Archive for ‘infinity standard’

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

October 14, 2014

Bringing the excitement

by CarlD

I got crunched for time (I crunched myself for time) leading into submission of midterm grades, so I read a bunch of papers for assessment the first time and now I’m looping back to comment on them, which is actually the hard and time-consuming part.

It’s hard because I try to engage with the papers as actual pieces of scholarship, as the products of intelligent and developing minds. That means I can’t just take a red pen and mark all the errors to ‘justify’ a grade; I have to attend to what they’re trying to accomplish, and prompt them toward better accomplishments.

Many of this first batch of papers are doing what my colleague called ‘taking refuge in the facts’, reporting on findings with very little engagement or analysis. This is actually a victory compared to the wifty handwaving students can default to when they haven’t tuned in to the integrity of investigation – when they just think they’re jumping through hoops. These folks are getting that they should know what they’re talking about. But papers like this don’t bring the excitement yet – they’re dull recitations of data. And since I don’t ritualize very well, each one hits me right between the eyes like a soggy dishrag, and for each one I have to figure out some comment to make or question to ask that points at a way to DO something with the information they’ve found.

I didn’t assign the topics – they got to pick their own. And I’m prepared to be interested in anything. So there’s at least a potential dynamic of shared interest to work with. But when they don’t bring the excitement, mustering it up for them time after time can be a brain-wringing experience. Not to say that I consistently succeed, either.

OK, so rather than leaving this post in pathos, I wonder if anyone who’s paying attention has any stories to tell or strategies to share about finding the excitement?

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.


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 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.

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!

July 8, 2012

Nonsense identity

by CarlD

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


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

Really, just stop it.

June 26, 2012

Constraint and utopia

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 13, 2012

Complexity in practice pt. 2: writing and reading

by CarlD

The prior post on complexity in practice was trying to be ‘about’ a paper by Chuck Dyke that is ‘about’ Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson et. al. However, the discussion quickly encountered an antecedent problem, just what sort of thing the paper actually is, or as Asher put it, what the author is trying to do; which is then a question about what to expect from it, how to read it and how to decide if it’s a good version of what it is. It occurs to me that addressing that question is actually a perfectly good way to talk about the paper, so here’s my take, broken out into a separate post for ease of handling.

As I asked last time, what would it look like to practice complexity, not just talk about it? My sense is that Dyke (and Deacon I think, but less so Juarrero) is trying to do this. Of course if all of them are right, and this is the general takeaway of the now-long history of systems theory, in one obvious sense we are all practicing complexity all the time – we are in fact morphodynamically and perhaps teleodynamically complex. What I mean though is that Dyke’s paper seeks to demonstrate the complexity it discusses. It is both about complexity and an enactment of complexity. In this sense it is the same sort of thing N. Pepperell argues Marx’s Capital is on a much grander scale, both a discussion and a demonstration of complexly dynamic and complexly coupled systems.

This is a rather different sort of enterprise than the usual linear thesis-driven essay or monograph, of course. In that sort of writing we’re looking for a “fundamental point,” as JohnM diagnostically put it in the prior discussion, which is then systematically developed with logical rigor and point-mapping evidentiary support – the Popperian philosophy of science model, as Michael pointed out. But as we see when we try to teach our students the technique, it’s highly stylized and artificial, not actually how anything in the world works – including the world of practicing scientists, as Latour and Woolgar famously showed now long ago. Endless handwringing and some very good jokes have been devoted to the ‘problem’ of the procrustean mismatch between logocentric linearity and anything it is ‘about’, as well as the tendency of logocentrics to pick topics and arrange situations that happen to fit the very specific and narrow virtues of their procedure.

Well, for better or worse by the time we’ve been indoctrinated and certified into the communities of expertise that constitute scholarship we have learned to ‘recognize’ disciplined, monographic linearity as the proper form of authoritative discourse, and immediately to dismiss as undisciplined, muddled, confused or meandering (‘poetic’, perhaps, if we’re being generous) anything that represents more directly the complexity it is about. This is a constraint that accomplishes a great deal, of course; the joke in Borges is after all that the map which most accurately represents the territory is also the most completely useless. The productive advantages of abstraction, specialization and focus, like the division of labor and the assembly line, really need no rehearsing, especially when volume is the objective and advanced artisanal talent is not widely distributed. Nevertheless, there is something inherently self-defeating about linear discussions of nonlinearity. If complexity is your topic, it makes a sort of elementary sense to adopt complexity as your practice. And it also makes sense to expect readers to modify their expectations accordingly. But as Asher has already discussed at length and as Dyke also thematizes, this puts a lot of pressure on readers, especially those for whom the strategies of linearity and discipline have been or promise to be the most successful.

