Archive for ‘default theories’

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.

December 11, 2013

Figuring out figuring it out

by Carl Dyke

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

May 19, 2013

Survival of the fit enough

by Carl Dyke

In my perusings I just came across this interesting item:

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

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

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

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

May 10, 2013

What counts as success

by Carl Dyke

Reading final papers and course journals now, this smacked me between the eyeballs. For better or worse, this is what counts as a major success to me (from an introductory world history journal, so don’t sweat the typos). Our topic this semester has been ‘conditions of work’:

The last couple weeks, in class, we have investigated the research process and our second papers. I am learning that no matter what time period we are individually studying or what country, most of the same rules apply. There will always be a certain “group” within a population that is getting miss treated because they can be. In most cases, victims are not victimized because of some racial intention or ill-will, it’s because of necessity. I think that when something needs to be done that no one else wants to do, society “volunteers” people to do it. If that group doesn’t have the power or will to object, they fill the void. Once this precedence is set, the negative connotations follow.

Is that the end of the story? No, of course not. But to me, at least, this cleans out the hero/villain juvenilia and the ideological just-so stories and gets the line of investigation pointed toward increasingly better understanding. Yay you, unnamed student.

April 1, 2013

Another one on linked learning

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

And these are the graduates my informants find so disappointing.

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

March 24, 2013

Wild yeast sourdough starter

by Carl Dyke

As a logical next step in my fiddlings with bread-making, I just baked my first sourdough loaf with home-made wild yeast starter the other day. To eliminate all suspense, it came out great – by which I mean, it reminded me of all the things I like about sourdough bread without introducing any new negative associations. I especially like it because I did it ‘all wrong’, which is what this post will now document.

“Softly now, softly now – try it, you won’t die.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings

So, how I went about this is I got on the ol’ internet and googled ‘sourdough starter’. A little reading got me pretty quickly to the further qualification, ‘wild yeast’ – thus distinguishing the truly artisanal starter from the kinds someone else made that you can buy for a whole lot of money from specialty baking stores, if you’re a clueless snob, or Amazon, if you’re even more clueless but at least not a snob. So once I had the correct verbiage for cheap-ass diy starter, I did some more searching and read through some instructions. (I omit the links because I just told you how to diy, get it?)

Well, opinions about exactly what’s happening with sourdough starter seem to vary a bit, starting with where the wild yeasts are actually coming from. Is it the air around us? Is it the flour? Is it the whole grains you must treat with excruciatingly careful reverence to yield Gaia’s bounty of biomagic? With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I decided it was probably all of the above, plus everywhere else, since that’s where yeasts are. So I ignored the instructions that said I had to be careful not to cover the starter vessel with plastic wrap or anything else impermeable. I also ignored the instructions that said I had to hermetically seal the starter vessel, sterilize every instrument that ever came in contact with the starter, wear a hazmat suit, never use stainless steel, always use stainless steel, never use silicon, always use silicon, and so on.

Go Green!

Go Green!

In fact I pretty much ignored every single instruction designed to seal off the wild yeast starter from the environment it had somehow come from. I also ignored all the instructions designed to make my starter a delicate, difficult thing that required constant, meticulous care. I know people whose lives are given a rich sense of meaning by arranging to provide constant, meticulous care to other creatures, but that’s not me and if it was, I’d pick creatures other than yeasts and lactobacilli.

Speaking of lactobacilli, I paid a lot of attention to discussions of the multi-biotic nature of sourdough starter. It’s not the yeasts that are making the sour, it’s the bacteria. But the bacteria don’t make the bread rise, and they also have a tendency to make the ‘spoilt’ version of sour when they get lonely and pig out. So a functional sourdough starter is actually a community of beasties each creating some of the conditions for each others’ happiness, encouraging each others’ strengths and discouraging each others’ excesses, and incidentally each handling part of a fairly complex little biological process that assembles into a tangy leavening. Which of course wasn’t at all what they ‘intended’, but makes an excellent complement to garlicky cream cheese. So anyway, ‘building’ a starter is a process of getting that community together to work out a harmonious relationship under the conditions they enjoy.

“Control is when others’ locked-in interactions generate a flow of collective behavior that just happens to serve one’s interests.” Padgett and Ansell, “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434;” see also Padgett and Powell, The Emergence of Organizations and Markets (2012).

