a long time since we discussed Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature here and here at Dead Voles. I’ve forgotten most of it by now, but the book came abruptly to mind the other morning when I woke up from a dream. Coronavirus was delivering a speech; it stopped to reconsider, then it began again with a second speech. I don’t remember what Corona was talking about, what information it was trying to convey. What struck me was that the virus was trying – exercising intentional agency.

Even the rain runoff has agency, self-organizing into rivulets that carry pine straw and twigs, fill up the overflow reservoirs, flood streets and basements. In Deacon’s lingo the runoff rivulets are “morphodynamic systems,” the pull of gravity on the water constrained and channeled by the terrain over which it flows. But it’s just hydraulics interacting with topology: the water doesn’t care about getting down to sea level; the land doesn’t care about retaining its structural integrity.

Is this the same sort of agency exercised by Coronavirus, its individual virions accumulating and cascading through airborne droplets from host to host? Or does the virus care – does it in effect want to enter into the new host, appropriating the host’s cellular metabolic functions in order to replicate itself, gathering its forces in a life-and-death battle with the host’s immunologic system, activating the host’s cough reflex in order to fly into other nearby hosts, extending its territory? “Want” is too strong an attribution. Deacon would characterize the virus as a “teleodynamic system,” its actions to survive and to replicate itself as “ententional” – not full-fledged intent, but an evolutionary precursor. The consequences of the virus’s action sequence aren’t just happenstance; they’re in effect the point of undertaking those actions. The expected effect of the action – shaped by generations of mutation and natural selection that increase the likelihood of the species’s self-preservation and reproduction — is the action’s cause.

Ententional actions are spontaneous, instinctive, internally generated – what Deacon calls “orthograde.” Sometimes the orthograde behaviors of two teleodynamic organisms act in opposition to each other. In that case, one or both organisms must generate a “contragrade” response to the adverse situation in order to survive and thrive – a non-spontaneous response that requires work.

Confronted by the orthograde assault of the human immunologic system, a virus has no flexibility in its behavioral repertoire. The only sort of contragrade adaptation available to it is mutation. Humans, in contrast, can override at least some of their own instinctive behavior patterns in order to resist environmental threat. Some human contragrade behaviors are themselves instinctive – fight, flee, affiliate. Other contragrade behaviors, like driving on the right side of the road, are learned and, through repetition, converted into habits – second nature that doesn’t require much work to perform. Sometimes environmental constraints demand that the organism act in opposition to its own instincts. Resisting the internal pull of instinct and habit in order to survive environmental assault requires work. It’s the work of acting with intent.

We come at last to the matter of humans resisting the threat posed by Coronavirus.

Most human instinctive or habitual contragrade activities are triggered by environmental threats that can readily be perceived: a coiled snake, the stench of rot, an onrushing automobile. We might instinctively avoid someone who’s coughing, but not someone who’s shedding virus merely by talking, or singing, or breathing. Even recognizing the threat posed by Corona requires intentional work.

Viral contagion can be regarded as a kind of ententional dynamic equilibration process, in which the virus migrates from a saturated environment – the infected host –  into the viral vacuum of the uninfected person. To resist the threat, humans have to partition the environment so as to sustain the virus-human disequilibrium, physically separating themselves from their would-be submicroscopic invaders. Physical constraints must be imposed on the spontaneous flow of proximate human interaction via lockdown, social distancing, masks, quarantine. Performing these contragrade behaviors to protect against Corona requires intentional work.

Several aspects of the pandemic militate against humans effectively separating themselves from the virus. First, the threat doesn’t manifest at the human scale of granularity. Contagion is interpersonal, passing from one person to another at close distance. Immunity is even more intimately local than contagion, acting out its drama inside the individual human body. But the virus itself operates at an ecological microlevel in which humans are ill-equipped to engage; the threat it poses, while viscerally real, is recognized not through spontaneous instinctive perception but abstractly, intellectually. A dead body is as real as it gets, but a mortality rate? It’s an algorithm, an artifice, a simulation, shaping the contours of a probabilistic ecology that’s removed from the actual here-and-now physicality of individual human beings getting sick and dying.

All the while the epidemiologic aspects of the virus are being played out at an ecological macrolevel for which humans are not well adapted. Fetid corpses of the infected piling up in the streets is one thing, but case-positive percentages, effective viral reproduction rates, even daily death counts of people you don’t know who died sequestered in ICUs? Too abstract to trigger an instinctive orthograde response. In social aggregates the relevant metrics are also aggregate: averages, trends, demographics, surveys, forecasts, confidence intervals, statistical models. Effective contragrade responses to the threat must be adopted and practiced that demand intentional conscious monitoring of the self in response to abstract representations of the environment. That’s work.

The intimate, microscopic, visceral interplay between viral proliferation and antibody response, playing out between and within individual bodies and across entire populations – that’s where the covid action is. illness and recovery are just proxies and sequelae. But for humans the microbial cellular level and the aggregate statistical level are equally abstract. Humans spontaneously engage the world at neither the microlevel nor the macrolevel but at the mesolevel. I started feeling sick, then I got sicker, then I started feeling better, and now I feel fine: immunity at the mesolevel. And then you tell me that I can be infected, and contagious, without experiencing symptoms? Social distancing, like the virus and the pandemic, feels abstract, theoretical, unnatural, maybe unnecessary — remote from the reality of staying well versus getting sick.