What clues do we have that Dyke is trying to enact complexity, that is, that he’s not just wandering around pointing randomly at birdies and flowers and clouds that remind him of his first girlfriend? Just a few guideposts here.

We could start with the (sub)title of the paper, “a plea for pedagogical plurality.” Pedagogy? That’s teaching, communication more broadly. Purpose: transmission of information. Plurality? Why? If the linearity metanarrative were true, there’d be no need for pedagogical plurality; a single beam, properly focused, would pass through all receiving prisms identically. This image Gramsci called “an Enlightenment error.” But if that’s not true, and the author knows it’s not true, then perhaps the author will be compensating for the complexity of reception by shooting a variety of beams from a variety of angles, and expecting that the enlightenment effects will be subtly or even dramatically different each time. What will this text look like? It will make ‘the same’ point in a variety of ways, which will seem repetitive or chaotic exactly to the degree each reader reflects or refracts the luminous dispersion.

Of course if the author could rely on functionally identical readers, this pedagogical plurality would not be necessary. And here we see one of the amazing accomplishments of the discipline constraint: by absenting all other possible configurations, it delivers functionally identical readers who have been rigorously cut and rotated so the light they each beam out will be received and refracted just so by all the others. Like a well-hung crystal chandelier the blazing glory when such a cognitive system is well-ordered is really a beautiful and useful thing. But of course, only that one room is lit.

Let’s move on. The paper is ‘about’ Deacon, but more centrally it’s about what Deacon is trying to do in relation to what other people in a more-or-less loose network of more-or-less similar projects are trying to do. This means the network has to be mapped, and the proximities and similarities surveyed. A big middle chunk of the paper does this work, while trying to leave open sockets for the (many, many) network nodes not discussed, i.e. absent, while sampling their range and significance (e.g. the ‘random’ Pirandello reference). Dyke likes Deacon, thinks he’s right about how things work, and therefore thinks that the nodes and projects are both teleodynamically self-organizing and morphodynamically coupled into a larger system with its own dynamics. How would he show this, not just say it? What would we expect to see if this were true? Links, absences, feedbacks, feedforwards, gradients, the usual. A nonlinear, unpointy, inherently incomplete and unclosed text that, like the network it discusses, is multinodal and loops back on itself dynamically, working all the while to create, maintain and singularize itself. Circles that are actually spirals, as he slyly adumbrates under the discussion of the discovery of DNA and the structure of Deacon’s text.

And so, what is Deacon trying to do, and how does it relate to what Dyke is trying to do? The answer, we’re plurally taught to understand, is properly understood as a matter of constraint within complex dynamical systems far from equilibrium. So after a lot of loopy groundwork about situated knowledge and “ecologies of practice” and “investigative ecosystems” and a great deal of loosely, dynamically related detail we get yet another heuristic example, which I’ll let stand in as a ‘point’ for this post:

To move closer to issues of consciousness with another concrete example, why is it, we want to know, that Deacon’s book is so inhumanly tedious? Well, possibly it is so largely because of all the possible objections he can imagine to his theory. He’s probably better at identifying these possibilities than his potential critics are. Many of these possible critics don’t themselves appear as robustly singularized factishes, but only factishes in absentia. The intellectual defenses are waiting in the text to deal with them should they attack, just as the chemical defenses of a plant are on hand ready to deal with threats that never in fact materialize. But their absence is felt. I take it that I’ve just given a possible causal account of an apparent factish: Deacon’s prolixity. At any rate, the hypothesis that most absentials involve the modal characterization of constrained structure seems to me a live one.

A very, very sad story that.

December 7, 2011

Useful uselessness

by CarlD

Bookmark here. Something to connect to previous posts and conference papers about the usefulness of history being its uselessness. Found in Peter Manseau’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution:

All animals of a certain level of complexity, Bellah explains, engage in forms of “useful uselessness,” the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s term for behaviors that do not contribute to short-term survival yet do ensure long-term flourishing. In the play of animals, we can see a number of interesting elements: The action of play has limited immediate function; it is done for its own sake; it seems to alter existing social hierarchies; it is done again and again; and it is done within a “relaxed field,” during periods of calm and safety. Put another way: Play is time within time. It suggests to its participants the existence of multiple realities—one in which survival is the only measure of success, and another in which a different logic seems to apply.