Those conditions are: flour and water. We’re talking about fermentation here, after all, which in real life is hard to keep from happening if you’ve got moist sugars around. Which brings up the mold problem, of which there’s plenty in my house, the dominant strain for unmysterious reasons being ‘bleu cheese’. But fortunately, between the acid the bacteria start producing right away, the alcohol the yeasts start producing soon enough, and the natural division of labor among the artistes of organic decomposition, mold is not actually much of a threat if you’re not trying hard to kill the yeast and bacteria somehow.

Mmmmmmm, stinky.

OK, so I read a whole lot about ambient temperature, water temperature, using bottled water, using distilled water and adding minerals back in, using orange juice, using pineapple juice, using white flour, using rye flour, not using white flour, not using rye flour. With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I reflected on the global success under the most extreme conditions of yeasts and lactobacilli, and decided not to sweat any of these factors too much (although, in principle, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised if a chlorine spike in my suburban tap water had set the critters back a bit). I did decide to take some of the chance out of the lactobacilli, mostly because I had an old tub of plain yogurt handy. And no, it was not any particular brand or type of plain yogurt, but it was past its expiration date as it happens.

I also looked at a lot of instructions about getting a kitchen scale, getting one that measures in grams because they’re more precise, calibrating hydration ratios, using a tall, straight-sided vessel with a dedicated lid, sterilizing this vessel and your hands before handling it, scraping down the sides so that, gosh, I don’t know. So anyway, here was my beginning recipe for my wild yeast sourdough starter:

Some flour
Some water
Some plain yogurt.

Roughly the same amount of each, by eyeball, probably a bit less yogurt because I thought of that as a ‘supplement’.

“My friends always say, the right amount’s fine. Lazy people make rules.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings”

All of this went in a plastic bowl (with sloped sides because it has sloped sides) I also eat cereal, pasta, and curry from sometimes; with some plastic wrap loosely draped on top to keep it from drying out too fast. This then went on a corner of the kitchen table I wasn’t using for anything else right then. I am woefully ignorant of the exact temperature of this spot, but I can guarantee it was neither hot enough to bake nor cold enough to freeze my arse. I started with bread flour, I think, but I ran out of that before the next feeding so I switched to rye for awhile because I had a bag of that open and it kept getting mentioned in the instructions. Then for awhile what I had open and easy to get at was some white whole wheat flour, so I used that.

And speaking of feeding, I read all kinds of instructions about pouring out exactly [some ratio I forget] of the starter before each feeding, adding back [another exact ratio I forget] of flour and water, doing this once a day at first and then every 12 hours, carefully swabbing down the sides of the container, adding strips of tape to allow precise measurement of the starter’s expansions and contractions, holding the container between your knees and counting to 6,327 by perfect squares, and checking carefully for ‘hooch’, which is such a precise technical term that at least half of the folks using it have no idea it’s why there’s NASCAR.

Medicinal purposes only, of course.

What I did instead was pour some out and add some back, roughly the amount it had expanded in the interim; when I remembered it, which was anything from a couple times a day to every couple of days. I tried to keep it pretty soupy because I read the beasties like to be wet, and I’ve found this to be true. I did this for something between a week and two weeks – I did not keep track. About day 2 or 3 it got that sourdough smell, then it settled into a kind of sweet peachiness I had not expected. I got back onto the internet and found a long forum thread on the many, many different permutations of ‘sweet peachy’ smell ranging all the way to ‘spiced apple’ that can be expected from a properly harmonizing community of yeasts and bacteria. Reassuring. So when I got sick of waiting any longer, although I think I was supposed to, instead of pouring out the extra I poured it into a bowlful of the flour I happened to have handy and open right then. Whole wheat, rye, and kamut as I recall – kamut btw is fun stuff, an heirloom grain that has a lovely buttery flavor and adds amazing elasticity to a dough.

Here was the ‘recipe’: salt in the right amount for the flour, bit of sugar to be friendly, touch of olive oil and enough warm (tap) water to make a wet dough just drier than a batter. Because the beasties like to be wet. Once they’d fermented that up for most of a day, I stretched, folded, smeared, punched and kneaded in enough more flour that it would stay in a loaf shape (not doing this is how you get ciabatta); let it think about that for maybe an hour longer; threw it in a hot oven on the pizza stone; dumped some water in the bottom of the oven to get some steam to keep the crust from setting too quickly (thank you internet); and some time later there was delicious whole wheat / rye / kamut multigrain sourdough bread.

