Archive for ‘vulgarities’

March 25, 2021

Education budgets

by Carl Dyke

A friend asked a question on Facebook about suggestions on teaching history writing – not articles or books for students on how to write (there’s a whole industry in those, and several industry standards), but suggestions for professors on offering feedback and teaching techniques. I feel like I’ve gotten far enough out in left field on these questions that I hesitated to do more than recommend Sam Wineburg via this old post, but what I think is that most conscientious content-oriented professors are probably doing about as well as they can do as long as they keep focusing on content. And that’s because, roughly speaking, teaching content crowds out anything else you might want students to be learning. If you want writing to get better, writing has to move to the center of what your class does.

There are a lot of ways to get to this thought – mine was conditioned by getting sick of reading through stacks of awful papers that never seemed to get any better. But one way to come at it is to think of our classes as being on a kind of budget, where the resources under management are time and attention and effort, both ours and the students’. And there’s only so much of those any of us have. I don’t think this metaphor forces us into neoliberal transactionalism, either. The myth of the infinite budget is a problem all over the political spectrum. There’s only so much we can do, so it’s good to think through the budget and invest it wisely.

In History education, you could certainly put all of your budget into content. The objective would be to cram as much information into the class via lecture and reading as possible. This is a kind of familiar old school of History education we still see sometimes today, and gets you into the world of study skills and note taking and reading comprehension and test taking. And you’re not going to have time or attention or effort to teach those if you’re all in on content. But if you can standardize the curriculum around this mode of instruction, you can offload the skilling onto a remedial paracurriculum and academic support services. Even better, if you can afford to be selective, you can just admit and work only with students who’ve already been skilled up in content acquisition and retention through their families and k-12 training.

Obviously you can try to do the same with the writing skills, but the problem there is that those require much more cognitive elaboration than information storage and retrieval. They’re beyond the capacity of most k-12 programs to teach, so they don’t. Kids are going to show up without any effective scaffolding in a complex skillset. And there’s actually very little chance the remedial paracurriculum and academic support services can accomplish from scratch all the heavy lifting of college level writing instruction, especially early in a student career where it’s had no time to take and settle and develop. Because this is now a very familiar and widespread problem there are lots of ways around it, all of them cringy and resulting in college graduates everyone agrees are kind of useless.

The only effective alternative is to move some of your time, attention, and effort budget into writing. If you want them to write well in your class(es), you’re going to have to teach them how. Preferably this is happening all over the curriculum and being supported by the paracurriculum and academic services, but good luck with that. I saw a very determined senior colleague break herself over many, many years on this obvious fact about writing across the curriculum. If you want a bite of other people’s classroom budgets, you’re not going to get very far without an apocalypse.

Like I said, writing is hard, and teaching it is going to come at the expense of content. So let’s circle back and see if we can get content to cost us less. I think we can, for two reasons. First, the content is now all readily available on the internet to anyone with a device and a data plan. And second, none of the content is in itself uniquely essential to being an educated person. I’m personally convinced this means I don’t have to budget for any content at all in my classes. Let’s see if I can make that case.

First, all of the content is available on the internet. Of course it’s not “all” available, but for any given historical topic vastly more is available than we could hope to ‘cover’ in any given class. Because this is true, there’s obviously no need for students to learn anything about history that they have to remember. Their prosthetic memory is in their pockets, and it makes their potential carry-on knowledge base much larger than it could ever have been with meat memory alone. What they need is clearly search, recognition, and processing strategies, to activate the availability of that virtually infinite content. We do have to teach them research skills, and those are also cognitively elaborate. But this saves us from teaching them particular contents, in favor of giving them responsible access to all of the contents.

So now they have something to write about, which is tremendously important in writing instruction, and they’re practicing historical researchers. Just like that, we’ve replaced a perennial content problem (what to cover, how to decide) with a perpetual content solution (whatever you need for any given purpose), and spent only the budget it takes to teach and practice internet research skills. It follows that the single dopiest thing any history teacher can say these days is, put your phones away. It’s the modern equivalent of smashing the tablets and burning the books. That’s where the freaking content is, all of it, right at our fingertips. And later, when we’re not around to carefully curate and control our students’ access to content, the internet will still be there in their pockets or maybe in a chip in their heads, waiting for them to make something of it or watch another kitty video or tumble down a conspiracy rabbit hole. Wouldn’t it be better if they knew how to get at, recognize, and process the good stuff? How many lectures and course-pack readings on the Napoleonic wars would we trade for knowing how to learn about the Napoleonic wars for themselves?

