Archive for ‘feverish misunderstanding propagation’

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. Bloody messes are heavily represented in the possibility fan.

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

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

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

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August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 5, 2015

Making work

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to landscaping.

versailles gardens

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

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

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

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

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

1265 panorama

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

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

sisyphus

July 24, 2014

Snowpiercer

by CarlD

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

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

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

February 13, 2014

Hall, Gramsci, hegemony, complexity

by CarlD

I just had what might have been a good moment on the Facebooks. Jim Livingstone posted on how the New York Times hasn’t gotten around to officially noticing the death of Stuart Hall yet (neither had Dead Voles, until now), and in that context I wrote this:

It’s interesting to me how Hall embodied the thesis [“the ‘dispersal of power’ from state to society, ca. 1870-1930, as Gramsci tracked and projected it in the Notebooks (trans., pp. 210-76), thereby explaining why a ‘war of position’ now superseded a ‘war of maneuver’. In effect, a brilliant manifesto for cultural politics,” Jim Livingstone]. He basically WAS Gramsci: layers of marginality radicalized by immersion in the center. But where for Gramsci the hot revolution still looked like a plannable endgame, for Hall it was off the table right from the start, precisely because of that decentering of power. But – given the catastrophes of communist centralism, I think it’s fair to wonder if power has ever not been decentralized, really, so that the whole hegemony thesis ends up looking like a really rough draft of an actual theory of complex systems.

Seconds later, I noticed that here at last was a handle that made me actually want to pick my old Gramsci dissertation / book back up. Until now, other than posting the most recent version here online, I’ve abandoned it to the gnawing of the rats, because I couldn’t figure out how it was anything but yet another idiosyncratic take on well-worn materials. I didn’t have to publish it anyway to get tenure, so I didn’t. Aren’t there enough of those books cluttering up the shelves?

But there’s this thread of analysis in the piece that I always quite liked, and didn’t really know what to do with. I argue that the theorists of the early 20th century really weren’t equipped to cope with the actual complexity of the world, and so they resorted to what I called ‘space maintainers’, sort of folded up theoretical napkins under the short empirical table legs. Constructs that weren’t nearly constructive enough. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony then looks like an attempt to actually theorize complexity rather than shortcutting it somehow. Still, not surprisingly, very shortcutty and so not a good candidate for adoption here and now, but in context quite the thing.

So in that Facebook comment on Hall and Gramsci I haven’t actually said anything new to me; I’m still gnawing on the same bone I always was. But what’s changed is how much I know about following theories of complexity, and how they’ve gradually begun to inform the human studies. All of our discussions on Deacon, Juarrero and so on, for example. Which means I’m now in a much better position to frame the Gramscian / Weberian / Durkheimian moment in the history of theories of complexity, for example by seeing Hall as what Gramsci looks like in a different moment of the intellectual-evolutionary process.

And since this feels like it was my insight and agenda all along, just come into a more satisfying unfolding, I don’t have the uncomfortable feeling I always had when I was trying to think of some way to graft something more interesting onto the stuff I know. Plus, the stuff I get to read to come up to publication speed on this version of the project, and the way I get to read it, actually feels interesting and valuable in its own right, and not just a bunch of legitimacy hoops to jump through.

All of which means I actually have a clear reason to apply for a sabbatical, which is long overdue. So now we get to see if this is a passing enthusiasm, or a project that actually has legs. Cheers!

May 19, 2013

Survival of the fit enough

by CarlD

In my perusings I just came across this interesting item:

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

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

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

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

May 10, 2013

What counts as success

by CarlD

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 CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

And these are the graduates my informants find so disappointing.