IMG_20130321_220153

Through all this I was aware that by failing to control for every possible variable the project could go horribly awry rather than pleasantly a rye. I reflected on the $.50 of flour and aggregate 10 minutes of work that would be irretrievably lost, and decided to roll those dice.

Does this mean none of the variables all that internet fussing is trying tightly to control don’t matter? On the contrary, I’m sure they do. But my little experiment suggests most of them other than flour, water, a container, and temperatures somewhere between freezing and baking are conditions of the ‘inus’ variety:

“The inus condition is an insufficient but non–redundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition” [quoting Cartwright, Nature’s Capacities and their Measurement, 1989, citing Mackie, The Cement of the Universe, 1980]. It’s best to read that backwards: you identify causal conditions sufficient to produce a given effect, but know that there are other conditions that could have produced the same effect. Within the sufficient conditions you’ve identified is a condition that couldn’t produce the effect by itself, is separate from all the other conditions that along with it could produce the effect, but must be among them for the effect to be produced through the causal pathway that’s been picked out. The inus scenario (any scenario containing an inus condition) shows up frequently in attempted causal analyses, and has to be accounted for somehow in any comprehensive causal theory (Chuck Dyke aka Dyke the Elder, “Cartwright, Capacities, and Causes: Approaching Complexity in Evolving Economies,” draft-in-progress).

There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Which means there’s an interesting sociology of popular science lurking in the internet’s various treatments of wild yeast sourdough starter. There are many strategies on offer, each presenting a series of essential steps to success. And each of the strategies will in fact result in a successful culture, while adding procedures that may be important only to offset the sabotage added by other procedures, or to create an outcome distinguished only by the specific way it was achieved; or not important at all except for attention focus or ritual (which, by the way, are not trivial considerations). Apparently when a thing happens to work one way, we can be inclined to leap to the conclusion that this is the one best way to make it happen; ignoring all evidence to the contrary, for example all the other ways described in their own loving detail by other practitioners just as convinced of the robust essence of their accidental triumphs.

Incidentally, this is also how I think about education in general, and general education in particular.

March 14, 2013

Integrative General Education White Paper

by Carl Dyke

First some context. As I may have mentioned once or twice, this year I got sucked into my university’s general education reform process, against the lessons of experience, interests of serenity, and focus on the teaching mission. I did this by reluctantly saying I would be willing to represent the Arts and Humanities on a committee no one else wanted to serve on, and because after three years of intensive collective deliberation, in committee and plenary, my colleagues had managed to produce a draft proposal that took a bloated, aimless mess of a core curriculum and turned it into a skeletal, aimless mess of a core curriculum.

In some sense I was and am fine with the latter. It was done intelligently, if not creatively, freed up a lot of units for minors or the elective explorations that are part of the heart of a liberal education, and went a long way toward fixing the problem that we were making many of our students loathe the liberal arts by subjecting them to a seemingly endless series of browbeatings. But even though the theme of integrative education had figured prominently and encouragingly in early discussions, by the final proposal it had completely vanished; so that like the old core, the new one had no conceptual or pedagogical coherence other than assertion that each individual course addressed a ‘goal’ and therefore was in its way essential to the formation of an educated person.

The modification I suggested to the reform committee, after a lot of discussion at the A&H level, was to add what we at first called a ‘cluster’ and later a ‘linked learning experience’. This is three thematically linked classes, from at least two different schools, taken together in one semester. Just that, for now – no requirement of faculty coordination or any other formally interdisciplinary apparatus. The idea is simply to, at least that once, show students explicitly a ‘liberal’ approach to question and problem formation, investigation, and perhaps problem-solving, in which disciplinary knowledge-in-depth is triangulated, reconfigured and brought into more widely effective alignments by interdisciplinary knowledge-in-breadth.

Despite the fact that to some of us this seemed like pretty tame stuff, the LLEs instantly became a bone of contention. As far as I know, no one disagrees that integrated learning is a ‘good thing’. However, in the larger discussions over the new proposal with the linked learning component, it became clear that a significant fraction of the faculty in general and the A&H faculty in particular did not see integrated learning as needing any particular attention; going so far as to assume it was a nice but inessential bonus, and/or something that could be expected to happen automatically if only a series of good courses were taken. As if that was how we all got it, ‘assuming facts not in evidence’ as the lawyers say. And certainly for many of us who have struggled our way to some kind of integrative intelligence, this seems like it must be true; although I can personally point to many, many experiences at home and at school from a particular kind of teacher that pulled me in this direction, along with plenty of others that tried to push me away.

