Archive for ‘the ridiculous’

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by CarlD

I was muchly impressed by this recent interview with Chris Rock, a comedian and cultural commentator I must admit I hadn’t paid much attention to before. (Mostly, my inattention, because his voice reminds me of the stock overexcited kid cartoon voice that I find so irritating. Sorry Chris, my bad.) Among the many striking points he makes, he talks about how he stopped playing college campuses.

…I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Well, you know, college campuses are perhaps uniquely the places where you can talk about things. So, this is a funny development, and by some way of reckoning a self-inflicted wedgie. On my campus some folks are worried about the liberal arts being under attack. By whom, by whom?

Rock talks about how there’s no backstage any more, nowhere or way to workshop ideas without the glare of righteous judgmental scrutiny. Of course we may be glad that cops don’t get to workshop their ideas about authority and power without fear of video capture, and once we grasp that power and authority work through informal systems, and that the personal is political, none of us can in principle claim a free pass on abuses of situated privilege. Where’s Power? Where’s Authority?


When she was almost 7, Rachel had a serious health crisis, ultimately involving (and perhaps resolved by) a series of spinal taps. Click through for details and some amazing reflection. The way the health professionals treated her and her family reminds her of how the NYPD treated Eric Garner. No wonder she’s interested in how doing right can go wrong! I asked her when spinal taps might be available for laughing about. That was a puzzler.

And Dyke the Elder finally just retired this semester, after around fifty years in the saddle. The precipitating event was a kerfuffle over a student who took offense to Rachel’s multimedia art project, the satirical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies, as a discussion piece in a class about meaning in the arts. It went to the Dean, the Provost got involved, and rather than anyone having a sense of humor or scholarly integrity, sensitivity training was suggested.

Haha! Empowerment.

September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by CarlD

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

kliban eye poke

August 8, 2013

Fixing a hole

by CarlD

One of the themes of my history classes for the last little while is arrangement and assembly, both in relation to how history works and in relation to how the students work. If the little dinger goes ‘ding’ and they get that they’re part of history (I mean actually get it, not just spout canned homilies about it), so much the better.

I try to work this up into an appropriately complex analysis on the history side, in part by leveraging a more simple version of it on the student side. What’s been missing is a really clean image of the process of accumulation, arrangement, and assemblage that routinely goes into human works like, say, college essays – and their evaluation. You’d think you could just talk this through by direct reference to their own writing, but for reasons that are fairly complicated, many students are not receptive or actively resistant to direct writing instruction. I’ve found that a good metaphor sidesteps the blockage and creates leverage to move it. So, I finally just got around to accumulating and arranging a slideshow ( house presentation ) that I think may do the trick. It’s twelve slides of twelve pictures, which I’ll reproduce and discuss below (and crosspost on Attention Surplus to be part of that archive). The assembly will happen in each class discussion. I expect to take a whole class period with each group on this, timed right before they start producing process work for their first papers. Suggestions welcome.

The metaphor is building a house. First slide:


Easy enough. A plan. What is this, in relation to the assignment? Here I get to call their attention to all of the design guidance in the syllabus. Second slide:

cottage sketch

Is this a house yet? Why not? What is it? Not a pipe! Third slide:


Here we’re looking at raw materials. A tidy pile of lumber is obviously not a house yet, just like a pile of facts is not an essay yet. But wait, fourth slide:


Turns out that lumber wasn’t so raw, as materials go. We’re following the history of accumulation and arrangement here. (For me, and sometimes to the students, another image is a story Dyke the Elder tells about ordering a bicycle, ‘some assembly required’, and then having a truck roll up with a drum of raw latex sap, bauxite, petroleum, and so on.) Research; primary sources, secondary sources, interpretation, analysis. Fifth slide:


At this point we can safely say ‘and so on’, perhaps mentioning acorns and the strategies squirrels use to hide them from each other. We can also start to have a little side conversation about what it means to say ‘I built this’, which gets us to slide six:

on the patio

– which affords an opportunity to humanize the discussion, reflect more deeply on the narratives of independence in relation to the realities of massive systems of enabling interdependence (‘hey I built that table’, maybe out of the pallet the screws shipped on), and talk about the relative fungibility of materials – since this is clearly not a house, although it’s made of some of the same things as a house. This is also a place to begin to bring home the connection to authorship and plagiarism. (Speaking of plagiarism, all of the images except this one used in this post and presentation came right up on a google search and represent ‘types’ in a way that makes me feel comfortably fair-usey about them. This is not an official legal opinion. My thanks to all of the creators and rights-holders.) Slide seven:


