Archive for ‘conversations’

December 24, 2012

The rhetoric of commodities

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 6, 2012

An anniversary of sorts

by Carl Dyke

Chums, I was just doing some maintenance in preparation for launching my new teaching/learning journal blog – more on that shortly – and happened to notice that with this very post Dead Voles the group blog will more than double the posts of Dead Vole the Carl-only blog. Yay us! Comments are also more than doubled from the old days.

Many thanks to my good friends and blogmates Asher, JohnM, and Jacob. Thanks also to all our readers and exceptional commentariat. We’re not a high quantity blog, most of the time, but in my view the quality is superb. Dead Voles is one of my happiest places and proudest accomplishments. Cheers!

October 8, 2012

Obeasts, Meta-activism and Big Bothering

by Carl Dyke

On the theory of rero, here is the penultimate draft of the essay I’ve written for Rachel’s edited volume on her Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies (MOCS) project. Comments are not just welcome but encouraged and will be seriously considered for incorporation when helpful. Please be advised that this is probably going to be the most explicitly theoryish of the contributions, so the rhetorical task of this piece is to do a certain kind of high-cultural burnishing. Other contributors will be far more ‘accessible’. Full text with notes (and the notes are half the fun) here (updated 10/15).

Obeasts, Meta-activism and Big Bothering
Carl Dyke
Methodist University, Department of History

“[Fat] appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
– Karl Marx, Capital, 1867

Activism is about taking sides. The good side, of course, is the one we take. Yet in the world of fat there seem to be two sides making contradictory claims to goodness. The medical establishment and its advocate Michele Obama argue that because fat is associated with various unpleasant and expensive health troubles, there should be less of it. The fat acceptance establishment, on the other hand, argues that because fat is associated with various pleasant, healthy human beings, there should be – well, not more of it, but more acceptance of it and less fretting about it. Who can argue with either of these reasonable points, both well-supported by ample evidence?

Certainly not artist Rachel Herrick. Rachel is in favor of both health and pleasant humanity, each of which have historically been secured in a wide variety of ways.

This is trivially self-evident. So when activists start choosing up sides about one or another specific way of being healthy and pleasant, it seems that something else must be at issue. Metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties, perhaps. In this sense Rachel and her art are meta-activist. She is not taking sides, but noticing, thinking and making art about the taking of sides.

The fat activisms, pro and con, share fat as their common ground. Their basic formulae are ‘fat bad’ and ‘fat good’ (or, for the subtle, ‘fat not bad’). So fat is a definite thing to be fought over, a marked attribute or ‘stigma’. Insofar as fat is associated with persons, fat is transformed by the terrible alchemies of common sense into a stable and contestable identity for those persons, asserted positively or ascribed negatively, just like race, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. And like any stigma, fat is a wicked simplifier. When fat is around it is the default topic, an “undesired differentness… breaking the claim that… other attributes have on us.” Like DuBois’ black skin, fat turns human beings into problems.

In Goffman’s sense then, and DuBois’s, Mead’s and Hegel’s before him, fat is not so much a thing as a relationship, a symbolic representation of relative position and status on the intersecting hierarchies of attributes assigned meaning and access to ‘goods’ by our particular cultural order. It’s part of the assemblage of our reality, and as such it’s as real as real gets. But as with all of our assemblages, it could have been (and was, as we see from Fraulein von Willendorf) assembled otherwise. All of our critical codes tell us that fat is not a Thing or Essence in a permanent, Platonic sense, but rather a more local arrangement of stuff. If we want to accomplish something other than what the current arrangement accomplishes, we might want to remain attentive to the locality of that arrangement, keep thinking about what the current order of thought does and does not accomplish. And because these local things have a tendency to transform in our imaginations and practices into Things, and from there dictate stories about the timeless, immutable Nature of Reality, it would be helpful to embed some contingency in the language we use to talk about them. So because it’s not a Thing but sometimes we treat it like one, we could instead call fat a thingish.

As Marx said about gods and commodities, we get ourselves into the worst trouble when we reify vital human relationships into dead objects, fetishes that we then oppress ourselves with. “The concept of reification is used by Marx to describe a form of social consciousness in which human relations come to be identified with the physical properties of things, thereby acquiring an appearance of naturalness and inevitability.” As Latour points out, though (still following Marx), fetishes are not merely errors, they’re what we make the world out of and think with. It’s not therefore a matter of defetishizing our thinking, but of refetishizing it in some more appealing way.

Treating the fat thingish like a Thing is therefore a critical category error: accepting as natural and inevitable the tropes of the unappealing cultural order and squabbling over them. Negotiating with the Tyrant Thing is what stigmatized people normally do as they try to normalize their stigma, but it’s a challenge within the normal dynamics of stigma, not against them. As Zizek notes (shifting here to the Lacanian code):

The more the subject’s structure is “narcissistic,” the more he blames the big Other, and thus asserts his dependence on it. The “culture of complaint” thus calls on the big Other to intervene, and to set things straight…. Thus, is not the “culture of complaint” today’s version of the hysterical impossible demand, addressed to the Other, which effectively wants to be rejected, since the subject grounds its existence in its complaint: “I am insofar as I make the Other responsible and/or guilty for my misery”? The gap here is insurmountable between this logic of complaint and the true “radical” (“revolutionary”) act which, instead of complaining to the Other and expecting it to act (i.e. displacing the need to act onto it), suspends the existing legal frame and itself accomplishes the act. What is wrong with the complaint of the truly deprivileged is that, instead of undermining the position of the Other, they still address It: they, translating their demand into legalistic complaint, confirm the Other in its position by their very attack.

This is a losing game, and more specifically a self-defeating one in the sense that the self is constructed out of the materials of perpetual defeat. If our identity is about oppression, if heroic resistance to oppression is what gives us our special nobility, who are we if we’re not oppressed? These identities are caught in a mirror trap, dependent on what they reject. They are not to celebrate and defend, they are to overthrow by any means necessary. As Appiah notes in relation to racial stigma and identity,

I hope I seem sympathetic to this story [of reconstructing negative scripts positively]. I am sympathetic. I see how the story goes. It may even be historically, strategically necessary for the story to go this way. But I think we need to go on to the next necessary step, which is to ask whether the identities constructed in this way are ones we can all be happy with in the longer run…. It is at this point that someone who takes autonomy seriously will want to ask whether we have not replaced one kind of tyranny with another.

“So here are my positive proposals,” Appiah continues: “live with fractured identities, engage in identity play; find solidarity, yes, but recognize contingency, and, above all, practice irony.”

Irony is not in the first instance about acting, it’s about seeing. Seeing double, seeing two or more ways of seeing simultaneously. To see out of the mirror traps of good/bad, right/wrong activism we would have to find a way to see fat that denatures and denormalizes fat and its identifications, to shift fat out of the discourses in which it’s a thingish to take self-defeating sides about and reframe it as a different sort of thingish altogether. This is what The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies does, by renaturing and renormalizing fat within the tangential tropics of endangered species conservation, a set of relationships in which its meaning and value are quite different.