It’s hard enough mastering any new behavioral repertoire, performing it flawlessly in every appropriate circumstance – that’s why they call it work. Making matters worse, the contragrade behavioral responses effective in neutralizing the coronavirus fly in the face of instinctive and habitual orthograde responses to the human social environment. Isolating oneself physically and avoiding close contact with strangers: these actions are typically prompted by fear, shame, disgust, sorrow. Covering one’s nose and mouth: fear again, or disgust, perhaps embarrassment or submission, maybe even malevolent intent. Distancing oneself physically from family and friends might be prompted by anger, shame, treachery. In short, people instinctively tend to distance themselves physically from others when they feel either repulsed by, or repellant to, others. Social distancing behaviors also send signals – to those shut out by the other’s self-isolation, to those evaded in close quarters through avoidant maneuvers, to those who can’t read the facial expressions hidden behind the mask. Physically, emotionally, interpersonally, it’s hard work to exapt instinctively antisocial defensive reactions as prosocial and proactive actions.

So, what’s to be done when the environmental threat isn’t perceived instinctively, and when the actions required for evading and minimizing that threat in social interactions are diametrically opposed to what people would ordinarily do spontaneously? One possibility is to amp up the intentionality. Learn to evaluate covid risk probabilistically rather than viscerally. Practice mindful attentiveness to specific interpersonal situations that call for evasive distancing maneuvers. Simulate situations that one might encounter in daily life in order to increase the likelihood of responding appropriately in real time to a real situation.

Another possibility is to amp up the ententionality. Alter the social environment so that the appropriate distancing behaviors are deemed prosocial rather than antisocial, altruistic rather than self-absorbed. Alter the interpretation of social distancing behavior not as a fearful reflex of self-abnegation but as a bold stroke of self-assertion. Alter the social affordances so that performing the effective contragrade behaviors for resisting contagion align with the spontaneous orthograde instinct to be perceived by others, and by oneself, as proactive and prosocial.

Another strategy for amping ententionity is subjecting to social sanction those who fail to act in accord with antivirus protocols. Moral and legal codes impose threats on those who don’t restrain their exercise of spontaneous impulse. Those who through misfeasance or malfeasance fail to perform the mandated protective behaviors incur the disapproval of gods and men, are consigned to purgatory or jail, must perform ritual sacrifice or pay a fine.

This should have been pretty easy. The environmental threat posed by the virus is lethal, providing ample motivation. The protective behaviors required to partition human space from viral space aren’t difficult to perform. Though the virus is highly transmissible, any individual who’s been infected remains contagious for only about ten days. Three or four weeks of serious lockdown, social distancing, and masking would do the trick, stopping the pandemic in its tracks with only localized intermittent outbreaks to be cleaned up as they arise.  What could go wrong?

Disseminate ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete information about the magnitude of the threat. Promulgate ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete recommendations for what  antiviral behaviors should be performed. Establish ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete social norms as to whether intentionally inhibiting spontaneous but dangerous acts of social self-expression is deemed proactively altruistic or reactively fearful, a voluntary expression of freedom or a totalitarian suppression of freedom. Implement ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete enforcement of recommended antiviral behaviors.

In the US the virus isn’t running rampant, but neither is it quashed and contained. Instead we’re occupying a semi-stable equilibrium between viral and human agency, in which the covid reproduction rate fluctuates between 1.3 and 0.8, with new infections and deaths alternately waxing and waning across the population and localized spikes shifting from one state or city or county to another. A thousand deaths and 120 thousand new infections, plus or minus, every day.

The American ethos celebrates the exercise of intentional agency in pursuit of personal and societal goals. Some neurophilosophers argue that intentionality is epiphenomenal, a conscious recognition after the fact of what’s already been “decided” in the cause-effect cascade of interactions between organism and environment and the synaptic pathways that those interactions activate. It seems – maybe I read it in Deacon? – that the reality of intent is demonstrated in part when intent fails, when we’re unable to accomplish what we’ve decided to do.

 

August 7, 2020

Why I won’t be using Zoom

by Carl Dyke

There’s a lot of personal detail in this post. I think it’s necessary, and also in my case pretty funny because I’m empowered to shield myself from the unfunny bits. But if you can’t be bothered I don’t blame you. The tl;dr is that for me and some other people, I reckon, the experience and performance of self is awkward in ways that make personal imaging technologies existentially confusing, disruptive, or even threatening. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. But as we head into a technology-mediated school term because of the pandemic, I have this to add to the lore of video course delivery and the confounding diversity of human kinds.

My Grandma Liz famously disliked being photographed. This seemed odd to everyone else, because by many standards she was a beautiful young woman and a handsome older lady, with strong features and an intelligent gaze. The standard garbage folk diagnosis was vanity, but her frank discomfort with her own image ruled that out. Some of us chalked it up to the free-floating poisonous critical judgment that can emerge from the family talent for observation and fine discrimination. And certainly it becomes swiftly wearing for a smart, ambitious woman to be constantly reminded that for others she’s little more than a pretty face and a fine rack of lady parts. In any case this was nowhere near the only way Grandma was odd, as are we all, so we all got on with it. I don’t have Grandma’s figure (it’s probably for the best), but I used to get along pretty well with her and I’ve gradually come to believe we had something more permanent in common.

At some point when I was a kid, I remember being given to understand that Dad was concerned I might be showing signs of self-absorption. This was a pretty serious party foul in Dad-world so I installed it as a priority hypothesis to test in a life cobbled together out of experiments. I think the irony must have been lost on me at the time. There was plenty of evidence – I was pretty fascinated with mirrors, or really reflective surfaces of any kind. I looked at myself any chance I got, from every angle I could. Store and car windows were magnetic, personal video selfies before personal video selfies. It probably wasn’t quite obsessive.

