Archive for ‘the sublime’

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.

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 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?

February 1, 2012


by Asher Kay

That’s right, bitches.

My life has changed several times since I last dropped a disemboweled little critter on this blogospheric porch-step. But recently, I came face-to-face with a vole that has been hiding out around my place for years, nocturnally rooting through the garbage bin and occasionally scaring all the cats. It’s not one of those eensy voles either — this one is a monster. It’s so brobdingnagian that I will need to dismember it and carry it piece-by-bloody-piece to the patio window.

But I’m not going to do it in the annoyingly metaphorical style of the previous paragraph. Nor will I use words like “brobdingnagian”. I don’t even like that word.

Okay, so this is a sort of teaser post. All of the setup and none of the stunts.

Have you ever read a book that seemed to know what you’d been thinking about for the last five years? I’ve read about half of one, and it is Incomplete Nature, by Terrence Deacon.

About two years ago, I did a post here called Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles. It was mostly about reductionism and predictability, but I had this to say about causality:

My stance is that causality is really a much, much looser concept than physical science would make it seem. Over time, physical science has corralled causality into a smaller and smaller area — but that area is occupied by some pretty inscrutable things — things like “forces”, which end up being mostly tautological at a paradigmatic level (“it’s a force because it makes things move — it makes things move because it’s a force”), and metaphorically hinky at the level of theory (gauge bosons as “virtual particles”).

So when we think about the neuronal “causing” the mental, we usually have in mind some sort of physical-science-like efficient causality, because that’s what we see as operating at the molecular level of description that neural networks inhabit.

But the question is — why are there multiple levels of organization at all? Is reality really separated into strata of magnification, with causality operating horizontally within a layer and vertically between layers? If so, are the vertical and horizontal causalities the same *kind* of causality?

Basically, I was thinking about an old argument amongst emergentists about the possibility of “downward causality”. There are tons of problems with the notion of downward causality, but my particular problem was the difficulty of thinking about a model of emergent, stratified reality in which nothing more than the standard, modern, efficient causality of the physical sciences played a part. It’s so difficult to think about that it’s hard to even figure out why it’s so difficult to think about. It’s the kind of problem that makes you start to wonder if maybe we just don’t really have a firm understanding of causality. But in a world where we can annihilate a couple hundred thousand people in an instant with our notion of causality, this is pretty much a heretical thought — or at least the kind of thought you don’t feel comfortable entertaining until you’ve done some post-graduate work in particle physics.

Despite the discomfort, I entertained the thought, in a playfully non-rigorous way. If you allow that there might be additional sorts of causation, you’re free to change the model around (or abandon it) and see what you come up with. My suspicion was that the additional sort of causality, if there was one, had to be related to the fact that in complex dynamical systems (or self-organized systems, or “emergent” systems), there are a lot more parts interacting and relating to one another than there are in the sort of billiard-ball examples we tend to imagine when thinking about efficient causality. And if that was the case, then the additional sort of causality was essentially mereological, since the cross-strata nature of this causality would be tied up with the relation of the parts to the whole system. The key to that, in my opinion, was the idea of “constraint”. To me, this was sort of like the flip side of an efficient cause. A constraint can be thought of as a causal “force” in that it disallows a dynamical system from occupying certain positions in the system’s state-space.

You can see me start to fiddle with the idea of constraint in the comments section of the same post. I say things like:

What I’m beginning to think is that causality is emergent in the same way that properties like “transparency” or “consciousness” are emergent. At the subatomic level, we have all these efficient causes (weak and strong, electromagnetic, gravitational), but at higher level, different sorts of causality actually emerge — larger “forces” that act mainly as “constraints of organization”. So what I’m trying to think through is how we can look at “organization” as causality. I think this will end up helping me to conceptualize levels of organization in a way that places them in the “real world”.


I agree, though on the need for a careful mereological/emergence distinction. In a sense, maybe it’s the same thing as a distinction between causality and “relation”. If so, the idea of causality as “constraint” could help in formulating the distinction.