But that’s the thing – I don’t know anyone who gets the importance of integrative learning who thinks it’s a luxury adjunct of a good education that can be left to chance. It’s the one thing that distinguishes ‘higher’ education from the various worthy technical educations, like plumbing, heating and cooling, business, nursing, history, and philosophy. It’s so important I negotiated away all of the required History classes to make room for a faint whisper of it. Not because the History classes aren’t good, or because there’s nothing essential to learn from history, but because someone who can learn and make connections responsibly will find their own way to history, literature, biology, statistics or whatever’s needed, and learn it a lot better than if it were jammed down their throats without purpose or context. (Here I remain strongly influenced by Dyke the Elder’s remark that he took Calculus three times, but didn’t learn the calculus until he needed it to do something else with; which in turn sensitized me to a vast educational research literature that says the same thing.)

But for a passionate fraction of Arts and Humanities, and Sciences too as it turned out, what matters far more than intentional integration is a critical mass of essential knowledges. Students are scientifically ignorant, so they need two science courses. They’re historically ignorant, so they need two history courses. Our uni has a religious tradition, so at least one Biblical religion class. Etc. These colleagues produced and published a draft alternate reform proposal, without the linked learning but with a couple more sciences and histories and whatnot; then withheld it from formal consideration out of admirable collegiality, and in confident anticipation that the full faculty would never vote for this scary, cumbersome linked learning stuff anyway. Sure enough, the full faculty voted for the linked learning proposal by a 60/40 margin. Now the opposition is bringing forward their proposal anyway, in a last heroic play to save what they can of the old core.

Which leads me to the actual matter of this post, an integrative general education white paper I’m working on for possible distribution as part of the reform committee’s advocacy for the proposal we just passed. This is still pretty rough, and I invite discussion. I should say that I have entirely given up on persuading the proponents of the alternate proposal, for present purposes anyway; I now think there are conceptual, dispositional, and emotional divides that are prohibitive to bridge in the short term. So this document is intended to clarify the issues for the people who voted for the linked learning proposal the first time around, and solidify their support for that project. I’m still not sure whether to prefer a rhetorically neutral presentation or a more direct, conversational address – this is the latter:

*******

Colleagues, although the General Education Committee is proud of the work we’ve done over these last several years, and of the faculty’s recent vote endorsing the plan so long and carefully deliberated, we welcome the opportunity to reflect further on MU’s goals and how to accomplish them. We appreciate that everyone in this discussion is motivated by commitment to get our general education core right, and to move MU to new levels of excellence.

On the surface, it may seem there is very little difference between the two proposals. The numbers work out about the same, while the new proposal adds back a couple of classes, takes out a couple of classes, and replaces the Linked Learning Experience with ‘further studies in the liberal arts’. Deciding between the proposals could be as easy as deciding if you think a required History class is more important than a required Speech class. The committee deliberated each of those decisions carefully and intentionally, but we are well aware that many other well-reasoned choices could be made.

However, this discussion is not just about nitpicking curriculum details, and therefore the committee would like to clarify what we see as the larger concepts at issue. And the one thing we would like to be clear in everyone’s mind during the coming discussion is that our plan is not a bad version of a more comprehensive core – for better or worse, it is a different concept of a core.

So first, we acknowledge that our plan omits or makes optional wonderful, important courses. Not just a few, not just a required History or a second Science or a richer engagement with foreign language. Statistics, Calculus, Genetics; Classics, Economics, Political Theory, Anthropology; World Religions, Women’s Literature, Sociology, Psychology, Ethics. Some familiarity with all of these and more is arguably essential to responsible citizenship and effective, meaningful living in the modern world.

Second, we acknowledge that our plan does not promote mastery in any of the areas it does cover. A brief foreign immersion does not create mastery of a foreign language. One Science class does not create mastery of the principles and practices of science. One Math class does not create broad-based numerical literacy. One History class does not a historian make.

Nor would two. In paring down the core’s coverage to a painful minimum in which many excellent things were lost, the committee was not just sinking to a least common denominator. We were embracing intentionally the hard fact that core curricula are not in any position to cover everything or to create broad-based mastery. Compared to the vast scope of scientific knowledge that affects our everyday lives, and the vast scope of scientific ignorance that afflicts our public discourse, two classes are as inadequate as one – two slender reeds against the flood. We think it is clear therefore that if coverage and mastery are the goals, the core is doomed to failure. We have already tried a more comprehensive coverage and found it wanting, mastery lacking. A class more or less, here or there in a much smaller core is no solution.