Fortunately I was not self-absorbed, at least in the sense of vanity. The issue was not connection but disconnection. I was fascinated with the image because it was obviously ‘me’, but I couldn’t figure out how to get that to make sense. Every time I looked, every step and angle, this uncanny something or other I couldn’t find any way to identify with moved right along with me. In middle school I took the sewing version of home ec and for a few years after that I would buy thrift store shirts and custom tailor them for myself. Badly, which I knew at the time, but it wasn’t really the craft I was concerned with. I have no idea what I thought I was doing at the time, but I was trying, I now think, to get what I looked like to have anything at all to do with how I experienced myself.

Yes, I had a fedora phase. And this:

Felix the Superbeetle and cousin Lindsay

One of my girlfriends in college remarked that when she saw me walking across campus, “it” looked good to her. I was delighted! Yes, nailed it!

Was “it” like that for Grandma too? I have no object permanence to myself. I don’t fear death, because how would it be different? To this day, when I see my reflection in a mirror, in a photograph, or on video, my first reaction is “what the hell is that.” Every. Time. From one moment to the next, I have no damn idea what I look like. Obviously I get queer, and for what it’s worth I count normal as a genre of queer. I get the horror of being pinned into any of the categorical identities, and the further horror of having to inhabit them in self defense. I can really understand why some people automate their self-presentation with stereotyped hair and wardrobe constructs, and I’m sympathetic with the chaos that must break back into their lives when that presentation is disrupted. But when they expect it of me as well I draw the line. It’s not that I want to fight that battle, but I don’t want to live it either. I is the kaleidoscope you see (I guess?), for better or worse.

All of this is stuff I’ve long since learned to manage, or at least live with. The Carl-bot is a practiced performance in many settings, and lets me peek out around the edges of ritual and expectation to express my care in the ways I care to express my care. But the bottom line is that having or making an appearance is an active and chaotic and distracting process for me. It’s work, and adds to the multi-tasking burden of all the other chaotic feeds I’m getting from environments full of other critters like and unlike me commanding my attention in various ways.

Seeing that work reflected back at me in realtime is mesmerizing and awful. Thinking about it happening on all of the other screens is an infinite regress of confounding self-reflection. I know I can turn off my video. I’m not telling you a problem and I’m not interested in your solutions. I’m an adult, responsible, smart, and adaptable. I guess? What I’m saying is, this is why I won’t be using Zoom.

June 21, 2020

The Theory of Alimentary Particles

by Carl Dyke

Chuck Dyke (Dyke the Elder) goofing (as usual) on what’s happening when we decide things are things:

[For use (in the right hands) as a pedagogical aid to understanding the quantum mechanics of particles, or (in the wrong hands) as a parody of the mess the physicists have currently gotten themselves into.]

