Archive for ‘entitlement’

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by CarlD

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?


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.

September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by CarlD

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

kliban eye poke

December 21, 2012

Complex, schmomplex. We gotta DO something!

by CarlD

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.

July 8, 2012

Nonsense identity

by CarlD

Andy Murray is about to play Rogerer Federererer for the Wimbledon men’s tennis title. There’s the usual media fooferall on, which this time around includes a bunch of complete nonsense about how Murray represents the hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions, who knows what-all of international Britishdom. Meanwhile at 30 years of age Fed is somehow representing the reciprocal psycho-cerebral garbage of old people. Hannah Storm just now said, and I’m not making this up, “It’s hard to overstate how important this Wimbledon final is.” “Much more than a tennis match,” another suit says.


Wtf, as the kids say nowadays. If Murray wins it will mean exactly zero about the particular qualities of any other particular Brit, whatever that means, or Scot, or redheaded oatmeal eater. Fed’s victory will make me and other old folks not even slightly less fat, slow and uncoordinated. Or skinny, slow and uncoordinated as the case may be.

Really, just stop it.

June 26, 2012

Constraint and utopia

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

A cautionary tale, this. As humanists we have to worry that constraint is behind every enablement. Furthermore, every enablement (every choice, if you like) becomes a new constraint on future possibility. The exercise of freedom is inherently constraining; every choice is an exclusion. When I chose my wife I chose against every other woman in the world. All of whom were, of course, available to me – albeit not simultaneously, for reasons having to do with culture, biology and physics….

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

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

May 15, 2012

The elaborate self?

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

August 12, 2011

Relative immiseration

by CarlD

Does fiscal consolidation lead to social unrest? From the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. In this paper, we assemble cross country evidence for the period 1919 to the present, and examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. We also analyse interactions with various economic and political variables. While autocracies and democracies show a broadly similar responses to budget cuts, countries with more constraints on the executive are less likely to see unrest as a result of austerity measures. Growing media penetration does not lead to a stronger effect of cut-backs on the level of unrest.

That’s the abstract of a long Centre for Economic Policy Research working paper (pdf), “Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009” by Jacopo Ponticelli, Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Hans-Joachim Voth, UPF-ICREA, CREI and CEPR. Thanks to Duncan Law.

The dynamic is long familiar in social movement theory, often referred to as the ‘relative immiseration’ effect. It’s also familiar to people with more than one child. Basically, when you give folks stuff and then take it away, or give them relatively less stuff than reference groups, they get way more pissed off than if they never had anything to start with or deprivation is evenly distributed.

Relative immiseration is an important corrective to vulgarizations of Marxism in which capitalism is supposed to precipitate its own demise only if it reduces the working class to absolute abjection. Not so – just as all needs beyond mere subsistence are relative to particular social formations, revolutionary immiseration is relative to the general standard of well-being of particular social formations. Nowadays the poor in Western societies mostly have indoor plumbing that was not available even to kings just a few centuries ago. (They have fridges and microwaves, yes.) But that’s not the relevant measure of degradation – it’s where the poor stand in relation to the rich now. And as is well-known, that gap has been widening. The borrowing powers of governments have been filling the gap for the past several decades, but that compensatory regime seems to be hitting its unsustainability threshold. We live in interesting times.

Of course there’s nothing that says capitalists have to keep driving relative immiseration toward the brink. At least since Bismarck and the Gilded Age smart elites have recognized the need to spread the wealth to some degree to purchase social peace and secure the conditions for continued profit. All it takes is withdrawing some capital from speculative ‘investment’ and using it instead, directly or through government transfers, to build the consumption side of the economy – namely by hiring people and paying them well, whether they ‘earn’ it or not – compensating according to need, not productivity, as Marx argued and Jim Livingston keeps arguing.

If paying people to be consumers out of scale with their productivity seems immoral, it’s worth remembering that while credit default swaps may be called ‘products’ in the ‘industry’, they’re not actually making anything but wealth either. Aren’t (relative) need and general prosperity enough to ground public morals?

UPDATE: Dave Mazella at The Long Eighteenth has been rereading E.P. Thompson on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” and finds rioters “trying to restore traditional understandings of collective rights and reciprocities, traditions that elites disrupted or ignored at their peril.” This is consistent with both the analysis here and JohnM’s disambiguating comment below, but adding another layer: I often have to resist the activist reflex to see in every little upheaval a foretaste of revolution, and Thompson reminds us of the complex dynamic robustness of existing arrangements.

January 5, 2011

Rusty wire and the wild ponies

by CarlD

This is how Rachel described her childhood, in contrast to an article she was reading in the Funny Times (because it’s pretty funny) about how American pediatricians are trying to get warning labels on hot dogs because they’re a dangerous food. They’re dangerous because about ten kids a year choke on them and die, which is of course ten too many but makes any given kid choking on a hot dog and dying about a 1:6,000,000,000 shot. It’s sort of an amazing thing to think we need to take comprehensive positive steps to head off this danger, as compared to the subsistence farm where Rachel grew up at which rusty wire was unavoidably abundant and unsurprisingly devoid of warning labels. And the only ponies that could be afforded were the wild ones, and one of the first things she remembers is learning by trial-and-error how not to get kicked in the head by them.