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

March 24, 2013

Wild yeast sourdough starter

by CarlD

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 their Gaiant 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. 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 11, 2013

We’re all moocs now

by CarlD

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 CarlD

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 31, 2013

Late Night Thoughts

by Jacob Lee

Social systems are dynamic, internally heterogeneous, and loosely coupled. Some may object to my use of the term ‘system’ and certainly the word has a lot of baggage. By calling something a system, I am merely drawing attention to the fact that it admits descriptions in terms of parts, their properties, and the relationships between these; as a statement about something it really adds very little since all but possibly the simplest things can be described in such terms; however, we must call ‘it’ something, and by calling ‘it’ a ‘system’ I invite an analysis in terms of its constituent parts. The last sentence is slightly misleading however, because it suggests both that we can presuppose the thing (Brian Cantwell Smith’s Criterion of Ultimate Concreteness), and probably more importantly that any such thing is decomposable into parts, properties, and relations in only one right way. This is not the case at all; all but possibly the simplest things admit many analyses in which different parts, relations, and properties are distinguished and at different levels of granularity or precision, and accuracy. This needn’t be taken as an assertion of metaphysics so much as an assertion of pragmatism.

Obviously what sorts of descriptions are best is relative to purpose, context, and circumstance (if those indeed are three distinct things), but that only means that some difference between those descriptions must be able to account for their different utilities. There are a variety of information theoretic approaches that can be applied to such a problem. We can look at the complexity of the description itself, using something like algorithmic information theory; we can try to measure the amount of uncertainty a description reduces using Shannon’s mathematical communication theory, or we can try to look at the various approaches to measuring semantic information content that have been introduced into the philosophy literature. In a very general sense however, a good decomposition is one which is coherent and approaches some optimum ratio between the amount of information that can be extracted and the cost to do so.

So, social phenomena admit many possible decompositions; some may be better than others for some purposes and in some contexts; but here I want to ask: given the current state of social science, and our increasingly dire need for sound policy advice, what sorts of descriptions are we in want of?  To put this in a slightly different way, what sorts of descriptions are needed to improve our explanations of social phenomena, both to advance our theoretical understanding, but also to advance our practical ability to provide valuable policy advice? That’s a big question (of course), and I don’t think it has one answer (wink), so I want to specifically focus on the sorts of descriptions that, to put it crudely, would enable us to do good macro.

Let me stop myself her and express a view I adopted fairly early in my intellectual life: its long past time we stopy trying to explain macro-level social phenomena by projecting individual psychological or behavioral traits onto society: society is not the individual writ large. Nor is society something as orderly and well-engineered as, say, a mechanical clock. I can understand most of what I need to know about how a mechanical clock works by understanding how all the gears, springs, and other parts fit together: their respective properties and the dynamic relations between them. I don’t have to go much deeper than that. Their precise substance could be plastic, or brass, or wood: as long as they are rigid and sturdy enough to do their jobs, I don’t need to know. But in the open-ended, constantly evolving and boundary-transgressing world of human social systems, that sort of crude decomposition can only get us so far. Or put another way, descriptions which rely on the stability (in identity, function, etc.) of things like organizations, institutions, etc. — the low hanging fruit on the tree of knowledge– only help us when everything stays the same. But they don’t, even if for a long time it looks like nothing is changing. We see this is biological systems, for example, in which genetic diversity accumulates hidden by phenotypic homogeneity under some general regime, and when that regime changes, or some internal tipping point is reached, that hidden diversity rapidly becomes manifest in the distribution of phenotypes in the population.

As I said, society is heterogeneous, dynamic, and loosely coupled. By loosely coupled I mean that at reasonable levels of precision, most of its parts exhibit varying degrees of autonomy. Of course, autonomy is a contentious notion, but at the very least it means that behavior (of the parts in some natural decomposition) is determined in great degree by internal state rather than external inputs. That is, the parts exhibit relatively high degrees of independence from one another. Not too much of course; but not too little either, or they’d just be like the gears in some clock.

Back when, well back when I started reading things that led me to start thinking these sorts of things, the call to arms was something called ‘population thinking’ and ’emergence’. The idea was to move toward ways of conceptualizing problems that avoid the traps of Platonistic essentialism. In particular that meant thinking about heterogeneous sets of individuals, and how the properties of their aggregates arise through their interactions. Methodologically, but to varying degrees of fidelity, this has been expressed in the rise of a number of interrelated approaches to modeling social systems. Fueled by advances in graph theory (especially from work in computer science) and the new ‘social’ web, we have the blooming of social network analysis which largely seeks to explain aggregate phenomena via the structural properties of social networks (however they end of being defined). In addition to (and in some ways complementary to) social network analysis, have been a variety of computational approaches to modeling, especially agent-based approaches which study how aggregate behavior arise from the interactions of modeled individual agents interacting in some domain or problem environment. These come in an exceeding abundance of variants that are difficult to describe.

