Archive for ‘default theories’

June 12, 2019

Financing regenerative agriculture

by Carl Dyke

Three articles turned up in my feeds today that taken together, illustrate the state of play with regenerative agriculture, and in particular its possibilities of expansion from the latest romantic back to the land fad to a serious challenge to industrial agriculture. Here at Slow Farm NC we do regenerative ag with the modest ambition to build a nice little life for ourselves, our critters, and our land in general harmony with the surroundings. We don’t think we must or can find some way to become world-changing in this. But it is fair to say that the contrast of regenerative and industrial agriculture is currently stark, and perhaps existentially consequential. How that shakes out is a matter of larger concern whether we like it or not.

Our land is right on the edge of two geological zones, the North Carolina Sandhills and the Piedmont. We’ve got a substrate of the red clay and overlay of ancient seabed sand that makes the local metropolis of Sanford the “Brick Capital of the USA”.  Our dirt is officially characterized as loamy sand, which essentially means that we start with a relatively poor soil with no particular alluvial advantages and a relatively short natural history of organic cycling. This is not amber waves of grain dirt. As a result this area didn’t have much in the way of large scale plantation agriculture, nor was there immediately a mass market crop after the local longleaf pines got logged out and boiled down for their “naval stores,” tar, pitch, and turpentine.

Somewhere around a hundred years ago, like lots of others in this area our plot was turned over to tobacco production in a family farm format. We know an old local guy who fishes our pond sometimes who ran a mule team here when he was young, and we’ve spoken with lots of older locals who talk with a distinctive mixture of fierce pride and wistful trauma about childhoods lost to the rigors of small scale tobacco production. It was a living, as they say.

Tobacco grows well in the local climate, but it beats the hell out of soil. Decades of intensive tobacco cultivation essentially strip mine all of the natural mineral and organic fertility out of soil, leaving an inert growth medium into which each year’s crop has to be artificially input as “fertilizer.” Weeds, blights, and pests are obliterated with poisons. This chemical assault finishes the job of killing off the biology of the soil that was started by the depletion of its food supply. Make no mistake, this works: one of our neighbors continues to get a big tobacco crop each year, another does well with mostly sorghum, and the third is a wizard with field peas and mixed vegetables, conjuring them from the ashy ground in astonishing abundance.

It’s a living, but not for the communities of the soil, so in the meantime big stretches of our dirt are essentially dead. On the plus we have woods and wetlands that remain biologically active and give us a head start on regeneration, and a few years of doomed horse farming by our predecessors got some manure on the ground and grasses established. In our own regenerative practice we aim to enable and support the whole biological community, from the bacterial and fungal microbiomes of field and gut and rumen that do the actual digestion at the heart of biological fertility, to the plants that pull in and convert sun and atmospheric gasses into organic materials, to the bugs and mixed livestock that eat it all and poop it back out again as composted fertilizer. It’s a bigger, fuller living, we like to think.

We call our place Slow Farm because all of this just happens if you set things up for all of the critters to live and do their things together, but it doesn’t happen quickly or in any immediate sense “pay off” except in good will and warm fuzzy feelings. After nearly four years our soil is still mostly dead and ashy, we still only rarely see dung beetles, stray worms are still cause for remark and rejoicing, and the livestock dung still mostly sits on the ground washing through and drying out rather than getting trampled in and feeding bugs and worms and processed into rich soil by the microbiome that still, mostly, just isn’t there yet:

drygoatpoo

Fossil goat poop or Kix cereal? Who could tell?

We don’t have a crop or anything to sell, really, nor is that our model, really. In some sense the essence of regenerative ag is that you not be removing any valuables from your environment, but rather keep cycling them back in. You can fudge and claim the sun and the air as universal commons, and of course you’re buying in feed and fuel and so on to make the books kind of balance. Because our livestock team includes chickens and ducks and pigs we love, we sell some eggs and we do a fine business in heritage breed kunekune piglets, who leave young without taking too much of the place with them. But I’ve just gestured at the fact that the economics of regenerative farming are inherently odd, which brings me to those articles I mentioned at the top.

This article from Modern Farmer is a genre piece celebrating the plucky agricultural ingenuity of a new small farmer, and bonus! – it’s a woman. She came to regenerative agriculture through a series of happy accidents and associations, working her way from a window planter to a half-acre farm-to-table vegetable plot to the organic cannabis industry. She’s thoughtful and good at it, there’s passion of course, and it’s honestly an impressive and inspiring story.