Of course a decline-of-our-civilization-from-its-rugged-can-do-origins narrative would be easy here, as would a progress story about how much relatively safer our precious little darlings are. These are both pleasant affirmations of a worldview. And of course if we’re willing not to leap to judgment it’s more complicated than that. I’m reminded for example of JohnM’s comment awhile back remembering “an essay by Jean Briggs, an ethnographer who studied child-rearing among the Inuit. One of the things that disturbed her was the practice of setting problems for children, not providing the materials they needed, and teasing them when they failed to solve them. She initially thought it was cruel. She then came to realize that if, for example, an adult Inuit was out seal-hunting on the ice and some of his equipment broke down, the inability to improvise a solution would kill him.” What, weren’t these children being abused? Clearly understanding only happens here when judgment is suspended and practices are examined in relation to situations, not preconceived ideals.

This came together with something I just skimmed on Slawkenbergius’ recommendation, Eva Illouz’s Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (2008). Eva suggests that “[t]he point of cultural analysis is not to measure cultural practices against what they ought to be or ought to have been but rather to understand how they have come to be what they are and why, in being what they are, they ‘accomplish things’ for people.” Obviously I agree with this, and very well put.

But then in turn this came together with Dave Mazella’s great comment just now on the last post talking about how ‘hegemony’ is a “slippy-slidey concept… that… leads in one way or another to a rather deracinated ‘cultural studies.’ But that’s for another post,” which would be this one. Dave points to the danger of judgment, and perhaps more importantly action, indefinitely deferred. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx told us, and after several thousand years of philosophy who could disagree. Or as Erskine Bowles said recently, reflecting on his transition from finance and politics to academe as President of the University of North Carolina, “I come from a world of ready, fire, aim, and I came to a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim.” C’mon ya eggheads, fire already!

Weber provides one answer. The ethics of the scientist and of the politician are different: it’s the scientist’s job to get knowledge right, the politician’s to act in pursuit of ultimate ends. Mixing those tasks just makes the scientist unreliable and confounds the politician in detail and nuance. Nor is knowledge an adequate guide to action; as Durkheim said (in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life) “[s]cience is fragmentary and incomplete; it advances but slowly and is never finished; but life — that cannot wait. Theories whose calling is to make people live and make them act, must therefore rush ahead of science and complete it prematurely. They are possible only if the demands of practicality and vital necessities, such as we feel without distinctly conceiving them, push thought beyond what science permits us to affirm.” Still, more and more reliable knowledge is better than less and less reliable knowledge, no? And Orwell, Huxley, Hitler and Stalin showed us what happens when understanding is simply subordinated to politics, be they public or personal. Along those lines another option is the pragmatic tolerance and decency Rorty arrives at as the best way to love both Trotsky and the wild orchids.

Rachel points out, correctly, that the contemporary media-saturated world is a more immediately scary place than it used to be. A kid chokes on a hot dog in Dubuque and in minutes it’s right there on your news feed, as if it happened next door. But it’s not like the older world was less dangerous – rusty wire and wild ponies will kill you dead, and everyone knows it. What’s different now is that people apparently think it’s actually possible to intercept every possible danger. They don’t think their kids are going to end up stranded on an ice floe; the preciouses don’t need to be exposed to peril to toughen them up and make them resourceful in contingencies. Fate plays no part in our world. Hot dogs may be scary, but they’re finite and pragmatically manageable in a way that Satan, symbol of infinite jeopardy, never was.

December 9, 2010

14.5, to be exact

by CarlD

One of my little missions as a teacher, as usual at least partly a selfish one, is to teach the kiddoes to intake information the first time it’s presented, whether it’s directed to them personally or not. I take this to be a dimension of responsible being in the world, and a minimal first step toward developing the sort of disciplined attention and monologue tolerance that enables participation in the abstractions favored by high culture; which in turn I take to be the substantive point of a liberal arts education. Of course the dispositions of class guarantee that this will not be a widely-distributed skill, which is what makes it so valuable, both in its actual achievement and in its pharmaceutical simulation. Although it is rare to find someone who cannot focus their attention at all when they find the situation ‘interesting’, suggesting that it’s not attention itself that is in deficit.

Anyhoo, yesterday a student I quite like personally came running into my office carrying its journal, and breathlessly announced that it was turning the thing in then as another student had told it it must. I smiled to myself and told it that this transaction was fine with me, although as I’d mentioned in both the syllabus and in class the previous day the standard journal turn-in protocol was to bundle it with the final paper, due next week.

My student friend then proudly announced that the journal contained exactly 14.5 entries. Now we’ll need a little background to see why I almost laughed out loud at this point. As again described in detail in the syllabus and discussed at length in class, the journal is intended to be ethnographic field notes from the semester, a reflective record of the social processes of teaching and learning, in our class and others. The number of entries is not specified, but at least one or two a week are recommended. Easy math gives us a figure of roughly 30 here, but counting is not the point. For the final tally to be manipulable to achieve a target of 14.5, there’s already probably been an epic fail with respect to the actual purpose and process of the assignment, although there are certainly ways to do a passing journal that could wind up around that number.