Fortunately, there is a much more realistic and sustainable way to think about what core curricula can accomplish. If we consider that the problem is not ignorance itself but narrowness and rigidity, a settled mind and lack of curiosity, the same class that would be an inadequate and swiftly-forgotten introduction to the vast content of a discipline can be an admirable invitation to the core concepts and investigative methods of that discipline. It can open students’ minds to new questions, new ways of thinking, new strategies of living effectively in the world, and lead them toward developing the relevant competencies themselves over a much longer lifetime than our curriculum can cover. In this model, the goal shifts from producing people who know a couple of things about a couple of things, to producing people whose curiosity is empowered, who learn actively, figure things out for themselves, work reliably without close supervision, adapt effectively to unfamiliar, complex and ambiguous situations, repurpose knowledge responsibly to meet new challenges, and problem-solve creatively.

Ideally, this shift would occur within each of the classes we teach. However, the same effect at a larger scale can be promoted through an intentional, transformative arrangement of separate classes, each doing ‘its own thing’. Just as a pile of stones is not a bridge, and a pile of flour, sugar and butter is not a cake, a pile of courses is not an education. This is where the Linked Learning Experience comes in. By bringing three different courses into simultaneous thematic alignment, linked learning engages students in multiple approaches to question and problem formation, investigation, and problem-solving, making thinking ‘outside the box’ virtually inevitable in a way separate classes simply cannot. Furthermore, through linked learning students can see directly the broader relevance and unique strengths of each field of study, enhancing their own awareness, resourcefulness, and appreciation for the value of continued learning – in the best tradition of the liberal arts.

In the committee’s view therefore, the Linked Learning Experience is the core of the core, the transformative element that takes the few credits available to the core and turns them into a real education. Linked learning is emphatically not, in our view, an optional addendum to a debate about how much of the old core we are going to keep. It is a new way forward.

March 11, 2013

We’re all moocs now

by Carl Dyke

I am excited to discover a startling technology that will change how we teach, learn, and even think! This technology efficiently stores the accumulated knowledge of our most expert minds. It is easy to access with skills a child can master; combines visual, auditory, tactile, and even olfactory stimuli to activate any learning style; can be enhanced with images, charts, graphs, and other media; and can be shared by one or many at times of their own choosing.

Yes, believe it or not this technology makes the entire treasury of human knowledge available to everyone at virtually no cost! Just a small fee to compensate the material and intellectual labor of its producers; or with sufficient public demand and institutional support, no cost to end-users at all. And because of its low cost and ease of access, this technology encourages new knowledge and new knowers at a historically unprecedented rate and intensity.

Perhaps best of all, this technology is many times more efficient than lecture for information transfer. It will therefore allow us to ‘flip’ our classrooms, liberating teachers and students from the drudgery of rote learning, moving content acquisition to home self-study, and freeing up class time for discussion and reflective integration.

This revolutionary technology is called ‘books’.

What’s my point? We’ve been in the technological new regime for over 500 years. Mass information storage and availability has not been the issue for a very long while, although the new digital media are tremendous conveniences. My point is that it’s downright bizarre we’re still treating lecture like a respectable teaching strategy and flailing about trendy new alternatives to it. My point is that as long as we treat oral transmission as the teaching / learning default, we are culturally pre-literate. My point is that it’s long, long past time we could be doing much, much better. Click through to the links for more on how to notice and think our way out of this trap, thanks to the physicists.

My point, finally, is that the problem with moocs is not that they overthrow the great traditions of teaching and learning. The problem with moocs is that yet again, they don’t.

Where all the windmills at?

Where all the windmills at?

Well, any cultural system that so clearly works against its own manifest opportunities and interests for so long must be accomplishing something else(s) important. Any thoughts about what?

March 3, 2013

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been thinking about democracy lately as one of a collection of strategies for managing complexity. The proximal stimuli are the recent American elections and their associated issues; the Eurozone ‘crisis’; and the Italian elections just now concluded. The immediate stimuli are an application I just wrote for a really interesting NEH summer seminar in Rome, titled “Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento – New Perspectives,” and a discussion of “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber.

Let’s stick with Italian politics. I’ve personally been following them more or less closely since the early 70s, when I was in Italian public school. The chronicle of this period is quite rich and contested, with the movement of the Communist Party into play for inclusion in the government (the ‘historic compromise’), right-wing paramilitary backlash sometimes called the ‘strategy of tension’, left-wing student and paramilitary activism, and in general lots of splashy violence, all of it collected under the rubric of the ‘years of lead’. This was clearly a period of crisis, although I must admit that it was not much visible in the lives of the kids I was hanging out with.