Well that’s very nice, isn’t it. A finished house, a finished paper. What went into that? Planning, an image, materials, craft, elaborated skill and care. Slide eight:


Oh well hey, that’s nice too, and very different. Now we can talk about style. How would you pick between these two? Matter of taste here, but also who it’s for and what it’s trying to accomplish. Rhetoric. Speaking of which, slide nine:


Nothing wrong with this, especially if you’re getting a bit older and the stairs have become a quandary, or if you’re moving up from a single-wide and don’t want your sensibilities too jostled, or you’re a developer looking to make the cheapest possible buck, or you’re a society seeking a kind of material consensus, or etc. So here we get to talk about how styles do things in relation to audiences and agendas. I anticipate this is where the conversation is most likely to get bogged down in defense mechanisms. Slide ten:

grass house

Everyone just relax. Of course people build to suit local purposes and materials. And of course we can read those right back off of what they build. Is the ranch a ‘bad’ house? How about the grass one? How about the victorian? Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, what resources are available, who’s judging and by what criteria. But that ‘depends’ is not an ‘it’s all good’ depends. Slide eleven:


Most of the papers I get. In some ways an admirable contrivance, but we are still justified in reading a lack of resource, skill, and attention to detail back off of it. Not the sort of thing you’d want from certified accomplished fabricators like college graduates. And now slide twelve:

screwy house

Is this the same as the one before it? Why, or why not?

March 6, 2013

McGinn, Again

by Asher Kay

Obviously I haven’t had much time to post lately, but I was revving up to dismantle Colin McGinn’s recent review of Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed — a review rife with the sorts of problems I pointed out before with his review of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature.

Lo and behold, someone beat me to it, and did so with more gusto (and endurance) than I possibly could have mustered. Friends, I give you Ron Murphy.

EDIT: I should note that I haven’t read Kurzweil’s book and suspect strongly that I would not find it satisfying.

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 6, 2012

An anniversary of sorts

by CarlD

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

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

October 8, 2012

Obeasts, Meta-activism and Big Bothering

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 16, 2012

Chaotically Speaking

by johnmccreery

Over on OAC, a new seminar is underway. The topic is Joanna Overing’s paper, An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque. During an exchange with Joanna, I write,

When you write that, “Piaora laughter seems to me very close to Daoism,” you are, I suspect, alluding to what Chinese call Daojia, usually described as “Daoist philosophy” and associated with classic texts like the Dao De Jing attributed to Lao Zi or the Zhuangzi,attributed to Zhuang Zi. What I studied in Taiwan was Daojiao, usually described as Daoist religion, whose relationship to Daojia is complex and often contrary. But let’s put that aside.  What you write reminded me of a book by N. J. Girardot titled Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (University of California Press, 1983, a volume in the series “HERMENEUTICS: Studies in the History of Religion”). In the preface to the paperback edition Girardot writes,

Chaos is an oddly fashionable topic these days. This is not the usual state of affairs, since chaos has typically been imagined as the fearful antagonist of God, of the cosmic order, and of all that is normal. The dark Otherness of chaos has, therefore, most commonly lurked within the locked closets of civilized discourse and sanctioned revelation—only showing its monstrous and misshapen face, still half-concealed by a primordial hockey mask, at times of dreadful confusion, insane retribution, and irrevocable change. However, at other times and sporadically within some traditions—especially as seen in the early Taoist texts examined in this work—chaos has been upheld as the creative source, hidden order, and ongoing power of cosmic life.

Girardot then moves on to chaos as conceived by modern science, mathematics and economics.

As pointed out in best-selling works like James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), “chaos theory”—and its attendant exotica of Mandelbrot sets, Koch curves, Menger sponges, fractal clusters, smooth noodle maps, and other beautiful “monstrosities”—has opened horizons of understanding in fields concerned with the strange science of process and becoming.

While I wish to suggest no more than a very simple rhetorical symmetry between chaos theory in contemporary science and the hun-tun theme of a blessed “chaos-order” in the ancient Taoist texts, beneath the surface, and somewhat chaotically, both emphasize understanding reality in its authentic “wildness”—as a dynamic system in which constant change and erratic complexity harbor an enigmatic principle of patterned regularity and regeneration….For both, it has to do with the interrelated flowing of heaven and earth—the way clouds form, smoke rises, and water eddies, as well as the way human health depends on the inner rhythms of the body.