‘Useful uselessness’ is how I’ve been framing history, so I’ll need to track down Gopnik. Other links: Gramsci’s advocacy of ‘dead languages’, Hegel’s remark about history being too different than the present to offer useful lessons, Watzlawick et. al.’s critique of Freudian psychology to the effect that knowing the causal origins of a complex in one’s developmental history is of no use in resolving it since we cannot go back in time and change them.

Aren’t all of the humanities, at least as taught in Gen Ed to people who will not be following them into serious scholarship, this kind of useful uselessness? Wouldn’t it be good to be clear about this fact and be appropriately playful about them?

October 14, 2011


by CarlD

There’s Madoff. Then there’s Social Security according to Rick Perry. Now here’s an essay (from a website about a book) that ups the ante. Ellen Hodgson Brown argues that the entire global financial system is a Ponzi scheme.

Brown elegantly shows how the whole notion that the national debt has to be paid down or paid off is a red herring, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works (money is debt; the national debt is, essentially, the national money; it is therefore constantly both paying itself off and recreating itself in the normal course). But she also shows how leaving the creation of the debt/money supply in private hands, as it is now, keeps interest from circulating back into the economy where it can be earned back by debtors and used ongoingly to pay their debts, making the system unsustainable. Essentially this creates toxic debt sinks that eventually have to fill up, so that the deficit fretters end up being right albeit for the wrong reasons. She recommends public banking as the solution, which as she describes the problem does seem sensible, albeit further infuriating for the Ron Pauls (warning: balky script at this link) of the world.

The essay clarifies some things nicely and I recommend it. At the same time I’m suspicious of this kind of clarity, which feels a lot like the sort of self-help advice where everything will be cool if you exercise, eat right and get plenty of fiber. I have this intuition, maybe small-minded and self-serving, maybe I can get some Dao cred, or maybe it’s the same thing, that problems on a global scale are fundamentally unfathomable, indeed that to treat facts at that scale as problems is a kind of existential category error. Of course I know better from Marx, but then again we’re still waiting for Marx to pay off on the solution side.

August 15, 2011

What done sign my name?

by CarlD

Tim Tyson, following the old black spiritual, says it’s blood. Blood Done Sign My Name (2004) centers on the murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, east North Carolina in May, 1970. Marrow was beaten and shot to death by white merchant Robert Teel and his sons, supposedly for chatting up one of the sons’ wife outside their store. The actual tale of the murder takes up a few pages right in the middle of the book, most of which is historian Tyson’s autobiographical attempt to understand the event in context. He was 10 at the time, friends with another of the killer’s sons.

This is a rightly celebrated book (there’s also a movie). Tyson tells tales like someone raised in a rich oral tradition, which as the son and grandson of preachers he was. He’s at his best when he uses multiple narrative strands to frame each other, patiently weaving together stories and perspectives to create a densely layered reconstruction of a surprisingly complex situation. Tyson is not at his best when he gets impatient and steps outside the narrative to attempt more formal analysis. He has the genre’s understandable but unhelpful tendency to substitute moral preening for rigorous investigation, and like any ideology his liberalism and religiosity default to pat answers too quickly and easily.

I’m currently stuck on a section exemplary of both tendencies (I’m about 2/3 through the book, which I picked up in a thrift store and am reading as an homage to my colleague Peter Murray), so I’m kind of live-blogging here a little bit. Starting about p. 180 in the paperback Tyson sets up a lovely narrative contrast between three men, Robert Teel and two Tysons: Tim’s own father Vernon, Methodist pastor of Oxford, and his notorious second cousin Elias, aka ‘the Gator’. It turns out Teel and Vernon grew up a short distance from each other in virtually identical material circumstances; the same could be said for Gator. Yet they turned out very differently. Tim ponders this:

I have often contemplated the differences between my father and Gerald’s father, and how they shaped our lives. Daddy and Teel were within a year of each other in school and grew up only a few miles apart. Neither of them liked school worth a damn. They wore overalls, ate cornbread and beans, drank their iced tea heavily sweetened, and knew what it was to work hard in the tobacco fields from sunup to sundown. Each of them left eastern North Carolina wanting something better, something more.