We can begin with the intuitively persuasive fact that everything that lives is made of food. At a macroscopic level this is well understood, but raises the obvious question: what is food? A natural starting point for answering this question is the well established observation that just as the elementary constituent of matter in general is the atom, so, the alimentary constituent of food is the crumb. While this can be accepted without reservation, we will find that even this innocent truth involves us in some very non-intuitive mathematics. We are familiar with the fact that when an atom is split the result is not two half-atoms, but an array of fission products. This array does not add up in any simple way. Similarly, when a crumb is split, the result is not two half-crumbs, but two crumbs ( Carlin’s theorem ). One divided by two does not equal ½, but 2.
This “anomaly” warns us that we must be very careful about carrying our prejudices, formed in our everyday lives, into our investigation of food. Like atoms, food may not have parts in the way that, for example, bicycles and automobiles have parts. So, we will be led to questions such as: “Does a part of food have itself to be food?” Or, we may wonder what holds the parts of food together. That is, what are the fundamental food forces (FFF)? A familiar cautionary event should suffice to make the point. Early theorizing about light, and the discovery that it could behave like a wave, led physicists to think that there must be a medium, the ether, as that within which the waves occurred. Careful experiments failed to produce any evidence of any such medium, and now no one thinks that it exists. Just so in the early days of food particle theory, and especially in the Brillat Savarin theory (BS), it was speculated that there must be a medium within which all food occurred, in order to account for taste. This medium was called sauce. However, careful experiments soon showed this conjecture to be false. A brief account of the experiments is instructive.
Clearly, an examination of Coq au vin and/or Pasta al’Amatriciana wouldn’t prove a thing. Everyone agrees that they contain sauce. What is needed are cases where the presence of the sauce is not immediately obvious. In fact, the experiments were done by the BS theorists themselves in the hope of finding the sauce in apparently sauce-free dishes. We needn’t list the entire smoergesbord of dishes tested. Suffice it to say that they were chosen upon the criterion that neither the BS theorists themselves nor the skeptics could detect any sauce by any normal means. These dishes were then picked apart in such a way that all non-sauce food was eliminated. In some instances a substance ambiguously identified as sauce remained. These dishes were discarded from the experiment in favor of those where no such traces were to be found — where not a crumb remained.
Now the crucial stage had been reached. The results were examined, and it was found that the dishes so carefully purified had no taste! Here a milestone decision was made that set the course of basic food research on its current positive path. The principle was first articulated that Where there is no taste, there is no food (the NSF principle ). Food can taste good or bad, even be in bad taste, but if there is no taste there is no food. The days of sauce theory were over.
Diehards persisted for a time. They pointed out that fish swim in water, and don’t notice it; we live in air, and don’t notice it. Perhaps there is a very subtle sauce common to every food, hence unnoticed by any eater. As weak as this objection was, it had a disproportionately profound effect on theorizing, for it evoked the first statement of the fundamental food symmetry (FFS): If everything tastes the same, there is no taste. It was a short step to the ground-breaking realization that taste was a consequence of symmetry breaking. Food is possible only if differences appear where no differences existed before.
FFS is, in fact, not one symmetry, but a family. Indeed, the principle itself forbids a global symmetry. However, it’s entirely possible for there to be local symmetries: things that taste the same as other things. This observation quite quickly began to be treated in terms of the mathematical tools of Group Theory. A group is defined precisely in terms of a symmetry or set of symmetries. For example, in two dimensions a circle is radially symmetrical. If we think of a circle made out of string, we can see that properly smoothed out, any closed string (with no knots in it) can be made into a circle. So, from the right point of view, anything that can be smoothed into a circle can be thought of as a member of the circle group. On the other hand, a square is symmetrical under 90 degree rotations, a pentagon under 72 degree rotations, and so on. If we don’t change the shape, but simply rotate them so they look exactly the same in the new orientation as they did in the old, we can see clearly how they can be thought of as groups of things with a particular symmetry. Similar groups can be defined in any larger number of dimensions. In fact, there is no end to the number of groups something can belong to. The only question is the fruitfulness of considering objects as members of a particular group. The race to find the fundamental food groups was on.
Crumbs are alimentary particles, but they obviously can’t be the most basic particle, or the exclusive basic particle. It takes work to pull them apart, so something must be holding them together. What? The holding-together forces have to be found. Of course it would be ideal for the FFF and the FFS to coincide in some way, for that would make things tidier, always a major consideration when dealing with food.
Holding-together is always a problem. Take nails, for example. You nail two boards together. What holds the boards together? The nails. Bu twhat holds the nails to the boards? Or you glue two pieces of paper together. What holds the two pieces of paper together? The glue. But what holds the glue to the paper?
Years ago my older son embarked upon a career of profound thinking in the following way: He asked “What makes the light go on, magic?” I said “No, you flip the switch on the wall and the light goes on.” He said “By magic.” I said “No, when you flip the switch, electricity goes into the bulb and lights it up.” “By magic.” No, there’s a little wire in the light bulb that gets very hot when the electricity goes through it, and that makes it glow.” “By magic.” “No, when the electrons in the wire get excited (oh oh) they jump from one orbital to another, giving off a photon.” “By magic.” …
His persistence convinced me that he was now old enough to go out and play in traffic. Parenthood is a humbling experience.
My son had discovered, through some doubtlessly inherited genius, that without thinking about it, and without understanding anything in particular — on the contrary — he could enter into an infinite loop of magic. Well, we’d better be careful not to end up in one of those infinite loops if we’re going to understand what holds our food together. What, then, are the FFF’s?
We’d be well advised to make a new start: put a new spin on the question. So we start from what we know experimentally. Cooking will have to enter the investigational picture. We decide to make pizza, and start by pouring some flour in a bowl. We push at it, but it won’t stick together. We need some liquid. Eureka ! A scientific breakthrough. We begin to generalize the picture. If we don’t put some sauce (oh oh) or some cheese (phew) on the pizza later, the pepperoni won’t stick. We really may be on to something.
So we organize our thoughts. There are obviously two basic sorts of stuff in food. Firm things (we’ll call them firmions) that don’t stick together, and wet things (we’ll call them hosons, because whenever we need some liquid we can always turn the … oh well). Now wet things don’t stick to one another very well either. They tend to spray around, evaporate, leak away, and so on, but they seem to hold firmions together just fine. In addition, and this is a central concept, if you whirl a firmion around it keeps its shape; but try and whirl hosons around. They go flying all over the place. Thus firmions are said to obey the laws of spin, and hosons do not.
We experiment, and, to make a long tail short, we find that if, for example, we press flour together very very hard we can get it to stick together a little bit, but under normal pressures we do indeed need something wet. We can speculate that under high pressure the difference between firmions and hosons disappears in some respects; but confirming this grand unification will have to wait until we’re much farther along. For example, we’re obviously going to have to deal with heat somehow.
Consider a ball of Mozzarella. At low temperatures it behaves like a firmion, but at higher temperatures it behaves as a hoson. This may, however, be simply a matter of the cheese being a composite of firmions and hosons: and aren’t we all. Pure hosons might always behave like hosons, and firmions like firmions. How are we to isolate pure hosons or firmions? Decisions have to be made about the state of the world: cool/hot, high pressure/low pressure, and so on in which the basic particles behave the way they should in their purity. And how in the world are we going to recognize, say, a single hoson? Will it be wet?
One more key concept must be put in place before we can begin to hazard an answer to these questions: the field. No concept is more important to the study of food than the field. And paradigmatic it is firmionic earth drenched by hosonic rains so food may grow. Furthermore, to retrieve themes we laid aside before, what is absolutely striking as we look at a field of growing food is the subtle array of colors. Moreover, can we look at such a field without anticipating the tastes that await us? A field of growing things is a field of flavor — or, rather, flavors, for we must recall the FFS. How many flavors, and how much flavor? It’s time to be quantitatively more precise than we have been so far.
We hypothesize (on good grounds) that colors and flavors can be treated as symmetries, and thus handled in terms of groups (green vegetables, to take an obvious example, or sweets). But now we have to recall a common fact. Sometimes a bite of food is so small it has no taste, and seems to fly in the face of the principle that something without taste isn’t food. There thus must be smallest units of food –food quanta, we might say. So we define the (necessarily existing)smallest portion of food, and, remembering the central role of our taste buds in this investigation, we call that smallest portion the bud.
We can now ask “Do buds add up to produce the flavors we know and love?” The answer, for good or ill, is “No.” One of the pervasive facts we must account for in our theory is that flavors combine. Their combination is interactive and highly non-linear. Depending on cook in temperatures and a myriad of other culinary conditions that can’t be controlled with infinite precision, the result of combining buds is highly variable. If we tried to “add up” all the flavors that could result from the possible interactive combination of even two buds, we would find ourselves with an embarrassing infinity on our hands.
We find, however, that some resulting flavors are more likely than others. If there were no reliability whatsoever, fine cooking would be out of the question. So we determine the probabilities of the various flavors and square them to derive what we call flavor abundances. Then, to calculate the canonical flavor of any combination of buds we sum over all abundances .
It’s a mark of the current state of the theory that no one is quite sure how the procedure works to predict and produce reliable flavors. In fact there are some skeptics who maintain that the theory is no better than the BS that preceded it. Only the future will decide the issue, but one reflection may be apt.
The theory of alimentary particles is meant to be a theory of everything with taste. ( Elementary particle theories would call such a grand unified theory a GUT. Alimentary particle theorists are above such childish banter.) All possible food must be accounted for. But in saying this a fatal ambiguity is introduced. Do we mean all possible food in our world, or all possible food in any world? It may well be that we can’t derive the number of buds we discriminate in our world from any more basic “pure” principle. But that may mean that as we work our way back from our experiences, traditions of scientific practice, and contingencies of funding, some of the things we find are fundamental features of our gastronomic universe, and others are fundamental features of any gastronomic universe. But some, in their yearning for ultimate unification lump them together in the pious hope that they will ultimately form a smooth rational totality with but a single golden arche. Others of us candidly cultivate our gardens.