What I wish to point out here is that the “monstrous and misshapen” are described here as the evil other of the Southwest Asian monotheist’s Almighty God, the patriarchal principle of order in all things.  The “monstrosities” mentioned in connection with scientific chaos theory are, in fact, patterns of exquisite beauty, examples of dynamic order that emerge from chaotic processes, becomings rather than beings. To me they seem as alien to

The story of creation time [as] one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: … a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement

as they are to the timeless order envisioned by Greek philosophers or Christian theologians or the Genesis story in which God speaks and the world Is, and death and evil slip in through the actions of Adam and Eve, who are ancestors but in no sense divine. Taking your premise,

that the humanities must be privileged to understand the polities/ societies of others of different time or spaces

as given, how should we account for these differences?

Let me rephrase the final question. How would you account for these differences?

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.

August 14, 2011

There but for the grace

by CarlD

It warms my heart that we live in a society that provides employment of great consequence and social honor to the socially challenged. We all have our weaknesses but this is no reason to waste our strengths. As perhaps a case in point here’s a piece of a conversation on NPR’s “Marketplace” between host Kai Ryssdal and Robert Whaley, professor of finance at Vanderbilt. They’re talking about Whaley’s VIX, or Market Volatility Index, which essentially uses activity in portfolio insurance instruments to measure how “freaked out” the stock markets are. (I’ve modified NPR’s sloppy transcript very slightly so it makes more sense and accords with my memory.)

Ryssdal: All right, well let me ask you this, then: Is it not possible that knowing what’s coming creates more volatility, [that] a rising VIX creates a rising VIX?

Whaley: Oh, can you frame that question a little differently?

Ryssdal: Sure. Is it possible that this thing, knowing how nervous people are, makes people more nervous?

Whaley: Um, that would a behavioral type of interpretation. What makes me more nervous, actually, is sort of the movements that we’re seeing in the stock market on a daily basis. This VIX is just telling you that they suspect those types of movements to persist. But yes, I mean, you’re seeing that the price of insurance is going up, and so it makes you wonder, if you’re seeing the price rise, whether people smarter that know there’s going to be an event, so you might jump in too.

The question just doesn’t track at first for Whaley, who clearly hasn’t thought of the matter that way and whose strength is therefore clearly not ‘behavioral types of interpretation’ — that is, what people actually do and why.

April 27, 2011

skyhooks of the amazons

by Jacob Lee

One of the interesting things about the modern human environment is the extent to which autonomous processes and artificial intelligent agents of various kinds (and intelligences) not only figure in determining the situations in which we navigate, but figure in determining the situations in which *they* (the artificial intelligent agents ) navigate as well. For example, many retailers use automated pricing bots on sites like Amazon. Frequently these bots base pricing judgments  upon the prices of similar items being sold by their competitors. As might be expected, this can lead to various interactions between bots as they adjust to changes in other retailers prices. Sometimes the result can be amusing, even fascinating, as blogger Machael Eisen relates in his investigation of two absurdly priced books at Amazon daily ratcheting up in price:

What’s fascinating about all this is both the seemingly endless possibilities for both chaos and mischief. It seems impossible that we stumbled onto the only example of this kind of upward pricing spiral – all it took were two sellers adjusting their prices in response to each other by factors whose products were greater than 1. And while it might have been more difficult to deconstruct, one can easily see how even more bizarre things could happen when more than two sellers are in the game.


January 5, 2011

Rusty wire and the wild ponies

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 6, 2010

Monologue tolerance

by CarlD

As you may know, Bob, I was trained in one of the smaller and more obscure subdisciplines, a little thing we like to call ‘Intellectual History’ (or sometimes ‘intellectual and cultural history’ if we’re aware, however dimly, that people other than official intellectuals have an intellectual history). Even in the high academy we’re pretty ornamental and there aren’t usually a lot of us around. So it’s been a blessing of sorts for me to live and work just near enough to the Raleigh/Durham node of big research universities to be able to attend the meetings of the Triangle Intellectual History Seminar.