And ironically, something to fight about after all, just as we fight to preserve the magnificent natural diversity of the Earth and all of its precious creatures. In reframing the fight about fat in terms of the discourse of nature and conservation, Rachel is practicing a kind of conceptual aikido. I’ll call it Big Bothering as a play on the Lacanian Big Other and Zizek’s gesture at revolutionary maximalism. Rachel isn’t going to be taking to the streets or to the bush, but she wants to keep the conceptual blows from falling – ‘fat bad’, ‘fat good’ – and turns sideways as they arrive, into the alternate knowledge system of Nature.

Nature, after all, is an automatic good. No, more than that – nature is not good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral, wholesome or unwholesome – it just is. Against sacred nature the profanities of judgment and stigma are powerless, ruled out, sidestepped. The obeast participates in this transcendence of the social Big Other, which reduces people to fat and then fights over whether to reduce the fat, as an irreducible essence. To put this a little differently, Rachel has things to say about fat that can’t be said in the language of fat without devolving into the narcissism of complaint.

Of course there are troubles embedded in Nature fetishism also; nature has its own traps, as strategies to naturalize race, alternate sexualities, alcoholism and many other thingishes has shown. There may be no absolute, permanent safe places. Anything that stays still long enough becomes an easy target, hence an imprisoning fortress. Rachel’s strategy is to keep moving, to keep her discursive crop diversified so she doesn’t get caught in any one monocultural blight, any one conceptual drought. Rachel isn’t much interested in the ‘is fat good or bad’ conversation, so she moves to the Nature discourse where that conversation makes no sense. It’s not that she wants to be an animal, of course – it’s that animals can’t be talked about in the specific way she’s interested in unprobleming. The irony of the Rachel/obeast’s alienation into problematic animality is that this is the kind of dodge that’s needed to start talking about people as people again, not as problems.

And here we find the thread that runs through all of Rachel’s work, from the paintings that drew on old life-saving manuals (you have to subdue the drowner before you can save her) and primers on how to tame a minah bird (starting by clipping its wings), to a planned project transforming vending machines into “Proble-matics” that dispense problems in case you should ever embarrassingly be caught out in public without one.

For Rachel, the problem is problems. In the gaze of the Big Other we seem to need to be needed, and we’re needy to make others needful. We give ourselves jobs by making problems, we make ourselves and each other problems. So we can ‘fix’ us. It’s all very well-intentioned, this orientation toward crisis and rescue, but it’s also radically anxietizing; and it may be keeping us from noticing that there’s not much need anymore to be thinking in terms of problems at all.

Back through the looking-glass of the the 19th Century, Marx opined that history only gives us problems we can solve. Is the problem of problems solveable, Rachel wonders? Is our creative infinity of contrived non-problems too much even for human ingenuity to solve – too big, too many, too poorly-defined? Could we do, could we be, without problems?

September 23, 2012

Things, relations among things, relations

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

September 16, 2012

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

by Carl Dyke

Promoting a comment on a previous post to start off this post: I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately. I’d dabbled before, but I started getting a bit serious about yeast-wrangling. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the process, discussion boards and so on. The thing that gets (or should get) really clear really quickly is that a ‘recipe’ just barely gets you started. And you can talk about the biochemistry of yeast and lactobacilli and hydration ratios and such and it’s very illuminating. And you can provide guidelines about kneading and folding techniques and rates, and what the dough ought to look and feel like at various stages. All of that is awesome and a great start. But in relation to actually working up a dough it’s all ridiculously overelaborated and kind of beside the point. There are some things you want to mix together in rough rates, proportions and timings. There’s a way they should look and feel. You do stuff until you get that look and feel. What stuff you do exactly depends on what it felt like when you did that other thing a second ago. Maybe you fold, maybe you stretch, maybe you pull, maybe you push. And if you do that, and trust the process and set up the yeast to do its thing and don’t try to impose your will on it, you end up with delicious bread. If you don’t, you post frantic questions on discussion boards about why you didn’t get a crown or why your crumb is too dense or whatever.

Teaching is the same, except in this case the recipe is the syllabus. So when colleagues think they’ve communicated what their class is by sharing their syllabus, I just hang my head.

In my experience there’s a kind of porno for eggheads quality to syllabus-sharing. Ooooh, check out the size of that reading list! As I just said in commenting on Tim Burke’s recent post asking for feedback on his intriguing draft syllabus for a course called “Bad Research and Informational Heresies,” a reading list and its associated assignments are not very helpful to me for envisioning a class. Those parts are aspirational and maybe even outright fantasies, as I remarked there. All sorts of reading lists and assignments can work or not work, but that depends on the teaching and learning relationship, that is, not just the recipe but what teacher(s) and students do with it, which in turn depends on a complex of dispositions, expectations, practices and relationships that have to be worked through in each case and that can’t be forced based on preconceptions of what college/teaching/students are supposed to be. Is it possible to say anything useful about those variables in a syllabus? Well, I’ve been trying to gradually get better at that over the years – if you’re curious, here’s this semester’s World History syllabus:


Not much of a reading list, I’m afraid, but lots of other things I wonder what folks think of.

July 16, 2012

Chaotically Speaking

by johnmccreery

Over on OAC, a new seminar is underway. The topic is Joanna Overing’s paper, An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque. During an exchange with Joanna, I write,

When you write that, “Piaora laughter seems to me very close to Daoism,” you are, I suspect, alluding to what Chinese call Daojia, usually described as “Daoist philosophy” and associated with classic texts like the Dao De Jing attributed to Lao Zi or the Zhuangzi,attributed to Zhuang Zi. What I studied in Taiwan was Daojiao, usually described as Daoist religion, whose relationship to Daojia is complex and often contrary. But let’s put that aside.  What you write reminded me of a book by N. J. Girardot titled Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (University of California Press, 1983, a volume in the series “HERMENEUTICS: Studies in the History of Religion”). In the preface to the paperback edition Girardot writes,

Chaos is an oddly fashionable topic these days. This is not the usual state of affairs, since chaos has typically been imagined as the fearful antagonist of God, of the cosmic order, and of all that is normal. The dark Otherness of chaos has, therefore, most commonly lurked within the locked closets of civilized discourse and sanctioned revelation—only showing its monstrous and misshapen face, still half-concealed by a primordial hockey mask, at times of dreadful confusion, insane retribution, and irrevocable change. However, at other times and sporadically within some traditions—especially as seen in the early Taoist texts examined in this work—chaos has been upheld as the creative source, hidden order, and ongoing power of cosmic life.

Girardot then moves on to chaos as conceived by modern science, mathematics and economics.