April 15, 2020

Self, echolocation, conspiracy theories

by Carl Dyke

Awhile back I tossed off a remark on a Facebook post that conspiracy theories are a form of echolocation. The host (Neuroanthropology, one of the very best pages I follow) asked me to say more and I gave it some thought, gave it some more thought, realized it had all gotten pretty unwieldy, and wrote this instead. As with most of my ‘pings’ I’m not sure it’s anything much better than a conspiracy theory, but maybe it makes a good blog post:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to answer this without getting too far down the rabbit hole and ending up reinventing the whole history of contemplation. So by way of sketchy sketch, what we call ‘self’ is pretty clearly an emergent, adaptive epiphenomenon of environmental, biological, and cultural feedback systems churning along at various scales. Because it’s dynamic, relational, and adaptive, there’s inherently no stable essence to such a structure. It only persists by active (massively active) engagement with its surroundings, whatever they may be from time to time. This is an energetic process obviously subject to resource constraint.

Adaptation and evolution create a distribution of strategies within this basic dynamic. Interaction is split off into subsystems that operate at different rates and intensities, both within and among ‘individuals’. Resources are differentially committed and optimized around particular interactive settings. For example, it seems that people have various relatively hard wired rates at which learning occurs, with characteristic advantages and disadvantages to slow or swift response to new information.

Again, the dynamic interactivity of self means that its maintenance requires constant orienting feedback with and from the environments, internal and external. This is the echolocation part. But resource constraint means that we can’t be operating active echolocation in every subsystem and every scale simultaneously, and adaptive differentiation means we’re optimizing and prioritizing those feedback loops across a range of strategies. Practically, this means people are going to be active and maybe even ‘needy’ around a range of interactive domains, giving off and taking in information asymmetrically across multiple axes, none of this chosen or conscious obviously.

“Who am I” is a much harder question to answer and keep answered in interactively chaotic environments than homogenously stable ones. Environments produce a range of echoes, and processing biases reward different collection routines. It may be that for some people sometimes, somewheres, the mismatch between their pings and the available echoes is profoundly alienating, if not literally crazymaking. You would expect these distributional experiments out on the long tails, and you would expect those tails to get fatter as environments become more variable and chaotic. You would expect people to become more aggressive in their attempts to create and manage congenial echo chambers.

Conspiracy theories then work as a special case of a very ordinary kind of echolocating ping, by broadcasting a strongly biased signal into a chaotic environment likely to generate a loud and clear response one way or another. Although this feedback loop is likely to be identity and community defining, it’s not in the first instance about ‘believing’ the conspiracy theory at all.

April 5, 2020

Dogma and criticality

by Carl Dyke

“I always believed that two masterpieces (I say this very seriously) summarized the thousand-year-old experience of mankind in the field of mass organization: the corporal’s manual and the Catholic catechism. I’ve become convinced that it is necessary to add, though in a field that is much more restricted and of an exceptional nature, prison regulations, which contain true treasures of psychological introspection.” Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison I, 97.

Critical thinking is hard. I work in a humanities / social sciences / liberal arts field where we celebrate but seldom practice critical thinking (and perhaps ‘wisdom’). Much more often what you get is some “critical theory” or other reduced to a kitsch algorithm and “applied” as dogma. This is obviously a mistake, but it’s also not at all a mistake. So I’m writing this post out of frustration, but also, I hope, critically.

“Criticizing,” in the sense of finding fault and locating errors, is always available, but it’s the thinnest possible understanding of critical thinking. You’re finding mismatches between one set of standards and another set of practices, which in a lumpy, complex world is like shooting ducks in a bucket. (I started out by doing that here. I’m still doing it. I’m trying to do better. It’s hard.) People start to get good at this kind of critical thinking around the age of two. “Critical theories” at this level simply provide the more or less elaborate standards in comparison to which practices can always be found wanting. Don’t do that thing, do the other thing. “This ham sandwich is not the platonic essence of the ham sandwich.”

I should say that I often revere the standards provided by critical theories. In my experience the platonic essence of the ham sandwich was produced by the Good Food Bus, parked beside Paley Library at Temple University, circa 1983. It was glorious. I’m also in favor of flourishing, human and otherwise, and firmly believe that mean people suck.

