Archive for ‘infinity standard’

October 14, 2011


by Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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 Carl Dyke

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.

October 6, 2009

Infinity and the ‘total institution’

by Carl Dyke

The reference was tickling the edge of my brain so I tracked it down. OK, cool – here’s what I meant:

Each official goal lets loose a doctrine, with its own inquisitors and its own martyrs, and within institutions there seems to be no natural check on the license of easy interpretation that results. Every institution must not only make some effort to realize its official aims but must also be protected, somehow, from the tyranny of a diffuse pursuit of them, lest the exercise of authority be turned into a witch hunt. — Erving Goffman, Asylums (1961)

The temptation is to look at this and say, Yeesh! Those dang institutions. Goffman’s more subtle point is always that these are things we do to ourselves.

September 28, 2009

You and me, and baby makes infinity

by Carl Dyke

(Brace for lengthy preamble:) I’m teaching a section of the freshman orientation seminar again as an overload. The class is the usual product of episodic collective decision-making, a hodgepodge of boilerplate pedagogical imperatives trailing admirable goals and good intentions behind them like toilet paper stuck to shoes. There’s not a lot of clarity about what the class is for or how to accomplish it, or rather there are various clarities which produce a muddy tinge when mixed together. This means I can mostly do what I want with it, so I’m happy.

There’s a book and a textbook, neither of which I picked but both of which I like fine. The book is Paul Cuadros’ A Home on the Field, about a plucky team of Latino kids, many undocumented, who momentarily overcome their destiny as cheap labor for consumer America and win the North Carolina state high-school soccer championship. Its narrative is engaging enough and its points about aspiration, fairness and Othering are obvious enough to engage freshmen right at the margin of the academic habitus.

The textbook is Ethics and College Student Life, which uses case studies to encourage ethical reflection across a range of principles (categorical imperative, utilitarianism, community, relationship, character growth). Among the things I like about this book is that the cases are mostly not easy stereotypes of right and wrong, and therefore to make any headway with them it’s necessary to unpack the conventions, dispositions and values that cluster with formal ethics to create situated ethical reasonings.

Well, for some reason I don’t remember ‘helicopter parenting’ was in the air at the beginning of the term, so I started with that as an informal talking-point to introduce the students to the procedures of coordinating abstract thinking with concrete examples. Most of the students have been helicoptered to varying degrees, adding further value to making that ‘normal’ relationship a matter of reflective investigation for them. I bracketed the good/bad kind of moral judgment to take the sting out of the discussion and offered a more ethnographic view of ethics as practices aspiring to universality. The question was then, what kind of people and relationships do helicopter practices create, and what kind of world do they aspire to?

The resulting discussion was a rough first day on the trail, so I won’t linger on it except to say that the students were engaged and began to see the fun of using their noggins in new ways. Where I’m going with this post is to note that the ethic of helicopter parenting is another of those places where the infinity standard pops up. There is always more you can do for your child, infinity.

Which is new for ‘people like me’ since I was a lad, when we (the suburban petite-bourgeoisie) were still making the transition from the low investment, children-as-asset paradigm to the high investment, children-as-status-display paradigm that is now virtually complete.

Careful not to oversauce.

Careful not to oversauce.

Along these lines, as captain of a USTA tennis team I’m befuddled to find that it’s sometimes hard to line guys up to play on evenings and weekends (which is pretty much when there is for working adults to play) because they are attending the organized sporting events of their offspring. Huh? As I understand it, there is some pride for the parent who never misses a spectation opportunity, and some shame in being the parent who does. The standard of parental attention seems to be infinity. Now by way of contrast, I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Tip O’Neill about how proud he was of his generation of Democratic legislators for the workplace legislation that made sure fathers wouldn’t routinely be working 80-90 hour weeks and thus never see their kids. And even later, when I was growing up, walking ten miles to school through the perennial snow uphill both ways, and I was on the high school tennis team (we played in the snow uphill both ways), I’m pretty dang sure my parents never came to a single match. This might have damaged my delicate psyche if anyone else’s parents had come out, but to my recollection they did not. (No doubt years of expensive therapy could implant those memories to get me caught up with the state of the art.)