So, why exactly 14.5, you may ask? Well, because the day before, the final day of class, two separate students at separate moments in open class discussion asked me to personally tell them how many entries should be in the journal. For the first, I explained the above and reminded it of previous discussions in detail of the journal. By the time the second one asked I’d had enough of that conversation, so off the top of my head I invented a preposterous number (not preposterous enough, I’m afraid), 14.5, and stated it flatly as if it was a reasonable answer to a reasonable question. That particular student smelled a rat and asked if I was serious; I said no, I was teasing it, and referred it back to the syllabus for further guidance; knowing, however, that if it hadn’t been doing the journal all along as intended there was no help for it there except a possible glimmer of understanding that it might want to pay more attention next time.

It is from this information-rich context that my student friend plucked 14.5 as the correct number of entries for its journal. I can’t wait to read them.

May 24, 2010

Nightmares of dead generation

by CarlD

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

What is this familiar nightmare (Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) doing here? Well, he’s a tool, of course, specifically ideological cover for a point I tried much too briefly to make at Giovanni’s post on the deselection (and destruction) of books including Gramsci’s Prison Letters at the Victoria University, Wellington Library. In what may be my favorite practical joke in a long while, that comment has itself since been deselected and destroyed, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive culling of all comments at the site. But since that move forecloses conversation there, I’ll move the thought here and see if it’s worth a chat. I’m interested in the forms the nightmares of dead generations take in our lives. [Note: Giovanni’s original post at his own blog, with excellent commentary, is here.]

Giovanni calls attention to the fascinating process his university library used to try to declutter its holdings to free up space for other purposes. Books that had not been checked out in ten years or longer received a red sticker on the spine indicating their peril. Users could veto the cull by drawing a black line through the sticker, a veritable Wikipedia moment in the stacks. Heroic scholarly defenders against this barbarism then crawled around the shelves black-lining every red sticker they could find. “Save one, save all.” I remember the same kind of culture wars at UCSD when I was a grad student there and little-used books were to be gulaged to UC’s off-site storage facility. And soon my own little university’s figleaf of a library will be faced with hard decisions as we work out how to implement consultants’ recommendations to devote a whole floor currently occupied by a big chunk of the meager collection to an integrated ‘Learning Commons’ offering academic services to our ‘Millenial’ students, many of whom read quite a bit but have never cracked an actual book in their lives.

I should admit that the solid, reliable feel of a real book in my hands, the mystery of shelves groaning under the weight of knowledge, the thrill of the unexpected shelf-read discovery, the crisp, definite sound of pages turning are all pleasures that have shaped my life leading up and into academe. Like many of my peers I think there’s nothing that decorates a living room quite so well as piles of loose books. It may be that this sensuous materiality is especially critical in the case of Gramsci’s prison letters. So, Giovanni

recoiled especially at seeing Antonio Gramsci’s Lettere dal carcere sporting a red sticker. The letters that Gramsci had penned as a political prisoner, under the constraints of censorship and the rationing of his writing privileges, and that together form an extraordinary prison memoir, yes, but also a chronicle of intellectual life during Fascism and the autobiography of one Europe’s greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the last century – it seemed such an astonishing indignity for that particular book, such an offence to its history and ours, that it might even be suggested to remove it from view, let alone destroy it.

Gramsci wrote the letters under confining conditions of prison censorship and oversight; his access to books, writing materials and headspace all fitfully but effectively restricted. Yet he was “almost physically consumed by the need to fight with the only weapon he had left the forces that wished to neutralize his intellect.” How ironic, then, for the product of this effort to fall victim to an arbitrary mass purge?

Quite right. But is this book that product? Gramsci wrote his letters one by one, on a variety of papers, to a variety of recipients. Later they were collected, transcribed, edited and published in the handsome critical edition we now discuss. The materiality of this volume, I note, is already pretty distant from the materiality of the letters and their conditions of production. I take it from the shelf, a convenient, compact whole; I find a comfortable nook; I read the letters one after another on their crisp, neatly-printed pages with their erudite critical apparatus. Here I see the content of Gramsci’s writing, but what I do not see, or feel, is precisely the conditions of its production. My ease of access is exactly the opposite of Gramsci’s struggle, or the slow drip of Gramsci his recipients experienced for that matter. The library is not the prison; the book is not the letters. This book is a simulacrum. And although I can appreciate the reverence for the great man that imbues all his offshoots with a reflected charisma, it’s quite another thing to fetishize this object, this rendition, this product of a purely contingent technology of textual production and diffusion as the true representation of an authentic original.

(Interestingly, Gramsci himself had this “reverence for the book,” as Antonio Santucci once described it to me. I had asked him – this was when he directed the Gramsci archives – if the books Gramsci had owned contained any marginalia, knowing that any historian studying me would do well to track the conversations I was having with the books I was reading by the notes I’d left in them. Antonio said there were none, and hypothesized that Gramsci’s poor rural upbringing had instilled this sense of the book as a precious and inviolable object. I might speculate that a folk-Catholic biblical culture might also have had something to do with it. Writing in the margins is just about the only reason I prefer a physical book any more, by the way, and that’s just because I’m too lazy to learn the available digital markup systems.)

So the question is not whether Gramsci himself and his legacy are being attacked by the removal and destruction of this particular book. That’s all a red herring. No, as Giovanni gets around to saying, the more effective questions have to do with the process whereby books were deselected, and their individual suitability for other forms of availability. He also leaves hanging an intriguing thought about the identity-conferring functions of books as material objects. I’ll take these questions in turn.