As pointed out in best-selling works like James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), “chaos theory”—and its attendant exotica of Mandelbrot sets, Koch curves, Menger sponges, fractal clusters, smooth noodle maps, and other beautiful “monstrosities”—has opened horizons of understanding in fields concerned with the strange science of process and becoming.

While I wish to suggest no more than a very simple rhetorical symmetry between chaos theory in contemporary science and the hun-tun theme of a blessed “chaos-order” in the ancient Taoist texts, beneath the surface, and somewhat chaotically, both emphasize understanding reality in its authentic “wildness”—as a dynamic system in which constant change and erratic complexity harbor an enigmatic principle of patterned regularity and regeneration….For both, it has to do with the interrelated flowing of heaven and earth—the way clouds form, smoke rises, and water eddies, as well as the way human health depends on the inner rhythms of the body.

What I wish to point out here is that the “monstrous and misshapen” are described here as the evil other of the Southwest Asian monotheist’s Almighty God, the patriarchal principle of order in all things.  The “monstrosities” mentioned in connection with scientific chaos theory are, in fact, patterns of exquisite beauty, examples of dynamic order that emerge from chaotic processes, becomings rather than beings. To me they seem as alien to

The story of creation time [as] one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: … a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement

as they are to the timeless order envisioned by Greek philosophers or Christian theologians or the Genesis story in which God speaks and the world Is, and death and evil slip in through the actions of Adam and Eve, who are ancestors but in no sense divine. Taking your premise,

that the humanities must be privileged to understand the polities/ societies of others of different time or spaces

as given, how should we account for these differences?

Let me rephrase the final question. How would you account for these differences?

June 26, 2012

Constraint and utopia

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

A cautionary tale, this. As humanists we have to worry that constraint is behind every enablement. Furthermore, every enablement (every choice, if you like) becomes a new constraint on future possibility. The exercise of freedom is inherently constraining; every choice is an exclusion. When I chose my wife I chose against every other woman in the world. That is a joke I just told.

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

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

June 18, 2012

The years of rice, salt and science

by Carl Dyke

Among the books I’m reading right now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a fictional alternate history of modernity premised on the Black Death wiping out Europe completely so that Islam and China rise to dominance instead. It’s a good book in many ways but I was struck for present purposes by how Robinson gets science to happen. Like in all good alternative histories he’s trying to figure out what differences make a difference; for reasons peculiar to this particular history he’s also trying to figure out what sames make the same.

So expediently but interestingly, he restaffs yet recapitulates the developing experimentalism of Galileo, Grimaldi and Boyle et. al. pretty exactly, but in an environment in which the global context and intertext are far more explicit. That is, his story reads much more directly as a dynamic assemblage of existing elements than the usual heroic individual string-of-pearls discovery tales of triumphal Western Progress. For narrative purposes it’s all compressed into a single place/time (the khanate of Bokhara, 1020 AH) and group of people, but here are some of the factors:

*A Silk-Road nexus teeming with travelers and books from across Greater Asia

*A catastrophically-failed and disenchanted Arab alchemist whose day job is armory and gunpowder engineering

*A Tibetan fellow-alchemist and glassblower who has no reason to be impressed with Aristotle

*A self-absorbed khan with predatory enemies on all sides and a pragmatic principal advisor more interested in useful military technology than orthodoxies

*A well-established scholarly madressa community, including mathematicians, philosophers and Sufi mystics

The regional-military practicalities create one kind of enabling constraint, the failure of alchemy another, the Muslim theological-philosophical system a third. It helps a lot once the alchemy fails that the Tibetan guy is there to decenter Aristotle and that as a craftsman he’s of an empirical bent. His glassblowing enables lenses and vacuum vessels without too much need for suspension of disbelief. But all of that had been around there from time to time ‘forever’, we might say. What Robinson shows elegantly is that it took a particular configuration of those elements under particular dynamic stresses to create a new system, which quickly became self-organizing and expansive. All of the parts did their parts by doing their parts, but what they did was repurposed, with the radically-empiricized former alchemist as the catalyst.

So having invented the barometer, against the Aristotelian speculations of the Arab philosophers the emergent scientist grumbles

As if stones or the wind could want to be someplace or other, as a man does…. Things fall because they fall, that’s all it means. Which is fine, no one knows why things fall…. All the seeming cases of action at a distance are a mystery. But first we must say so, we must distinguish the mysteries as mysteries, and proceed from there, demonstrating what happens, and then seeing if that leads us to any thoughts concerning the how or the why.

Clearly this is the hero of the linear progress-of-science metanarrative, but Robinson doesn’t leave it at that. To get the right ferment, or alchemy so to speak took more than this, including the irrelevant or counterproductive stuff the new scientist was pushing against, like his son-in-law’s Sufioid handwaving about the universal force of love:

The Sufi scholars were still inclined to extrapolate from any given demonstration to the ultimate nature of the cosmos, while the mathematically inclined were fascinated by the purely numerical aspects of the results, the geometry of the world as it was revealed. These and other approaches combined in a burst of activity, consisting of demonstrations and talk, and private work on slates over mathematical formulations, and artisanal labor on new or improved devices.

This is where I stopped last night. I’ll update in the comments if necessary as I read on.

June 13, 2012

Complexity in practice pt. 2: writing and reading

by Carl Dyke

The prior post on complexity in practice was trying to be ‘about’ a paper by Chuck Dyke that is ‘about’ Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson et. al. However, the discussion quickly encountered an antecedent problem, just what sort of thing the paper actually is, or as Asher put it, what the author is trying to do; which is then a question about what to expect from it, how to read it and how to decide if it’s a good version of what it is. It occurs to me that addressing that question is actually a perfectly good way to talk about the paper, so here’s my take, broken out into a separate post for ease of handling.

As I asked last time, what would it look like to practice complexity, not just talk about it? My sense is that Dyke (and Deacon I think, but less so Juarrero) is trying to do this. Of course if all of them are right, and this is the general takeaway of the now-long history of systems theory, in one obvious sense we are all practicing complexity all the time – we are in fact morphodynamically and perhaps teleodynamically complex. What I mean though is that Dyke’s paper seeks to demonstrate the complexity it discusses. It is both about complexity and an enactment of complexity. In this sense it is the same sort of thing N. Pepperell argues Marx’s Capital is on a much grander scale, both a discussion and a demonstration of complexly dynamic and complexly coupled systems.

This is a rather different sort of enterprise than the usual linear thesis-driven essay or monograph, of course. In that sort of writing we’re looking for a “fundamental point,” as JohnM diagnostically put it in the prior discussion, which is then systematically developed with logical rigor and point-mapping evidentiary support – the Popperian philosophy of science model, as Michael pointed out. But as we see when we try to teach our students the technique, it’s highly stylized and artificial, not actually how anything in the world works – including the world of practicing scientists, as Latour and Woolgar famously showed now long ago. Endless handwringing and some very good jokes have been devoted to the ‘problem’ of the procrustean mismatch between logocentric linearity and anything it is ‘about’, as well as the tendency of logocentrics to pick topics and arrange situations that happen to fit the very specific and narrow virtues of their procedure.