When I went back to Italy for a semester as an undergrad, Dyke the Elder plotted my political education by giving me the task of keeping a journal of the Italian press from left to center to right. Every day I would go to the newsstand and buy at least three papers, most commonly “Avanti!” and/or “il manifesto,” “Rinascita,” and “Il Secolo d’Italia.” Two things struck me at the time and have stayed with me since. The first was that having this range of explicitly partisan press in easy newsstand juxtaposition did a lot to discipline all sides’ relationship to ‘the facts’, so it was possible to get a pretty reliable skinny of events from any of the papers, accompanied with explicitly polemical analysis. The second was that Italian politics were again in crisis, this time most prominently over NATO and the placement of nuclear missiles on Italian soil, and the movement of the Socialist Party under Bettino Craxi into a position of leadership; according to many, at the expense of anything still resembling socialist principles. I could always get a good political tirade with my coffee, Totocalcio and groceries, but life went on.

When I was in Rome for my dissertation research Italian politics were in crisis over the collapse and fragmentation of the Communist party. More recently of course Berlusconi and the populist/nativist Northern League created a new state of permanent crisis, the media-savvy prime minister presiding over a circus-like political spectacle nicely foreshadowed by the notorious Cicciolina. At this point the common, and often at least half-accurate, perception of Italians that their politicians are a pack of grossly incompetent clowns who somehow also manage to enrich themselves with ruthless efficiency at public expense became the near-explicit basis of government; Berlusconi’s point being essentially that if it’s going to happen anyway, you might as well at least get some entertainment and vicarious wish-fulfillment out of it. That this shameless affrontery made enough sense to enough people to keep him in power for as long as it did (and maybe again now, even after his ‘ultimate’ disgrace less than two years ago) says something important, I think, about what sorts of functions Italians outside the talking classes take politics to perform. That more morally rigorous aspirations have been consistently damped and absorbed through succeeding regimes (see, e.g., Machiavelli, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Crispi, Turati, Gentile, Togliatti, Berlinguer, Pertini, Craxi, ‘mani pulite’ and the Second Republic) says something more. Grillo is unlikely to be a game-changer in this arrangement, but he’s the usual sort of fun intervention.

During most of this time I was also becoming a historian, which involved learning about all the ways Italian politics had been in crisis since the Risorgimento, which itself effectively created a national overlay for the regional and factional crises that had been going on since at least the Renaissance. In short, if you want to you can construct an account of Italian politics in permanent crisis for at least 500 years; although as we can see by my own short experience, the details vary quite a bit from time to time. And of course it’s self-evidently silly to call a dynamic that persistent a crisis, so it helps that the social history of Italy can be told as an account of long stretches of relative stability, relatively untroubled by the frantic political sideshows. I would now say ‘metastability’, however, since ‘the same’ outcomes kept being produced by ‘different’ means, hence the Lampedusa quote in the title. That is the story I now find the most fascinating.

To put my thesis bluntly, no one has ever gotten what they wanted out of Italian politics unless what they wanted was what they could get. I’d recommend that as a general orienting hypothesis about a lot of things, for example Iraq, Iran, Arizona, Russia, China, Baltimore, Britney Spears, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and women’s rights. What is the possibility space? How are agents built, e.g. constrained and enabled, in relation to the possibility space? What can we read back about possibility from how agents act? It seems to me that our analytical contrasts are severely distorted by the notion that intentions are a special kind of cause exempt from all the formation and interaction dynamics of complex systems. Let’s see if we can do better than Feuerbachian pseudo-theologies of empowerment, flattering though they may be. In any case, here’s how I put it in my NEH application, in pertinent part:

I’m assuming I’ll learn lots of new things and reconfigure some old ones, so any plan of study is necessarily speculative. But going in, I imagine it would be interesting to think forward from Gramsci’s contested analysis of the Risorgimento as a ‘passive revolution’ driven from above by elites, and connect that with recent developments in complex systems analysis. I’m thinking, for example, of Terry Deacon’s contrast between dynamical systems and self-organizing systems in Incomplete Nature. Just to gesture at that here, it seems to me that there’s only so much an active/passive agency analysis and abstractions like ‘modernity’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the state’, and so on can tell us about nation-forming and -forcing processes. At this point we could be looking for the kinds of emergent, self-organizing poly- or para-intentional actor networks and assemblages Gramsci was starting to notice and trying to reconcile with the structure/agency constraints of the Marxist revolutionary project and conceptual vocabulary. I guess if I were to frame this polemically I might say something about getting out of the agency metanarrative without falling through its structuralist or post-structuralist looking-glasses, but that all seems a little tired now and I’m much more interested in theories as hypotheses for figuring out what was going on and how it was going on, at various scales.