As to the deselection process, it seems obvious that to clear physical space in a building previously devoted to book display someone’s ox is going to be gored no matter what. As Giovanni notes, this process is happening on a smaller scale all the time as new books come out and old ones obsolesce. The ten-year rule looks good to me as a rough cut of books that are not actively being used for their content. The strikethrough rule makes sense if we imagine that responsible constituencies will use the opportunity, as Giovanni says, to direct their

sharpest possible thinking on the subject of which print materials ought to be displayed, and how, and at what cost, and which titles would do better in a digital environment; how to balance the needs of current and future researchers with broader cultural considerations; how to understand the value of books as material objects, and the act of browsing them as a physical journey into a topic or the history of a country, within a set of spatial coordinates that don’t always map well inside of a computer network.

This is not what happened; the culture warriors did none of this thinking, instead ‘saving one, saving all’. Apparently the mode of destruction encouraged not reflection and responsible participation, but a Luddite backlash. How might the process have been better coordinated, made more ’empowering’ to use a loathsome jargon? Perhaps by turning the mute verdict of the sticker and the mute veto of the strikethrough into real conversations somehow? Can we imagine a happy consensus on which books to cull, or at least a feeling that due process was done? For that matter, is it even possible to get rid of a single book if we devote due attention and care to all of the excellent objectives Giovanni lists?

As to availability, as soon as the Vicky-Welly library has interlibrary loan that’s sort of a non-issue. Libraries share books from both within and among collections; in terms of that function there’s no particular imperative to have any particular title on any particular shelf. Perhaps my perspective at a small library that can’t hope to afford or shelve even a decent fraction of the books I think it ‘should’ controls my thinking here. But further, as I’ve just pointed out the original materiality of the letters makes them particularly bad poster children for defense of the physical book, the thing itself. In the old days we’d be inclined to think that photostatic reproductions were the gold standard for autograph material; nowadays digital reproduction offers quick and easy access to this level of visual authenticity. As for the printed version, that is just as easily digitized as any other book, subject to the same stewardship and market conditions. As I noted in my original comment, Gramsci’s oeuvre has a particularly poor digital availability compared, say, to Marx’s (the above quote was instantly available from my sofa for search and retrieval in public domain from Going forward this, not shelf-to-shelf stocking, may be the more appalling scandal.

If digital media offer easier access to content we want easily accessible, what advantages do physical books offer? Are they just fossils of the dying “analogue humanities,” as Giovanni calls them? Do we need them in some way digital media can’t provide to preserve memory, Giovanni’s special interest? Or are they involved, as he further suggests, in the materialization of a kind of collective identity?

Save one, save all. I don’t care how long it has been since the complete works of Giovanni Boccaccio were checked out. We need them; they must be there, occupy that space, or we might as well not have an Italian department at all.

I can see why it wouldn’t be worth having an Italian department that couldn’t read Boccaccio (or Verga, or Pirandello, Moravia, Calvino). But if he hasn’t been checked out in ten years, are they reading him? Should they just check out the books that give them their identity every once in awhile to reset the clock, as Giovanni suggests? And what would an Italian department look like that read its Boccaccio online, that did not therefore ‘own’ Boccaccio or have his works available to display as a talisman? Why would that be an Italian department not worth having?

May 11, 2010

Kick the can

by CarlD

Today on NPR I heard an economist (from the Brookings Institute, if I remember correctly) lament in relation to current attempts to avert the European crisis triggered by the Greek meltdown that this and other various bailouts, reshufflings and austerities were only treating symptoms, while the fundamental problem with the global economy was not being addressed. That problem, he said, was the underpricing of risk.

You may recall previous discussions of source scarcity and sink scarcity. The gist there was that although source scarcity is more immediately visible, we may be in more trouble from sink scarcity. I’ve been thinking that this analysis fits several seemingly disparate current events: the financial meltdown, health care reform, and a swirling mass of pulverized plastic in the mid-Atlantic. They’re all about risk management. Maybe as is so often the case I’m just stretching a metaphor to paper over my ignorance, but let’s see if it holds up.

Source is the stuff you use, and its scarcities are directly managed by whatever the local mode of allocation is, e.g. reciprocity systems or markets. In markets when things we want to use get more scarce they get more expensive, modifying our behavior until demand syncs up with supply – you know the drill. Sink is the other end of the process – it’s where we dump the waste. Sinks are less thoroughly marketized than sources (hence they can be described as ‘underpriced’): we may nominally pay for sewage and garbage disposal, but usually just what it costs to profit from carting it away rather than the longer-term costs of its enduring existence; and as yet we don’t pay in any direct and behavior-modifying way for, e.g., the carbon that comes out of our or our cars’ tailpipes, although we’re dimly becoming aware that this blessed oblivion may be leading to the other kind.