Well, for better or worse by the time we’ve been indoctrinated and certified into the communities of expertise that constitute scholarship we have learned to ‘recognize’ disciplined, monographic linearity as the proper form of authoritative discourse, and immediately to dismiss as undisciplined, muddled, confused or meandering (‘poetic’, perhaps, if we’re being generous) anything that represents more directly the complexity it is about. This is a constraint that accomplishes a great deal, of course; the joke in Borges is after all that the map which most accurately represents the territory is also the most completely useless. The productive advantages of abstraction, specialization and focus, like the division of labor and the assembly line, really need no rehearsing, especially when volume is the objective and advanced artisanal talent is not widely distributed. Nevertheless, there is something inherently self-defeating about linear discussions of nonlinearity. If complexity is your topic, it makes a sort of elementary sense to adopt complexity as your practice. And it also makes sense to expect readers to modify their expectations accordingly. But as Asher has already discussed at length and as Dyke also thematizes, this puts a lot of pressure on readers, especially those for whom the strategies of linearity and discipline have been or promise to be the most successful.

What clues do we have that Dyke is trying to enact complexity, that is, that he’s not just wandering around pointing randomly at birdies and flowers and clouds that remind him of his first girlfriend? Just a few guideposts here.

We could start with the (sub)title of the paper, “a plea for pedagogical plurality.” Pedagogy? That’s teaching, communication more broadly. Purpose: transmission of information. Plurality? Why? If the linearity metanarrative were true, there’d be no need for pedagogical plurality; a single beam, properly focused, would pass through all receiving prisms identically. This image Gramsci called “an Enlightenment error.” But if that’s not true, and the author knows it’s not true, then perhaps the author will be compensating for the complexity of reception by shooting a variety of beams from a variety of angles, and expecting that the enlightenment effects will be subtly or even dramatically different each time. What will this text look like? It will make ‘the same’ point in a variety of ways, which will seem repetitive or chaotic exactly to the degree each reader reflects or refracts the luminous dispersion.

Of course if the author could rely on functionally identical readers, this pedagogical plurality would not be necessary. And here we see one of the amazing accomplishments of the discipline constraint: by absenting all other possible configurations, it delivers functionally identical readers who have been rigorously cut and rotated so the light they each beam out will be received and refracted just so by all the others. Like a well-hung crystal chandelier the blazing glory when such a cognitive system is well-ordered is really a beautiful and useful thing. But of course, only that one room is lit.

Let’s move on. The paper is ‘about’ Deacon, but more centrally it’s about what Deacon is trying to do in relation to what other people in a more-or-less loose network of more-or-less similar projects are trying to do. This means the network has to be mapped, and the proximities and similarities surveyed. A big middle chunk of the paper does this work, while trying to leave open sockets for the (many, many) network nodes not discussed, i.e. absent, while sampling their range and significance (e.g. the ‘random’ Pirandello reference). Dyke likes Deacon, thinks he’s right about how things work, and therefore thinks that the nodes and projects are both teleodynamically self-organizing and morphodynamically coupled into a larger system with its own dynamics. How would he show this, not just say it? What would we expect to see if this were true? Links, absences, feedbacks, feedforwards, gradients, the usual. A nonlinear, unpointy, inherently incomplete and unclosed text that, like the network it discusses, is multinodal and loops back on itself dynamically, working all the while to create, maintain and singularize itself. Circles that are actually spirals, as he slyly adumbrates under the discussion of the discovery of DNA and the structure of Deacon’s text.

And so, what is Deacon trying to do, and how does it relate to what Dyke is trying to do? The answer, we’re plurally taught to understand, is properly understood as a matter of constraint within complex dynamical systems far from equilibrium. So after a lot of loopy groundwork about situated knowledge and “ecologies of practice” and “investigative ecosystems” and a great deal of loosely, dynamically related detail we get yet another heuristic example, which I’ll let stand in as a ‘point’ for this post:

To move closer to issues of consciousness with another concrete example, why is it, we want to know, that Deacon’s book is so inhumanly tedious? Well, possibly it is so largely because of all the possible objections he can imagine to his theory. He’s probably better at identifying these possibilities than his potential critics are. Many of these possible critics don’t themselves appear as robustly singularized factishes, but only factishes in absentia. The intellectual defenses are waiting in the text to deal with them should they attack, just as the chemical defenses of a plant are on hand ready to deal with threats that never in fact materialize. But their absence is felt. I take it that I’ve just given a possible causal account of an apparent factish: Deacon’s prolixity. At any rate, the hypothesis that most absentials involve the modal characterization of constrained structure seems to me a live one.

A very, very sad story that.

June 11, 2012

Complexity in practice: a plea for pedagogical plurality

by Carl Dyke

What would it look like if our scholarly practice was actually informed by our shiny new theories of complexity? Below the fold is one possible answer, a draft review article by absential-in-chief Chuck Dyke (Temple University) covering neologism, “ecologies of practice” and theoretical propagation in Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson and others. The introductory section is here below the fold; the whole piece (pdf, with notes) is linked at the end:

read more »

May 29, 2012

Cognitive democracy from crooked timber

by Carl Dyke

I’m sort of pleased with myself about this post’s title, because it’s about a draft article on “Cognitive Democracy” at Crooked Timber. The joke, which after all leads and animates that site, is Kant’s remark that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Yet the article is about using democracy to generate solutions to complex problems, i.e. straight things out of crooked timber. Consistent with their thesis they have asked for reader commentary on this draft, so I hereby suggest everyone reading here go on over and add your perspective to the mix.

For present purposes I’m struck by a point the authors, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, make about how democracy works / needs to work. They premise by arguing that democracy is superior to markets and hierarchies in locating best-possible solutions to complex problems, for two main reasons: 1.) democracy provides the framework for including the widest diversity of perspectives, thus better “exploring the space of possibilities” and guaranteeing against even experts’ individual or corporate tendencies to lock in on sub-optimal local solutions; and 2.) democracy levels distorting power relations so all perspectives are equally weighted. They also defend this liberal sort of democracy against a more utopian, in their view, virtuous general-will style republicanism by pointing out that there is no need to correct for narrow interests and confirmation bias on this account, since the whole point is to bring a diversity of such cognitive localisms to bear on the problem. People should be expected and even encouraged to give full vent to their partisanship, producing the best possible arguments for their position and letting the democratic process sort out the best possible solution. So far, so Federalist Papers if I remember my undergrad PoliSci aright.