There was a late bus to take me home from team practices and matches. It was sometimes an hour or so between the end of something (I was also in some school theater and so on) and when the late bus went, so I waited. The late bus wound around all creation to take various kids to various homes; I was pretty far out in farm country so that was another hour, give or take. If I missed the late bus for some reason I knew I could call and Mom or Dad would come get me, when they got around to it after they finished what they were doing. This also involved waiting. Necessity seeks its virtue, and mine is patience. I’m also used to thinking of other people’s agendas as having some value independent of my immediate convenience.

The main point of these organized sporting activities of my youth, as far as I can tell, was to add a few hours onto the time when parents did not have to pay attention to their children.

To practice out of season I would ride my bike about 5 miles to the courts, play a few hours, then ride home. My idea of privilege was to not have chores at home that I was shirking; it did not occur to me that my parents should be available to drop everything and give me rides to the courts, nor did they make any visible point of fretting over the very real chances that I would get sideswiped into the ditches on our narrow country roads or that I would not have a good time. Necessity’s virtues were that I was in fine physical condition without a lot of fuss, independent, and pretty good at entertaining myself. I got what seemed to me like plenty of attention and it never occurred to me to doubt that I was loved and valued.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every discipline calls forth its characteristic rebellion.

Every parenting system involves trade-offs. Independence is nice for low-density social settings but can involve some inwardness, a kind of cultural autism, that makes higher-density sociability awkward and energy-intensive. In contrast the helicoptered kids tend to be trusting, open and easily sociable. And because they’ve never had to make do and are used to their needs being met on demand, they drive a consumer economy much better than the frugal self-reliance I grew up with. From that latter perspective, it’s a good thing that their personal boundaries are rudimentary and their expectations unlimited. It will be interesting to see how they translate being the recipients of their parents’ infinity standards into their own parenting practices.

September 21, 2009

The infinity standard

by Carl Dyke

The infinity standard will be familiar to anyone who is interested in doing good in their work. It goes something like this. 1.) In the work of doing good, effort causes good. 2.) All possible good should be done, and 3.) all foregone effort is foregone good. 4.) In principle, there is no condition one can be in where slightly more effort is not possible. 5.) With infinite effort, infinite good can be done. 6.) Therefore, infinity is the standard. Anything short is deplorable dereliction.

Usually when outsiders have helpful thoughts for folks in the good-doing activities, they have something like this model in mind, stopping at 4 and not thinking it through to the apparent conclusion at 6. So the infinity standard may not be immediately visible in these interactions. Each suggestion is just one more little thing, one slight retool, what’s the big deal? Responsible do-gooders have generally thought or at least felt it through to 6, but like the Helpy Helpertons miss the real conclusion at 7, this is an absurdity, until it’s too late. Making do-gooders feel guilty that they’re not doing enough or that they’re doing it wrong is like shooting ducks in a bucket. In the short run it can even get more effort out of them.

Get to work!

Get to work!

Rachel and I talk a lot about things I could do to improve my teaching. She’s on board with course blogs, for example, as I probably will be before too long. It can be exciting to add new tricks to the bag, as I regularly do, as long as infinity isn’t the standard. Rachel herself is a cautionary tale. For a year she worked with at-risk high school students in rural Maine who had been kicked out of every available public school and finally alighted in her chronically underfunded specialized private school. Rachel poured her heart into it and did buckets of good by devoting most of her waking moments to figuring out a whole series of creative ways to engage and enlighten these kids. She found their interests, bonded with them, reimagined the curriculum to leverage their strengths against their weaknesses, and really got through to quite a few of them. One even graduated high school and got a job at Walmart. The rest continued to get pregnant and arrested, but they had a much better general view of their own possibilities as thinking persons.

As a result of this experience Rachel has no particular interest in teaching ever again. Which is really a shame, because she was great at it. But she burnt out, one of two classic outcomes of the infinity standard. The other is bitter disillusionment. We all know some of each.