In a recent post, Daniel Little discusses how what he calls methodological localism emphasizes two ways in which people are socially embedded: agents are socially situated, and social constituted. By socially situated he means how agents are locally embedded within systems of constraints: systems of social relations and institutions that determine the opportunities, costs, and choices available, i.e. the ‘game’ that agents have to play. Or to quote Marx:

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 social constitution of agents is a more subtle thing, but something that anthropologists are generally poignantly aware of. People are encultured beings. Their behavioral and cognitive repertoire comes into being as part of ongoing social interaction. They are learned, but their learning is not simply a matter of knowledge acquisition, but of agent becoming: we fully exploit the affordances of our developmental plasticity. To say that I am an American is not simply to say that I have adopted a convenient label, but to assert an embodied fact.

Little goes on to discuss how these two perspectives on social embeddedness give rise to differing approaches to modeling social phenomena:

These two aspects of embeddedness provide the foundation for rather different kinds of social explanation and inquiry.  The first aspect of social embeddedness is entirely compatible with a neutral and universal theory of the agent — including rational choice theory in all its variants.  The actor is assumed to be configured in the same way in all social contexts; what differs is the environment of constraint and opportunity that he or she confronts.  This is in fact the approach taken by most scholars in the paradigm of the new institutionalism, it is the framework offered by James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory, and it is also compatible with what analytical sociologists refer to as “structural individualism”. It also supports the model of “aggregative” explanation — explain an outcome as the result of the purposive actions of individuals responding to opportunities and constraints.

The second aspect, by contrast, assumes that human actors are to some important degree “plastic”, and they take shape in different ways in different social settings.  The developmental context — the series of historically specific experiences the individual has as he/she develops personality and identity — leads to important variations in personality and agency in different settings. So just knowing that the local social structure has a certain set of characteristics — the specifics of a share-cropping regime, let us say — doesn’t allow us to infer how things will work out. We also need to know the features of identity, perception, motivation, and reasoning that characterize the local people before we can work out how they will process the features of the structure in which they find themselves. This insight suggests a research approach that drills down into the specific features of agency that are at work in a situation, and then try to determine how actors with these features will interact socially and collectively.

Clearly traditional economics is particularly wed to the first approach. At the individual level, economic agents are typically modeled as completely informed, perfectly rational and self-interested agents. In equilibrium models, say of market behavior, that idealized agent *is* writ large: all agents are the same and face the same situation and have the same information. It would be fair to say that this simplifying assumption has yielded very interesting formal results, but their adequacy as a foundation for an empirical science can be robustly criticized–though there are indeed circumstances in which, say, markets perform in close accordance to such models.

The behavioral revolution in economics of the last twenty years or so introduced various sorts of ‘boundedly rational’ agents. For example,  Tversky and Kahneman demonstrate a number of ways in which real human agents violate these assumptions. In particular, their prospect theory holds that people have distinct utility functions for gain and loss domains (and that these domains are subject to framing effects). Generally speaking, Tversky and Kahneman found that people are risk-avoiding when facing gains, and risk-seeking when facing losses. However, some who utilize agents are assumed to have the similar enough risk preferences to justify ignoring individual differences. So while prospect theory’s agents are more psychologically ‘real’ than Homo economicus, they clearly fall within Little’s first domain. Other models do however include limited varieties of agents- usually agents with fixed strategies or preferences of one kind or another. What is most frequently omitted, perhaps because it is hard to model and hard to analyze, is the adaptive agent, agents who change and grow, agents who are socially constituted.

Recently, VOX, a policy and analysis forum for economists hosted a debate ‘What’s the Use of Economics?’ regarding the future of economics post the world’s economic crisis. In his contribution to this debate, Andrew Haldane, Executive Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England blames the academic and professional economics profession for a number of sins contributing to the world’s current economic crisis. Amongst them is a failure to adequately take into account heterogeneity of economic agents in economic models:

These cliff-edge dynamics in socioeconomic systems are becoming increasingly familiar. Social dynamics around the Arab Spring in many ways closely resembled financial system dynamics following the failure of Lehman Brothers four years ago. Both are complex, adaptive networks. When gripped by fear, such systems are known to behave in a highly non-linear fashion due to cascading actions and reactions among agents. These systems exhibit a robust yet fragile property: swan-like serenity one minute, riot-like calamity the next.