Henry and Cosma argue that the critical mechanism of democratic process so constituted is ability and willingness to recognize and accept better arguments when we see them. They quote Mercier and Sperber (2011):

When one is alone or with people who hold similar views, one’s arguments will not be critically evaluated. This is when the confirmation bias is most likely to lead to poor outcomes. However, when reasoning is used in a more felicitous context, that is, in arguments among people who disagree but have a common interest in the truth, the confirmation bias contributes to an efficient form of division of cognitive labor. When a group has to solve a problem, it is much more efficient if each individual looks mostly for arguments supporting a given solution. They can then present these arguments to the group, to be tested by the other members. This method will work as long as people can be swayed by good arguments, and the results reviewed … show that this is generally the case. This joint dialogic approach is much more efficient than one where each individual on his or her own has to examine all possible solutions carefully (p. 65).

Ohhhhh, so we have to actually listen to each other, and maybe even modify our views accordingly. Dang. Lots to think about here.

Btw I must admit, like and perhaps unlike other fine scholars recently under discussion here at DV, that I have not finished reading the article, which strikes me about half-way through as a wonky think-piece dressed up with convenient citations. It’s not that I don’t agree with it or think it’s well done, it just seems to me like yet another optional rationalization of democracy, of which there are centuries-worth to choose from. It’s good enough to be your favorite and fits this context better than most, but I’m not sure it would convince a partisan of markets or hierarchy that democracy is the optimal solution yet. But Henry and Cosma are terrifically smart and may eventually (in this piece or later ones) get to something more compelling than the ‘some studies seem to show’ approach. I would very much like that, and will update in the comments accordingly as I continue reading, because I also prefer democracy and find it a little embarrassing that all I have is habits and rationalizations to account for this.

UPDATE: Cosma’s new post (also mentioned and quoted below in the comments), part of the Crooked Timber online seminar on Red Plenty, is an altogether more satisfying piece of analysis. The dynamic interpenetration of democracy, hierarchies and markets is fully in view here and the relative constraints and affordances of each in regimes perhaps inevitably far from optimization is directly thematized. How that earlier piece makes sense to Cosma given what he has to say here is not clear to me, and the disconnect has not so far been noted in the (otherwise mostly useful) commentary either. Maybe it’s ok to say things about Soviet planning and capitalist quasi-markets it’s not ok to say about our utopian dreamworlds, or maybe I’m just not smart enough to get the rhetoric of this project’s development. In any event, I confidently recommend this new post as not at all a waste of time.

May 22, 2012

Out of the box

by Carl Dyke

We’ve been talking about constraint and causation (or ‘enablement’, as Garfinkel might say), and this morning I’ve stumbled into a chain of associations that illustrate the point. Specifically, two juxtaposed reviews in the NYRB, on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels and Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe; the book Rachel is reading, Charlatan, on medical quackery in the fin de siecle; her previous research on Olaus Rudbeck; and a movie we just watched, “(untitled).” All of these are cautionary tales about thinking outside the box, and therefore reminders of the enabling function of boxes.

Let’s start with Rudbeck, a Swedish scientist who taught Linnaeus and (perhaps) discovered the limbic system. Rightly celebrated as a Renaissance man, he spent the second half of his life and blew his reputation pursuing his idee fixe that Atlantis had been in Sweden. Clearly a creative thinker, once he got into a field where his thinking was unconstrained by conventions and a developmental programme of investigation he came unglued and started making stuff up to suit his emotional preferences, then selectively interpreting the evidence to fit. This fact was clear to everyone but him.

In the review of Wertheim, Freeman Dyson tells a similar story about Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant astronomer whose observations of deflected starlight were instrumental to the experimental support of Einsteinian relativity, and whose lucid writing and teaching on the subject helped establish the new orthodoxy. But Eddington also had his own “Fundamental Theory,” an idiosyncratic mishmash of “mathematical and verbal arguments… [with] no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.” “Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man.”

What’s striking about these examples is how people exquisitely functional within one set of conventions can spectacularly implode outside them, and without any apparent reflexive awareness that this is the case. St. Aubyn’s novels (which I have not read) would seem to be excruciating meditations on this theme. Patrick Melrose, the main character, is an unwilling participant observer in a horrifying upper-crust British social milieu in which publicly effective people behave abominably to each other in private, with no apparent sense of disconnect. In fact, they seem to use the effective parts of their lives as systematic displacements of self-reflection. Patrick, in contrast, is practically disabled by self-awareness (“how could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) and floats through drug addiction before finally working himself around to an effective balance of interiority and exteriority.

Charlatan is about a guy who got rich transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men anxious about their virility. Needless to say this was a fool’s errand and a septic nightmare, but neither he nor his patients seemed clear on these obvious facts. In Physics on the Fringe Wertheim writes about Jim Carter, a successful engineer and entrepreneur who spends his spare time concocting experiments to prove his pet theory that the universe is composed of hierarchies of “circlons,” of which smoke rings are the demonstrative exemplars. It turns out that unbeknownst to Carter a very similar theory was once entertained by Lord Kelvin, but dropped for lack of convincing evidence – despite/because of experiments much like Carter’s, experiments which he finds amply probative, although he cannot convince the scientific community to agree.

In his review of Wertheim, Dyson champions the fringe creatives working outside the box as courageous poetic visionaries. But the tricky thing is figuring out what the ‘good’ versions of this are, since both psychosis and ordinary crackpottery are also often characterized by poetic vision. “untitled” comes at this question from the arts side and shows that Dyson’s offloading of the question onto art only works because his understanding of art is romantic. (Of course he does not know this about himself.) The movie’s central characters are an experimental musician, his brother the painter, and the gallerist who takes an interest in both. The painter is a hack, but does not know it; his paintings sell very well to hospital chains for use as soothing motifs in their lobbies, which is how the gallerist funds her showings of the serious art that does not sell. The musician produces elaborate cacophanies; he tells us that tonality is over, now just a matter of “pushing notes around,” which is essentially what his brother the painter is doing with color. The problem is that although it’s clear the painter is a hack, it’s not at all clear whether the musician is something better. There are norms of judgment for the former, but not the latter. Is that just unpleasant noise, or is it a brilliant meditation on the contingency of norms of pleasantness? As the musician tells us, all sound is noise unless it’s welcome. What makes it welcome?

The problem turns out to be that outside the box, there’s no way to settle these questions, to move things forward or even to know what forward would be. “It’s all good,” as they say. But a river without banks is a swamp. So constraint, a box of some kind, is essential to getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is that enough of a point for this post? It will have to be, because I’ve said all I had in mind to say at this time.

May 15, 2012

The elaborate self?

by Carl Dyke

I’m butterfly-reading in the flu-encrusted post-semester haze, a little of this and a little of that, currently including a discussion of Hayek on the welfare state at Crooked Timber and more of Jim Livingstone’s provocation Against Thrift.