The ideas I was expressing were obviously not well-developed then, but the basic line of thought was: 1) questioning whether we really understood causality in complex systems; 2) the suspicion that the current model wasn’t adequate to emergent systems at a higher level; and 3) the notion that the idea of constraints could help in re-working the model.

So now it’s two years and some odd months later, and I discover that Terrence Deacon has a new book out (this is a very exciting thing for me — his last book, The Symbolic Species, is one of my all-time favorites, and it was published in 1997). The book is ostensibly about “How Mind Emerged From Matter”, but since it’s Deacon, you can pretty much count on it being about a whole lot more.

And it is. It’s about emergence and causality and, best of all, constraint. There’s even a whole chapter called “Constraint”!

Take a moment to imagine my joy.

I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, but I’m starting to think that Deacon has actually found a way to re-think the model. His approach is strange, tortuous, detailed, counter-intuitive, and involves the same sort of mind-blowing figure/background switch he performed in The Symbolic Species. Here’s just a little taste:

The concept of constraint is, in effect, a complementary concept to order, habit, and organization, because it determines a similarity class by exclusion. Paying attention to the critical role played by constraints in the determination of causal processes offers us a figure/background reversal that will turn out to be critical to addressing some of the more problematic issues standing in the way of developing a scientific theory of emergence. In this way, we avoid assuming that abstract properties have physical potency, and yet do not altogether abandon the notion that certain general properties can produce other general properties as causal consequences. This is because the concept of constraint does not treat organization as though it is something added to a process or to an ensemble of elements. It is not something over and above these constituents and their relationships to one another. And yet it neither demotes organization to mere descriptive status nor does it confuse organization with the specifics of the components and their particular singular relationships to one another. Constraints are what is not there but could have been, irrespective of whether this is registered by any act of observation.

What I’m planning to do (and it may take a while) is create a series of posts on the ideas Deacon puts forth in Incomplete Nature. If the quote is not enough of a teaser, I will add that the journey involves the number zero, a  partial resurrection of Aristotle, boxes full of air, Charles Sanders Pierce, at least four neologisms, the siren-song of mereology, and a totally new perspective on object-oriented philosophy.

Stay tuned, beotches.

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.”

December 11, 2009

Does this theory make me look phat?

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 17, 2009

Tomato skins, nostalgia and the Holocaust

by CarlD

What do these things have in common? Rachel is working through an installation art project, which in its ‘primitive accumulation’ phase involved canning lots of tomatoes and drying their skins. The following are some incomplete thoughts she’s written pursuant to assembling an actual art work out of her materials. This is a work in progress; she is interested in feedback. Here’s Rachel:

Concepts and Daydreams:

I have 100 jars of tomatoes that I’ve canned. As I’ve been canning (a rather dull process overall) I’ve daydreamed different fictitious scenarios that could result in these 100 jars:

* It’s a science discovery. Archaeologists uncover this stash of primitive food rations and put it on display for the public. Or anthropologists (of the old imperialist regime) discover this tribe of people called “Farmers”. They hypothesize about the tools used, etc. They show video footage of the strange customs. (I watched a documentary about head shrinking Indians of the Amazon that probably prompted this train of thinking.)

* An old woman who obsessively cans to ward off death. (playing with the idea of ritual and superstition)

* A person getting ready for the apocalypse by building and stocking a cold war era type bunker. (This one, and a bit of the one before it are based on my real life experiences with a Holocaust survivor named Helen who I knew as a teen. Helen’s son hired me to “clean” her house, saying that if she couldn’t get her life under control he would put her in a home. I had unique access to Helen’s small, filthy trailer stocked to the ceiling with junk that she just knew would come in handy when the next disaster hit (candles she made out of crayons, stacks of newspaper, magazines, half a room full of sweaters). She also collected animals and strategically left bags of their food around so that if she died they’d have food for a while and not eat her body—something she was really afraid of. Canning 100 jars of tomatoes is something Helen would’ve done if she’d found a good deal on tomatoes. Helen was obsessed with being totally in charge of her world, so to accomplish this she made her world very small—literally the confines of her trailer, which she rarely left. I never did get that house clean.)

