Archive for ‘uncertainty’

February 2, 2017

Code switching and complexity

by CarlD

There’s sort of a general theme here at the blog and in my own approach to teaching, life, the universe, and everything: that complexity is the rule; and that observant, resourceful flexibility, a disposition to learning and the ability to code switch, is therefore strategically desirable.

But we’ve also often discussed another strategy, which is to engineer systems that gear down complexity into mere complication, or even rigorously simple linearity. Under the right conditions this can work very well and get a lot done, although maintaining those conditions is generally very costly and ultimately unsustainable.

As I dig through our oral history project’s Trump rally interviews (I’m working on a longer post that will provide more framing information on this), one of the things that is gradually coming into focus is that the Trump rallyers we talked to were explicitly not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity, and that they all had robust histories in systems engineered for linearity (the military, nursing, library science, factory work) with the dispositions to match.

Anecdotally, I don’t think there’s any automatic political valence to this sort of history or disposition. I know plenty of liberals and lefties who are also not at all comfortable with either code switching or complexity. Such folk tend to be in charge no matter what. I sometimes feel like I’m caught in a no man’s land between two armies of essentially similar people, fighting bitterly over the details of a narrow, rigid world that I would hate to live in either way.

January 6, 2013

A Question Haunts America

by johnmccreery

Us folks on the left are not the only ones who see the U.S.A. as going to hell in a hand basket. My title is taken from the first line of an article in The National Interest by conservative pundit Robert W. Merry titled Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy. Oswald Spengler that is, the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), now as rarely mentioned on the left as Gramsci is on the right, a mention-and-skip author in liberal higher education with its focus on the Enlightenment and progress toward the great kumbaya of universal rationality. Perhaps he deserves a second look.

He did, after all, anticipate the world wars and the “surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism” that seems to afflict all civilizations when their roots in naive but authentic culture give way to “the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture” (the quotes are from Merry, not Spengler himself).

The idea that civilizations are organic wholes and develop through cycles from birth and flourishing to maturity, decay and death is no longer fashionable. But the notion that there is no universal humanity, only human beings, born incomplete animals, who become what their cultures/civilizations encourage and demand that they do is, albeit debatable, Anthropology 101.

Perhaps it is my years, rushing all too soon toward three score and ten (now just a year and a bit away) that turn my thoughts in this direction. But could it be that left and right, we all need both Marx and Spengler to see the world whole through disillusioned eyes?

December 21, 2012

Complex, schmomplex. We gotta DO something!

by CarlD

I’m not sure we want to talk about the Newtown massacre at Dead Voles. It’s not the sort of thing that’s easy to have a satisfactory conversation about; because it was pretty awful, because it understandably causes emotional overloading of measured discourse, because it’s conveniently recruitable for all sorts of tangential projects. But if we did want to talk about it, James Livingstone’s remarks on “how not to think about Sandy Hook” would be one good place to start (also at Jacobin Magazine as “Guns and the Pain Economy”).

Jim starts out by attempting swiftly to disable the usual hand-wavy leaps to the problem of evil, individual responsibility, mental health care, and gun control. I’m for that. I think his dismissal of the moral personhood of the shooters from Columbine on is sloppy, unpersuasive, and ironic; but the snowflake ethnography of twisted personal moral systems gets us only a fine-grained understanding of particular individual syndromes, so I’m willing to join him in sidestepping that issue, and the others too.

Like many feminists and critical race theorists, Jim wants to talk instead about the collapse of entitled white masculinity over the last hundred years or so. He sees these boys playing out an apocalyptic script in which their private pain has to be made public, each of them a sort of degraded King Lear projecting their own angst into the universe. Why the drama? Because they are “superfluous” and “unimportant” – not needed for either work or war, the historic sites of the manly virtues; not needed at all, really, for anything. Why the guns and shooting? Because those are the means of the manhood now denied these boys.