Getting down to cases and figuring stuff out is what my teaching is about at this point. So I would want to translate what I learn about the Risorgimento and its transnational linkages back to my classes in World History and Modern Europe both as content and as a model of how to do good analysis; and then extend those practices to other cases. For example, perhaps to look at trasformismo in comparison to other self-organizing, quasi-political strategies to manage the intractable complexities of modernization; or to investigate in my “Gender and History” class how the particular gender formations of modern Italy evolved around and through the opportunities and constraints created by the ‘fare Italiani’ project in its local, regional, national, and transnational contexts.

I’m out on so many limbs here I have to hope they weave together into something that will support a little weight. But I really like the idea of taking the stuff we’ve all been thinking about here at DV for quite awhile and focusing it on a notoriously hairy case study. Maybe the hair is inherent.

Which brings me to “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber. I haven’t read the book by Colin Crouch that’s under discussion, but it seems to me that to call the advanced industrialized countries ‘post-democratic’ they’d have had to once be democratic and now not be. And at least in the Italian case I’ve just sketched out, I’m not sure anything like that sort of categorical delimitation of the discussion can do anything but confuse us. Italy right now is more or less just as democratic as it’s been at least since the Risorgimento and arguably since the Renaissance, which is to say, not at all if we mean by democracy a formal system in which popular votes lead directly to explicit policy outcomes and intentional transformations of collective life; and amply, if what we mean by democracy is one domain of self-organizing dynamical systems – like markets, patronage networks, trade complexes, families, fashion – that take unmanageably complex inputs and constrain them into orderly outputs. And we can notice that while each of these systems creates means for human intentions to be effective, they do so by radically constraining what humans are able to effectively intend, in relation to more comprehensive systems that work the same way. Freedom is the recognition of necessity after all.

January 6, 2013

A Question Haunts America

by johnmccreery

Us folks on the left are not the only ones who see the U.S.A. as going to hell in a hand basket. My title is taken from the first line of an article in The National Interest by conservative pundit Robert W. Merry titled Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy. Oswald Spengler that is, the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), now as rarely mentioned on the left as Gramsci is on the right, a mention-and-skip author in liberal higher education with its focus on the Enlightenment and progress toward the great kumbaya of universal rationality. Perhaps he deserves a second look.

He did, after all, anticipate the world wars and the “surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism” that seems to afflict all civilizations when their roots in naive but authentic culture give way to “the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture” (the quotes are from Merry, not Spengler himself).

The idea that civilizations are organic wholes and develop through cycles from birth and flourishing to maturity, decay and death is no longer fashionable. But the notion that there is no universal humanity, only human beings, born incomplete animals, who become what their cultures/civilizations encourage and demand that they do is, albeit debatable, Anthropology 101.

Perhaps it is my years, rushing all too soon toward three score and ten (now just a year and a bit away) that turn my thoughts in this direction. But could it be that left and right, we all need both Marx and Spengler to see the world whole through disillusioned eyes?

December 24, 2012

The rhetoric of commodities

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 21, 2012

Complex, schmomplex. We gotta DO something!

by Carl Dyke

I’m not sure we want to talk about the Newtown massacre at Dead Voles. It’s not the sort of thing that’s easy to have a satisfactory conversation about; because it was pretty awful, because it understandably causes emotional overloading of measured discourse, because it’s conveniently recruitable for all sorts of tangential projects. But if we did want to talk about it, James Livingstone’s remarks on “how not to think about Sandy Hook” would be one good place to start (also at Jacobin Magazine as “Guns and the Pain Economy”).

Jim starts out by attempting swiftly to disable the usual hand-wavy leaps to the problem of evil, individual responsibility, mental health care, and gun control. I’m for that. I think his dismissal of the moral personhood of the shooters from Columbine on is sloppy, unpersuasive, and ironic; but the snowflake ethnography of twisted personal moral systems gets us only a fine-grained understanding of particular individual syndromes, so I’m willing to join him in sidestepping that issue, and the others too.