Obviously in the larger scheme of things one good farmer more or less isn’t much, but we’re all meant to nod and wave our hands around and solemnly proclaim that “It’s a start!” But no, actually it’s not a start. Romantic holism and back to the land movements have a long history. There are always these people around, they’re always figuring stuff out and being creative and bucking the trend, it’s always cool and admirable, and there’s always the hippie dream that you can scale up from these little serendipities to changing the whole world. And for many, many reasons, the next time that actually happens will be the first. When this kind of story becomes interesting as a data point of transformation is when there are so many of her that she becomes ordinary and unremarkable. “Local man chooses SUV over minivan” is the scale we want this story in. “Local man rides recumbent bike to work, thinks you should too” is a freak show, and so is this. But good for her, bless her heart.

Next we have an interview in Time with filmmaker, TV director, and regenerative farmer John Chester, whose documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” I have heard great reports about but not yet seen. The interview itself is brief and can’t possibly show Chester in his best light, but hopefully shows him at his hand-waving, talking point spewing worst. Chester and his wife have 200 acres where they grow “about 250 different things.” Extractive industrial ag is unsustainable and crazy. The farm doesn’t make money, but they experiment and they get $15 for a dozen eggs and they have investors. “And the meaning that is derived from the reconnection to nature is by far superior to any form of dopamine feedback loop that I know out there.”

We should be shopping at farmers’ markets and composting, Chester says. He may never have lived in a city or eaten on a budget. It is certainly true that mixing our organic wastes with toxic ones and burying them in sealed landfills or flushing them out to sea is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. But framing this as a matter of individual choice and virtue is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. For lots of people, the infrastructure of collection and distribution to make composting a real option does not exist. Composting our own sewage is a challenge at yet another odor of magnitude. Ironically, he likens composting to recycling, which as you know Bob has recently turned out to be quite a headache even at the relatively small scales at which it’s practiced. This is another of those places where “it’s a start” thinking is just pragmatically wrong.

$15 eggs make sense if you think about how much it costs to maintain land and structures and practices for chickens to live pleasant and fulfilling lives. The cheap egg industry is indeed a horror show. Farmers’ markets are great for local produce in season. They’re also, of course and for good reason, a much more expensive way to buy produce. Treating this as a matter of choice treats household consumption as a wonderland of ethical optionality, not the anxietizing minefield of constraint and consequence it is for most of us. I can illustrate.

A couple of years ago, being small farmers ourselves and knowing full well all of the things about the ethics and economics of small farming, we contracted with a fellow local farmer to buy our Thanksgiving turkey from her. The price was something like $10/lb for a happy, pasture-raised, humanely slaughtered bird. At that price and with a lot of other similar products, along with a whole lot of hustle, this farm is making it for the moment.

The total price of the bird was a bit north of $100. It was robust and flavorful, a good feed. Upon reflection, last year I bought a factory farmed frozen turkey from Aldi’s. It was about the same size, and cost a bit north of $6. Although not as robust and flavorful as our friends’ bird, it was also a good feed. It should be noted that even with optimal distribution and minimal middlemen, the farm that grew the Aldi chicken got a maximum of $3 for that bird, and probably much less. Why they grow them fast and cheap and in very great quantity becomes easy to see.

Relatively speaking we are rich people, and we can “afford” $100 for a turkey once a year. But like a lot of people our wealth is highly leveraged. The bank owns most of our farm and the mortgage is a non-optional expense. Rachel has student loans from undergrad and graduate school in the tens of thousands of dollars. We bought the farm’s tractor, an essential piece of equipment to manage 47 acres with just the two of us, with a home equity loan. I got a nice deal on a used machine, but still that’s $10K to pick at when other expenses like vet care for the critters and repairs to the vehicles don’t chew up the surplus. We’re responsible people so everything has to be insured, including Rachel’s health, which since she works for an arts organization and for the farm we are self-funding.

In short, while we can always find $100 here or there, our monthly budget is tightly spoken for and any “extra” should go to debt reduction. Any money we don’t spend on debt reduction continues to cost us the rate of interest. At about 6%, $100 that I spend for a turkey rather than flipping to the home equity line quickly compounds, so two years later has grown to at least $112 and climbing. It’s entirely possible that we will have paid $200 for that one turkey by the time it’s all settled up. Meanwhile, the Aldi’s turkey is still south of $7, minus the debt retired with the saved $93 and its future compounding.

My point here is that no one but the independently wealthy can afford $100 turkeys or $15 eggs or any damn thing you can buy at the correct price for sustainability of regenerative practice at the farmers’ market as a matter of pure ethical optionality. It’s only in the brutal trade-offs of domestic budgets and finance that those costs can, rarely and exceptionally, be absorbed. And this means that regenerative agriculture at scale simply cannot be funded out of household consumption. All of that money is tied up elsewhere in those budgets, obviously all the more so for people less wealthy than us. Personal choices and virtues are powerless before this brute fact. “Rarely and exceptionally” is not the right scale for transforming a food system.