* An old woman who copes with her anxieties about death and change by canning everything in her life—including her husband, cat, furniture, clothes, etc. She cans all winter long and by spring has filled her house with jars of household items and sits with them and enjoys how still they are.

These are just the stories I made up while I worked. I’m not sure that any of them go anywhere.

That said, I’m kind of into the idea of treating the cans and the skins as science objects. One thing I have yet to do for the jars is label them. I’ve been putting this off because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I could do this in a science format with the latin names and weights of things. I could put the skins in little sample jars and weigh them and label them.

I also think it would be interesting perhaps to make a Helen-type bunker filled with crap. Obsessive amounts of junk. What I’m interested in is nostalgia and how it is a form of controlling our worlds. Helen was extremely nostalgic about her things, no matter how junky they were. There was a reason to every single thing in there.


I’m realizing that it’s not specifically farming that I’m interested in but control, attempts to control our worlds and those in it, and the anxiety that accompanies this desire and inevitable failure. Farming is a tool or language available to me to discuss these concepts because of my background and affection for farming culture.

End Rachel. Readers, any thoughts?

April 15, 2009

Philosophy is an excellent thing

by CarlD

Over at Edge of the West, in the context of one of the usual pseudo-discussions about what philosophy is good for (prompted by yet another of Leiter’s snarky shills for the discipline, apparently), a guy named Michael Turner just posted a long, fascinating comment explaining how he went from software engineering to (Japanese) technical translation to language philosophy; in the course of which he said this:

OK, so I’m interested in what meaning is, and how meaning happens, through language. Can you philosophers help me out? Which one of you do I trust? Which ones are, by contrast, measuring their value to the field only by citation index, which might only be an indication of how many stupid arguments they’ve been able to start by feverishly propagating misunderstandings?

This is far from the most interesting thing he said (John M. and Evan, this is our kind of guy), and of course it leaves out all the genuinely valuable things the philosophers we all know we can trust do, but I still had a good snort over it.

In another comment, Anderson kindly offers up this provocative quote from Callicles’ rant in the Gorgias:

Philosophy, as a part of education, is an excellent thing, and there is no disgrace to a man while he is young in pursuing such a study; but when he is more advanced in years, the thing becomes ridiculous, and I feel towards philosophers as I do towards those who lisp and imitate children.

One might say the same of the study of history, or any of the humanities.

April 7, 2009

Freedom squish

by CarlD

I was recently involved (as a bit of a thread-jacker) in a conversation over at Edge of the West about drug policy. Dana’s original post expressed a sensible doubt about the value of anecdotal evidence in disproving the destructive effects of pot smoking, and noted that the success of the anecdoter in question “has less to do with the fact that pot isn’t dangerous and more to do with the fact that if one is well-educated and well-off one has to really screw up before anything affects one’s expected life outcomes. They have a safety net made of money.”

It seemed to me this good thought got pretty well covered in short order, so I went meta by suggesting that moving transgression thresholds here and there was more likely to squish unfreedom around than to actually make anyone more free (although I’ll accept ‘more choice’ in a supermarket sense as marginally preferable to ‘less choice’). Pot itself is not much of a point, nor are its specific properties and effects more than a distraction; it’s just where the line happens to be drawn in a disciplinary regime that works by drawing lines somewhere. I made this argument in some detail there and won’t reproduce it here – click through.

So if it’s not squishing unfreedom around, what would it mean to be more free? I don’t have a satisfying answer for that, but here’s my answer, in a couple of parts. Like Voltaire’s Brahmin I wouldn’t want to exchange paralyzing awareness for busy ignorance. And like Camus’ Sisyphus I think there are all sorts of things worth doing anyway (like teaching) not because they’ll actually work in some larger transformative sense but because this absurd fate belongs to us.