Jim’s specific contribution to the discussion is to frame this relative immiseration, not in terms of attacks on entitled white masculinity by heroically triumphant women and people of color (which, incidentally, become effects as much as causes in his analysis), but the more structural and seemingly benign dynamics of post-scarcity consumer economy. We don’t need these boys as breadwinners because advanced industrial productivity has replaced mass labor – what’s left is a lot of feminized make-work in the ‘service economy’. And we don’t need them as warriors for the military version of the same reasons – drones and special ops get most of the real work of power done, and most of that’s make-work too, bad habits more than any kind of security necessity. So, who are these boys and what are they for? Not at all clear at the moment. In some sense, they’re just like the dead wood in the forest that used to get cleared out by little fires now and again, like regular wars used to clear out the surplus male population; now we keep both fires and wars from happening, with all that fuel lying around waiting for a spark. What would be the acceptable version of a controlled burn?

Jim draws on his outstanding work on the intellectual history of turn-of-the-century America to invoke William James, diagnosing the dynamic and predicting the problems:

James correlated the impending demise of those virtues with “pacific cosmopolitan industrialism”—a stage of development in which an older “pain economy” organized by the emotional austerity of necessary labor was giving way to a “pleasure economy” animated by the emotional surplus of consumer culture. This new economy, according to James, was a world without producers, “a world of clerks and teachers, of co-educators and zoophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited and feminism unabashed.”

From the standpoint of that correlation, the decline of necessary labor or productive callings, and the consequent confusion of male and female spheres—“feminism unabashed”—became the elements of an identity crisis for every man; for they threatened to dissolve the ego boundaries hitherto determined by the sanctions of scarcity, both economic and emotional.

Here’s how James put it: “The transition to a ‘pleasure economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defence against its disintegrative influences. If we speak of the fear of emancipation from the fear regime, we put the whole situation into a single phrase: fear regarding ourselves now taking place of the ancient fear of the enemy.”

I think Jim’s right about all of it, including that we’re going to have to get clear on how the new post-scarcity order needs a new ideology of self, because the old one based on labor, discipline, and sacrifice is obsolete. And I can see how these shooters are effectively canaries in the coal mine of that process, outliers on the bloody trailing edge of the old order like Paris Hilton and The Situation are cautionary tales on the frontiers of the new.

But while I think Jim’s account gets at the deep structure of the situation (and The Situation) better than personal responsibility, or mental health policy, or gun legislation, or ‘the media’, it’s still got the feel of hand-waving to me. There are a lot of moving parts in how these shootings happen – all sorts of things not deadly on their own have to come together in just the right dynamic alignment. Entitlement, race, masculinity, anomie, anxiety; the autism spectrum, personal responsibility, psychiatric medication, helicopter parenting; easy access to guns, glorification of violence, fragmentation of popular culture, the news cycle; post-scarcity economy, speculative boom and bust, consumer society. I don’t think we can get to explanation through any of these factors, nor can we do without them. I think they’re operating at different scales, and the ways the scales interact from case to case matters as much as the specific factors involved. And I think trying to pick out any one of them as the ‘independent variable’, driving dynamic, or essential nexus of trouble, is only going to be accidentally effective.

But, as usual, I’ve run out of steam right when it comes time to either do the complex analysis I say we ought to do, or cut to the chase and propose policy. (In this respect I am a perfect New Man – showy but basically useless, the Kim Kardashian of critical thinking.) “It’s complex” is another kind of hand-waving. So great, it’s complex. Now what?

Update, 12/26 – It’s interesting to think this last paragraph in relation to Jim’s post on the passing of Alfred F. Young. Jim reports his frustration that unlike himself and his other teachers, Young refused to pursue an intellectual agenda. Every activist question was met with more primary sources. In effect, Young’s answer was always ‘it’s more complicated than that – let’s see how’.

Weber, Durkheim, and even Marx (think 11th thesis) knew that to get to practice you have to interrupt analysis. Activism requires simplifying abstraction. Of course that may be necessary – but there’s a place and an ethic for a patiently detangling scholarship that refuses to cut the knot, also.

September 16, 2012

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

by CarlD

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

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

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


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

June 13, 2012

Complexity in practice pt. 2: writing and reading

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very, very sad story that.

October 14, 2011


by CarlD

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

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

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

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.”