Here we have one of those grails of explanatory analysis, the divergent effect from seemingly identical causes. Why, given all the common antecedents, did Robert become an angry, violent racist while Vernon became a decent, humane social activist? Here’s Tim:

The difference between them couldn’t be boiled down to socioeconomic class; neither of their families had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, as the saying went. In fact, while Teel had his G.I. Bill educational benefits to pay his way through any school, my father had to borrow and scrounge. But Daddy went to a liberal arts college founded by the Quakers, where he met pacifists, liberals, radicals of various descriptions, and black people far more educated than himself. More important, he had Reverend Jack Tyson for a father. At the heart of our differences, I think, stand the many-sided visions of Jesus that haunt the South. Although eastern North Carolina was awash in Baptist fundamentalism, the Teel clan did not seem to have had the softening influence of the gospel in their lives, at least not the same gospel that Jack Tyson preached.

Hm. I’m sure this is right, and I like the image of ghostly kaleidoscopic Jesus. But among other things we might like to know why Vernon pursued school even without liking it, why he picked the Quaker one and stuck it out despite all the cognitive dissonance, how the family got entrained on the ‘right’ version of the gospel, and so on. Here as usual Tim’s storytelling steps up to do the much heavier lifting.

The first thing that stands out is a rather different home life. Coming after dozens of smoothly flowing pages of the Tysons’ wholesome, affectionate, mutually respecting loviness, Teel’s broken home puts a squeal in the brakes. The missing father, the hardscrabble, woman-centered plan B, and eventually the worshipped stepfather and underage army enlistment all invite armchair psychologizing: arrested development, thwarted masculinity, status anxiety, joining issues. Tim wisely declines the invitation, spraying facts like aerosol and letting them settle into their own pattern. The account of his own father’s upbringing is occasion for some more gratuitous (albeit snarktastic) moral coup-taking, but in the process we find ol’ Grampa Jack actually reading the Bible and thinking about what it says, against rather than with received wisdom, a striking fact that clicks into the matrix of the Tysons’ multi-generational orneriness and disregard for common sense — supported by tale after tale of quixotic deeds — to suggest that bucking the tide is a Tyson thang, of dubious larger significance until conditions align for the greater enablement of such dispositional change agents. We can well imagine the same people becoming Communists or Anabaptists or Lutherans under different ideological conditions, but in the rural American South at mid-century the friendly reading of the gospels was the available conceptual framework for that contrary disposition.

In short, the Tysons are the kind of holy hemorrhoids who are doomed to frustrating irrelevance during normal times, but come into their glory when the poo hits the fan. Another cat who refused to be herded was cousin Gator, the cautionary tale, whose charismatic orneriness did not get channeled into oppositional intellectuality, perhaps slipping through the cracks as the beautiful baby of the family, and who therefore drifted into a highly successful but ultimately self-destructive amoral dissipation of boozing, fighting, gambling and womanizing. Tyson uses Gator to deliver a little homily about original sin. Much more of a herd animal but with no herd of his own or developed sense of how to function in one, Teel had ambition and saw that the main line of acceptance, success and influence ran through material accumulation and status conformity, not intellectual pursuit. He may have shared a dislike of school with Vernon and Gator, but unlike the former he had no positive models of deep thinking and also didn’t see the use of it; and in terms of the locally-dominant aspirational discourse, he was right. No doubt he was religious in the way Weber suggests lots of Protestants are religious, as a networking tool and symbolic guarantee of his trustworthiness in business. And no doubt his racism, clearly a subset of a more generalized anger and violence as stories of his various scrapes show, was motivated directly by the status anxiety of a climber needing backs to climb on, but it also has all the overcooked theatricality of an arriviste trying way too hard without any sense of nuance. It contrasts markedly with the more serene and subtle racism of the town’s old guard, who quietly shut down all the public parks rather than integrate them — probably as much as anything to avoid ugly scenes.

It’s not that Tyson’s religious explanation for the differences among these men is wrong; as Weber told us long ago in rising to the challenge of Marx’s materialism, ideas may often act as ‘switchmen’ among materially possible tracks. But we also want to know how elective affinities, as he called them, are established between particular circumstances, concepts and ideals, and how the particularities of disposition, experience, conditions and possibilities come together to produce actual life courses. I think Tim’s book does that, and it’s interesting for someone as tracked into complex formal analysis as I am to see it happening not in the analysis, but in the stories.

