Archive for ‘curmudgery’

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by CarlD

Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.

What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.

So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”

It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)

Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.

But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).

So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.

But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.

(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)

The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.

The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.

P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.

July 5, 2015

Making work

by CarlD

Among other things, the unfolding drama in Greece is a reminder that in the world today, and for quite some time past, there is not and has not been enough work for people to do. Rather than find some other way to organize and valorize human life, the response to this has been to make work.

In Greece, among many other places, this has taken the form of massive systems of neo-feudal governmental and quasi-governmental employment (farmers of government payments like the defense and health industries, for example), funded through various extractive and inventive strategies ranging from taxation to money printing to ‘public debt’. (Since the fiat currencies of the modern state are essentially circulating debt, there is no essential difference between these strategies except the levels of public confusion and therefore the pseudo-politics caused by each.)

Because countries like Greece are not big and scary enough to control their own narratives, this fabrication of life and value is commonly referred to there as ‘corruption’. In countries big and scary enough to control their own narratives like the United States and Germany, it is referred to as ‘the public sector’. But in all cases most of the work in question deploys the otherwise unemployed to provide each other, at each others’ expense, with ‘services’ the need for which is largely created by their availability.

Clearly this is not ‘gainful’ or ‘productive’ employment, except in the pragmatic and existential senses that life and value are created by it. As the story goes, truly productive employment only occurs in the ‘private sector’, where the work is driven by real market demand rather than corrupt and/or unproductive shenanigans.

Which brings me to landscaping.

versailles gardens

Landscaping might be described as an inherently unproductive modification of land. Farms are not landscaped, they are worked. Lawns without sheep are an ecological monstrosity, and ‘yards’ need only be cleared enough to keep pests and predators from immediate contact with the buildings. Unremarkable local plants do the trick just fine with minimal inputs of effort. Spare land may well become valuable through garden planting, or left fallow. Of course flowers that attract pollinators, fix nitrogen, and the like may add splashes of color and texture. Productive land has its own beauty, as do the lumpy bodies of productive people. Human / land interaction is traditionally labor and attention intensive. Ordinary folks lived like this for millenia.

And yet, in the United States alone landscaping is an $80 billion ‘industry’. Some of this of course is public and quasi-public landscaping like government lawns and highway medians, but most of it is private and therefore market driven. There is a robust demand for landscaping.

The need to beautify commercial/residential property as a place for relaxation, entertainment or work, has long nourished the interest in landscaping. The worth added to the value of property by decorative structures, ponds, patios, and green-winding pathways too cannot be undermined. Keeping in view the growing popularity and importance of landscaping as an art, science, and commercial value proposition, it is of little surprise that landscaping services has now become one of the most important domains in the overall services industry.

From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Over 800,000 people are employed in just the direct provision of landscaping services such as “sod laying, mowing, trimming, planting, watering, fertilizing, digging, raking, sprinkler installation, and installation of mortarless segmental concrete masonry wall units,” over 15,000 in “death care services” alone. This does NOT include the production of landscaping supplies and equipment, agriculture of sod and ornamental plants, industry and academic study of same, fractions of transportation, water, and sewer infrastructure devoted to moving the stuff and the stuff’s inputs and outputs around, yard ‘waste’ removal, and so on. Taken all together, it would probably be safe to say that private demand for the inherently unproductive modification of land annually generates about a million jobs and about $100 billion dollars. Yay, markets!

As the husband and friend of artists I know that there are all sorts of ways to argue about the nature and value of beauty. As the (hopefully) soon-to-be owner of a farm originally set up for ornamental livestock (horses) that we hope gradually to convert to boutique farm-to-table production, I am aware that there are no clear lines between the production and productivity of aesthetic and alimentary experience. The other thing that folks did for millenia was eat gruel. And horseflesh.

1265 panorama

But this is my point. If we take an old-school approach to productive labor, there’s very little of that left to do after the machines get done. MOST of the work that people do now, especially in the developed world, is makework. My job certainly is, in a way that’s obvious enough to produce real strains at the point of sale, and incredibly vulnerable by the productivity standards that waves of businessy types periodically try to enforce on it. For education (employment: 8 million+) in anything that required real productivity, tech schools and apprenticeships, largely taught by mechanical reproduction, would surely do the trick. The rest is landscaping.