July 8, 2010


by CarlD

One of the basic misconceptions about ‘global warming’ is that there should be a smooth upward trend of temperatures all over. A cold winter means it can’t possibly be warming. But actually climate is made up, as I’ve recently learned, by a whole mess of coupled quasi-oscillators, systems that swing through a series of states tending toward return to origins (seasons), but with drift. In this case the drift is the warming, but the oscillation means that at moments in the linked oscillation parts of the system may well be swinging low while other parts are swinging up.

I was sitting outside just now playing a game I grimly enjoy with a simple natural quasi-oscillator, the mosquito. I have this tennis-racquet-looking device that uses batteries and a metal mesh to deliver a mild but mosquito-killing shock. In the process of getting good at killing mosquitos, first with my hands and then with this newfangled mosquitocidal contraption, I’ve noted that mosquitos’ basic move while feeding is to oscillate. They loop back and forth around a target area, drawing nearer and swinging farther until the coast clears, at which point they shorten the period of oscillation down to a landing. With feeding mosquitoes, like climate, there is no straight point-to-point flight.

Because the mosquitoes’ period and amplitude of oscillation vary their flight can look random, but it’s not – it’s non-linear but quite orderly. This makes mosquitoes almost as hard to track and swat as a purely random path, but pure randomness wouldn’t get them food. So my tender white flesh is an attractor (perhaps a strange one) around which the mosquitoes oscillate, reacting to movement and opportunity by swinging out or swinging in, with the oscillations drifting toward a meal.

Waving the killer doohickey around randomly will occasionally intersect one of these paths, but what works way better is to swing it back and forth in the same oscillating pattern as the mosquitoes, only slightly faster than them so that the linked oscillations have the chance to intersect on both the way out and the way in. If you’ve ever tried to stop someone (maybe yourself) on a swing you know how this works. You want to be pushing forward while the swing’s going back, and back when it’s going forward. Get this counter-period wrong and you just amplify the swing or knock the swinger on his ass.

Can we do something like this on a global scale with ocean currents, gas concentrations, absorbtive/ablative surfaces, butterfly wings and so on to manage the climate? Wow. Well anyway, be sure to turn off the lights when you leave.

May 11, 2010

Kick the can

by CarlD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 13, 2008

Throwing stones

by CarlD

I admire and enjoy the work Max Forte is doing at OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY. His post on shooting kids is typically interesting and provocative. It’s working from this video shot from the cab of a U.S. military vehicle in Iraq, in which a soldier narrates his thoughts about a series of Iraqi children throwing rocks at him and eventually breaking his windshield. Those thoughts are, as Max notes, not pretty (strong language alert):

Like a good anthropologist and especially as the engaged anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist kind, Max’s empathy tends to slosh toward the locals. He’s aware of the soldiers as humans, but because they’re in big trucks, have guns, and are members of an occupying force of dubious legitimacy, their troubles are their own and easily solved by getting the flork out of Iraq. He wonders why we should ‘support the troops’ in doing this bad thing that they’re doing. Stop doing it, The End.

I want to fiddle with Max’s take on the video and the situation (comments on the thread itself have also been excellent, go see), but only in a more general context of agreeing with his principles and project. What I say here is meant to balance the analysis from a different perspective, which I believe is what a good anthropological community ought to do. It could be that a more balanced analysis blunts the thrust of Max’s politics, and here we may find our disagreement. I’m not much persuaded by righteous critiques of righteousness, which is why I wrote the post before this one. To me Iraq is a vivid but otherwise ordinary case of a lot of people acting in moral good faith according to different understandings of what the content of morality is, and a lot of other people acting out their habitus, and the rest kind of improvising. Taking a stand here makes sense for many reasons, but for me to join in with all that would just add clutter.

To start by clearing a little clutter, ‘supporting the troops’ and ‘supporting the mission’ are two different things. Max is able to collapse those together because he assigns full, intentional responsibility to the troops for being there as agents of the mission. I’m actually sympathetic to this kind of strong moral ascription as a regulative ideal, but it is an ascription of an ideal. As such, it’s not very anthropological. Max is appropriately not much interested in the anthropology of the troops, but I am. I teach in Fayetteville and work with these soldiers from Fort Bragg all the time. They matter to me. They’re smart and dumb, moral and expedient, reflective and unreflective, likable and repellent in just the same proportion as most folks. They’re in the army for a range of reasons, not mutually exclusive, including passionate love of their country, a sense of duty and honor, group solidarity, class struggle, anxiety about their masculinity, social betterment, economic expedience, a poor sense of options, and occasionally sadism.