Chester may be oblivious to all that. Of course he’s not responsible for changing the world, and he’s got investors who are currently willing to fund his losses in the name of experimentation. It remains to be seen if being a hobby farm for rich do-gooders is sustainable for him, but it certainly isn’t a transformation model for the rest of us.

The bottom line here is that the money is in all the “wrong” places for regenerative agriculture to become anything but kewl marginalia, feelgood human interest stories, or peak experiences for yuppie dopamine junkies. Transforming the food system will be unbelievably expensive, which makes it prohibitive to people whose only relationship to money is to spend it. This may mean it’s just not going to happen, but for it to happen, the big money is going to have to become heavily involved, which means finance and ultimately the government. What changes the world is shifting trillions of dollars of finance from one profit regime to another. And right about here someone starts going on about capitalism and neoliberalism and Monsanto or maybe regulatory capture and the nanny state, and all that sort of mystical nonsense you can usually smoke out if substituting “Satan” as the name for the Big Other doesn’t significantly change the gist of the screed. “Satan is corrupting everything and ruining our lives!” Yep, right. Good luck with that, bless your heart.

The final article is a puff piece by a corporate shill at General Mills about regenerative livestock management and carbon sequestration at a lovely little place called “White Oak Pastures.” It’s earnest and informative and obviously serves the PR purposes of the food industry by recasting their profit-seeking practices as environmentally responsible research in the public interest. What this means, and it is by no means a sure thing or without the usual costs, is that the smart money is moving into position to fund regenerative agriculture. If they can find profit in it, and we can elect people who will move the fiscal and regulatory and subsidy incentives toward it, a lot of ifs there, it might be we can get something done. At least it’s a start.

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May 15, 2019

Imperial disciplinarity

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

February 5, 2019

Teaching to the fences, or what I’ve learned about world history from pigs and goats

by Carl Dyke

There’s nothing more obvious to a livestock farmer than using fence to control the movements of critters. You don’t just let them go wherever they want. There are some places you want to keep them in, and some others you want to keep them out, and rotations among those from time to time as a field gets grazed out or breeding and birthing is taking place, and distinctive forage patterns for each sort of critter, and so on. To a farmer it can only be shockingly surreal to question the value of physical barriers as an elementary tool of responsible stock and flow management.

On the farm our goats are, more or less, free ranging. We have fenced pastures and some perimeter fence, we have doors we can close, we fenced in the garden. Realistically the goats can defeat any of these barriers and occasionally have. For example they were well contained in our bottom pasture until suddenly they weren’t. They figured out how to get under the fence and jailbroke it in multiple locations. We could have firmed that up, notably by adding a couple strands of electric wire, but instead we accepted that they were out and about and that’s mostly worked fine.

sf goats 1

The younger pigs were out for awhile too. That was a lot of fun – kunekune pigs are delightful – but in their case we have a much stronger incentive to constrain them, to manage breeding and pilferage of the other critters’ snacks.

sf porch pigpile

The pigs are pretty content to stay put in a fenced pasture as long as they’re getting fed adequately. Kunes mostly graze, and we supplement with grain. They enjoy some room to spread out and we don’t crowd them. Once our boar Chubs got a whiff of the hot piggie girls the next pasture over he quickly figured out how to put the fence on his snout and shrug under it, so it’s pretty clear fence is just something they accept about their world rather than an actual impediment. Other farmers confirm this – motivated pigs are rough on fence. We try to arrange things so they’re not motivated.

The same could be said for the goats, but we’ve learned it’s a little more complicated with them. Goats are not grazers so much as browsers. A field of grass is not their idea of a good time for long. They’re happiest and healthiest when they have free choice of many different types of vegetation. They do a lot of sniffing and nibbling and are quite selective. They even eat things that the internet assures us will kill them dead. We’ve learned that they are actively managing their rumen for nutrition, body temperature, microbiome symbiosis, and parasite control.

The goats range pretty widely, but they’re able to get all they need from the top half of the farm, which is a mixed environment with field, woods, and wetland. Once they got out of their pasture they settled into a circuit where they amble around and hit all the zones. Other than the garden which we fenced defensively, they devoured every single thing we had planted on purpose, demolished the scrub, and cleaned up all the trees from ground to adult-goat-standing-on-hind-legs height. As landscaping goes it looks sparse but quite professional. Toots and Remy in particular have a taste for cardboard so package deliveries left on the porch are not safe, but after a couple experiments they’ve shown no particular interest in defeating the perimeter fence and eating our neighbors’ crops. There’s nothing over there they can’t get over here.