I picked the Napoleonic wars there because they’re in-field for me, so I could in principle think I was supposed to teach them, and in a European and modern history kind of way they’re fairly important. I think it’s fair to say that any well educated American man four or five generations ago would have been expected to have some Napoleonic wars in his game. He’d get the joke about land wars in Asia in “Princess Bride,” and have opinions about the weight of great men in the scales of History. He would not, however, have considered the Haitian revolution as a counternarrative of modern democratic nationalism, nor would he have read Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the rights of women. He would certainly never have pondered whether the White Lotus movement was an important precursor to the Taiping rebellion, or how the slow erosion of Chinese sovereignty by foreign interference throughout the 19th century might have fed into a series of escalating disruptions culminating in the Boxer Rebellion and ultimately the Chinese Revolution. But he would probably have heard of the Opium wars, which were about free trade, and seen a couple of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan movies. In other words, he would have been deeply, catastrophically historically ignorant. The kind of ignorant that enthusiastically supports intervention on the wrong side of a war of national liberation in Southeast Asia because he doesn’t have the faintest clue what Communism is or how it might have appealed to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong more than free trade. And no useful idea of how to find out.

How do we pick out what the essential historical knowledge is, in that paragraph? My categories are pretty chunky, but it’s still much too much. Especially for an undergraduate education, where we may hope for several courses but only get one or two, there’s no way for coverage to pick out the essential from the very important from the maybe what you urgently need right now from the oops, no time for the Cold War. We don’t make that better by just deciding our thing is the essential thing, although at least then we have a focus. But to know enough history is inevitably to know you don’t know enough history. Throwing content into that abyss in whatever quantity is forlorn.

So much the worse for content, I say. So with our budget freed from ruinously expensive ‘coverage’, how do we teach history writing? Workshops, basically. We learn any set of skills by practice and feedback on practice. So then we have to think about what the skills of historical writing actually are, and design the workshop practice around scaffolding them from basic research to primary sources and scholarship, through drafting to finished work. In my case, I’d like the students to get all the way to knowing their stuff, so these research and writing projects develop through a whole instructional term in a developmental and cumulative sequence of papers. If they buy in and do it right, they’re much better at it by the end and the final papers are fun to read.

But still, writing is hard, so what’s much better and not bad by the end is still mostly a bit short of really good. If good writing is what we want from and for our students, it’s just not a matter of little tips and tricks of pedagogical technique. It’s a matter of full investment in what it takes to achieve that outcome. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to cost us anything that matters much.

March 22, 2021

The nightmare of dead generations

by Carl Dyke

When I was a young intellectual in college I was really excited about the power of ideas to change the world. Just as the ruling class thinks rules are very important and the working class thinks work is very important and mothers think nurturing is very important and warriors think violence is very important and pigs think mud is very important, eggheads think thinking is very important. Sometimes you just have to smile and nod politely when people say their little thing about how the world works. It takes all kinds.

So a popular idea about ideas in coffee shops, brew pubs, and philosophy departments is that ideas make things happen. This idea should die the first time you try to make it come true, but it’s easy enough to avoid this confound if you only ever have ideas and never try to make them come true. You can also play all sorts of association games, where things were happening and meanwhile people were having ideas that sort of resembled the things that were happening, and so there we have it, ideas making things happen. Never mind the same sorts of ideas were around in other times and places without kicking up much dust. This is really easy to see with, say, Nazism. Nazism itself is a portmanteau of all kinds of garbage that was around in European thought and practice for at least hundreds of years. Finding Nazism precursors is like shooting ducks in a bucket. It didn’t just go away when Hitler blew his brains out in the bunker, either. Naziform thinking is as routine as lawns and registered animal breeds and thinking it means something to be from Pittsburgh. Japanese Buddhists of the early 20th century were basically Nazis, as it turns out, because they were zeeeennn with obeying orders and committing genocide. Yes, bonsai is a little creepy. You know what’s completely normal as part of the distribution of human thoughts and feelings? Control freaks and motivated reasoning and being just fine with other people’s suffering.