In fact throughout a whole range of activities dear to us, without clear source-to-waste-to-sink throughput we’d end up in the shit – as anyone who’s had a backed-up toilet knows. For example, two small cities in New York generate 13.8 million gallons a day of “domestic sanitary sewage… as well as industrial wastewater from food manufacturers, leather tanning and finishing, metal finishing, textile and other major industries.” Follow the link for a virtual tour of the facility. After treatment, which mostly involves separating the solids and chlorinating the heck out of it all, the liquid goes in the creek and the “dewatered sludge” gets trucked to the dump. Some other places it gets sprayed on cornfields. At that point, if not earlier, we’d like it just to be gone; but no such luck. Landfills refuse to go away by becoming filled up and needing replacements, often in neighborhoods where the folks would rather not have one; by leaking nastiness into the local subsoil; and by exuding earth-warming methane and other stanky joy into the atmosphere. Sludged fields run off into creeks and rivers, joining the other effluent there to create fertilizer soups that bloom up algae and kill fish.

Still, the earth and the waters do take the bulk of the waste away with consequences that are tolerable in the short term. The secret is in expanding the sink, for example by getting the ocean involved. If you dump your crud in a pond in the backyard, your life is going to get nasty in a big hurry. But if the pond outflows to a stream, then a river and ultimately the sea, your crud can disappear without a trace for a very long while. So it is with all our wastes. Concentrating and rebreathing the contents of your own lungs or your car’s tailpipe is an efficient way to commit suicide, but if you can dump that junk into the global atmosphere it spreads so thin you don’t even notice it trying to kill you. There are some recycling processes at work (e.g. plants that enjoy CO2 and oceans that absorb it) further extending sink capacity. Once we tap into the big sinks, at any given moment and for a long time out of sight is legitimately out of mind.

Until, that is, algae dead zones and life-choking pulverized plastic masses the size of nations start to show up in the world’s oceans. If sink capacity and recycling extension are not infinite, eventually the density of crud must become such that its attempts to kill us once again become noticeable and then effective.

It seems to me to require only a very small metaphorical leap to see the current financial crisis in these terms. As I and perhaps that Brookings economist understand it, the essence of the trouble was a saturation and reflux of the sinks into which financial risk was being dumped. Bad bets like subprime mortgages got dumped into the global economy in the form of securitized debts, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and so on, like so much pulverized plastic or sludged poo – chopped up small enough, washed far enough away from their sources and diluted with enough clean commerce that for a long time they in effect disappeared without a trace. Just like the thin, chlorinated sewage solution most of us call drinking water. In the short term this expansion of sink capacity looks incredibly clever and works great to turn marginal resources into wealth. But their marginality makes their waste-load that much greater, and eventually the solution got saturated enough that the economy tipped over from being clean with some acceptable contaminants to being dirty. All the noses turned up at once, and down we went. At this point governments step in as the big sinks of last resort. The European central bank is currently trying to reclarify the Eurozone by buying up national securities toxified by their bailouts of banks toxified by bad bets on bad debts. There’s only so far you can go with this; it’s not clear how much farther.

So far so icky but debatable. Now, to get the metaphor to health care I have to do something really ugly, which is to describe human suffering in the same terms as poo, trash, toxic waste, or bad debt. But in terms of creating loads on sinks pretty much any liability, including illness, works the same way. So sure enough, spreading risk around is how all insurance works, including health insurance. Basically, the costs of sickness and injury are spread out and paid by the healthy (through private premiums or public taxation, as we’ve discussed). The mechanism of health insurance is just like bad debt being mixed into good debt and wastewaster being mixed into the ocean. And in the same way, the success of the strategy depends on the capacity of the sink, or ‘pool’, to absorb costs without fatally toxifying. Sink/pool expansion is why the key to the current U.S. reform was pulling in millions of (mostly healthy) uninsured, which then enables toxically-expensive pre-existing conditions to be dumped in. Socialized medicine works the same way while adding the government’s bigger sink.

These dots first started connecting while I was listening to a panel discussion about autism, also on NPR. At one point one of the experts launched into a rant about how those jackals in the insurance industry were attempting to define autism as a learning disorder rather than a medical condition in order to skip out on the costs of lifelong care. And of course this is pretty shady, but why do it? The insurance companies are going to take their profits no matter what. If they have to pay for autism care they’ll just pass the cost along to the pool of healthy payers. What they’re actually doing is protecting the sink from having the toxicity of incredibly expensive long-term care for relatively few beneficiaries dumped into it. That they doubt the pool can absorb that cost sustainably should give us pause. A similar example showed up at Anodyne Lite’s place in relation to new treatments for Fragile X syndrome. One triumph of modern science is that these kids now survive childbirth and so do their mothers. In humane terms this is an unqualified good. In sink terms it’s another load of toxicity to find a way to dissipate.

Of course Malthus fretted about final limits to environmental carrying capacity well over a century ago, and since then we’ve figured out how to kick the can down the road just fine. There are many ways to manage the source-waste-sink throughput, including sink expansion, recycling and other conversions of net liabilities into net assets. What does seem clear is that our existing sinks are filling up, and alternatives are not immediately available. How we ‘should’ react to all of this can’t keep kicking the can down the road forever, most likely.

March 29, 2010

Tea Party Animals: How many lumps?

by CarlD

The ‘Tea Party’ is an interesting image for the current wave of disgruntled populism sweeping the U.S.American nonurbs and suburbs. Something is awry with the democracy if our own government is reminding folks of an oppressive colonial power. (That something may be civic education. The basic democratic concept that when you lose elections the other guys get to do things their way for awhile is what we’re trying to explain in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Arizona.) Certainly Democratic administrations are always going to stir up the folk libertarians on ordinary ideological grounds. But it strikes me that there’s an added existential dimension to the level of vituperation currently being directed at the Feds.