What “critical theory” even at its most algorithmic gets right is that criticality is edgy (fractal, as Nietzsche said, and therein lies the abyss). The center of any practice is never where the critical action is, as any bored suburban teenager can tell you. In those centers there’s just a way things work, and part of how they work is by locking out critical disruption. At a systems level all of the metaphors of mechanism and organism suggest themselves here. Engines and hearts don’t do a lot of critical thinking about how and whether to make the old crate go, and that’s for the best. It’s never a good thing when those subsystems ‘go critical’.

This sense in which locked in, algorithmic regimes of ‘normal’ enable a smoothly successful function of business as usual is incredibly, one might say critically, important. This is what critical theories do for communities of like-minded intellectual practitioners, and why they’re critically not critical. As Marx himself noted, there’s nothing less critical than “Marxism.” The road from theory to cult to cultural system is paved with good intentions and sound practical reason.

All of this makes both practicing and teaching critical thinking really tricky. Anything we tell the students is dogma. If we drill them in it they are foot soldiers, or prisoners. If we tell it to them charismatically and they are moved to embrace it, they are disciples. If we show them our work, they become priests. To enter criticality and think critically, they must somehow evade the syllabus and the curriculum with which we tell them things, without just falling back into a prior dogma. The ones who get this routinely drop out, leaving the priests to reproduce their orthodoxies on the next generation.

In complex systems, such as all of our doings together, criticality is the turbulent edge between order and chaos. It’s a creative but dangerous space. Critical thinking is hard precisely because you have to suspend and disrupt the algorithms, entering criticality and exploring the possibilities that become available there, with the settled order of dogma behind you and the wild chaos of nonsense churning all around.

March 28, 2020

Rolling with the times

by Carl Dyke

“The essential requirement is to recognize that conditions are needed that occasionally foster novelty and experiment. Those become possible during periods when connectedness is low and resilience is high. The low connectedness permits novel reassortments of elements that previously were tightly connected to one another. The high resilience allows tests of those novel combinations because system-wide costs of failure are low. Those are the conditions needed for creative experimentation. This recognition of resilience varying within a cycle is the first element added that provides a way to reconcile the delicious paradoxes of conservative nature versus creative nature, of sustainability versus creative change.”

Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson, “Resilience and Adaptive Cycles,” in Gunderson and Holling, eds. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island, 2002. Accessed at http://www.loisellelab.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Holling-Gundersen-2002-Resilience-and-Adaptive-Cycles.pdf

March 26, 2020

Corruption

by Carl Dyke

This was a dream. These guys were working in some foreign country. It wasn’t clear if they were missionaries or project engineers but they were good people, there to help. And they’d gotten busted for calling in prostitutes. A lot, routinely, so much so that they were getting blackmail callbacks from the local mob and causing problems for the home office, whatever it was.

No one could understand how this had happened, because these were good guys there to help, and this was against all previous evidence of character. So they were asked why. And they said well it was so cheap, and the girls were so good at it, and just waiting around for something to do.

August 15, 2019

The origins of shovels

by Carl Dyke

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

July 1, 2019

Complexity and clay soil

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 15, 2019

Imperial disciplinarity

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

April 2, 2019

Chuck Dyke, Themes in Existentialism

by Carl Dyke

 

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

 

PHILOSOPHY 3186  FALL 2010  DYKE

THEMES IN EXISTENTIALISM

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Reading:

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

Camus, The Stranger; Exile and the Kingdom

Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche

Dostoyevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor”

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

 

Pattern of class discussion:

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

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

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

 

THE FILMS

 

1                                   Sarafian, The Vanishing Point

An introduction to meaninglessness: the foundation.

 

2                                    Bergman, The Seventh Seal

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

 

3                                   Jarmusch, Stranger than Paradise

The excitement of existence.

 

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

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

 

5                                   Greene/Reed, The Third Man

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

 

6                                   Fellini, The Nights of Cabiria

Our first look at Sisyphus happy.

 

7                                   Traven/Huston, Treasure of Sierra

Madre

Our second look.

 

8                                   Clouzot, Wages of Fear

Sisyphus too happy.

 

9                                    Kosinski/Ashby, Being There

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

 

10                                  Wilder, Sunset Boulevard

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

 

11                                Antonioni, The Passenger

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

August 27, 2018

Memory work

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the Beatitudes, from Wikipedia:

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

June 25, 2018

History of the essence

by Carl Dyke

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

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

Good lord this is vacuous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only education can counter such misuse of history.”

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

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

And here, at last, we can agree.

H/t Colin Drumm.

April 8, 2018

Politics? In MY classroom?

by razumov

(This untimely post is in honor of Chuck, who certainly must have thought about these things over the course of his life.)

Two things have happened to me recently. One, I got a tenure-track job at a university where the students have a professional and not just a personal interest in learning about Russian history. Two, I became politically active, to the extent that joining a socialist organization and doing stuff with them a few hours a week is considered active. It’s my second semester now and I’m teaching Intro to Russia Since 1825–and, of course, this being the revolutionary centennial school year, thinking about the eternal question of Politics In The Classroom.

As an undergrad, even a politically-opinionated one, my opinion on this topic was unequivocal. I did not want to hear about my dumb professors’ political views because I knew that these would amount either to the tepid NPR liberalism I got plenty of elsewhere or something noxiously right-wing that would be even worse. I had enough acrimonious debates with profs in seminars that I knew that a prof who had trouble concealing his (usually his) politics was also unlikely to argue for them in good faith. Instead my favorite classes were the ones that seemed to point to an escape from the political tractor beam of the late Bush era.