The seminar often brings in bigwigs to talk about their work in progress, and also offers a forum for members and their advanced graduate students. The level is high and the distribution of expertises is broader than someone outside our little field might think possible. In general the room is packed with very smart people who know a lot of stuff, so in principle it ought to be a thoroughly stimulating experience – you know, like a conference. And even better than most conferences, papers are distributed beforehand and we’re all there intentionally, so everyone arrives prepared on the topic of the day and there’s no need for the slow death of droning paper delivery.

In practice of course there’s a little of that droning, by way of introduction, but it’s mercifully brief and usually offered with some ad libs to keep it fresh. But by academic standards we get down to discussion remarkably quickly, and here is the perfect opportunity for the exciting exchange of ideas that we all imagined academe to be!, before graduate seminars, freshman surveys, and committee meetings blew our brains out like egg yolks. Except that even here, where conditions are seemingly ideal, that exciting exchange does not take place.

Why? Well, there are just some logistical issues when you’ve got 15-20 smart people who all have things to say and can’t say them at once. Can’t have the loud and the quick dominating the discussion, so everyone gets a turn. Time is limited so followups have to be moderated and tangents discouraged. And although everyone likes a good joke, we wouldn’t want to short the presenter on the serious discussion about her important work that she deserves.

The result of these reasonable considerations is that nothing resembling conversation actually takes place. Because she knows she’ll get one shot to say what’s on her mind and then the turn will pass to someone else with their own fish to fry, each speaker produces a well-crafted monologue so dense with premises and implications that the presenter can only respond to a fraction of it, of course with another monologue. And of course all exchanges radiate from the node of the presenter, with no direct interactions between the other participants. It’s all very orderly, lots of smart stuff gets said, it’s productive, certainly worthwhile, even beautiful in its way; and there’s no transformative effervescence, no spark, virtually no chance of the happy accidental flashes of insight that come from free-flowing conversation, improvisation, riffing call and response, theme and variation, the jazz of the mind.

I said there was no conversation, but that’s not quite right. There is, but it’s on a very slow and ponderous (in the sense of pondering) rhythm. As I sit in that room aching for something a little more upbeat, it occurs to me that success in the high academy is in part a function of tolerance for monologues, both delivering and receiving: relatively short ones like those in the room, longer ones like lectures and journal articles, really long ones like books. For ordinary mortals this kind of monologic sensibility is just plain rude, but for the beasts of academe it’s the measure of seriousness. We discipline our young to patience for the monologues of others, and patience for the development of their own; and tsktsk at the minds both bright and dull who won’t or can’t adapt to the deliberate pace of our conversations. No wonder serious academics are leery of bloggery.

Which brings me to my last point. The paper last night was by Lloyd Kramer, a very good historian who was engaged in it in a conversation about the right way to do history with his graduate advisors, now very old, and R.R. Palmer, now dead. There was a bit of a recovery of Palmer, an old-school big-picture synthesizer, as against the more fragmented, conflicted history derived from post-structuralism that followed. This is a conversation in which the monologues are at the scale of oeuvres and generations, or rather in which it is only at that scale that the apparent monologues resolve into utterances in a very ponderous conversation indeed. In the course of the ‘discussion’ Lloyd mentioned that one difference between these generations had to do with their understanding of selves and identities: as primordial and singular for Palmer, as dialogically constructed and plural for the post-structuralists. Here I wanted to say that it didn’t take post-structuralism to see self and identity this way, since the insight was there already in Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, James, Mead and DuBois to name a few. But I held my tongue, and thought about what kind of selves are constructed out of dialogues that take hours, years, lifetimes and generations to unfold.

November 25, 2010

Happy accidents

by CarlD

I am a firm believer in the happy accident. I may have said this before. I don’t mean purely random serendipity. Any dipity-shit can get that sometimes, but mostly not. I mean the sort of emergent event where a loose collection of good elements collated in a loosely enabling process dynamically configure in an unexpectedly, even unexpectably delightful way.

I think it’s possible (by definition, see above) to arrange things so there are more happy accidents, and fewer. The single best way to minimize the possibility of happy accidents is to carefully control everything about the inputs and processes of a situation. In academe one regularly sees this in curriculum and syllabus design, where ponderous machineries of micromanagement are deployed to assure that an outcome better than bad and worse than good occurs. In contrast, a happy accident-friendly situation is characterized by a certain flexibility toward both input and processes. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous,” Shunryu Suzuki says (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind). Divergence from norms and ideals must be tolerated, even encouraged (selectively and not infinitely, to be sure) on the theory that it’s precisely norms and ideals that are inhibiting the happy accident. Just one of many reasons to be traitorous towards norms and ideals.