Nothing makes me see red like the infinity standard. There’s much about how good is done that can and should be changed, sooner preferably, and there’s always more good to be done. But gifted teachers and other do-gooders do not grow on trees, so to eject or degrade them with the infinity standard is shortsighted and self-defeating. This just hits the reset button, as often as not with someone less gifted and responsible. I’m in favor of a more realistic standard and a more sustainable rate of good-delivery. Sometimes, Helpy, it’s not that we’re dragging our feet but that we’re pacing ourselves.

April 13, 2008

Thinking through the Edict of Nantes

by Carl Dyke

In the textbook we use to teach introductory World history there’s a picture of a peasant leader from the Peasants’ War in the Holy Roman Empire during the early 16th C, “Little Jack” Rohrbach. He’s a strapping bearded fella with his arms tied behind him, attached to a stake with a short line. The stake is surrounded a couple of paces out with a ring of dry burning wood. He is undoubtedly roasting slowly to death.


This seems sort of unfriendly to the students, and I’d have to agree. But since it’s a History class we have to try to figure out what was going on in the heads of everyone involved where it ‘made sense’ to them. There were of course various dimensions of political and class conflict in these events, but the religious conflict of the early Reformation is easier to get at and revealing of the profound cultural differences that help to make history worth studying, so I focus at first on that.

One obvious wonder has to do with the disconnect between this seemingly-unfriendly treatment and what we today would think of as ordinary human rights. We might not like someone, we may even think it’s ok to kill them. But doing so by inflicting lengthy extraordinary pain is beyond a kind of threshold to us. (I tease students that if the threat of this kind of punishment did not deter the peasant leader, what chance does painless execution have to be deterrent? I also look outward to the history of the Atlantic slave trade and point out that if Europeans were acting in nasty burny ways toward ‘each other’, there’s not much point in being shocked about how badly they treated the Indians and Africans.)

So what was the moral context in which this sort of public spectacle of pain made sense? Was it just the amoral brutality of war? Yes, there was some of that. When you’ve just got done stabbing and hacking at other people’s flesh with edged weapons, and perhaps been carved like deli meat a bit yourself, a little extra fire might not seem like a big deal. Among the participants in this particular war were early mass armies with little sense of noblesse oblige, along with rural knights whose self-restraint was being seriously tested by a shift of power to the towns that soon made them obsolete.

This explanation won’t do the whole trick, however. There’s a symbolic, even ritually sacred quality to the execution that isn’t captured by mere brutality or resentment. I suggest to the students that we take seriously for a moment the idea of heaven and hell, eternal reward and punishment. Let’s say we really believed that. It would start to matter a whole lot how we lived our lives here. There’s no sense in talking about hell if ‘it’s all good’, so apparently there are ways of living that will send you or others there; and given the scale of the punishment, it would be very important to avoid them. It would also be nice and friendly to do everything in your power to save others from this fate.

In the scale of eternity, this peasant’s torturous end is fleeting. Nor is the pain of earthly fire any comparison to the furnaces of hell. Furthermore, from his perpective this pain is also as nothing compared to an eternity of bliss. At the individual level, therefore, his torture is of little consequence; but at the symbolic level it represents a vivid contrast between an object lesson in the wages of sin, on the one hand, and his own virtuous martyrdom, on the other. (The former is why the execution had to be done in public. The latter is part of why eventually executions were moved away from public view.)

‘Human rights’ are quite beside the point here. They are about the secular sacredness of the human individual, but the flesh being fried here is much bigger – ideas of fundamental truth and eternal salvation or damnation. No individual can measure up to this level of moral universalism.

Which is why the Edict of Nantes and its various analogs are so significant. It’s not actually that Henry IV said ‘it’s all good’. What the Edict actually says, in context, is that we think you’re still wrong and you’re still going to hell, but we’re exhausted by all the killing each other over it so we’re not going to try to stop you anymore; and if you can talk other poor fools into following you there, so be it. This turned the murderous logic of moral absolutism into a pragmatic policy of toleration.

It was for the intervening centuries and processes I hope to get to in good time to turn this license to be wrong into the notion that each of us is right in our own way.