It strikes me that one of the more important current miscommunications concerns the origin of human personhood (and no, I’m not going to drag out Taylor’s massive tome to do this right). Some folks think you’re born with it; other folks think you earn it through a process of elaboration. The latter is the more ‘traditional’ notion, consistent in distinct but overlapping ways with the heroic origin-myths of noble orders, Protestant self-discipline, body-mutilating rites of passage and kicking lazy teenagers out of the house.

Or you can get your teenager/’welfare queen’ a primo data plan and feed it snacks while it facebooks and plays x-box. One nutshell of the current U.S. kulturkampf is the people who think personhood has to be earned worrying that they’ll end up doing all the work for everyone, that a shrinking minority of worker ant selves will be yoked to the lazy pseudo-selfhood of the grasshopper masses. This was clearly Hayek’s fear, and Ayn Rand’s.

Well, who can argue with the virtuous earning of important things? The cool move Jim Livingstone makes is to argue that this is now a false issue, because the modern economy has for at least a century made work, labor, elaboration an optional rather than essential human activity, and therefore an optional rather than essential foundation for human personhood. He asks us to think about a self that is more a matter of taste than necessity, and to consider consumer society as a kind of symbolic utopia, totemism unbound.

April 30, 2012

Split Peas, Distraction, and the enemies of Abstraction

by Jacob Lee

While reading Marijn Haverbeke’s book Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming, I came across this passage, extolling the virtues of abstraction:

When writing a program, it is easy to get sidetracked into small details at every point. You come across some little issue, and you deal with it, and then proceed to the next little problem, and so on. This makes the code read like a grandmother’s tale.

Yes, dear, to make pea soup you will need split peas, the dry kind. And you have to soak them at least for a night, or you will have to cook them for hours and hours. I remember one time, when my dull son tried to make pea soup. Would you believe he hadn’t soaked the peas? We almost broke our teeth, all of us. Anyway, when you have soaked the peas, and you’ll want about a cup of them per person, and pay attention because they will expand a bit while they are soaking, so if you aren’t careful they will spill out of whatever you use to hold them, so also use plenty water to soak in, but as I said, about a cup of them, when they are dry, and after they are soaked you cook them in four cups of water per cup of dry peas. Let it simmer for two hours, which means you cover it and keep it barely cooking, and then add some diced onions, sliced celery stalk, and maybe a carrot or two and some ham. Let it all cook for a few minutes more, and it is ready to eat.

Another way to describe this recipe:

Per person: one cup dried split peas, half a chopped onion, half a carrot, a celery stalk, and optionally ham.

Soak peas overnight, simmer them for two hours in four cups of water (per person), add vegetables and ham, and cook for ten more minutes.

This is shorter, but if you don’t know how to soak peas you’ll surely screw up and put them in too little water. But how to soak peas can be looked up, and that is the trick. If you assume a certain basic knowledge in the audience, you can talk in a language that deals with bigger concepts, and express things in a much shorter and clearer way. (emphasis added) This, more or less, is what abstraction is.

Now, after reading this, I could not help but think about how blogs, listserves, and other open forums for expert discussion can become bogged down by the participation of non-experts, or the badly informed and opinionated, or even people merely coming from different domains of expertise. Eventually, this can lead to the departure of those experts for less congested locales.

There is immense value in the continued existence of open forums. So the question is, how can a forum remain open, but circumvent, or at least diminish the challenges just mentioned? I can think of at least one way, suitable for highly topical forums: namely, the FAQ, or Primer.

So, for example, New Economic Perspectives, a group blog of academic and professional economists interested in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), has an extensive primer on MMT available on its blog. But a Primer or FAQ is probably not enough, unless it is tied into some kind of policy and practice of policing. An interesting, if extreme, policy might involve some kind of test of the basic knowledge presumed by the epistemic community in question. For example, New Economic Perspectives might test users knowledge of MMT in order to obtain the credentials to participate in the forum, or their scores on such a test could be associated with their comments in all cases. Annoying perhaps. But then, I am reminded of John’s idea of an online community based on concentric circles:

While agreeing fundamentally with grad student guy’s observation about the need for filtering, it is far from clear to me that any currently available technological solution is likely to solve the problem. As far as I can make out, the patterns that emerge in forums like OAC are not that different from those that emerge on listservs. After an initial period of enthusiasm in which people jump on board and stake out positions, things settle down to a handful of contributors accounting for most of the traffic and occasional outbursts of concern about why more people aren’t contributing.

The alternative is to consider filtering as a political problem, where the fundamental dilemma is the gap between the ideal of openness and ease of access and the reality that most people can’t or don’t want to spend large amounts of their day responding to a mass of material that grows exponentially and is mostly repetitious and, in event the best sense, juvenile — an endless rehashing of old arguments that rarely goes anywhere.

The only plausible scheme that I have been able to imagine is modeled on secret societies with a hierarchy of concentric circles, in which it requires an invitation to move toward the center for all but the outermost circle, to which everyone is invited. Are there other options to consider?

January 30, 2012

Word to your Mama

by Carl Dyke

I had a little fun with my scifi reading circle last week. They were pretty cranky about Gibson’s Neuromancer (although they picked it), which wasn’t giving them a nice clean linear narrative or conventionally identifiable / likeable characters. I told them it was all about getting cool with the unfamiliar, a slow difficult process in contrast for example to dating, boinking and marrying the woman who reminds you most of your mother. (It was boys doing the most vocal kvetching.) They were stricken.

[Update: It occurs to me that in a roundabout way this is one answer to Tim Burke’s question in his current post about why we think critical thinking should be work, not fun, or why we are suspicious of people seemingly just having fun.]

July 18, 2011

Recommendation letter guidelines

by Carl Dyke

Finally got around to writing a draft of this after years of wishing this was stuff students already knew and playing keystone-cops catch-up each time it turned out sure enough they didn’t. Suggestions welcome!

Dyke Recommendation Letter Guidelines

So you want a letter of recommendation from me. I’m happy to do it, and it’s part of my job! However, please read this handout about the process carefully. Your role is not over when I agree to write the letter. Our collaboration is just beginning.

First, you should know that sometimes letters of recommendation are formalities. They just want someone trustworthy other than you and your Mom to go on record that you’re not a complete waste of space and maybe even know a few things. If you know for a fact that this is the case for the present letter, please tell me. That kind of letter is much easier to write and like most people, I don’t enjoy wasting effort.

If the letter is not a mere formality, we’re going to need to work together to put you in the best possible light. This is not the time to be bashful and modest, because you’re up against serious competition. I’m going to need to say some things that distinguish you positively from all the other applicants. You should know that adjectives are not going to get it done. Everyone has letters that say they’re great, fantastic, wonderful, outstanding, quite possibly the best, etc.. Those letters may get you in the game, but they don’t win because all the letters say that. So for the win I’m going to have to be as specific as possible about why you’re great.