Although I pretty much run my life according to the happy-accidental principle of assembling good elements and letting them do their thing, two recent moments brought this into focus for me. The first, about which I’ll need to be vague to protect a personal and collective privacy, happened in one of my classes. As usual we’ve noodled around quite a bit and I’ve tolerated/encouraged all sorts of tangents to cultivate a spirit of investigation and to see where they might go. The other day it all came together in a moment where one of the students made a series of personal revelations that in context were so striking, and so helpful to our understanding of the world around us, that for a moment the class became more than it could possibly have been if I had strictly dictated content and process. Over the course of the semester we had all learned some things together, developed a group process, and established a trust without which this moment wouldn’t have been possible. But any given class meeting might well have seemed like a complete waste of time to a conventional observer.

The second moment was watching a movie Rachel and I quite like, “The Fall,” through the lens of the director’s commentary. Tarsem talks about a process of creation taking 17 years, in which he patiently assembled influences, techniques, collaborators, locations, and favors due. The catalyst was a young Romanian actress to play the lead. Tarsem and the other actors provided a stimulating immersive environment, then allowed her to improvise creatively within that loose structure and bring all the elements together into an imaginative whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

So many great things work like this: jazz, inspired oratory, the Iron Chef, Dutch soccer. As Picasso said, “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

June 28, 2010

Are teachers like coaches?

by CarlD

Well, for one thing in high school lots of teachers are coaches. But I’m going to focus on coaches of big famous sports teams. There are some illuminating similarities, and the differences have a laboratory feel to them for thinking about how both teaching and coaching work and don’t work. I’ve been intrigued by John Doyle’s series of posts at Ktismatics questioning whether teachers actually cause students to learn, based on an extensive survey of studies that pretty consistently show they don’t. We could ask the same questions of coaches and winning.

To set the scene, John finds the data pointing strongly toward genetic (or at least early-childhood) hardwired dispositions to educational performance. In contrast, study after study has failed to find much impact on student outcomes from different teaching or learning styles, experience levels, specialized training, or any other teacher variable. Generously, John’s conclusion in the most recent post, “The Students Make the Teacher,” is that “kids would spool out their genetic intellectual potentials within the constraints imposed by their culture regardless of who their teachers are, but that’s not to say that they need no teaching. Rather, as long as they’re not abusive or neglectful, teachers are probably pretty much interchangeable over the long run. So my bet is that regardless of what sorts of educational outcomes are measured, differences between teachers will prove minimal.” In short, students are going to learn what they’re going to learn almost no matter what.

Of course like most teachers I’d like to take credit for all those Aha! moments that happen in and around my classroom, and I’d like to blame the kids who don’t get it for being recalcitrant. But I’ve long suspected that neither position is well-warranted, not to mention that they’re transparently ideological, so I’m open to John’s suggestion to “be a good enough teacher, rather than one who’s too caught up in performance anxiety and delusions of massive impact on kids’ lives. Enjoy the job, recognizing that ultimately it’s the kids’ job to develop and to learn. Then relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let your own personal style shine forward, and the teacher and the kids might actually enjoy the ride together.”

So what about coaching? John says students bring scholastic performance with them and teaching has little to do with it. A parallel argument would be that athletes bring competitive performance with them and coaching has little to do with it. If this were true, a coach with good players would look brilliant, while the same coach with bad players would look like a dog. And in fact this seems to be the case. In the NBA, for example, Doc Rivers had moderate success with a moderately-talented lineup in Orlando before being fired for stagnant performance. Subsequently the Magic drafted Dwight Howard, signed Rashard Lewis and traded for Vince Carter, becoming one of the dominant teams in the East under journeyman coach Stan Van Gundy. Meanwhile, Rivers won an NBA championship coaching the Boston Celtics, who added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to an already-strong roster of role players led by star Paul Pierce.

The acknowledged superstar of NBA coaching is Phil Jackson, who won multiple championships with the Chicago Bulls following the maturation of Michael Jordan and acquisition of Scottie Pippen. He then went to the Lakers where he won with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, did not win following the departure of O’Neal, then won again with the arrival of Pau Gasol. Clearly his success is player-dependent, but it should be said that his chief merit is that he puts his players in position to succeed; he is a shrewd evaluator of talent and disposition, as witness his ability to get full value out of brilliant but mercurial prima donnas Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, not to mention Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O’Neal themselves. I think this is characteristic of both good coaches and good teachers, and it’s not a small thing; teams of superstars without this sort of enabling coordination regularly implode, as witness France in this year’s soccer World Cup.