The historical challenge is to get, say, Christianity, or communism, or free markets to be ideas that map cleanly onto the accomplishment of enumerated goals. If two thousand years later we’re still having trouble with loving thy neighbor, it might be the relationship between the Christian idea complex and the world of living and doing stuff is importantly indirect. If you actually want to change things, it’s incumbent to see what else might have been going on that murderously intercepted living together in freedom in the great 20th century communist experiments. And every time a free market gets ‘captured’ by dynamics other than the free and fair pursuit of individual self interest, shaking a finger and scolding people for doing it wrong are on the silly side of sociopathic wokeness. Don’t get me started on the Constitution.

It is just impossible to find any ideas in, say, 18th century Europe that didn’t have slavery and white supremacy as part of their effective context and content. Sometimes this is explicit, as in the case of pro- and anti-slavery tracts. More often it’s just that nothing about Europeans’ world in the 18th century was possible without slavery and white supremacy, although a lot of it had been true on other grounds some hundreds of years before. So you couldn’t say “I like a good ham sandwich” without saying “I like a good ham sandwich where cuisines and standards of quality in foodstuffs are marked out on a hierarchy with race at the bottom, and in a political economy that conditions their availability to the likes of me,” where that political economy included the labor and status and price and finance and power gradients of slavery and white supremacy. I’ve started to talk about how ideas are emergent in systems. And, you couldn’t say “I want freedom for X,” without saying that at least for the moment you were ok with conditioning that freedom on the continued enslavement and domination of global brown peoples. And you couldn’t say “that’s not what I’m talking about,” the way philosophers do as the special way philosophers get to manage their own ignorance as if it’s deep wisdom, by sealing off their special kind of thinking from their context, without baking the context that allowed you to think like that right into your ideas as their essential contingent precondition.

But, I haven’t said anything unique about Europe or the 18th century or white supremacy, have I. This is just how ideas work. The bits and pieces of them are floating around all the time, everywhere (who doesn’t like a good ham sandwich or rank people or want the world to be just so), but the specific assemblages of them have a time and place. If they make anything happen, it’s because they’re in the flow with lots of other stuff in context. And so it goes.

Not that eggheads ever need any particular context to think like eggheads do! So another dopey thing the people you would expect to think like this think in coffee shops and brew pubs and philosophy departments is that ideas, being powerful, don’t have contexts but are just ‘in play’ all the time. So to pick an example out of a gagillion, we could continue to be interested in Hegel as a live option for how to think about things. And find to our disappointment that he’s not only a racist like everyone else in Europe in the 18th century, but also a little fuzzy and maybe not great on the question of complex systems and emergence. Like, it’s in some sense tautologically true that the world develops according to its logic, which is by definition rational. So there we have it, the progress of reason. But this may not be helpful if we’re interested in how systems shift more comprehensively, which would have to involve contradictions within the logic of history. So we’ve reinvented the Young Hegelians and we’re well into the 19th century now. And then Marx blows it all up with the 11th thesis. You can describe the world any way you like, according to whatever logic suits your fancy, but none of that means anything unless you can get in there and change things. Which, we mostly still don’t know how to do, not least because we keep casting our wistful glances at kludgy old ideas with racism or whatnot baked into them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Being a practicalish kind of guy with limited time for other people’s descriptions of the world in various ways, I think it’s kind of fun Hegel might have been on the trail of complex systems, but it wouldn’t occur to me to try to get Hegel to be relevant to that discussion now. I’d start with Poincaré, who was just straightforwardly trying to figure out complex systems early in the game called complex systems. But I really wouldn’t start with Poincaré either, first because he’s pretty mathy, and second because there’s an intervening hundred years of smart people working that angle. I don’t look to Darwin for the state of the art on evolution either, although you can find plenty of dingbats on social media doing just that and heroically refuting 19th century science. So I might start with Prigogine, or the early systems theorists like Wiener, as my dear papah Dyke the Elder suggested I do back when I first got sick of chasing the magic of ideas and started poking around at what else was going on. But really I’d try to catch up on what people who study complex systems have been learning about complex systems over the last twenty, ten, five years. Which, is what I do. I don’t expect Hegel to come up anywhere in there, although there’s always some romantic who remembers freshman philosophy and thinks he can get hot dates by connecting the dots.