And therefore, makework had better be alright. As much as I’d like to get on my high horse about Greek (or Italian) ‘corruption’, there’s none of my life that doesn’t participate in the same dynamics. I try to pay off, maybe in ways public sector employees give up on or never learn, but given the spread of outcomes that’s not much more than noise in the signal. What does Germany think it’s doing that’s so much better than what the Greeks are doing? For the life of me, I can’t work that out.


July 24, 2014


by CarlD

Saw an interesting movie last night, “Snowpiercer.” Based on a graphic novel, I gather. The premise is that in response to global warming, the governments of the world leap into action and seed the skies with a chemical meant to bring temperatures down. It does, there’s a catastrophic ice age, and all life on Earth is extinguished. Except for one special train, the work of a visionary inventor, that travels a continuous loop around the world with the few remaining humans, some fish and bugs and whatnot aboard.

The humans are segregated on the train by their conditions of boarding, from first class up front through non-paying refugees in the rear. The plot is driven by the revolt of ‘steerage’, so to speak. There’s a sort of Ayn Randian quality to the basic setup – in the distrust of goverment, of course, but also in that the tail sections in fact contribute very little to the functioning of the train (beyond the odd child of the correct height to tend the innards of the engine) and owe their entire existence to the charity of Wilford, the visionary industrialist and engineer. Consequently, the ethics of sympathy for the poor downtrodden are more Kantian, a la categorical imperative, than Marxist, a la exploitation and alienation. We then go back to Rand to admire the effective gumption of that one leader and his few talented confederates who organize the (incredibly violent) breakout. None of this is articulated with any great care.

What is articulated with great care, notably by Tilda Swinton in a magnificent performance as Wilford’s top henchwoman, is an ideology of sustainability based on rigorous ordering of a closed system. Over and over the rulers explain that the whole can thrive only if each part keeps its place in exactly calibrated balance. It’s a fabulous caricature of vulgar sustainability discourse, and pokes ruthlessly at the fascism that’s never too far away when urgent images of righteous living in relation to existential threat are about.

September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by CarlD

The faculty at the University of Oregon appear to have hoisted themselves in exactly this way we talked about here earlier. I am officially sad about that.

kliban eye poke

August 20, 2013

Yeast again

by CarlD

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

May 19, 2013

Survival of the fit enough

by CarlD

In my perusings I just came across this interesting item:

Michael Vick says new Eagles coach Chip Kelly “taught” him how to properly hold the football while running. The 10-year veteran was apparently being serious. “The other day, I broke out in the pocket, and the first thing Chip told me was to tuck the football,” Vick said. “So I showed him how I was running with it, and he looked at it and he knocked the ball right out of my hands. And he was like, ‘Hold it like this.’ And what he told me felt comfortable. I had a tighter grip on the football. That should secure that problem as long as I work on it.” It’s beyond belief that Vick is implying that he not only didn’t know how to properly hold the football, but had never been taught by Dan Reeves, Jim Mora Jr. or Andy Reid, but here we are. Vick has lost 12 fumbles over his past 35 games, which is far too many.

How do four people – Vick, Reeves, Mora, Reid – who do a thing at the very highest level, who have pretty much done it all day every day for their whole lives, not notice there’s a basic, outcome-changing problem and take easy steps to fix it? Is that surprising?

In the book discussion over at The Long Eighteenth I’ve been trying to both discuss and, predictably, demonstrate this effect. Gikandi looks at the slavery / culture of taste complex; sees the one is both enabling and constraining the other; and apparently can’t think of any way that could make sense other than grand psychic defense mechanisms like repression and libidinal sublimation. Big effects must have big causes. Has Vick been repressing a desire to lose this whole time? Or did he just carry the ball a way, mostly not drop the thing, and therefore never think or feel much about it? After all, fumbling’s part of the game.

Do analyses like Gikandi’s repress a dark terror of the mindless operations of unreflective habit? We all get to have our favorite theories, but jobs go smoother if you use the right tools. In a book in large part about the history of the judgment of taste, with a 30-page bibliography, Gikandi mentions “French anthropologist” Pierre Bourdieu just one time, as having called “a set of socially acquired dispositions and predispositions” habitus once (218). Habitus, a concept more pertinently developed in Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, is the new grip that would have fixed some of Gikandi’s fumbling; but like Vick, Reeves, Mora, and Reid; Hume and Jefferson and the Beckfords; teachers, students and administrators, he’s been getting along well enough without it.