The Great Recession has been important social-psychologically in the sense that it created relative immiseration, historically one of the best predictors of social upheaval. People will take consistent, reliable misery pretty well. But when stuff they’ve grown to expect is taken away, watch out. Think Germans after Versailles. (To be more precise, the German case shows that the time to worry is when things start to get better again after the crisis has passed.) In the United States it seems to me the basic problem is accelerated by an individualistic popular culture in which all legitimate collectivities are taken to be voluntary. You’d think the government would be included in voluntary organizations because of the vote. But when votes you lose create organizations in which your will is not directly mixed, the conceptual slide into tyranny is real enough that it worried founding fathers like Madison and caused them to set up a clumsy, inefficient governing structure on purpose as a flywheel.

Also critical, I think, is the perhaps unique success of modern U.S.American civil society in hiding itself from individual view. As Durkheim noted, modernity is characterized by high complexity and interdependence, in which all sorts of stuff we need to live as we do happens around the edges of our awareness. We only worry about sewers and food safety and international monetary systems when they don’t work. When the gears and pulleys under the hood start to grind they make a frightening racket. ‘The Government’ is a convenient popular name for all the stuff we desperately need without even knowing it and over which we suddenly and nauseatingly realize we have no direct personal control when it starts to go wrong. It’s comforting that someone’s in control even as we revile them.

On the Big Scary Other-O-Meter ‘The Government’ probably ranks better than Satan, witches, the international Jewish conspiracy; maybe a little worse than patriarchy, capitalism, and the clash of civilizations. Educated people learn to depersonalize their Big Scary Others.

L'État, c'est moi.

January 5, 2010

Jane Elliott ethnography

by CarlD

The conversation about ‘culture shock’ has continued at Savage Minds and seems to have refocused on the question of the transformation of consciousness. I’ve just written a longish comment over there that I’ll carry over here for convenience:

… it’s that critical distance from second nature that’s looked for, the transformation of consciousness from naive ethnocentrism through a kind of Copernican revolution of mind that enables responsible (self-) criticism.

The problem is that like the Marxists trying to figure out how class consciousness happens, we don’t have a very good idea how these transformations actually occur, and so the tendency is to think magically. If we just throw people at the right kind of experience they will be transformed, abracadabra. ‘Education’ is the usual incantation, which makes all those Nazis with university degrees hard to swallow.

So somehow anthropologists are uniquely positioned to decenter their own cultural presuppositions because they go where people are really, really weird. But this corporate ideology does not work for at least two reasons: one, as Rex and John point out (some) sociological ethnographers, historians and tourists somehow manage to get the point of otherness without the epistemological grandstanding; and two, Euro (and Chinese, and Japanese, etc.) colonialists lived elbow-to-elbow with the Big Blue Others and managed (mostly) not to get the point, as for that matter some anthropologists haven’t.

For the latter reason I’m afraid Greg’s earlier gesture at the lamentable disconnect between white grad students and African Americans won’t actually get us far. No whites in history have been closer to African Americans than the slave owners and Jim Crow racists. You can rub people all over each other and it’s not going to automatically transform their consciousness (or may do so in undesirable ways).

Yet people do wake up from their dogmatic slumbers and become more mindful, critically responsible participants in human community. What are the conditions and moments of this process?

One classic answer is educator Jane Elliott’s famous exercise, as documented in the Frontline “A Class Divided” (you can watch the whole thing there and it’s well worth it). Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Elliott decided she needed to do more to transform the racial consciousness of her white Iowan elementary school kids. To this end she divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed kids, declared one group superior and the other inferior (and then, the reverse), and chillingly succeeded in recreating among her students all the nasty interpersonal dynamics of racism (with emergent structural properties) in no time at all. As a consultant she now works on adults, with the same effects.

Elliott the consultant reproduces her experiment

The exercise is frightening because of how well and how quickly it works, and because of how thoroughly it blurs the lines between teaching, activism, brainwashing and unethical research on human subjects. The kids are tossed this way and then that; they are spared no indignity of subordination, or excess of power; their worst impulses are elicited, encouraged and then ruthlessly dissected. Yet, the experiment was a smashing success. Years later members of the class report an inspiring level of sensitivity to others and critical self-awareness. They are happy and well-adjusted. If they were ‘broken’ by Elliott’s procedure, the new them that was created seems to be far preferable.

It seems to me that the key was not mere exposure to otherness, nor even momentary participation in otherness, although both are necessary. The kids were all deprivileged in turn, stripped of their sense of power and legitimacy, made aware of themselves through a lens of radical inadequacy. That step created anger and resentment; stopping there creates Klansmen and Nazis and terrorists in the wild. Elliott’s brilliance is in the reprivileging debriefing that follows the exercise. Elliott shows the kids the supportive empathy she wants them to learn, but only after demolishing their sense that they were entitled to it. Having torn the kids down and turned them on their heads, she puts them back on their feet, dusts them off and leads them in an analysis that reaffirms every value of themselves they had previously taken for granted, while stepping sideways and looking at it all from another angle. The dialectic of their transformation, then, is emergent in the sense that all of the materials for it were there already; what has been changed is their configuration.