For real-time analysis, my favorite figure so far in the book is Goldie Frinks, who apart from the awesome name was a civil rights activist and former nightclub owner who shows up on p. 150. A shrewd Wittgensteinian, Frinks specialized in seeing situations from multiple perspectives and changing the game to dissolve problems and create opportunities.

As he explained to [Tim] at his home in Edenton two decades later, Frinks understood that Southern whites could hardly present a united front. Few whites truly backed the movement, especially in their own communities, but there were many shades of weak support, moral queasiness, deep misgivings, and reluctant opposition, in addition to the fire-eating racists. “You couldn’t forget that you had some good white folks, and even the other ones wasn’t necessarily all bad…. They were cramped because of the age-old mores of time,” Frinks asserted…. Dr. King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” argued that such people were often worse than outright opponents. But Frinks saw them as an opportunity. “A lot of the good whites couldn’t just come down here and speak. ‘You’re wrong, Mr. Teel,’ they couldn’t say that, but they had what you might call a silence that I could hear. If you forgot that, you wouldn’t be nowhere. A man like Teel, getting his badge of honor from the murder of a man who had no cause to be put to death, that man was somewhat out of place.”

Somewhat out of place is a beautiful way to think about a guy like Teel, perceptive and without moral patness. Nor does it make Teel any less destructive or any less the queasifying instrument of a system of domination, which Frinks actively fought. But it’s a lovely reminder that giving people a sense of place is an important tactic and purpose of humanist activism, just like rudely displacing people and requiring heroic saintliness of them is not a promising strategy for positive change.

January 20, 2011

How many times must I tell you?

by CarlD

I noticed myself doing something interesting today. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach three sections of introductory World History back to back to back. We were doing a document analysis using my critical reading rubric. Inevitably I end up providing some of the same guidance from section to section, so that by the third section, from my perspective I’m saying the same thing for the third time.

I share a common prejudice that people who need things repeated to them three times might not be all that bright. (Actually, since I had the students divided up into smaller work groups among which I circulated, I said some of the same things way more than three times.) I know there can be reasons repetition might be needed that have nothing to do with intelligence, so I can usually intercept my first reflex reaction. But the point here, of course, is that I was not repeating myself to the same people; it just felt that way by the end of a long day. And as a result I noticed myself reflexively feeling as if the third section might be a little dim – when in fact they picked up the task and performed it every bit as well as the earlier sections.

It’s interesting to think what kinds of effects might accumulate over a long semester, or career, of letting this dynamic play out. Just a little more impatience in my body language, a little less care in explaining the ‘third’ time, or conversely the kind of elaborate patient overexplanation one may lavish on the slow. How much difference do such subtleties actually make?

May 11, 2010

Kick the can

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 23, 2010

Quality enhancement

by CarlD

Our accrediting agency requires a “quality enhancement plan” (QEP) because nothing is perfect and everything can be improved. We settled on a program to create a culture of reading. And no, you can’t take that for granted at American universities. Here’s a poster I posed for to promote the cause:

The book I’m holding upside-down is Postmodernism for Beginners. The t-shirt says “Don’t Wanna.” By the way, at first I thought the committee-produced slogan “get between the covers” was harmless enough in a nerdy teehee kind of way, but it turns out to be catastrophic in both directions at once: it’s nerdy enough to turn off the students; yet it offends the prudes.

January 30, 2010

Nostalgia, solastalgia, and some other pains

by CarlD

Paul Mason has a terrific post up at Neuroanthropology on “Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of Our Changing Environment,” riffing on an article in The New York Times Magazine in which Daniel Smith (citing Glenn Albrecht, Professor of Sustainability at Murdoch University) wonders if we have an ecological unconscious.

Paul hooks the question up with his experience of economic development in Pelourinho, Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. In the process of restoring the neighborhood to pretty it up for tourism, the government forcibly relocated poor locals. A result, Paul says, was solastalgia, “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.” Paul is particularly interested in indifference as a psychological defense against solastalgia. He sees the marginalized locals acting badly toward others and themselves, and finds that they have stopped caring. Faced with change they cannot control, they go numb.