April 1, 2013

Another one on linked learning

by CarlD

Some of you may still have a shred of interest in this topic, so here below is a post I just wrote for my school’s gen ed debate blog. Again, the issue is a challenge to the plan that just passed the full faculty, by a group that want to add back more ‘liberal arts’ courses and incidentally remove the linked learning component. (Btw Dave, re: evidence I have done other posts compiling links to lots of educational research and comparable cores at other unis.)

As some of you may know, I run a tennis group up in the Cary area. I have about 100 players on my distribution list and some subset of us get together twice a week to play and socialize. I also play in USTA leagues in Cary, which puts my network in the hundreds.

Because it’s Cary, and because it’s tennis, a very large proportion of these folks are mid to high level professionals. I play with CFOs and chief accounting officers of major corporations; state legislators; small business owners; pharmaceutical executives; IT and data security professionals. We hang out after we play and talk. As a result, over the years I’ve accumulated a fairly dense ethnographic understanding of how these folks think and what they want. And because I’m a college professor, we’ve talked a whole bunch about how they think about college education and what they want from it.

It is absolutely true that, as Lloyd just said in the last post, they have abysmally low expectations of the value of a college degree. They routinely interview and hire candidates with fancy educational credentials who just as routinely turn out to be fundamentally unprepared to be useful. From ample experience, they expect college graduates to be clueless and high-maintenance. They are resigned to this fact. They hope for a little technical polish as a writer and communicator (they get even that rarely) and a general middle-class culturing, by which they mean an acceptance of the value of the enterprise and a certain amiability about following instructions. Because they don’t expect more they don’t look for more, as Lloyd said.

When I talk with my friends about a more ambitious agenda for college education, one that involves teaching students to be resourceful, independent learners who can make connections, figure things out for themselves, and adapt responsibly to complex, unfamiliar situations, they get a faraway, wistful expression. These dispositions are rare and precious to them. I was talking this weekend with a consulting engineer who works regularly with the state department of transportation and a P.A. at a major cardiology center. They bonded over the irrational outcomes that are regularly produced in infrastructure and medical care by rigid systems of rules designed to intercept bad decisionmaking and create predictability – because the people involved can’t be trusted to think their way through the variables of particular cases, and a mediocre outcome is better than a disastrous outcome.

Which brings me to general education. There is enormous value in transmitting what is already known to the young. A firm grounding in the traditions of knowledge is essential to the educated person. Such an education can do much to guard against disastrous outcomes. But as proponents of the alternative core have amply shown, exactly this grounding is the focus of the vast majority of general education programs at our peer institutions, as it has been for many, many years.

And these are the graduates my informants find so disappointing.

It may be that our students ‘should’ be able to learn a more resourceful kind of thinking from our classes, but mostly they don’t. And not just ours. And it’s for the simple reason that we don’t show them how. This is why I think the alternative proposal is out of balance – because the wonderful things in it don’t have the impact they should as long as we’re not intentionally showing the students how to put them together and make something of them. This is the college education my tennis buddies would love to see, and that they’re mostly not seeing. This is the opportunity we have now at MU with the Linked Learning initiative, which is why I think it’s short-sighted to vote it out just in case we vote it back in again later.

December 24, 2012

The rhetoric of commodities

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 9, 2012

A new Baroque?

by CarlD

Today was ridiculously warm for December, so we grabbed books and headed outside. I decided to take another crack at Charles Stross’ celebrated scifi novel Halting State (2007), which I bought on the recommendation of the tuned-in folks at Crooked Timber.

I say another crack because I started it awhile back and only lasted about 20 pages before I had to put it down. I found the second-person-omniscient narration profoundly irritating, for one thing; not only did it ping my introversion something fierce, but it seemed like the kind of gratuitous technical contrivance that also put me off Updike years ago.

Today those elements took a back seat to the writing itself, which knocked me out with its grandiose overdetermination. The chapter was JACK: Steaming, and within a page I’d been treated to a half-dozen elaborate metaphors for being stoned. As if that were a new, unusual and special thing. (In second-person I get to decide if that’s true.) I survived this purple onslaught with just a bit of cringing and grunting, and was rewarded with more of the same about the pathetic collapsing techie life that had precipitated the binge. During the course of which, ironically I hope, the cliche’ of beating a dead horse was transformed by the magic of wanton prolixity into this sentence:

Questions were asked in the lumpy-looking construction site down Holyrood Road, and the ministers did wax worthy and serious and proceeded to apply the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of the dead equine of games industry self-regulation with gusto and vigour.

Well, at the risk of applying the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of post-post-modern egghead litracha, how is this anything but what happens when you take geeks who fancy themselves edgy and pay them by the word?