As a professor, I’m much less confident of all this than I used to be. First of all, of course, there’s no way to teach the history of Russia’s twentieth century without “classroom politics,” if nothing else because students come in with preconceived ideas shaped by a deeply political process. Even if it were possible, though, would it be desirable? As a socialist I want to help people understand the Soviet experience in the light of its real strengths and weaknesses, not through the kind of propaganda that still wins Pulitzers. As a scholar….I want the same thing. (I mean, duh. I wouldn’t have beliefs if I didn’t think they were true.)

Yet converting this growing comfort with classroom politics into actual teaching has been surprisingly hard. A lot of what I try to do in my lectures–the debunking aspect–involves my mental image of what students already believe. To my surprise, I’m consistently off in my evaluation of these beliefs. The whole class pretty much already understood that the Soviet Union’s role in WWII is consistently downplayed in US schools, for instance, and their opinion on the place of Jews in Imperial Russian and Soviet life (a Fiddler on the Roof narrative I’d thought was fairly widely shared) was in fact pretty much nonexistent. Half the time I must be confusing them awfully, the poor things, as I shadowbox with an opponent not relevant for American students since the 80s. (Maybe next year I’ll do a writing exercise at the beginning of the semester where I ask them to present their priors and then at the end to revisit them.)

The flipside of this is that I’m finding that my interventions make little difference anyway. I assigned an article legendary in my field for marking a shift away from both the totalitarian and revisionist models of Stalinist individuality (Jochen Hellbeck’s “Fashioning the Stalinist Soul”), but my students felt no compunctions about fitting it into their familiar totalitarian view of Stalinist life. Hell, maybe they’re right.

At least, if nothing else, my rant about Nineteen Eighty-Four being the worst possible book for understanding the Soviet Union will stick. I hope.

February 25, 2018

Charles E. Dyke, 1938-2018

by Carl Dyke

Chuck Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fiat 126

Fiat 126, circa 1973

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

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

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

IMAG1136

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

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

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

February 15, 2018

Flash Philosophy — A Pre-ramble

by Asher Kay

I’ve recently started writing about philosophy again. Even though I haven’t written much of anything for public consumption in years, I’ve never really stopped thinking about philosophy. And the bone that I keep returning to and gnawing on is the question of why I keep returning to and gnawing on the bone.

A super high percentage of the philosophy I read is deeply frustrating to me, and seems wrong to me in a way that is almost intractable in terms of argumentation. So why do I keep coming back to it? It’s not a perverse thing either. I’m not like the person who hates a TV show but keeps watching it religiously. It’s not a thing I “love to hate”. I’m more like the person who loves video games but only very occasionally finds one that doesn’t disappoint me. And when I’m disappointed, I’m truly disheartened because I have some sense of the promise of the medium.

I think philosophy (small-P philosophy, at least) has as much or more promise than any artistic medium. I think it’s vital. In fact, I think it’s unavoidable. Each one of us is a practitioner, whether we like it or not. Every move we make manifests our model of the world, however blind we are to it. Denial and willful ignorance are not only philosophies, they are probably more workable philosophies than rigorously thought-out ones that are orthogonally wrong.

The problem for me is wrongness, and the nature of the wrongness. Wittgenstein’s flybottle always seemed to me so spot on, but even from that perfect vantage on that cloudless day, Wittgenstein couldn’t see past language. The nature of the wrongness is not language — it’s concepts.

Show me a lively, decades-long debate in philosophy, and I can almost guarantee you that at the heart of it you will find a thought experiment. It will be honed, shined, shimmed, and shaved; exquisitely crafted and exquisitely wrong. And there will be nothing in the world more exasperating than trying to argue against it. At the heart of the heart of it is a wrong concept or a wrong set of concepts that will defeat you by virtue of the fact that you’ve engaged with them.

To argue against a set of concepts is to accept their structure. You are given a bowl of dirt which you are told is pie. You eat it, and you say, “this is shitty pie”. It’s not shitty pie, though. It’s just not pie.

People do try to deal with thought experiments without accepting their structure. They step back one level and reject the whole set of concepts. But if you don’t engage with the structure, your primary problem becomes the fact that you haven’t engaged with the structure. The argument you have made is, in some very real sense, a non-sequitur. And the net effect is that the dirt people keep eating dirt and the rejecter eats nothing and nobody eats any pie.

I think what needs to happen is for people to ignore the dirt completely and just go try to make pie.

In non-metaphorical language: philosophers are not wrong — they’re doing philosophy wrong. If you did the philosophy right, it would mean making the concepts you used so painfully clear that they would argue against themselves. I do not see that happening very often. What I see is shaving and shimming and bolstering; obfuscating, eliding and conflating.

So that’s where I am. I’ve wiggled outside of these architectures that I spent so long trying to build into or knock down or renovate, and I’m sitting in an empty field wondering if there’s anything to build with.

Here’s what I think there is to build with. I think there’s the idea that philosophy is something we all do, unavoidably. I think there’s the idea that philosophy is about making concepts painfully clear.

I am also in possession of a couple of concepts which are incredibly useful in understanding and navigating the world — one of which is a concept that explains why being incredibly useful is way more important than being true.

The question is how to communicate these concepts to regular people in a way that they can understand and actually use. And the answer is “in 700-word increments, as simply and engagingly as possible, and with utter disregard for dirt pie”.

So that’s why I started doing Flash Philosophy.