April 15, 2020

Self, echolocation, conspiracy theories

by Carl Dyke

Awhile back I tossed off a remark on a Facebook post that conspiracy theories are a form of echolocation. The host (Neuroanthropology, one of the very best pages I follow) asked me to say more and I gave it some thought, gave it some more thought, realized it had all gotten pretty unwieldy, and wrote this instead. As with most of my ‘pings’ I’m not sure it’s anything much better than a conspiracy theory, but maybe it makes a good blog post:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to answer this without getting too far down the rabbit hole and ending up reinventing the whole history of contemplation. So by way of sketchy sketch, what we call ‘self’ is pretty clearly an emergent, adaptive epiphenomenon of environmental, biological, and cultural feedback systems churning along at various scales. Because it’s dynamic, relational, and adaptive, there’s inherently no stable essence to such a structure. It only persists by active (massively active) engagement with its surroundings, whatever they may be from time to time. This is an energetic process obviously subject to resource constraint.

Adaptation and evolution create a distribution of strategies within this basic dynamic. Interaction is split off into subsystems that operate at different rates and intensities, both within and among ‘individuals’. Resources are differentially committed and optimized around particular interactive settings. For example, it seems that people have various relatively hard wired rates at which learning occurs, with characteristic advantages and disadvantages to slow or swift response to new information.

Again, the dynamic interactivity of self means that its maintenance requires constant orienting feedback with and from the environments, internal and external. This is the echolocation part. But resource constraint means that we can’t be operating active echolocation in every subsystem and every scale simultaneously, and adaptive differentiation means we’re optimizing and prioritizing those feedback loops across a range of strategies. Practically, this means people are going to be active and maybe even ‘needy’ around a range of interactive domains, giving off and taking in information asymmetrically across multiple axes, none of this chosen or conscious obviously.

“Who am I” is a much harder question to answer and keep answered in interactively chaotic environments than homogenously stable ones. Environments produce a range of echoes, and processing biases reward different collection routines. It may be that for some people sometimes, somewheres, the mismatch between their pings and the available echoes is profoundly alienating, if not literally crazymaking. You would expect these distributional experiments out on the long tails, and you would expect those tails to get fatter as environments become more variable and chaotic. You would expect people to become more aggressive in their attempts to create and manage congenial echo chambers.

Conspiracy theories then work as a special case of a very ordinary kind of echolocating ping, by broadcasting a strongly biased signal into a chaotic environment likely to generate a loud and clear response one way or another. Although this feedback loop is likely to be identity and community defining, it’s not in the first instance about ‘believing’ the conspiracy theory at all.

April 5, 2020

Dogma and criticality

by Carl Dyke

“I always believed that two masterpieces (I say this very seriously) summarized the thousand-year-old experience of mankind in the field of mass organization: the corporal’s manual and the Catholic catechism. I’ve become convinced that it is necessary to add, though in a field that is much more restricted and of an exceptional nature, prison regulations, which contain true treasures of psychological introspection.” Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison I, 97.

Critical thinking is hard. I work in a humanities / social sciences / liberal arts field where we celebrate but seldom practice critical thinking (and perhaps ‘wisdom’). Much more often what you get is some “critical theory” or other reduced to a kitsch algorithm and “applied” as dogma. This is obviously a mistake, but it’s also not at all a mistake. So I’m writing this post out of frustration, but also, I hope, critically.

“Criticizing,” in the sense of finding fault and locating errors, is always available, but it’s the thinnest possible understanding of critical thinking. You’re finding mismatches between one set of standards and another set of practices, which in a lumpy, complex world is like shooting ducks in a bucket. (I started out by doing that here. I’m still doing it. I’m trying to do better. It’s hard.) People start to get good at this kind of critical thinking around the age of two. “Critical theories” at this level simply provide the more or less elaborate standards in comparison to which practices can always be found wanting. Don’t do that thing, do the other thing. “This ham sandwich is not the platonic essence of the ham sandwich.”

I should say that I often revere the standards provided by critical theories. In my experience the platonic essence of the ham sandwich was produced by the Good Food Bus, parked beside Paley Library at Temple University, circa 1983. It was glorious. I’m also in favor of flourishing, human and otherwise, and firmly believe that mean people suck.