Barriers come up in world history too. In my Contemporary World History class we spent some time pondering the question why medieval cities had walls, but modern states do not. There are a lot of parts to that answer, having to do with the costs and benefits of controlling stocks and enabling flows. Roughly speaking, you get a lot more economy out of enabling flows than you do out of controlling stocks, but you need the larger security environment afforded by states to fully tap into that dynamic.

In my introductory world history class we’ve been trying to understand how the Europeans got into the exploration business in the 15th and 16th centuries.

major_trade_routes_of_afroeurasia_c1300_ce

You can see the bottleneck around the eastern Mediterranean. A lot of stuff becomes clear about early modern history if you look at the flow pattern of trade over the Silk Road, and then plop the Ottoman Empire down into the middle of it. Eurocentric kitsch about heroic exploration and the spirit of adventure doesn’t survive looking at the map. When the Turks fenced Europe off from the goodies of the East, some of them put their noses down and grazed in place, some started pushing and digging, and some went looking for another way around. Portugal in particular was left dangling off the edge of the world, but with free flow to the route south around Africa. Browsing their way down and around the coast and devastating the shrubbery is the sort of thing a goat might do, and the sort of thing it would be hard to keep a goat from doing.

Columbus was a known crackpot and a low cost dart throw for a queen flush from the completion of the Reconquista. Once the Spanish piggies got a whiff of the Americas though, they got the Atlantic up on their snouts and shrugged right through it. In deference to the scale of human misery that followed I’ll just drop that analogy now. But here is another case where you could see why the locals might have wanted some wall, and why it was unlikely to do them much good.

I make a point of not taking political positions in class. But I talk about the taking of political positions a lot. You can really see why it would make sense for people close to the management of livestock and with shrubbery to lose to default to fence as a solution to inconvenient stocks and flows. You can see why people habituated to modern cities in the context of states and international systems have no feel for fence. Free ranging is delightful and works great if forage is distributed and fungible. It’s not so great when the goats crash the corn field. No one pushes fence when there’s plenty on both sides. And when there’s not, there will be the violence of exclusion or the violence of invasion no matter what.

August 27, 2018

Memory work

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the Beatitudes, from Wikipedia:

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

August 10, 2018

Really great lectures!

by Carl Dyke

A lot of electrons have been spilled over the pedagogy of lecturing. As a matter of research, I’m persuaded by the physicists and other scientists who have given up on lecture because they find that people who have been lectured at can answer lots of questions about physics but can’t actually do physics. I’m also too much of a dispositional anarchist to feel at all comfortable sharing a room with a bunch of other people and rudely hogging the conversation.

I do see what people like about lecture. In my own education I was fortunate to study with a number of really excellent lecturers (and a whole lot of really dreadful ones, who you might think would explore other options out of self defense). Maybe the best lecturer of them all was Rod McGrew. When I was an undergrad at Temple I took several courses with McGrew, including a really great one on disease in history and a couple on Russian history I would otherwise not have been much interested in, in large part because he was such a dynamic, compelling teacher.

In class, which I skipped much less than was my usual habit, McGrew lectured almost exclusively. I sat in front, he was at the desk. He also sat, but leaned forward with his knees out, his elbows down, and his hands up. He had huge, gnarled hands and bony wrists that stuck out crazily from his suit jackets, and as he spoke he would grasp at the air as if he could massage understanding directly from the atmosphere. His skeletal old face would crease with intensity, his wispy forelock would bob, and his drooping lower lip would struggle to keep the drool in around the flow of words. It was like watching the tightrope walker flirt with death and greatness in Zarathustra. McGrew lectured without notes, cogently, brilliantly. To see someone at once so comprehensively learned and so freaking smart about how things work was profoundly inspiring. I LOVED that guy. Rod McGrew is singlehandedly why I went from a wifty interdisciplinary undergrad degree to a graduate program in History.

Really great lectures! I think it’s fair to say I don’t remember a single thing Rod McGrew ever said. At all. Granted it’s been a long time, but I can report with some confidence that I didn’t remember anything in particular he’d said even in graduate school just a year or two later. I couldn’t tell you without refreshing my memory from his publications what his general approach to history was. He told us an amazing amount of information, organized with exceptional rigor and analyzed with dazzling clarity. It was, almost literally, in one ear and out the other.