Now the thing is, if any part of our work together was before last week, I do not remember those specifics. I have a warm and fuzzy feeling about you, which is why I’ve agreed to write the letter. But I don’t remember why I feel that way because one, I have about a hundred students a semester and two, part of how I stay fresh in my profession is that I let the present crowd out the past in my working memory. (We’ll call this my zen so I don’t sound so much like a flake.) And obviously my own vague warm fuzzy feelings are not going to be persuasive to anyone else, which is something I’m sure you remember learning in my class, unless like me you don’t remember exactly where you learned things.

All this means you’re going to have to remind me, in writing because I don’t remember so well, what it was you did that gave me my happy feelings about you. Give me topics and summaries of work you turned in; tell the stories of our good times together; list the courses and expound on what you got out of them. If you have samples of your work with my comments, pass them back. Anything you can do to refresh specific memories that I can use to add concrete dramatic nouns and verbs to vague superlative adjectives will strengthen the letter I can write for you and improve the chances that it will actually do some good.

It would also be terrific if you could help me tailor my praise to the specific need. Think about this: what are the things I can say about you that you can’t credibly say about yourself? How can I fit a niche in your recommendation strategy, that is, say things that are not just being repeated by you and your other recommenders? Also, what exactly are you applying for and what subset of your general awesomeness are they actually interested in? Let’s not waste time and credibility telling them you can dunk or pull a mean espresso shot if what they care about is your ability to analyze and communicate about information. Speaking of which, did they give you any clues as to what they’re looking for? If you can pull out key quotes that show where they’re coming from (like you did in your papers for my class, no doubt, or I wouldn’t be writing you this letter) it would help me a bunch, and remind me again why I like you so much.

If there are official forms and envelopes, prepare them for me in a tidy, well-marked packet that I can find again easily in the clutter on my desk. I’ve got letterhead covered. Finally, you should know that I’m not going to work on this until the deadline is near. You need to tell me well in advance, in writing, when that deadline is, along with anything else I need to know about the process to calibrate my procrastination responsibly. It would also be extremely wise of you to gently nudge me as that date approaches, while being very careful not to nag. Just check in. I am not a letter-writing appliance that you can turn on and forget; I am a human being with most of the usual quirks and some of my own, and loads of other stuff on my plate. Remember that as much as I genuinely care about you and your success, you care about them more: they are yours, so keep on top of things.

OK – if you’re cool with all of this, let’s do it!

April 18, 2011


by Carl Dyke

is the name of a blog described as “a guide to living with your philosopher.” The current post addresses philosophers’ constant questioning of every little thing, diagnoses this as an occupational hazard, suggests being complimented that they find you worth taking seriously, and recommends a ‘safe sentence’ to use when you’re just not into being prodded about your premises and commitments.

Philosophers are every bit as weird as any Papua-New Guinean highlander, Kalahari bushman or stock analyst, so this ethnographic site is both inherently interesting and potentially critical to maintaining cordial relations with the tribe in question.

February 20, 2011

Books & Ideas

by Carl Dyke

Just found out about Books & Ideas, the English-language version of the French-language website La vie des idees. Here’s their mission statement:

Books & Ideas includes hitherto unpublished articles and book reviews written in English, and translations of a selection of the writings published in French in Our purpose is to provide quality information about current intellectual life and publications in France and internationally, as well as discussions of the great issues of our time, in the form of in-depth essays, interviews and public debates.

We intend to give all fields of scholarship (the human sciences, but also the exact sciences, aesthetics, literary criticism, architecture, and so on) a wide exposure that makes use of all the resources of the internet. We want to contribute in this way to disseminating knowledge and investigations beyond their sphere of production, with a view to decompartmentalizing academic disciplines.

To reach such an objective, we have adopted three principles:

— to bring together in the same place, and in equal numbers, essays and book reviews, written by the best specialists.

— to do this with a view to pluri- and trans-disciplinarity: to recognize all of the separate components of knowledge, but at the same time to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue.

— to embrace the international by taking an interest in the debates and books at the center of intellectual life on each and every continent, and by drawing on a worldwide network of correspondents.

Books & Ideas means to make the most of the possibilities offered by the internet: texts with links to each other and referring to other online resources; videos and podcasts of conversations with key figures in the intellectual world; dialogues and debates encouraging more perspectives on controversial issues; and thematic dossiers assembling contributions from various intellectuals and researchers, thereby making for better-informed views on the defining issues of current events.

It looks pretty good, including currently on the front page an interview with Howard Becker, who we’ve invoked here recently, on “social life as improvisation.” He argues that agreement and shared understanding are the basic idea that explain how a society can exist. To him, society is information flows.

February 7, 2011

Talking with fundamentalists

by Carl Dyke

Part of the seminar today was a work-in-progress workshop, which was really interesting and productive. One of the participants has just barely begun an investigation of environmentalists. He’s interested in why people become environmentalists, and how it might be possible to make more environmentalists. It’s a great project but I’m not going to talk about it, or the seminar, because they’re not mine to talk about. Instead I’m going to talk about my own thoughts as prompted by the seminar.

My anecdatal observation of environmentalists is that like other movement folk they come in a whole range of types and commitments, but that the ones who identify as environmentalists sometimes remind me of a cult. That is, they are possessors of a special knowledge that creates a privileged bond among them. By virtue of this knowledge and its associated practices they occupy a moral high ground about which they may be righteous and around which they create and share qualifying narratives. They are missionary to the masses about their special important truth, but because the mission is in tension with the valorizing exclusivity of their revelation, they may erect purity barriers to membership that guarantee limited success.

None of this, by the way, is meant to pronounce on the truth value of the revelation independent of these group shenanigans. I personally think attention and care for the environment are, on balance and subject to a variety of other priorities, good things. I see environmental degradation or destruction as inconvenient to a number of things I value. But saying it this way, in which the environment is one among a number of contingent values with no essentially-privileged moral content, disqualifies me as an environmentalist properly speaking, as does my failure to become an activist of the cause. Because at the identification threshold environmentalism tends to be a kind of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists are people who commit themselves to thinking about things only one way, the ‘right’ way. They treat as premises what otherwise might seem to be conclusions, and as ends what might otherwise look like means. They may or may not be able to speak coherently about their premises and ends, but what they cannot do is see their premises or ends as contingent and optional. Fundamentalists therefore have a tense relationship with education, which is about becoming able to think about things many ways. Strictly speaking, fundamentalists are not in favor of education; their native communicative mode is indoctrination. In terms of William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development, fundamentalists are firmly planted in A. 1., “Dualism/Received Knowledge,” characterized by belief that “there are right/wrong answers, engraved on Golden Tablets in the sky, known to Authorities.”