What “critical theory” even at its most algorithmic gets right is that criticality is edgy (fractal, as Nietzsche said, and therein lies the abyss). The center of any practice is never where the critical action is, as any bored suburban teenager can tell you. In those centers there’s just a way things work, and part of how they work is by locking out critical disruption. At a systems level all of the metaphors of mechanism and organism suggest themselves here. Engines and hearts don’t do a lot of critical thinking about how and whether to make the old crate go, and that’s for the best. It’s never a good thing when those subsystems ‘go critical’.

This sense in which locked in, algorithmic regimes of ‘normal’ enable a smoothly successful function of business as usual is incredibly, one might say critically, important. This is what critical theories do for communities of like-minded intellectual practitioners, and why they’re critically not critical. As Marx himself noted, there’s nothing less critical than “Marxism.” The road from theory to cult to cultural system is paved with good intentions and sound practical reason.

All of this makes both practicing and teaching critical thinking really tricky. Anything we tell the students is dogma. If we drill them in it they are foot soldiers, or prisoners. If we tell it to them charismatically and they are moved to embrace it, they are disciples. If we show them our work, they become priests. To enter criticality and think critically, they must somehow evade the syllabus and the curriculum with which we tell them things, without just falling back into a prior dogma. The ones who get this routinely drop out, leaving the priests to reproduce their orthodoxies on the next generation.

In complex systems, such as all of our doings together, criticality is the turbulent edge between order and chaos. It’s a creative but dangerous space. Critical thinking is hard precisely because you have to suspend and disrupt the algorithms, entering criticality and exploring the possibilities that become available there, with the settled order of dogma behind you and the wild chaos of nonsense churning all around.

March 26, 2020

Corruption

by Carl Dyke

This was a dream. These guys were working in some foreign country. It wasn’t clear if they were missionaries or project engineers but they were good people, there to help. And they’d gotten busted for calling in prostitutes. A lot, routinely, so much so that they were getting blackmail callbacks from the local mob and causing problems for the home office, whatever it was.

No one could understand how this had happened, because these were good guys there to help, and this was against all previous evidence of character. So they were asked why. And they said well it was so cheap, and the girls were so good at it, and just waiting around for something to do.

February 2, 2020

Research guidance

by Carl Dyke

This is how I teach it, starting with the world history surveys. I wrote it down for the online class I’m teaching now. The whole process is meant to be recursive, generating new questions and diving back into the research. All of the research projects are written up in three phases culminating in the masterpiece.

Education can be a lot of jumping through hoops, and you may not be used to studying things you’re interested in. In this class, you learn by engaging your curiosity and then developing the skills and knowledge you need because there’s something you actually want to figure out and understand better.

Somebody has to do the research and find the sources that support informed and reliable historical knowledge. If you’re writing the paper, that somebody is you! There are some skills involved in good research, but there’s also a disposition. Good researchers are curious, stubborn, and persistent. They want to know, they’re confident the information they need is out there, and they keep digging until they hit it. Good researchers don’t say “I can’t find anything,” they say “let’s try another approach.”

If you can’t find the sources, you can’t be informed and reliable, and you can’t write a paper on that topic. There are two ways to handle this (well, three, if you count giving up). You can pick a different topic where the sources are easier to find. Or you can get stubborn, persist, and find the sources you need, becoming more ‘resourceful’ in the process.

Overview research

For any topic, it helps to have a general understanding of how that topic works in itself, and a general overview of that topic as part of a place and time with various other things going on. For this kind of orientation, encyclopedias and brief online summaries from reliable providers are fine! You can even go ‘Wikipedia surfing’ – find the entry for your topic and then click all the links, and then click all the links, and so on until you feel like you have a pretty good idea of the main outlines and features of your topic. Sometimes the citations, bibliography, and external links on better Wikipedia pages can even guide you toward more serious research.

Overview research is the common knowledge level of investigation. You’re just getting up to speed on what anyone who knows anything about the topic already knows. Any educated person with a device can do this step in a few minutes. You have not yet “done the research,” you have “informed yourself.” It’s very good to be informed, and a great start for serious research. But none of this basic information belongs in a research study. You only make yourself useful when you get way, way past Wikipedia and the first page of Google, and figure out something that wasn’t common knowledge.