What I do remember is the research projects I did for McGrew’s classes. I can tell you about those without refreshing my memory. In the disease class I got interested in how endemic malaria and other diseases degrade a population’s ability to maintain ‘surplus’ activity beyond subsistence, and what this might mean about patterns of civilizational distribution, density, rise and fall. It was pretty broad brush but it was a good start on thinking about multidimensional dynamics in history beyond the scope of intentional human action. In the Russia classes I got interested in revolutionary intelligentsias and the dynamics of change. This is when I first figured out that people use ideas like tools and therefore that the particulars of this or that system of ideas are not in themselves the causes of anything much.

As a research mentor McGrew had a light but effective touch. He was first of all interested and supportive; the message was yes, go to it. As the project developed he would drop little analysis prompts and bibliographical suggestions, calibrated to how fast and well you were integrating the previous suggestions. So for example for the intelligentia project I read all of Venturi’s Roots of Revolution and from there a bunch of secondary stuff on Russian revolutionaries like Berdyaev and Chernyshevsky, as well as some of the primary writings, and then moved into the secondary literature on ideas and intelligentsias by people I would never have heard of or discovered for myself like Mannheim and Gouldner. But then he suggested I take a look at a new book on the Bengali intelligentsia, which I now realize was the next level up in developing an understanding of how context shapes dynamics, and I balked because it seemed irrelevant, too far afield. And so he didn’t make that kind of suggestion again.

In fact I got kind of stuck, because I realized ideas and intelligentsias weren’t really where the action was at, but I wasn’t ready yet to do the work to develop a better picture. So in the end I kind of dumped the half-hearted debris on McGrew as my senior project, and he was appropriately disappointed. But he must have written me a great letter anyway, because I got a nice fellowship from U.C. San Diego, and it certainly wasn’t on the strength of the confused mess my transcript and essays were. I expect he knew it’s a process, and there’s only so far and fast someone can go from time to time.

I know I’m weird, that the way my memory works is weird, that the way I engage with people, ideas, processes, and things is weird. I’m not going to say my experience works as more than a data point, perhaps way out on the long tail, and as general rules my intuitions are useless. Nevertheless, when I talk to other people about how they learn, and in particular when I talk with people who like lecture about what they like about lecture and what they got from lecture, I don’t get back the kind of specific content recall you would expect from a pedagogical mode explicitly oriented toward clear and efficient transmission of content. Mostly, people don’t remember anything in particular from being lectured, which makes the whole fretful ritual of carefully preparing them seem kind of silly to me. What they do remember is having their curiosity stimulated, and having their learning process supported, and whatever work they themselves did in that general sort of context.

So oddly enough, even though one of my favorite and most influential teachers was a really great lecturer, that’s not what made him a really great teacher. Which then leads me to wonder what work the lecture is doing at all, and reminds me where I want to put my effort and care for the upcoming year.

June 26, 2018

The very idea

by Carl Dyke

Last week, after a whole bunch of stalling, I went in to the local health care provider for my intake physical. We’ve been in our new location for three years with no primary care, but neither of us likes how the medical industrial complex works or how it works us, so we haven’t been eager to get ourselves reengaged with it. As usual I liked the new folks fine and everything went fine. That’s not what this post is about.

As part of the intake the screening nurse asked me a bunch of medical history kinds of questions. One of them was whether I’d ever had suicidal thoughts. Because I was in an honest question answering mode I said of course I have, routinely. This answer threatened to change the room and involve me in the kind of relationship to medicine I seek to avoid, so I spent the next couple tense minutes walking it back, until eventually I had never of course actually thought of actively taking my own life. Which, in a narrowly literal kind of way, is truthy enough and a workable compromise for all concerned.

The more robust truth is that to me suicide has always been an interesting idea. It seems like obviously among the live options under certain circumstances, and therefore well worth being mindfully aware of in case those circumstances. To me, and this is what the post is about, the idea doesn’t become real until it’s called forth as a real live option under real live circumstances. Until then it’s just an interesting way of being aware of and in the world, a kind of inexpensive experiment, and a way of being alive to possibilities not immediately in play. So I’ve thought suicide all the way through, many times, without so far reaching the pragmatic threshold where it’s what I might want to do right now. Have I ever had suicidal thoughts? Of course I have. I’m a thinking person.

In general this is how ideas work for me. They are not, at all, where my reality is. The idea of suicide has no power to kill me, any more than a recipe for hummus is a delicious and nourishing snack.

This is pragmatism. It’s also Marx snarking at the idealists in The German Ideology:

Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and — existing reality will collapse.

These innocent and childlike fancies are the kernel of the modern Young-Hegelian philosophy, which not only is received by the German public with horror and awe, but is announced by our philosophic heroes with the solemn consciousness of its cataclysmic dangerousness and criminal ruthlessness. ….