December 11, 2009

Does this theory make me look phat?

by CarlD

Back when I was in grad school I had a subscription to Lingua Franca, the since-defunct gossip rag of academe. So at the local library book sale recently I was pleased to find for $.50 Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca (2002), a transparent cash-in bid that collects some of the real gems of pithy reportage, analysis, confession, revelation and snark for which LF was known.

At this point it’s all old news, twice warmed over and therefore hardly the material of cutting-edge bloggery, but still it’s great bathroom reading and I can’t help but reengage with it freshly. My topic today is Larissa MacFarquhar’s dry report (“Putting the Camp Back into Campus,” 1993) on the fanzine Judy!, in which “a University of Iowa undergraduate who calls herself Miss Spentyouth” rhapsodizes about the hotness of theory divas including ‘Kitty’ MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Eve Sedgwick, Geeta Patel and Diana Fuss. “These are the ladies who put the lay back in the MLA!” The central character of the burlesque is Judith Butler, then recently wooed by the “floundering” rhetoric department at UC Berkeley on the chance she’d like it better than her steady gig at Johns Hopkins’ Humanities Center (full disclosure: I applied twice and interviewed once for graduate study at the Center but was not accepted, for what I now see was ample reason).

MacFarquhar reports the parodic homoerotic excesses of the fanzine with admirable formulaic journalistic restraint, amplifying the camp in the funhouse of reflection. I’m sure I’m saying nothing new here and true to the ephemerality of this form I have no interest in backchecking. Miss Spentyouth is interviewed by phone from her bed at about 11am; Monique Wittig is “‘fabulous;'” it’s all “‘really a critique of the whole theory circus–I don’t know, don’t say that. You have to make me seem incredibly clever.'”

Of course Miss Spentyouth is a little shit. An awesomely droll little shit with a laser eye for the absurd. MacFarquhar captures both with efficient metadiscursive craft. Not so Judith Butler herself, apparently, who wrote in to LF (a reply brilliantly appended without comment to the original article in Quick Studies) to register her outrage at this “appalling and tasteless piece of journalism.” She deplores the “conjectured and debased speculations [sic]” of the fanzine and asserts that in publishing the story “Lingua Franca has effectively entered the homophobic reverie of the fanzine itself.” “If the fanzine signals the eclipse of serious intellectual engagement with theoretical works by a thoroughly hallucinated speculation [sic] on the theorist’s sexual practice, Lingua Franca reengages that anti-intellectual aggression whereby scholars are reduced to occasions for salacious conjecture … rather than as writers of texts to be read and seriously debated.” Those being the only two options. To top it all off Butler returns the ad feminem by righteously outing the undergrad’s real name. Twice.

Irony circuit overloads, brain locks, jaw drops, words fail.

Words fail. Rebooting operating system. Perhaps an image will help?

Well. In my experience there are three basic categories of people who get something done: people who have no choice; people who have made an existential commitment to press on in absurdity; and people convinced of their own importance. Arguably the latter two are subsets of the first. What seems clear is that Butler, whose work I often admire, is squarely in the third.

Seems…. We can hope that cultural über-theorist, professional rhetoritician and serious reader of texts Judith Butler has made a meta-clever double move here, inventing a humorless ‘Judith Butler’ sock-puppet to add another layer to the parody and reflexively redirect the readership to a contemplation of the ironies of the self-referential construction of theorized knowledge. Yes, there’s always hope. As God is my witness, tomorrow is another day.

November 26, 2009

Entropy in the cul-de-sac

by CarlD

I noticed this morning [yesterday, now] that the bathroom floor had collected enough schmutz to pass my action threshold. Leaves blanket our lawn and laundry blankets a corner of our bedroom. There are dishes in the sink and a bagful of student papers to read. The fish need feeding, the dog needs walking and the State taxes on one of our cars are due. Recycling was last night, and again in two weeks.

At moments like this I feel the grip of entropy most keenly. The little orderly systems of my life require the regular application of energy to keep from sliding down into chaos. Each time it’s worth it – the modest pleasures of a clean floor, a tidy lawn and an empty bag add up to a satisfying little life. Nevertheless, as I contemplate each outlay of attention and energy on doing that’s just going to need doing again, and again and again, the happy Sisyphus remains a tantalizing ideal.

In the classic The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979), anthropologist Mary Douglas and economist Baron Isherwood argue that the periodicity of tasks is a primary marker of status. High-frequency, non-postponable entropic tasks describable as chores are the specialty of women, children, and servants. This is economically rational, they propose, in the way that any specialization is.

Thus, the division of labor between the sexes is set, the world over, by the best possible economic principles as follows: work frequencies tend to cluster into complementary role categories. These differentiate upward: the higher the status, the less periodicity constraints; the lower the status, the greater the periodicity constraints (86).

It follows that “[a]nyone with influence and status would be a fool to get encumbered with a high-frequency responsibility (86-7).”

No wonder I try to turn the entropic work in my life into rare and extraordinary events rather than daily habitual duties. The problem, I suppose, is that my sense of status does not match my class, as Weber might say. The classy thing to do would be to engage Central Americans to regulate my floor schmutz and tidy my lawn; start a grad program so there are intellectual strawberry-pickers around to grade my papers; and delegate the dishes and laundry to my wife. Too bad she’s an artist and has no more sense of vocation to keep the house up than I do. If only I had a real wife and not this impressive doer of awesome things! Maybe the two of us could marry someone else to do the chores for us? Or adopt a kid, an older one so someone else has already made the training investment. But, you know, kids these days….