Becoming a member of a fundamentalist cult like environmentalism generally involves indoctrination from youth, a conversion experience from another fundamentalism, or rescue from a wandering anomic wilderness. Otherwise the environment or the teachings of Jesus or the Pittsburgh Steelers are just one among many things one might value, albeit possibly uniquely compelling ones from time to time. Such a view would be consistent with Perry’s C. 6., “Pre-Commitment,” in which the necessity of exiting pure relativism and taking a stand is recognized, and D., “Commitment/Constructed Knowledge,” in which responsible stands are taken and then dynamically weighed against other possible stands. Of course a quite different kind of environmentalism is possible on this basis (please note that I’ve said this); and fundamentalists can make great allies for all one’s projects, as long as they don’t notice you have more than one, or go all Spanish Inquisition and piss off everyone in sight.

It’s either very difficult or very easy to talk with fundamentalists. Accepting their premises and ends makes for smooth but stereotyped conversation. The hard part is if you want to have a conversation that puts pressure on what they take for granted. This is because like anyone else, they have no way to make sense of statements outside their cognitive horizons; but unlike non-fundamentalists they are committed to keeping those cognitive horizons right where they are, rather than expanding them to take in unfamiliar or inimical conceptions. (Many of my students are similar to fundamentalists in their inability to think ‘outside their box’, but most differ from fundamentalists in being open to considering other options.) Under pressure from cognitive ‘otherness’ therefore fundamentalists tend to close into a self-referential reassertive loop and to ascribe disagreement of substance or emphasis to the ignorance, malevolence or cognitive deficiency of their interlocutors. Like friendly tourists in foreign lands, they may slow down, make careful eye contact and speak more loudly, but it never occurs to them to question the universal applicability of their own language.

Now, Cardinal Biggles, the rack!

This post is not meant to be particularly compelling or persuasive in itself; a certain general plausibility of the framing I do here would be a good outcome. Right now I’m seeing this as groundwork, later to be hidden, for an account of what a liberal arts general education core might be good for. Like Certeau, who I’ve been reading alongside this other stuff I’ve mentioned lately, I think a lot of the qualifying narratives for traditional liberal arts education have degenerated into dogma, themselves a fundamentalism of increasingly obscure values. I’m toying with the idea that what the liberal arts are actually good for is fundamentalism interception. They (we) work by putting what we and our students take for granted under the pressure of otherness. The payoff is not in some nebulous sense ‘breadth’ or ‘culture’, but a strategic flexibility, resilience and resourcefulness that make us less brittle in a world that often doesn’t share our sense of what matters. For this purpose one of the chief advantages of liberal arts content for our students is that it’s not interesting (it is not in their interest), but disinteresting. I’m still thinking this through, including Bourdieu’s cautionary observation that academics are people who have an interest in disinterest; let me know what you think.

December 6, 2010

Monologue tolerance

by Carl Dyke

As you may know, Bob, I was trained in one of the smaller and more obscure subdisciplines, a little thing we like to call ‘Intellectual History’ (or sometimes ‘intellectual and cultural history’ if we’re aware, however dimly, that people other than official intellectuals have an intellectual history). Even in the high academy we’re pretty ornamental and there aren’t usually a lot of us around. So it’s been a blessing of sorts for me to live and work just near enough to the Raleigh/Durham node of big research universities to be able to attend the meetings of the Triangle Intellectual History Seminar.

The seminar often brings in bigwigs to talk about their work in progress, and also offers a forum for members and their advanced graduate students. The level is high and the distribution of expertises is broader than someone outside our little field might think possible. In general the room is packed with very smart people who know a lot of stuff, so in principle it ought to be a thoroughly stimulating experience – you know, like a conference. And even better than most conferences, papers are distributed beforehand and we’re all there intentionally, so everyone arrives prepared on the topic of the day and there’s no need for the slow death of droning paper delivery.

In practice of course there’s a little of that droning, by way of introduction, but it’s mercifully brief and usually offered with some ad libs to keep it fresh. But by academic standards we get down to discussion remarkably quickly, and here is the perfect opportunity for the exciting exchange of ideas that we all imagined academe to be!, before graduate seminars, freshman surveys, and committee meetings blew our brains out like egg yolks. Except that even here, where conditions are seemingly ideal, that exciting exchange does not take place.

Why? Well, there are just some logistical issues when you’ve got 15-20 smart people who all have things to say and can’t say them at once. Can’t have the loud and the quick dominating the discussion, so everyone gets a turn. Time is limited so followups have to be moderated and tangents discouraged. And although everyone likes a good joke, we wouldn’t want to short the presenter on the serious discussion about her important work that she deserves.

The result of these reasonable considerations is that nothing resembling conversation actually takes place. Because she knows she’ll get one shot to say what’s on her mind and then the turn will pass to someone else with their own fish to fry, each speaker produces a well-crafted monologue so dense with premises and implications that the presenter can only respond to a fraction of it, of course with another monologue. And of course all exchanges radiate from the node of the presenter, with no direct interactions between the other participants. It’s all very orderly, lots of smart stuff gets said, it’s productive, certainly worthwhile, even beautiful in its way; and there’s no transformative effervescence, no spark, virtually no chance of the happy accidental flashes of insight that come from free-flowing conversation, improvisation, riffing call and response, theme and variation, the jazz of the mind.

I said there was no conversation, but that’s not quite right. There is, but it’s on a very slow and ponderous (in the sense of pondering) rhythm. As I sit in that room aching for something a little more upbeat, it occurs to me that success in the high academy is in part a function of tolerance for monologues, both delivering and receiving: relatively short ones like those in the room, longer ones like lectures and journal articles, really long ones like books. For ordinary mortals this kind of monologic sensibility is just plain rude, but for the beasts of academe it’s the measure of seriousness. We discipline our young to patience for the monologues of others, and patience for the development of their own; and tsktsk at the minds both bright and dull who won’t or can’t adapt to the deliberate pace of our conversations. No wonder serious academics are leery of bloggery.

Which brings me to my last point. The paper last night was by Lloyd Kramer, a very good historian who was engaged in it in a conversation about the right way to do history with his graduate advisors, now very old, and R.R. Palmer, now dead. There was a bit of a recovery of Palmer, an old-school big-picture synthesizer, as against the more fragmented, conflicted history derived from post-structuralism that followed. This is a conversation in which the monologues are at the scale of oeuvres and generations, or rather in which it is only at that scale that the apparent monologues resolve into utterances in a very ponderous conversation indeed. In the course of the ‘discussion’ Lloyd mentioned that one difference between these generations had to do with their understanding of selves and identities: as primordial and singular for Palmer, as dialogically constructed and plural for the post-structuralists. Here I wanted to say that it didn’t take post-structuralism to see self and identity this way, since the insight was there already in Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, James, Mead and DuBois to name a few. But I held my tongue, and thought about what kind of selves are constructed out of dialogues that take hours, years, lifetimes and generations to unfold.