In NFL football, Bill Belichick is an excellent example of the hypothesis. He was a total dog with the talent-poor Cleveland Browns, then became a genius with the talent-rich Patriots. His excellence as a game-planner did not change, but it was not enough without Tom Brady and Randy Moss in their primes running the plays. Again, Belichick is a shrewd talent evaluator who identifies his players’ strengths and puts them in position to succeed, but without those strengths, as more recently with the injury and decline of Brady, Moss, Wes Welker and other core players, he is helpless to be the difference that makes the difference. Similarly, Paul Holmgren understood the connection of personnel to coaching well enough to insist on controlling both in Seattle. Unfortunately he turned out to be a mediocre judge of talent (see: Branch, Burleson) and was not able to repeat the Super Bowl success he enjoyed in Green Bay with a team assembled by general manager Paul Wolf.

In college sports it is widely known that the best coaches are first and foremost the best recruiters. All else being equal, which it usually is, the best players win. Coaches who can both obtain those players and put them in positions to succeed are of course at a premium, and coordinated teams of good players regularly beat packs of feral superstars, but even here the coach’s merit is in identifying and channeling the existing talents and dispositions of her players. And given the rapid turnover of rosters in college sports, coaches who were geniuses with great players a few years ago are regularly has-beens looking for work when the talent level drops off.

It is also generally understood that over time players will begin to tune out even the most successful coaches. A great recent example of this is the NHL’s Peter Laviolette, a coach who specializes in increasing the intensity of underperforming or undertalented teams. After beginning his career by improving the talent-poor New York Islanders marginally he wore out his welcome and moved to the Carolina Hurricanes. There he lit a fire and got maximum effort out of a moderately-talented team, pushing them to a Stanley Cup. Within a couple of years his approach had burnt the players out, he went from genius to dog, and after a dreadful half-season he was fired. Whereupon he was hired this year by the talented but drifting Flyers and promptly became a genius again, driving them to a Finals appearance. If history holds true (many other coaches fit his description, for example Mike Keenan) he has maybe one more year before the players tune him out or rebel against the constant pressure. The teaching equivalent of Laviolette is Jaime Escalante, the “Stand and Deliver” guy. He was undeniably successful in activating the latent talents of his students, but the pressurized environment he created proved unsustainable.

In this year’s World Cup the Italian coach, Marcello Lippi, was clearly a dog as his talented team, the defending champions, failed to win even one game against lesser opposition and were eliminated in the first round. Yet Lippi had been the coach for the World Cup win four years earlier, just as clearly a genius with an unparalleled record of success. “He was named the world’s best football manager by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) both in 1996 and 1998, and world’s best National coach in 2006. He is the only coach in the world to have ever won the most prestigious competitions both for clubs and for National teams. In 2007 the Times put his name on the list of top 50 managers of all time.” He will shortly be replaced as coach and it’s likely the team will perform better, but will that be because the old guy was bad and the new guy is good?

If the coaching/teaching analogy holds, all of this ought to be quite humbling for all of us would-be Svengalis. Our upside is limited by that of our Trilbys, and our downside is as far down as they care to take us. When the chemistry comes together we can sometimes be catalytic, but this can’t be counted on as the normal situation and often enough a good chemistry requires our removal. Under these circumstances I can certainly understand why we’re paid so little, as we often complain, despite performing what is magically thought of as socially necessary labor. Fortunately the learning that really needs to happen will happen anyway, and maybe along the way we can “relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let [our] own personal style shine forward, and … enjoy the ride together.”

February 28, 2010

Guidelines For Overrating Philosophers

by Asher Kay

From the American Philosophical Association’s Philosophical Bookmaking Manual, 4th Ed., 1994 — University of Chicago Press.

1. When overrating a philosopher, attention should be paid to the distinction between “rating” and “ranking”. Any passage that operates as a comparison, either explicitly (e.g., “Spinoza had prettier lips than Hegel”) or implicitly (e.g. “Spinoza had implicitly prettier lips than Hegel”), will be counted as a “ranking”, and will therefore not be included in the APA’s yearly statistical totals. Note that supplying the numerical ratings of two or more philosophers in the same passage (e.g. “Spinoza’s oscular score of 94.3 puts Hegel’s mere 73.5 to shame”) does not constitute a ranking.