Search terms

Other than general knowledge, the most important takeaway from overview research is an enhanced list of search terms. Most failed searches are just worded badly, and part of getting better at research is getting better at words. Make note of words and phrases that characterize your topic, then plug them back into your search to get more informed and specialized results. Keep doing this as you go to achieve a virtuous knowledge spiral.

Secondary sources

Most of your overview research will be what’s called “secondary sources.” In this case what makes them secondary is that they are written after the fact (second hand) by people with no direct experience of the topic. Secondary sources come in different grades of reliability and different levels of elaboration. For historical research, specialized sources published by scholars are usually where the reliable knowledge in depth is. They’re usually “peer reviewed,” which means approved by other people who study in that field. And they’re usually long format, starting in the 15-20 page range. You should get used to seeking out and reading research in that range.

Google

Regular Google searches move ads to the front, and after that are designed to give you the common knowledge overview, because that’s what most people want. So if you’re not careful, Google can distort your research and even your understanding of how knowledge works toward the superficial and trivial. Over time you can teach Google to take you more seriously and return better quality results automatically, but in the meantime you can go direct to Google Scholar and do your search at https://scholar.google.com/.

Proquest

There’s lots of great free scholarly content on the web. But if you hit a paywall, or you want to get straight to the good stuff without fighting through garbage, and also take advantage of your tuition dollars at work, it’s best to go through an academic database. At Davis Memorial Library the one database to rule them all is Proquest. It comes in a lot of curated subsections, but unless you know for sure that you only want the results from a narrowed search, go with Proquest Central, which is all of it. Look under P in the Digital Resources section of the library web page, (). (For History specifically, JSTOR is also great. Look under J.)

Primary sources

Primary sources are really important in historical research, because they were produced at the time you are studying by the people you are studying (primary in this case means first-hand). They can be a little tricky to find and may require some creative flexibility. The Library has what are called “LibGuides” that offer access to some primary source collections. There’s a link to the LibGuides on the main library page, and they’re organized by general topic area, including World History. Lots of libraries have terrific libguides online and you can use any of them, but signing in and going through MU’s libguides can help with paywalls if that’s an issue.

If you know the specific primary sources you’re looking for, Google can work fine. There are also collections of primary sources online that can be accessed directly if you know what they are, or discovered by searching your topic plus the search terms “primary source” and/or “archive” (an archive is a place where old writing is stored). Obviously you should have lots of different ways of saying your topic to the computer so you don’t miss the resources you need just because of bad wording.

Reading

Finding great sources is terrific, but then obviously you have to read them. In good research where you develop knowledge in depth, you should expect to find and read hundreds of pages, including lots that don’t turn out to be all that useful. This is why it’s so incredibly important to pick a topic you find genuinely fascinating. For guidance on extracting information and understanding from sources by reading them, see “Reading for Evidence.”

Research help

You can schedule a personal consult with a research librarian. They will help you find what you’re looking for. It’s not even cheating! Here’s the link: ()

May 15, 2019

Imperial disciplinarity

by Carl Dyke

One of the interesting things you learn if you hang out with disciplined people is that although they understand there are other disciplines which do some stuff or other, they generally think their discipline is the master discipline. So to take a small subset of examples, people in the Literature discipline tend to think of everything as literature, and people in the Philosophy discipline tend to think of everything as philosophy, and disciplined historians will point out that everything is or is becoming history. And physicists think everything is physics, and engineers look at the world as a series of engineering problems, and lawyers always gotta be lawyerin’, and so on and so on. Of course they’re all right.

The funny thing about people who are disciplined in this way is that they think their discipline, as the master discipline, is already interdisciplinary. History is something literature folks obviously pay close attention to as they examine the writings of, set in, and about the past, so really they’re also historians, and historians are just slightly confused adjunct literature scholars who, if we’re being collegial, are just focused on reading and interpreting somewhat less interesting sorts of texts.

We can assume no actual person actually thinks any of this nonsense and that I’m just ranting and waving my hands in my usual undisciplined way. In any case we’ll call this straw man imperial disciplinarity. And I think imperial disciplinarity goes a long way toward straw mansplaining the routine inconvenient fact that no matter how much people in the academy say they’re excited about interdisciplinarity, which is a lot; with no durable exceptions I’m aware of (and I’ve been paying attention to this question for the better part of forty years now), interdisciplinary efforts predictably fizzle out. Because you yourself are already splendidly interdisciplinary, and your discipline is the master discipline that embodies Education, Culture, Rigor, The Liberal Arts, Science, Knowledge, Wholeness, Purity, The Good, and The Fresh Scent of Newborns. And why would you want to work closely with people who when it comes down to it are just narrow and deluded subset knockoffs of all that or, like, wrong?