Would it be different if it was cheese?

Would it be different if it was cheese?

Freedom is the recognition of necessity, as Hegel said. When I was driving down to school this morning I chanced to be behind a couple of cars in a row that were pretty much ignoring the lines painted on the road. Their flirtation with those transgression thresholds may have seemed like freedom to them, but acceptable transgression is part of how the system’s built. Around here beat up old guys in beat up old pickup trucks drive real slow, right down the center of the lane. Freedom is in coming to grips with the lines, accepting their power to limit and compel, and releasing the desire for somewhere, something else they simultaneously create and frustrate. If there’s room to move and to play within the lines, so much the better.

November 5, 2008

Obamas' dog

by CarlD

They totally oughta get a pit bull and name her Sarah.

Such a sweetie.

September 24, 2008


by CarlD

Courtesy of Alexandre Enkerli at Disparate, whose commentary is typically aromatic, here’s a meme.

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.

2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.

3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

So here goes. I will remove some suspense by establishing from the outset that I have a thang about slimy textures. It took me the first five years of my adult life just to teach myself to like raw tomatoes. I’ll also choose savory over sweet most every time. And some of these are pretty transparently reaching for snob appeal. I’m not a collector of experiences just for the sake of checking off an item on a list.

1. Venison (Courtesy of hunter friends. Very tasty; a bit dry, which I like in meat.)
2. Nettle tea (No, but I’ve drunk plenty of flower/leaf/stem/root teas and I’m not clear on why this particular one is the issue.)
3. Huevos rancheros (Yum. Just this weekend.)
4. Steak tartare (Near enough to the edge of slimy to discourage my interest.)
5. Crocodile (No opportunity and not clear why I would seek it out.)
6. Black pudding (Hasn’t come up.)
7. Cheese fondue (Make it myself sometimes, with a touch of port or sherry.)
8. Carp (Not a big fish fan, but if it’s put in front of me I’ll bite.)
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush Eggplant is high on slime but I love the Mediterranean flavors.

September 3, 2008

The wonders of college

by CarlD

It’s that time of year in the halls of academe when hope springs and experience pings, when we imagine the sweet epiphanies we will share with excited and eager students, while remembering years past’s slow boring of hard boards.

Mikhail has some thoughts about the first year experience, I am teaching a class explicitly designed to frame the first year experience, each of us has memories of those rosy days, so this is probably a good time to recall Tim Clydesdale’s sociological work on teens in the first year of college. There’s a nice short review in the Chronicle, titled “The Myth of First-Year Enlightenment.”

He finds that students in their first year are perhaps uniquely resistant to the kind of deeply transformative experience we imagine is the real payoff of college, and indeed are busy just figuring out how to get along away from home. In the meantime they put the very core values we’d like to get them to question into an “identity lockbox” for safekeeping.

Clydesdale notes that “Only a handful of students on each campus find a liberal-arts education to be deeply meaningful and important, and most of those end up becoming college professors themselves…. And so the liberal-arts paradigm perpetuates itself, while remaining out of sync with the vast majority of college students.” Yup.

Practically, Clydesdale recommends several shifts of emphasis: from content inculcation to skills development; from lectures students will soon forget to class discussion of issues, perspectives and interpretations; and from grand goals about moral awakening to modest goals about competence.

Mikhail is quite right that our young charges “will have to get used to the idea that life is full of situations in which you have to learn something, even if it looks like a completely useless subject – remember, [they’re] not old enough or experienced enough to be the judge of what is or isn’t useless.” And the first year is part of that process. But as a matter of practical pedagogy in the face of brute sociological facts, much of what we can accomplish in the first year is to not so thoroughly turn them off with our sanctimonious attempts to jam goodness into their heads that they’ll never recover and will remain sullen anti-intellectuals for the rest of their lives.