The narrative offered by the soldier on the video is chilling at face value. As far as we know from what he says, the only reason he’s not shooting a bunch of Iraqi kids or giving the wheel a little jog and running them over is that his sergeant told him not to. Who knows what he’d do if he thought he could get away with it, and so on. If we take what he says at face value, this guy is a dangerous sociopath with a barely restrained god complex. Just like the United States?

I know very few people who are so reflective and controlled or unreflective and simple that I can (or in kindness should) take what they say at face value. I watched the vid with my wife Rachel, who isn’t a big fan of militarism but used to be married to a soldier at Bragg and hung out with those guys a lot. We both had the same reaction, which was “poor guy.” That soldier is no psycho. Crude and a knucklehead, yes; not defendable. But he’s scared, tired, frustrated and hurt. Maybe feels like he’s there trying to do a good thing and being dragged down. He’s probably not fully invested in the ideology of liberation from tyranny; few soldiers I know are. But he’s familiar with the chaos of collapsed order and he does know he’s in a no-win situation. He’s blowing off some serious steam here, and probably pumping himself and his buddy with the camera up. But he’d no sooner shoot those kids than he’d shoot his sergeant, who he also no doubt cusses out behind his back on choice occasions. He’s disciplined with a pretty good discipline in comparison to, say, a warrior in Chinggis Khan’s Mongol hordes or a thug in Nasty Somoza’s Nicaraguan National Guard, either of whom would have had a much less restrained idea of how to apply superior power.

And the thing is, the kids know it. They don’t even bother ducking or running away once they’ve hucked their rocks. We may well admire their initiative and pluck in resisting the occupiers (I’d want something a little more structured and thoughtful if they were my kids), and they are certainly earning themselves some bragging rights (the guy who broke the windshield is a folk hero for the next little while), but they’re basically punks getting away with symbolic acts of defiance to authority. Good for them, but not what I’d call Resistance with a capital R. Their impunity is evident in their relaxed posture, their mocking tone, and the fact that this particular corner is known by both ‘sides’ as the one where you come to stone the Americans. I can see where that would be fun and affirming, under the circumstances, a thrill of transgression for sure and a ready tie-in to a typically othering notion of group solidarity. Of course, they are also in a larger sense in a no-win situation, which brings us back to Max’s point — yikes. U.S., just get out.

Whether or not that happens any time soon, I think it’s worth going back and cleaning up that standard left-wing critique of the hypocrisy of U.S. democracy for supporting rather than toppling nasty dictators. Saddam was one of those, and according to the Cold War rhetoric of critical opposition to cynical U.S. imperialism the neo-cons actually did the right thing, for once, by taking him out. We could have gotten at the oil and kept Iran in check much easier by making up with Saddam over Kuwait and letting him get on with exterminating the Kurds. Despite all the war’s stupidity and barbarism, and the very real danger of a plunge into civil war and anarchy, Iraq is much closer to popular self-determination now than it was under the Sunni Ba’athists. So it turns out we on the left do not actually want a muscularly unhypocritical U.S. democracy. We should get much clearer on what we do want, and thanks to Max for working toward that.

May 22, 2008

Battle of the sexes

by CarlD

I was already thinking a thought about sexes when I happened upon some help from the most excellent Hoyden About Town, writing about a newish dating service that thinks sex is more complicated than one from column A and one from column B. Well hallelujah, brothers, sisters and friends, let’s run with that for a moment.

Much of third-wave feminism has been about troubling the categories of the body, by taking seriously the huge variety of human experiences of embodiment and in particular, of gender/sex/sexuality. Morals and practices are often quite narrow and rigid about these things, but vary dramatically from place to place and from time to time. Grappling with these differences in what parochially seem to be fundamental categories of our existence is now one of the ordinary requirements of a liberal education, which is my biz.