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.

Ha. So anyway, it is from this disposition that I react with dismay to people who, speaking with great moral conviction, hold that there is no reason to come to any kind of understanding with people who entertain and articulate certain kinds of dangerous, harmful ideas. There’s no such thing. This is just, literally, narrow-mindedness. But also, that’s an interesting idea to me – that ideas could be so important, so immediately real, that they need to be opposed in themselves, as such. I think the world must be a very different kind of place for people who experience ideas with such concreteness.

February 8, 2018

People, bodies, characters

by Carl Dyke

Dyke the Elder recommended a fun book recently, The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis C. Rasmussen. It’s about the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith and I’m looking forward to reading it. As we were talking about it I also thought of the book I’m using as the core text in all of my classes this semester, the Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America, from the year 1772, to 1777 : elucidating the history of that country, and the description of its productions, viz. quadrupedes, birds, fishes, reptiles, trees, shrubs, fruits, & roots; with an account of the indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea. By Captn. J.G. Stedman. Illustrated with 80 elegant engravings, designed from nature, by the author, 1796. I am not an expert on this text! I’m teaching it so I can learn new things.

As you know, Bob, all sorts of interesting stuff was happening in the late 18th century Atlantic World around the universal themes of freedom, rights, and humanity. And for just as long people excluded from the universe of propertied white men have been pushing back on their degradation to the service of their oppressors. The mismatch between the high pronouncements and glittering achievements of the Enlightenment and the grim practices of the colonial slave economy that financed it is clear enough to us now that it may even seem it was clear to everyone then, too. A book like Stedman’s is interesting because it’s right in the middle of the ideas and practices we’re interested in, but isn’t the product of hyper-elaborated cutting edge high intellection. What did a guy who was pretty much just a guy think about, for example, the personhood of enslaved Africans?

Stedman was an interesting nobody, a low level Atlantic World cosmopolitan born and raised in the Netherlands but identifying as an Englishman, a brevet Captain in a Scots regiment who couldn’t afford to buy himself a higher rank, who shipped out to Dutch Guiana because that’s where the action was for an ambitious guy of talent but little social or economic capital like him.

He was a smart cookie but he was little educated and no philosopher, so it’s interesting to see how he thought about the leading intellectual issues of the day, or rather, how he didn’t. His book was published as an abolitionist tract, complete with gorgeously gruesome engravings of slave torture by William Blake. But Stedman himself was untroubled by slavery, which he mostly didn’t think about, but when he did thought was convenient and patriotic and probably good for the slaves all in all. What bothered him was excessive cruelty in the treatment of slaves, which he reports with outrage and ascribes not just to the Dutch, but to everyone else as well, especially the Jews.

The front matter of the text is full of conventional hyperventilation about his poor literary gifts and the advantages of authenticity and veracity this guarantees. But in the same breath he tells us that

Here, in the different characters of a Commander — a Rebel Negro — a Planter, and a Slave — not only tyranny are exposed — but benevolence and humanity are unveiled to the naked eye. Here the Warrior — the Historian — the Merchant — and the Lover of Natural Philosophy will meet with some gratification; while, for having introduced my private adventures, I must make some apology — but none for those of the lovely Slave, who makes not the least interesting figure in these pages — as female virtue in distress, especially when accompanied with youth and beauty, must ever claim protection.

So are there any people in this text? Well sort of — there are characters, literary abstractions, some of them people-based, some of them (tyranny, humanity, female virtue) more directly concept-based. He certainly elevates the lovely Slave by treating her as a princess and a lady, but does he humanize her? It’s a better character than barbarous Jew, that’s for sure, and also than domestic labor appliance, and perhaps than mere “black body,” as we now say to dramatize the degradation of African humanity within systems of oppression. But characters dehumanize everyone. Her character certainly tells us nothing about her as a particular person nor, as feminist scholars have thoroughly established around the princess and lady tropes in our day, is it likely to lead there. She, whoever she was, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a damsel in distress. And when it turns out from Stedman’s diaries that he purchased her from her mom as domestic help, and abandoned her readily for a proper white wife (who he didn’t get along with and used for socially appropriate reproduction) on his return to Europe, and that he was just routinely having sex with all of the slave women when the mood struck him, there’s just not much human left under the romanticism to have anything like human rights, let alone all of the detail people have.

Compare all this to one of the first stories Stedman tells in the main text, in chapter 1. He’s on the ship taking him to Surinam, in the middle of the Atlantic. He’s just told us about some interesting sea birds and gunnery practice.