The debilitating effects of Nostalgia can occur when you are physically displaced from somewhere you call home. Solastalgia occurs when the environment you call home changes unrecognisably for reasons beyond your immediate control. Solastalgia can lead to distress, but I believe that this distress is felt by people who care. I am not concerned about the psychological effects of solastalgia as much as I am concerned about the psychological defense against solastalgia. The indifference and resignation that the sensitive observer can read on the faces of the poor in Pelourinho, the indifference that can lead a seven year old to hold a gun to a person’s head and demand money, the indifference that can allow a pregnant mother to abuse drugs are all, to my mind, a psychological defence to the debilitating emotion of ‘care’ in a world that has taken away even the most fundamental security of ‘home’ and removed all sense of place.

Not caring as a defense against helpless care seems plausible enough. Paul ponders, is this psychological dynamic behind the apparent failure of climate change warnings to gain traction with so many people?

From my earliest days at primary school in Australia, I can remember learning about pollution, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, global warming, climate change, the destruction of the rainforests, exploitation of marine life, overpopulation and poverty. And yet, today so many of my age group either seem numb to the topics or they simply have a jerk reflex whenever the issues are raised. Often the topic is changed all too easily.

I don’t doubt it. But I also wouldn’t want to discount some other dynamics that may complicate the analysis (and the prescription). For one thing, there’s the common tendency to value one’s own direct experience over others’ as a source of reliable knowledge. Global warming is not yet immediately evident for most people, and for a lot of them, that’s decisive. Since Paul likes neologisms and I do too we’ll call this syndrome autistalgia.

It’s also not self-evident that climate change, or any other kind of change, is a bad thing. The environment will be different, but difference may be assessed from many perspectives and according to many standards. More ocean and fewer humans would be great for fish, and for whatever new species evolved to replace us as the dominant life-form like we replaced the dinosaurs. Even in the shorter and more selfish term, some people find change exhilarating. I’m not one of them, but they’re out there and when they don’t get all pantybunchy about climate change it’s not necessarily because they’re erecting emotional firewalls to protect their embattled psyches. They’ll just take their chances. I would venture to say that evolution and experience have provided humans with a prudent mix of dispositional sensitivity to risk, homebodies and bungee-jumpers, so that as a species we might both avoid risks and seize their opportunities. We’ll call the inconvenience of this fact for any sort of straightforward climate politics polystochastalgia.

Of course, as a subset of the above some people are just making self-interested short-term cost-benefit calculations. Even if the environment is going kablooie, individual margins of impact are low and it might pay to let other people make all the sacrifices to fix it. It also may be that the real bad craziness doesn’t come down during our lifetime, in which case meh. We could call the subjective effects of such folk culalgia.

And then there’s a dynamic Paul himself evokes when he recalls his own upbringing filled with the insistent pedagogy of ecological degradation. We’ll call this one dejalgia, also known as phantasmalupalgia, or sometimes pullusparumalgia. It refers to the pain experienced when there is recognition that we have heard an apocalyptic scenario many times before, without it however coming true on anything like the forecast scale. It takes real strength of will and unflagging faith in the human spirit to keep running out onto the hillside over and over with spears ready when the mistaken cry of wolf goes up. Those not so equipped may be disproportionately demotivated when the same environmentalists who said nuclear power was going to doom us all before now embrace nuclear power as a great source of alternative energy. It’s not that chronic dejalgics don’t care, but that they’re waiting for a little more to go on. It’s not like there isn’t plenty else to do.

I’m being a little silly here, but this is no laughing matter. In the wolf story only the little boy gets eaten, but the black swan of environmental collapse could take us all out. Which I remind you will be a fine day for fish.

October 28, 2009

The left intellectuals and the God trick

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, my apologies for the mess.

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October 16, 2009

Existential infinity

by CarlD

I suspect that the ‘infinity standard’ is a dead, beaten and buried horse, but for my own amusement I have a ribbon to wrap it in. Consider this post collateral damage from a long commute alone with my thoughts during an NPR pledge drive.

To recap for convenience, in comments on the first post of the thread Kvond perceptively noted that “the Common Sense digestion of the guilt people feel for ‘not doing enough’ probably has very [little] to do with… an Infinity Standard. It probably has to do with letting specific people or models down that one feels they can’t live up to (not Infinite Models), and has to do with the prior, one might almost say, a priori establishment of subjectivity itself as a condition for guilt (at least in the West), a mechanism of storing up energies of self-infliction, much more locally organized and defined from any logic of infinity (real or imagined).”