2. As amended in section 40, part 7 (by a plurality vote at the APA’s Making Philosophical Ratings Less Accessible conference in 1990), each separate overrating of a philosopher within a book or article will be counted as a distinct overrating for statistical purposes, unless judged either “gratuitous” (e.g., “By the turn of the twentieth century, Hegel had attained an ocular rating of ninety-eight. Ninety-eight, people!”) or “too verbatim” (e.g. “Spinoza’s lips easily rate 9 out of ten. And did I mention that Spinoza’s lips easily rate 9 out of ten?”) by the APA ratings panel. The “gratuitous” exception applies to citations of other works, but the “too verbatim” exception, for obvious reasons, does not.

3. To avoid mistabulation, it is advisable to mention which of the six official APA rating categories are operative in your overrating of a philosopher. The six categories are: “Smartness”, “Coolness”, “Awesomeness”, “Originality”, “Overratedness” and “Prettiness of Lips”.

4. When overrating the overratedness of a philosopher, it is acceptable to use the term, “metaoverratedness”, unless it is felt that this would not be confusing to the reader.

5. Endnotes count halfsies.

6. When using imprecise quantitative terms to overrate a philosopher, refer to the table in Appendix C of the Bookmaking Manual for the exact numerical values that will be tabulated. Some common imprecise terms and their corresponding numerical values are:

A) “Really”: 65.0
B) “Very”: 70.0
C) “Really very”: 75.0
D) “Mega-“: 80.0
E) “Mondo-“: 85.0
F) “Crazy-assed”: 90.0

February 8, 2010

Relative (in)competence

by CarlD

I spent much of the winter break re-tiling the kitchen floor. It was a moment in a general experience I have as a home do-it-yourselfer, the ‘man of average mechanical ability’. Each new thing that needs doing is something I’ve never done before. I have to learn principles and techniques from scratch, take way too long because I’m unsure of myself, and still make all the newbie mistakes. By the time I’ve internalized the rules of the job and started to get a feel for its practice, I’m done and probably won’t be doing it again soon enough for the acquisition to stick.

Rachel and I first tiled the floor back when we were friends before we hooked up. She had done some tiling at a resort she worked at in Maine and at her Mom’s, so she had a pretty good idea what to do. As a result, we did it almost right. It turns out that tile is one of those things where almost is importantly not good enough.

Tile is very hard and durable, but it has almost no flex. This means it will work itself loose or/and break where a more resilient material would absorb and dissipate force. Therefore it really matters to get the underlayment smooth, firm and level. We knew this, so we popped for the special tile underlayment panels and screwed them firmly to the subflooring. The underlayment is basically a thin, hard sheetrock with a mesh matrix. It turns out to be a little tricky to get the screws all the way set into it. It’s a bit more than a power screwdriver can handle and forearms/backs start to cramp up after muscling dozens of screws. Like so many things about such jobs, if you did this for a living you’d work it out, but we don’t and didn’t.

We figured a slight screwhead protrusion here and there would not be a problem because they’d be small and buffered by the mortar. That turns out not to be reliably true. Over time any play there is in the floor (and there’s always at least some if your house is made out of wood) combined with traffic impact from the top uses those screwheads as fulcra to crack the tile, or failing that to wiggle and then seesaw it back and forth until it dislodges the grout and then the whole tile comes loose.

Spreading the mortar evenly is also a must. Any place where the mortar is thick or thin invites eventual problems. Still we might have gotten away with our screwheads if we’d gotten the polyblend additive for the mortar so it had some give rather than going right to crumble under stress. Thicker tile and smaller tile may also have compensated a bit. We used 12″x12″x.25″ tile, which was thin enough to break easily and big enough to offer a lot of offcenter leverage on each footstrike.

Knowing what I know now I’ll also be more attentive to the condition of the grout. When the tiles started to play it showed up in the crumbling grout first. It may have been possible at that point to scrape out the grout, inject some mortar under the tile edges, and regrout. Until it was too late that seemed like a lot of bother over a little cosmetic imperfection, but read on. [UPDATE: This technique did not work for me and I’ll be taking out and replacing a few more tiles over the summer. Seems to suggest it’s just worth biting the bullet and re-doing everything that’s even slightly loose all at once.]