A favorite resource for me as a teacher lodged in history is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur shows that in Europe well into the early modern period, and supported by close anatomical study, the dominant understanding of sex was that there was only one. Basically, they thought that everyone was a male but either an innie or an outie; depending on the body’s heat the goodies either got pushed out or retained inside. Ovaries are retained testicles, vaginas are inverted penises, and so on. (I’m simplifying Laqueur’s rich discussion quite a bit and he simplifies a rich history filled with a variety of understandings to make his point. See Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture for a far more nuanced and comprehensive analysis.)

There were some interesting corollaries to this view, including the ones where both partners (obviously) had to orgasm for conception to take place, and women were (obviously) the natural sexual aggressors because they wanted to incorporate men’s heat, aka precious bodily fluids:

Laqueur shows that in this as in so many other ways the modern advances of knowledge and civilization of the 19th century were a load of crap for women, who went from being second-class but sexually empowered to being second-class and sexually repressed. More than this, he shows how our ‘readings’ of the body are always mixed up in our cultural preconceptions and political agendas. (A neat parallel discussion about weight and dieting is at Savage Minds.)

So, to boil this down even further, it used to seem obvious to educated European persons that there is one sex. Now it seems obvious to educated Euro-American persons that there are two. History and anthropology show that a three-sex model is not at all uncommon. This is all by people living within, looking at and thinking about ‘the same’ physical bodies.

It’s all very well to play with the wrong wacko theories of other deluded folks, but fortunately we now have things properly sorted out and there are two sexes, no more no less, right?… except I can’t see any final reason to believe this, even if we take a very strict scientific view. Science went from one to two before, and science does not deal in settled truths, it deals in robust theories (e.g. two sexes, evolution, laws of thermodynamics) subject to new findings. It may well turn out that there are biologically three sexes, or six, or forty-two, with all sorts of surprising consequences for getting the pairings wrong.

Let’s say there are six. There are various ways this could work. The above-mentioned dating service points to one. Protein, hormone or immune-system variances may turn out to sort into sexualizing packages one through six, such that ones and fours are well-mated but ones and fives are not. It could be that twos and sixes can only work with help from a three or four. Could something like this explain reproductive difficulties? Was Henry VIII a three looking for his six but foolishly marrying one five after another? Maybe he ought to have smelt their pee more carefully….

How about if it turns out that the gender continuum — ultra-masculine to ultra-feminine — actually contains sexualizing thresholds, creating natural sex/gender composites? So the six sexes might be: masculine male, neutral male, feminine male; masculine female, neutral female, feminine female. Who knows how this is written into the genes, I’m speculating here. Sexuality might still have little to do with any of this, as is the case with the current two-sex theory. Or it might turn out to run most smoothly through the ‘gender’ component of the sex composite (masculine to feminine, with neutrals most open to anything), with conflict inherent at the extremes. Or it might turn out that same-to-same works best. Although this version of the hypothesis obviously feeds off of a lot of old stereotypical gender garbage, it would certainly naturalize, explain and demarginalize a lot of things about transgendering and transsexuality, as well as a variety of familiar failures in normative hetero/homo relationships.

One thing’s for sure. We don’t know the full truth of these matters yet; or rather, we know a variety of mutually-inconsistent truths about them. And maybe, given how people abuse the truths they have, it’s better that we don’t. My vote is for Burkean existentialism.

May 3, 2008

Move your feet.

by CarlD

Something my Dad told me many years ago when I was just a tyke Carl Dyke has always stuck with me. It’s a good example of how I do much of my thinking analogically, as for example in the last post on “getting clear.”

He was talking about how he played offensive guard on the football team in high school. He was a tall, skinny kid and guards are supposed to be the massive road graders of the offensive line so this was really an unlikely thing. What he told me was that the key is to move your feet. If you can keep your feet moving, he said (and of course I don’t remember his exact words), you keep your balance and leverage so you can maintain your position while never giving the other guy a clean shot to knock you over.

This is just beautifully (although of course imperfectly, as are all analogies) an image of metastability. There’s lots of shifting, preferably unpredictable in specific moves without being indeterminate in a larger sense, within a bounded range. No trouble keeping track of him continuing to be the same player playing the same position, but he’s otherwise not staying still or letting himself get pinned down.

As is so often the case during this, my blogging apprenticeship (N. Pepperell is my Yoda 🙂 ), a thread on Rough Theory prompted this thought. The thread points to recent ‘theory wars’, which is a sort of thing I’m familiar to ennui with as an intellectual historian, although not the current instance. We all have to figure stuff out sometime, somehow.