I agreed that the subjective experience of an infinity standard was properly understood not as the product of a top-down logical argument from principles, but of a bottom-up accumulation of local obligations and their affective baggage. I think that’s how morals actually work; as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Bourdieu show in their various ways, systematic moral philosophies range from attempts to universalize local practices to reports on the fantasies of their authors. The feeling of infinity comes when the local claims on one’s moral action overload the buffer on one’s attention and energy, producing a paralyzing system crash. As I metaphorized it later in the thread, the resulting guilt effect is like “the shrapnel of moral artillery being fired by various competing communities tear[ing] into those of us with a sense of obligation to something larger than ourselves but no stable sense of what that might be.”

The key point is the locality of effective standards and obligations. Kvond reports feeling those local claims as dispiriting straight-jackets. Seen this way, the abstraction of infinity offers a liberating expansion of possibility. For any of us who grew up in tight-knit families, small towns or other relatively insular communities this argument is immediately evocative. Over-regulation can be a problem (corresponding to the “dualism/received knowledge” positions in Perry’s cognitive/ethical development schema).

But abstract infinity is only abstractly liberating, just as Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question” that abstract liberty is only abstractly liberating. In practice, Durkheim said, one must be regulated by a moral system that offers definite guidelines and goals, otherwise ‘it’s all good’ and ‘it’s all bad’ become equally available and equally unavoidable as floating judgments (corresponding to the “multiplicity/subjective knowledge” positions in Perry). Goffman’s warning against the tyranny of diffuse aims is on point here: when it’s not clear what the standards are, it can’t be clear what counts as accomplishment and an infinity of judgment is enabled.

We’re probably alright as long as we remain focused on personal liberation from a specific set of restrictive local morals, because they remain regulative even in their negation. Infinity looks like possibility from this vantage. The harrowing moment comes when we decenter our own locality and fully enter a world of multiple other local moral systems and agendas, each with equally coherent and valid claims on our attention and effort. Here the over-regulation is not coming from narrowness, but from overwhelming saturation. The syndrome is not claustrophobia, but agoraphobia.

As Neddy Merrill put it recently in quite a different context,

if we follow the ‘do the most good’ thought wherever it leads, we end up having really robust obligations that don’t leave room for our projects and commitments, e.g. friendships, hobbies, and so on. Or, in another version, the ‘do the most good’ thought leaves us alienated or estranged from our projects because of the way it prompts us to think of their value from the impartial point of view.

This is the question in relation to the trivially narrow yuppie quandary of whether to give money to Harvard University, and already it’s oversaturated. If we open the discussion up to all the possible wrongs that could be addressed by all the possible rights, any particular course of action recommended by one compelling standard becomes not just hopelessly inadequate by the plurality of standards but actively pernicious by other compelling standards. There are a lot of goalposts, they’re all a-wiggle, and the holder may not be on our team.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

Be the target, Charlie Brown.

As wonderful as the internet and the world of blogging are for increasing our interaction density and enabling liberation from narrow, constraining provincialisms of practice, thought and ethic, that very same decentering dynamic potentially exposes us to an overwhelming multiplicity of compelling claims on our attention and energy, and potential judgments of our practice. The internet is just the most richly interactive of many modern media that not only delocalize us but then relocalize us in a much larger, more kaleidoscopic field of effective standards and obligations. Closing off or artificially limiting this paralyzing legion of ‘trolls’ and ‘grey vampires’, as a number of bloggers have done recently, is certainly one coherent coping strategy, and could suggest a relativist or perhaps merely multiplicity/subjectivist position in Perry’s old cognitive/ethical schema.

Perry suggests instead that we move to what he called “commitment:” “An affirmation, choice, or decision … made in the awareness of relativism (distinct from commitments never questioned). Agency is experienced as within the individual with a fully internalized and coherent value structure.” Yes, I end up saying, there are many other good things one might do, but this is the one I’m doing. Or as Weber said in his famous speech on politics as a vocation,

it is immensely moving when a mature man [sic]… is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’.

The trick, I guess, is to be open to other people’s projects and even their criticisms of one’s own, without getting diverted into the swamps of Shoulds and What Ifs. It’s an infinitely open question where to draw that line.