On the 14th, in the morning-watch, we passed the Tropic, when the usual ceremony of dunking the fresh-water sailors was ransomed by tipping the foremast men with some silver. About this time the Boreas most unluckily lost one of her best seamen, the boatswain’s mate, whose hand slipping by the wet, he pitched from the fore-yard-arm into the sea. His presence of mind in calling to the captain, as he floated alongside, “Be not alarmed for me, sir,” in the confidence of meeting with relief, attracted peculiar compassion, and even caused some murmuring, as no assistance was offered him; in consequence of which, after swimming a considerable time within view, the unfortunate young man went to the bottom.

The next paragraph covers trade winds and dolphins, which he thinks are superficially charming mooches.

Are there any people in this story? There’s the mate, the captain, and the compassionate murmurers. It might be more accurate to call all of these ‘roles’. Presumably the Captain, in his authority, made a cost benefit kind of decision between hauling the whole ship around and losing way vs. losing a boatswain’s mate, and found the latter loss more tolerable. In a split second of responsible decision this fine fellow finds his value, and it’s remarkably low. Glug, glug. Well, right about the same time you’d line up rows of guys like this a few paces apart and have them blast away at each other with muskets until one side or the other broke. Talk about bodies. That was Stedman’s world.

I think it’s fair to say that Stedman had nothing at all resembling an abstract theory of universal humanity, and so the discourse of dehumanization would have made little sense to him. People came in various characters, roles, ranks, types, uses, and situations. He seems to have been able to deal with them accordingly without making any conclusions about their further attributes or qualities, sort of like the Walmart checker and I do with each other. Killing rebellious Negros or any other sort of enemy was fine with him; making them suffer unnecessarily in the process was not. There was a person in those bodies, but for the most part he wasn’t concerned with who that was. In fact across the board, he seems to have thought that wasn’t any of his concern.

December 23, 2017

On knottiness

by Carl Dyke

It occurs to me while I’m out splitting firewood that this is another of those analogies for teaching. Not that we want to hit our students with axes, you understand.

If you have the right power machinery you can do anything you want with a pile of logs, make them any size and shape you need by application of brute force. This seems to be what a lot of people imagine teaching just is. Or marriages, or politics. But if you’re working by hand it’s fair to say that you have to work with the wood. It splits easily along the bias of the grain, whereas you can whack at it forever, make an ugly mess of it, and break both your heart and your ass if you try to cut across the grain.

So learning to read the grain is one of the basic skills of splitting logs (and indeed any sort of craft woodworking). As always the process is noticing, experimenting, and noticing some more. There are patterns and trends among types of tree and you can build a useful database of approaches and strategies out of that. Within those types there’s all kinds of variation down through particular trees to individual logs, ranging from the size and age of the tree, whether it had to cantilever to get to the sun or twist against its own weight, how it got stunted and adapted to the stunting. Branches make the grain flow in multiple directions at once and finding the splitting bias is either a matter of patient experiment or blind luck. Sometimes around lots of branches, injuries, and compensations, the grain is downright turbulent. That’s when it’s tempting to get out the chainsaw.

There are woods like maple and cedar that split so easily you only have to wave the axe at them. In contrast sweet gum, which we have a lot of, has a close, tight, one might even say grumpy grain and splits very reluctantly. You sort of have to work a suggestion of a split for awhile until it almost relaxes into releasing. Sometimes a piece of wood has set into a twist under some kind of pressure, and those will actually explode apart if you find the right seam. With big, tough old logs you kind of have to whittle them down from the outside in. No matter what, you can’t split a log with one blow. It takes a whole series of whacks.

You can split almost any sound log if you come at it right. But if the wood has been sitting outside in the weather for awhile it may have gotten soggy and rotten. You can’t split soggy, rotten wood. Same thing if the bugs and borers have gotten to it. I bust those up a bit and leave them for the chickens to pick over. My analogy may be breaking down a little bit here. I hope so.

Here’s one of my favorite videos. That’s nice splitty wood she’s working with there, but she’s also got this unbelievably skillful technique where she twists the axe slighty just after the moment of impact to pop the wood apart. That’ll learn it!

 

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2, 2017

Code switching and complexity

by Carl Dyke

There’s sort of a general theme here at the blog and in my own approach to teaching, life, the universe, and everything: that complexity is the rule; and that observant, resourceful flexibility, a disposition to learning and the ability to code switch, is therefore strategically desirable.

But we’ve also often discussed another strategy, which is to engineer systems that gear down complexity into mere complication, or even rigorously simple linearity. Under the right conditions this can work very well and get a lot done, although maintaining those conditions is generally very costly and ultimately unsustainable.