OK, so eventually we had five or six tiles that were definitely coming up. So we took them out, walked around with attentive feet for a few weeks and ended up removing another dozen (out of maybe 120 or so total; like I said we did it almost right) that were showing signs of wiggle. At this point the real fun started.

Chipping up mortar by hand is an unpleasant task. I got a mortar chisel (big wide blade) which helped some, but some of the mortar wants to stay put no matter what. That’s what it’s for, after all. Plus kneeling on the floor pounding on a chisel with a hammer is not a recommended workout for thighs, hips and lower back. I did find, as is so often the case, that relaxing and letting the tool do the work was better than trying to muscle it. But for me at least that’s easier said than done. The bigger problem was that the adjacent pounding loosened up a couple more tiles. Eventually out of frustration I discovered that cutting cross-grooves in the mortar with a carbide-tipped scoring tool and then scraping it out with a grout scraper (I got the kind with the triangular carbide tip) was faster and less counterproductively violent. [Update: I’ve now got an oscillating tool with a chipping blade that looks very promising should this task arise again.]

So at this point we’ve got some open spaces on our floor ready to accept tile. Of course I went back and torqued down the offending screwheads. Some of the previous tiles were already broken, some more broke in the process of getting the mortar off them (which is just as fun as getting it off the floor), and of course the Home Depot no longer stocks those exact tiles. Given bad alternatives of approximate color-matching, tracking down remaindered tile, pasting broken tiles back in or digging up the whole floor and starting over, we decided to see if we could turn an embarrassing repair of a failed installation into a triumph.

We settled on smashing up the used tiles and using them for mosaic. The original floor is a checkerboard of reddish and tannish tiles, so we mixed the colors in the mosaics to locally fractalize the larger pattern. Doing the mosaic was a matter of sitting there with lots of tile shards of various shapes and sizes and piecing them together like a puzzle. That part was kind of fun. Once we had the mosaic laid out we took the pieces back out one by one, mortared them up (we used a premix acrylic mortar at this point) and stuck them down. By now my hips, back and thighs were getting downright blase’ about all the crabby work postures on the floor.

Grouting was no sweat in comparison, just more floor work. Over the last couple of weeks my feet, which are in full ptsd hypervigilance mode at this point, have found a couple more wiggly tile corners, so hoping I’d learned my lesson I promptly dug the grout out, pushed mortar under and grouted them back up.

Meatball tests the new floor

This is the main stretch

The main section from the other side

We like the subtle contrast of the grout and repainted the cabinets to match

Optimistically I think I now have a pretty good skill for the job — not just the brute instructions and techniques, but the logic and feel of them. Of course we have no plans for any other tiling in the foreseeable future. We’ve also gone that much farther toward turning our little suburban development starter house into something no one likely to buy such a thing will want to buy. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

December 31, 2009

We Have Never Been Miracles

by Asher Kay

On this edge of a new year, I’m reflecting about humanity.

I don’t have any huge hopes or expectations. What I would like to believe is that deep down, people are basically not idiots. I would like to believe that they are motivated, at least sometimes, by a desire to know what is true, and that this desire will lead them occasionally to question things, to evaluate evidence, to reason. Most of all, I would like to believe that in some small but fundamental way, people are capable of setting aside what they want to be true, and that through argument and imagination, reflection and discourse, they will sometimes be willing to follow the trail of what really is.

And with that statement of what I want to believe, I’ll leave you with a quote from Larry Kudlow, a former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan:

Despite the historic expansion of the federal government’s involvement in, intervention in and control of the economy — including Bailout Nation; takeovers of banks, car companies, insurance firms, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, GM, Chrysler and GMAC; large-scale tax threats; overregulation; an attempted takeover of the health care sector; ultra-easy money; a declining dollar; and unprecedented spending and debt creation — despite all the things that would be expected to destroy the economy — all this socialism lite and the degrading of incentives and rewards for success — despite all this, the U.S. economy has not been destroyed.

In fact, it is coming back. In 2009, the stock market had one of its greatest rebounds in history. And in 2010, we’re likely to witness a mini boom in economic growth.

If you believe in miracles, as I do, this looks like a miracle. If you have faith in free-market capitalism, as I do, then somehow this faith is being rewarded by a more durable and resilient free-enterprise capitalism than many of us thought possible only one year ago.

December 11, 2009

Does this theory make me look phat?

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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