These dynamics do not emerge from most mainstream models of the financial system or real economy. The reason is simple. The majority of these models use the framework of a single representative agent (or a small number of them). That effectively neuters the possibility of complex actions and interactions between agents shaping system dynamics…

Conventional models, based on the representative agent and with expectations mimicking fundamentals, had no hope of capturing these system dynamics. They are fundamentally ill-suited to capturing today’s networked world, in which social media shape expectations, shape behaviour and thus shape outcomes.

This calls for an intellectual reinvestment in models of heterogeneous, interacting agents, an investment likely to be every bit as great as the one that economists have made in DGSE models over the past 20 years. Agent-based modelling is one, but only one, such avenue. The construction and simulation of highly non-linear dynamics in systems of multiple equilibria represents unfamiliar territory for most economists. But this is not a journey into the unknown. Sociologists, physicists, ecologists, epidemiologists and anthropologists have for many years sought to understand just such systems. Following their footsteps will require a sense of academic adventure sadly absent in the pre-crisis period.

Amen.

December 24, 2012

The rhetoric of commodities

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 6, 2012

Attention: Surplus!

by CarlD

I hereby announce the launch of my new teaching, learning, and assessment blog, Attention Surplus. I’ve been thinking of doing this for my own reasons for quite some time; the more immediate motive is to try to satisfy the para-academic evaluation and assessment regime with something more qualitative than quantitative.

I’ll be doing most of my teaching-related posting over there from now on. The first couple of posts are already up, along with all the old teaching/learning posts from here at DV. Hope you’ll come visit!

December 6, 2012

An anniversary of sorts

by CarlD

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

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

October 11, 2012

Text, subtext, and ‘accessibility’

by CarlD

I just realized, silly me, that I’m a subtext Nazi. As a trained critical reader in the human studies, history / sociology / anthropology, I pretty much assume that most of what I’m interested in will be in the subtext. Because as Wittgenstein remarks, “the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”

And as a ‘sophisticated’ reader of cultural product, I expect to have my intelligence challenged by puzzles of interpretation. I am immediately put off by overly-expository presentation, which strikes me as crude and amateurish. If I’m being told the plot and the characters are soliloquizing their backstories within the first five minutes / pages, I’m out. In fact, I really don’t want to be told that stuff at all – I want it to emerge from the dynamics of a more subtle, dare I say lifelike development.

Here is no doubt where my visceral disgust with the discourses and judgments of ‘accessibility’ comes from. It’s all just so vulgar, and I mean that with all the sniffy poindexter class warfare pique I can pack into that nasty little word. Who needs things to be obvious? Stupid people, obviously. Or lazy people, but definitely not people I want on my team.

In my reading circles the students struggle at first with ‘difficult’ texts in which the characters do not reveal themselves immediately, the plot is joined in medias res, and perspectives or timelines are nonlinear. Pretty much anything ‘literary’ knocks them into a resentful funk. But these are students – they are ignorant, not stupid, and we’re here to fix ignorance. Their expectations are all textual, so they don’t know how to feel about the mysteries of subtext. I make their frustration explicit – the author is playing them, making fun of them. Here’s another way to think about it – the author is respecting your intelligence, not saying every little thing, trusting you to work it out. Turns out they’re mostly not lazy either, they just don’t feel authorized to read between the lines. May even feel that it’s rude. Which in lots of everyday contexts, it is.

Let’s think of this as a workout for our brains, I say. Is it a good workout if it doesn’t make you sweat? Do you see results immediately when you work out? Is it worth it in the longer run to have a mind that can handle a heavier load? What would be the advantages of being someone who doesn’t need to be told every little thing – the bird that can find its own worms rather than needing someone else to chew them up and spit them down you?

So, is this class war?

October 8, 2012

Obeasts, Meta-activism and Big Bothering

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 23, 2012

Things, relations among things, relations

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

September 16, 2012

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

by CarlD

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

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

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

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