As I dig through our oral history project’s Trump rally interviews (I’m working on a longer post that will provide more framing information on this), one of the things that is gradually coming into focus is that the Trump rallyers we talked to were explicitly not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity, and that they all had robust histories in systems engineered for linearity (the military, nursing, library science, factory work) with the dispositions to match.

Anecdotally, I don’t think there’s any automatic political valence to this sort of history or disposition. I know plenty of liberals and lefties who are also not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity. Such folk tend to be in charge no matter what. I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a no man’s land between two armies of essentially similar people, fighting bitterly over the details of a narrow, rigid world that I would hate to live in either way.

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 14, 2016

The recombinant DNA of our political discourse

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

homelitesuperwiz66003

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

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

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

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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.

sisyphus

June 23, 2015

Bellwether?

by Carl Dyke

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.

February 20, 2015

Friendly fire in the war of position

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been doing very little blog reading lately – I think this is temporary, as I feel my way toward a workable relationship between media feeds and meatworld obligations – but I look in on Crooked Timber and Easily Distracted pretty regularly. The latter because I find myself agreeing with Tim Burke about almost everything (plus he and his brother wrote the book on Saturday morning cartoons, a tome I keep in my bathroom and nostalge over fondly from time to time). The former because of the general quality of the topics, the bloggers, and the commentariat; and the grim fascination of the fact that although I agree with or at least see the point of them too most of the time, the people there who most exactly express my thoughts are routinely hounded out of the conversation as scoundrels and trolls.

Even at these high standards there are two particularly interesting conversations unfolding at these blogs that I strongly recommend. At Easily Distracted, Tim popped up from one of his regular bouts of blog exhaustion with a great series of posts called “Grasping the Nettle”. He’s been interested pretty much all along in the way progressive activism works both for and against progressive values, especially in online and academic communities. Among other things, these posts are about targeting, ‘allies’, ‘political correctness’, and ‘privilege checking’. Who gets to be in that conversation, and how – the ways progressive discourses and practices assemble inclusions, exclusions, trajectories, and positions. How to fight the ‘war of position’, in Gramscian terms.

And at Crooked Timber, the always-pithy Belle Waring called a stand-down on the circular firing squad of progressive righteousness to create a safe space for everyone to say their “unpopular thoughts” about feminism and the left, without that fear of being hounded out of the conversation for missing a locked step. (Trigger warning: unpopular thoughts. Also, rape testimonies.) The resulting conversation is so much better than the doctrine-policed ones, so much friendlier, richer, more relaxed and inclusive and nuanced! Everyone is presumed to be speaking in good faith; lots of education is happening, without the customary shaming and shunning.

Still, other than ‘don’t be an asshole’ it all doesn’t really point at any particular programme for progressive practice; nor does Tim’s stuff.

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by Carl Dyke

I was muchly impressed by this recent interview with Chris Rock, a comedian and cultural commentator I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to before. (Mostly, my inattention, because his voice reminds me of the stock overexcited kid cartoon voice that I find so irritating. Sorry Chris, my bad.) Among the many striking points he makes, he talks about how he stopped playing college campuses.

…I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Well, you know, college campuses are perhaps uniquely the places where you can talk about things. So, this is a funny development, and by some way of reckoning a self-inflicted wedgie. On my campus some folks are worried about the liberal arts being under attack. By whom, by whom?

Rock talks about how there’s no backstage any more, nowhere or way to workshop ideas without the glare of righteous judgmental scrutiny. Of course we may be glad that cops don’t get to workshop their ideas about authority and power without fear of video capture, and once we grasp that power and authority work through informal systems, and that the personal is political, none of us can in principle claim a free pass on abuses of situated privilege. Where’s Power? Where’s Authority?

heisus

When she was almost 7, Rachel had a serious health crisis, ultimately involving (and perhaps resolved by) a series of spinal taps. Click through for details and some amazing reflection. The way the health professionals treated her and her family reminds her of how the NYPD treated Eric Garner. No wonder she’s interested in how doing right can go wrong! I asked her when spinal taps might be available for laughing about. That was a puzzler.

And Dyke the Elder finally just retired this semester, after around fifty years in the saddle. The precipitating event was a kerfuffle over a student who took offense to Rachel’s multimedia art project, the satirical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies, as a discussion piece in a class about meaning in the arts. It went to the Dean, the Provost got involved, and rather than anyone having a sense of humor or scholarly integrity, sensitivity training was suggested.

Haha! Empowerment.

July 24, 2014

Snowpiercer

by Carl Dyke

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.

January 30, 2014

We Brake for Epiphanies

by dyketheelder

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

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

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

WE BRAKE FOR EPIPHANIES

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

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