July 15, 2017

The Cynical Certainties of Soap

by dyketheelder

Last night I watched THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. Excuse: Carl’s mom was off at Slow Farm visiting Carl, a new biography of Ava Gardner was highlighted on the MSN front page, and the disc hadn’t been taken out for a walk in years. It’s a remarkably boring film, and ranks with the most cliched films ever made; but Bogart is pretty good, Edmund O”Brien got his Oscar for his supporting role; and there are a few morbid fascinations worth exploring at modest word count. Chief among them is the issue of cliche itself.
“Cliche” is what we call a component of a classic and thoroughly familiar narrative when we want to disparage it. The vehicle for cliche in this instance is what we should call the “A Star Is Born” narrative. There are probably more of these vehicles in the Hollywood ouevre than there are used Chevys in all the used car lots in LA. TBC is a contribution to the inventory by Joe Mankiewicz, who also provided the better known All ABOUT EVE. Thus the cookie is cut.
In TBC, Ava Gardner is the axis around which the drama turns. (The ball bearings are a couple of uncredited guys playing Spanish/and or Gypsy peasant/dancers.) Bogart, O’Brien, Rossano Brazzi, et al are the standard array of movie moguls, publicity hucksters, directors, and so on — with the exception of Brazzi, who is a classically redundant Italian Count, to be contrasted, in salient respects, to the gypsy dancers.
That brief list, you’ll notice, already floods the field with cliches. There are others of more interest. The reigning genre here always offers the opportunity for critique or expose’ of the institutions, mores, etc. of very medium of the critique. The genre is hopelessly narcissistic, not to mention hopelessly productive of masochistic thrills. The cliches that dominate Mankiewicz’ contributions include the contrast between natural and contrived, and innocence and corruption. Notice that it’s all about EVE, and the Contessa is Maria. (Leone gives us Marisol, who’s son is ….) Old/New Testament parallels are a genre in themselves. The expulsion from paradise is, as savants dutifully point out, the dominant master narrative in our cultural history. Equally cliched is the contrast between the barefoot and the shod: the noble savage and the saintly civilized. The sudsy resources of the cinema offer endless opportunities for casting and recasting the narrative. In this case, Mankiewicz’ cynicism suggests strongly that those who try to embrace both the natural and the civilized are doomed.
I could go on. And on. But the obvious prevents me, for it must have occurred to you that this post is in precisely the same boat as its subject content: a cliche-ridden contribution to a now cliched genre: the smarmy oration from the Olympus of the learned.
Am I alone in feeling (fearing) that I’m living out a cliche? That, say, the “politics” swarming around me are the sleepwalking remake of a narrative become cliche? That Hillary and Donald aren’t to be added to the Eves and the Marys (or the Anne Baxters and Ava Gardners — it gets harder and harder to distinguish the actors from the roles)? It’s harder and harder to distinguish the real from the fake. Hollywood (as the inheritor of the creation of narrative illusion) has lived off that difficulty in full understanding of what it was doing. Also sprach Zaratustra.

April 27, 2017

Scrabble

by dyketheelder

I essentially never play Scrabble any more. I refuse to play with anal retentives, and the people who want to play are characteristically thus. It will come as no surprise to DV’s if I say that I love words — as objects of both work and play. So, in some ways, I lament not playing Scrabble,

So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that I do love words. It delights me beyond reason, for example, that Claude Hopper is a big cheese in the world of white Gospel, and a protege of Jesse Helms. At any rate, I hate to see words mistreated. Scrabble is designed to degrade and denigrate words — in the service of venal gain. I want to choose and use words in terms of quality: expressivity, melifluity, strength, suggestiveness, goofyness. I love words whose history has thrust connections upon us that are by now thoroughly bogus, but open horizons to understanding nonetheless. A couple such that showed up in my reading yesterday were “cosmology” and “cosmetics”. Turns out, of course, that the ruptured link is that between beauty and order. For the ancients it was a serious question whether the universe they lived in was a cosmos. (Was fur ein question is that for us now?)

Scrabble encourages mingy Caledonian pursuit of quantitative profiteering. “How much is that word worth?”, we ask, and move a letter to see if there’s a double score sign under it. Worse, the game is competitive, so there’s profit in making it difficult for your opponent to make a good word, and loss in allowing him access to a doubling space of his own. The board fills with crabbed dead ends. Where’s the elegance in repressive denial? Nuff said.

As to my lament, I’ve actually thought about what could be done to get me to the Scrabble board. It may not be hopeless. Think of what you could make out of the materials you have at hand: a wonderful woven tapestry of beautiful words. Of course you’d create it cooperatively with the other players. The challenge of making something out of the random assortment you have at each move would be the same. However, the dominant strategy would be the creation of enabling conditions. Everyone would be concerned to give the best opportunity to the next player, given that her assortment would be limited too.

Evaluating the outcome of the game will be tricky — qualitative judgments always are: that’s traditionally one of the reasons why people seek to quantify them. But if you can do it in the arts, you can do it here as well. After all, there’ll be no issue of who wins or loses: everybody wins, or everybody loses any particular game. Finding a way to keep score is the road to ruining the game.

For those who need the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat to motivate them, it would be possible to rededicate the numbers on the tiles and the instructions on the special squares. For instance, you could set up efficiency objectives: the most beautiful tapestry at the minimal cost. “Triple word score” would be a pit of doom much to be avoided. But maybe not to be avoided at any cost, for there’s the existential thrill of the sacrifice move to consider. A really good word at a suicidal price.

Anyway, I think that this version of Scrabble could be elaborated. I doubt that it will be though. Were almost certainly have to carry on our affair with words elsewhere. Current politics is a promising possibility. Fantastic opportunities to join the goofy play of words are offered up to us daily. I’m sure the suggestion will send a cold chill up straight and rigid spines, but opportunity isn’t to be found just anywhere, and “Guignol” is a really neat word.