November 10, 2009

Hubert Harrison at Temple

by CarlD

At the conference I met Jeffrey B. Perry, whose work is on the history and consequences of white supremacism. Jeffrey is currently doing a lecture circuit with his talk and slide presentation on “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918.” He is at UMass-Boston this afternoon and will be at Temple University in Philadelphia on Thursday. See his website for details.

Although I’ve got some self-taught familiarity with the more famous players in the history of critical race theory, I had not heard of Hubert Harrison until running into Jeffrey between conference sessions. The Columbia UP page for Jeffrey’s book on Harrison offers this compelling capsule:

Hubert Harrison was an immensely skilled writer, orator, educator, critic, and political activist who, more than any other political leader of his era, combined class consciousness and anti-white-supremacist race consciousness into a coherent political radicalism. Harrison’s ideas profoundly influenced “New Negro” militants, including A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey, and his synthesis of class and race issues is a key unifying link between the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement: the labor- and civil-rights-based work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist platform associated with Malcolm X.

The foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician of the Socialist Party of New York, Harrison was also the founder of the “New Negro” movement, the editor of Negro World, and the principal radical influence on the Garvey movement. He was a highly praised journalist and critic (reportedly the first regular Black book reviewer), a freethinker and early proponent of birth control, a supporter of Black writers and artists, a leading public intellectual, and a bibliophile who helped transform the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture.

Jeffrey has also edited and introduced a collection of Harrison’s writings among numerous other scholarly contributions. His is clearly an extraordinary labor of love and honor.

We met up when my early Sunday morning panel was letting out and his mid Sunday morning talk was about to begin. I was struck by his passion and immediate self-identification as an independent, working-class scholar. I was also struck by his assumption that he had been placed disadvantageously on the program because he was an outsider bringing unwelcome knowledge. He saw a pattern of marginalization there. In contrast, I thought my paper had gotten dumped into the Sunday whatsits (Sunday is when most conference participants leave, so those panels are often loosely organized and sparsely attended) because I had submitted it solo and it hadn’t matched up at a glance with the main themes of the conference.

I suggested to Jeffrey that putting together a coherent panel and targeting it to the conference rubric might be a way to achieve a more favorable placement and reception for his important work. His dismissal of this unsolicited advice was firm and monosyllabic.

I’m glad to know about Hubert Harrison and grateful for Jeffrey’s work.

October 28, 2009

The left intellectuals and the God trick

by CarlD

I’ve had bits of a thought on some recent blog exchanges on intellectual activism and the role of the left intellectual stuck in my throat for the last little while, and since I’m now right up against my deadline for the Rethinking Marxism talk I have to prepare I’m just going to hack them up in a little pile. Pardon the mess.

Dysphoria is currently a theme for radical exploration – ‘a loss of symbolic attachments’ – really? How is this not just routine existential crises, anomie? In modern life someone who hasn’t had at least one existential crisis yet isn’t even in the game. That’s like an ante.

But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom.

As ads without products goes on to say, it would be cool if this diagnosis then turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For sure: see Fascists, Nazis, al Qaeda. Teh question is whether it can be channeled appealingly.

There’s trouble with the moralizing that animates the Left when it relies on Big Principles, so that the theoretical push tends toward the Big Problem, Big Enemy and Big Solution, a whole theology. There’s always the danger of producing and reproducing the Big Other to sustain our sense of the Big Us. This God trick may give revolutionaries the leverage to act (in part by creating what they fight against). Along the way it may generate Orthodoxy struggles – who’s on the side of the angels, who’s a dupe, a shill, a renegade, an enemy of the people.

Further, if the Other construct and the Us construct are mythologies, it’s a gamble whether the messier assemblages of real situations and processes can be horsed into a close enough approximation of the model to get it to work. More likely the projective everywhere of the Big Other and the functional nowhere of the Big Us are just paralyzing, leading to a spastic cycle of spectacular gesture and dysphoric despond. This is especially true if anything short of the Big Revolutionary Gesture is stigmatized as complicity with The Man.

I don’t find very productive the kind of analysis where ‘capitalism’ (or ‘patriarchy’, or ‘white supremacy’, or ‘Satan’) turns out just to be a name for everything that pisses us off. Nor do I think every malaise and dispepsia is potentially a little slice of revolution. How they might become so needs some work that isn’t just a smokescreen for self-validation. And therefore I agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals [based on 1)] for social, political and economic alternatives.”

Again, my apologies for the mess.

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October 28, 2009

Let all the evil that lurks in the mud hatch out

by CarlD

When students ask “did I miss anything important on Tuesday” or its correlate, “will this be on the test,” they are offering a peek at the creepy-crawlies under a rock most teachers would prefer not to turn over.

The unstated premise is that the class is only a series of exercises in hoop-jumping, trivia of two types: on the test, therefore given use-value only by arbitrary curricular requirements; and not on the test, useless altogether, a complete waste of time.

The fact of their presence in the classroom means that so far in their educational careers they have been pragmatically right, at whatever level of performance that particular classroom represents. The job for good teaching is to change the game so that the way they were right doesn’t work for them any more.