The book seems to be roughly in the genre of cyberpunk, which I quite liked in its Pynchon pre-history and its Gibson / Stephenson early phase. But I lost track for some years and may have missed important developments. I get it that every genre reaches an event-horizon where only the application of massive thrust will keep it from spiraling down to oblivion, although I don’t know if that’s the case here. And I get it that every social set has its characteristic embarrassing pleasures, and this one doesn’t happen to be mine. So I assume there’s a complex of taste mismatches here, and probably a network of referentiality I’m not attuned to. Obviously I don’t need to like this, but if it’s something I could learn to like I’d like to. Can anybody reading this help a brotha out?

July 11, 2012

Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for

by CarlD

I don’t actually hate DFW. In fact if you just look at the big biographical generalities – son of philosophy professor, tennis player, professor in turn, smartass – and leave out the brilliance, the voice-of-a-generation fame and the suicidal depression (I’m not brilliant or famous enough to be suicidally depressed, so I just get mopey sometimes) we’re pretty much the same guy. Well, I also don’t use my middle name, which always strikes me as just a little desperate, if you know what I mean, although I am periodically aware that there are perfectly good reasons for doing so.

But anyhow, to keep circling around the point without quite getting to it as I gather DFW often did, until recently DFW was in that place in the dusty warehouses of my attention economy occupied by the things people have been a little too insistent I should check out, a place also occupied by Hemingway, Khalil Gibran, “E.T.,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and for reasons that would take a lot of tedious explaining, Cointreau. Things perhaps of substantial intrinsic merit, but already shown by the form of the recommendation, even in their absence, to lend themselves to conversations of awkward and unpleasant intensity, not to mention unearned intimacy. The sort of conversations I imagine a more-brilliant-and-famous-than-me and eventually-suicidally-depressed DFW being cornered into often by great needy masses of folks who thought he owed them a little piece of himself because he had gotten them all excited and they took it personally.

So, I reluctantly broke the seal on DFW because links to his writings on tennis turned up in the last post (thanks a bunch, Glasperlenspiel and Duncan). They are brilliant in analysis and arguably form; the form being arguable because even in short format he does all the meandering some people didn’t like about Dyke the Elder’s Deacon piece. And as far as I can tell for the same reason – because the simple thing he’s writing about turns out to be quite complex, and rather than try to linearize that complexity he walks around checking it out and remarking on it from various angles. Which means that although there are various things to be taken away from his pieces, ‘the point’ is not among them.

In his piece on Federer DFW says what I wanted to say in my Federer post, only more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively. It’s an exemplary case study of constraint causation, and if I’d known about his piece before I wrote mine I’d be a bad plagiarizer. In his piece on Michael Joyce he oddly enough says more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively what I wanted to say in my Anne-Marie Slaughter post. I’ll pause on this one for a second because DFW does something specifically interesting and encouraging to me here, which is talk about Joyce’s tennis game, and life, using the metaphor of ‘compression’:

Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be.

The resonance for me is that this is exactly the metaphor I chose in my dissertation to talk about early 20thC Marxist revolutionary theories. And furthermore, DFW and I seem to be getting at a similar thing, which is that a kind of strategic narrowing focus at all sorts of good things’ expense seems to be necessary to get exceptional things done, whether that be winning tennis shots or smashing the state. Or running America’s foreign affairs, or growing good coffee. Marx’s theory itself is rich with analytical complexity, much too much in fact to get you cleanly to any particular practice – so folks like Lenin figured out soon enough that you had to cut some knots to make a revolution. And to get the theory sharp enough to do that job you had to compress the complexities out and then grind what was left to a hard edge; which of course is where your Stalins and Pol Pots and so on step in – not to say professional athletes are mass murderers, but just that the means of achieving that degree of efficacy seem to be analogous, and the worth-it-ness of it in human terms similarly questionable.

So anyway, I now personally see the appeal of DFW, who I officially give the CED-2 Seal of All-That Approval ™. But I must admit that by the end of the second piece I was finding some of his more personal digressions a little precious (what, you see an irony?), and then I made the mistake of reading his thing on the Maine Lobster Festival, which apart from a couple good one-liners is almost unbearably precious and obtuse, creating in my mind a concern that one might encounter more of this DFW-at-his-worst if one read further into the part of his oeuvre unanchored to non-fiction cases about which he knew and cared a whole bunch. So if a copy of Infinite Jest falls in my lap somehow I may well give it a try, but otherwise it’s back to the warehouse with him.