The discussion on NP’s thread is worth perusing. In a very general sense it’s about how to ‘ground’ theories in real, sensuous histories without merely turning them into curios or losing an aspiration to broader engagement and relevance.

So it’s about our relationship to the ground. And it all made me think – move your feet. The problems come when we try to plant in one position. Too easy to hit from a blind side and get knocked over that way. Go ahead and stay where you are, but keep your feet moving. Keep turning, shifting, engaging.

Move your feet.

April 25, 2008

Position and movement

by CarlD

There’s a thread over on Rough Theory that got me thinking a stray thought I didn’t want to clutter up that excellent site with, but did want to write down so I could see if I agreed with it. Without going into too much detail, the thread concerns what to make of Marx’s way of doing theory in general, and whether there’s something useful in the idea of ’emergence’ in particular.

The conversation between N. Pepperell and Daniel strikes me as a classic sort of contrast between two very different ways of thinking about things, which I’ve tried to capture in my title for this post by hijacking Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a rough analogy. Daniel is an excellent philosopher, and he is oriented toward position. N. Pepperell is also a outstanding philosopher, oriented toward movement. The uncertainty principle tells us that we can know either position or movement, but not both. Since this has to do with quantum physics (which I understand only vaguely) the analogy is a real stretch; let’s see if I can pull it off.

One way to do philosophy, speaking very roughly indeed, is to attempt to gain certainty – or at least clarity – by defining entities very precisely. The entities may be words, concepts, percepts, ideals, things (-in-themselves), or whatnot. Socrates’ dialogues are a famous example of this sort of philosophy. Through a process of logical questioning, Socrates attempts to determine the exact nature of a series of important concepts. In principle, it is possible to pin down exactly what ‘justice’ is, for example, or ‘the good’, and what the relations are between them.

To do great violence to a complex history, this kind of philosophical thinking passes up through Descartes and Kant (a mixed case) to analytic philosophy. The common project is to get the world and our thinking about it to sit still so that we can say clear and definite things about clear and definite things. The “sitting still” part is the “position” part I’m getting at.

The philosophy of position has often contrasted itself polemically against “sophism”, the kind of slick and slippery wordplay of which all philosophers are accused by their detractors. This is a defensive red herring. Meanwhile, playing in the branches of the family tree of positional philosophy are monkeys for whom things and thoughts cannot be pulled out of context and nailed down schematically without killing them, or at least denaturing them. These are the philosophers of movement, for whom it is often precisely the messy (from a positional perspective) relationality and changeability of things and concepts as they arise and bounce around in the world that characterizes them. Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, Beauvoir, and late (but not early) Wittgenstein are this sort of philosopher. Nietzsche charmingly called his monkeying the “philosophy of the dangerous maybe.”

Marx was not a maybe kind of guy, but he did monkey around with concepts. Over on Rough Theory N. Pepperell is doing something very interesting at the moment: dissecting an instance of what happens when a philosopher of position (Georg Lukacs) attempts to explicate a philosopher of movement (Marx). Lukacs takes single instances of what Marx says and pins them down to static meanings in a static relationship to each other, then derives conclusions from this alignment, just as positional philosophy says one oughta. Meanwhile, Marx has taken what he said, realigned it with other concepts, added ‘context’, worked it all through a dynamical process in which each element is transformed in specific relations and interactions with the others, and come to quite different conclusions.

This process is ’emergence’, but to a philosopher of position it just looks ‘confused’ because as Heisenberg told us, you can’t see motion if you’re trying to determine location. It just looks like a blur that needs to be resolved – by taking a snapshot!

The question of ‘intentionality’ is mixed up in all this, but I’ve muddied the waters enough for one post.

UPDATE: I am now satisfied that the “Daniel” simulacrum I used as the ‘philosopher of position’ has little relationship to the Daniel with whom I have been sharing pleasant and edifying chat in the comments to this post. I will leave faux “Daniel” there as an imaginary philosopher and, perhaps, a cautionary tale.

UPDATE: Ah. Thanks to the keen eyes at Perverse Egalitarianism, here is a better examplar of the type.