Like many feminists and critical race theorists, Jim wants to talk instead about the collapse of entitled white masculinity over the last hundred years or so. He sees these boys playing out an apocalyptic script in which their private pain has to be made public, each of them a sort of degraded King Lear projecting their own angst into the universe. Why the drama? Because they are “superfluous” and “unimportant” – not needed for either work or war, the historic sites of the manly virtues; not needed at all, really, for anything. Why the guns and shooting? Because those are the means of the manhood now denied these boys.

Jim’s specific contribution to the discussion is to frame this relative immiseration, not in terms of attacks on entitled white masculinity by heroically triumphant women and people of color (which, incidentally, become effects as much as causes in his analysis), but the more structural and seemingly benign dynamics of post-scarcity consumer economy. We don’t need these boys as breadwinners because advanced industrial productivity has replaced mass labor – what’s left is a lot of feminized make-work in the ‘service economy’. And we don’t need them as warriors for the military version of the same reasons – drones and special ops get most of the real work of power done, and most of that’s make-work too, bad habits more than any kind of security necessity. So, who are these boys and what are they for? Not at all clear at the moment. In some sense, they’re just like the dead wood in the forest that used to get cleared out by little fires now and again, like regular wars used to clear out the surplus male population; now we keep both fires and wars from happening, with all that fuel lying around waiting for a spark. What would be the acceptable version of a controlled burn?

Jim draws on his outstanding work on the intellectual history of turn-of-the-century America to invoke William James, diagnosing the dynamic and predicting the problems:

James correlated the impending demise of those virtues with “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism”—a stage of development in which an older “pain economy” organized by the emotional austerity of necessary labor was giving way to a “pleasure economy” animated by the emotional surplus of consumer culture. This new economy, according to James, was a world without producers, “a world of clerks and teachers, of co-educators and zoophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited and feminism unabashed.”

From the standpoint of that correlation, the decline of necessary labor or productive callings, and the consequent confusion of male and female spheres—“feminism unabashed”—became the elements of an identity crisis for every man; for they threatened to dissolve the ego boundaries hitherto determined by the sanctions of scarcity, both economic and emotional.

Here’s how James put it: “The transition to a ‘pleasure economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defence against its disintegrative influences. If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase: fear regarding ourselves now taking place of the ancient fear of the enemy.”

I think Jim’s right about all of it, including that we’re going to have to get clear on how the new post-scarcity order needs a new ideology of self, because the old one based on labor, discipline, and sacrifice is obsolete. And I can see how these shooters are effectively canaries in the coal mine of that process, outliers on the bloody trailing edge of the old order like Paris Hilton and The Situation are cautionary tales on the frontiers of the new.

But while I think Jim’s account gets at the deep structure of the situation (and The Situation) better than personal responsibility, or mental health policy, or gun legislation, or ‘the media’, it’s still got the feel of hand-waving to me. There are a lot of moving parts in how these shootings happen – all sorts of things not deadly on their own have to come together in just the right dynamic alignment. Entitlement, race, masculinity, anomie, anxiety; the autism spectrum, personal responsibility, psychiatric medication, helicopter parenting; easy access to guns, glorification of violence, fragmentation of popular culture, the news cycle; post-scarcity economy, speculative boom and bust, consumer society. I don’t think we can get to explanation through any of these factors, nor can we do without them. I think they’re operating at different scales, and the ways the scales interact from case to case matters as much as the specific factors involved. And I think trying to pick out any one of them as the ‘independent variable’, driving dynamic, or essential nexus of trouble, is only going to be accidentally effective.

But, as usual, I’ve run out of steam right when it comes time to either do the complex analysis I say we ought to do, or cut to the chase and propose policy. (In this respect I am a perfect New Man – showy but basically useless, the Kim Kardashian of critical thinking.) “It’s complex” is another kind of hand-waving. So great, it’s complex. Now what?

Update, 12/26 – It’s interesting to think this last paragraph in relation to Jim’s post on the passing of Alfred F. Young. Jim reports his frustration that unlike himself and his other teachers, Young refused to pursue an intellectual agenda. Every activist question was met with more primary sources. In effect, Young’s answer was always ‘it’s more complicated than that – let’s see how’.

Weber, Durkheim, and even Marx (think 11th thesis) knew that to get to practice you have to interrupt analysis. Activism requires simplifying abstraction. Of course that may be necessary – but there’s a place and an ethic for a patiently detangling scholarship that refuses to cut the knot, also.