But there’s another inconvenient fact, which is that the presence of physics in literature (and vice versa) does not actually confer any particular knowledge about physics. Or history, or philosophy, and vice versa. So while we may imagine that the storm in “King Lear” fictionally performed according to correct meteorological dynamics, reading or better seeing or better yet acting in “King Lear” gives one exactly zero substantive expertise in meteorology. Of course! This is not a flaw. But the literature of physics is in math, isobars and gradients and whatnot in this case, and math is the discipline those of us who like to read books took lit classes to avoid. Point being, as soon as the substantive expertise of a field is in play, the claims of each of the imperial disciplines are revealed to be just plain silly, and embarrassing. And then the abyss of just slightly less than infinite ignorance yawns and says, time to wake up?

Which is why, again, no actual person actually believes any of this. Because if anyone did believe this they would have sealed themselves off from thinking too hard about what it means to be educated, which of course is not just to be disciplined but to have at least a conversance with disciplines other than one’s own. Enough at least to understand in broad outline what those folks are up to, that it’s wicked important stuff, and how it is very definitely not just a narrow and deluded subset knockoff of whatever your thing is. Enough to take interdisciplinarity seriously as a primary educational imperative and the lifelong commitment of educated people rather than brushing it off as something you already do and a kind of optional ornament to a proper master disciplinary training.

August 27, 2018

Memory work

by Carl Dyke

Recently I bought a load of driveway gravel from a local landscaping yard. The guy was an efficiently skilled tractor operator so it was the work of five minutes to get two buckets of mixed gravel and base into the bed of the pickup. For the next hour I leaned on his loader frame and he talked his thoughts and world at me.

Not surprisingly a lot of it was paranoia and racism. I learned loads about how hard it is to make a living in landscaping when your competitors are undocumented immigrants who can bid jobs without factoring in the costs of bonding, insurance, and taxes. I learned that some tractor sales and service companies will deliberately sabotage your machine to make a buck on the repairs, and that when your equipment goes down in the middle of a job you have to pay top dollar to have it seen to right away. I learned that if you buy your cars from the same dealer over a period of years they start to take you for granted, and that they’ll deliberately delay a repair until you’re out of the warranty window. I learned that you can admire and remain friends with people who do you this way. I learned that 98% of us white men voted for Trump because he says the things we aren’t allowed to say. I learned that bush-hogging is a terrible job because who knows what equipment-destroying solid objects are hidden in that underbrush you’re clearing, and that no one wants to pay you for this risk. And I learned that it’s much more efficient to shift piles of material by pushing and pulling with a blade than by picking it up and putting it down with a bucket.

Somewhere around the hour mark it seems to have occurred to this fella that I might have somewhere else to be, and I allowed as how I might want to get to work soon. He asked where that was, and I told him teaching History at the local university. So then we had to have the conversation where he told me everything he thought about education and unpacked his own history as a student.

His most vivid memory was high school English class in eastern North Carolina, tobacco country, in which he did a lot of what he called “memory work.” The chalkboards on three sides of the room would be filled when the students came in, and they were to memorize all of it. He mentioned in particular the Beatitudes, selected Corinthians, and Shakespeare. There was drama over his recitation of the Beatitudes, which he attempted three times without the teacher marking credit in the grade book. This was an exercise of arbitrary authority, but also completely normal and just to be expected.

I remember doing a lot of memory work in Italian school when we lived there in the early 70s. I don’t remember what, exactly. I have a phone in my pocket now with 32 gigabytes of memory, enough to store every bit of text ever produced by the human race until we started texting “‘Sup?” “Not much” at each other by the terabyte.

Here are the Beatitudes, from Wikipedia:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4)Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5)Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (5:6)Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (5:8)Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. (5:9)Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:10)Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 5:11-12

June 25, 2018

History of the essence

by Carl Dyke

This is a thing for the History tribe right now. Maybe worth talking about, maybe not. From the open letter to the College Board (AP World History) by the Medieval Academy of America. I’m not linking because I don’t actually want to fight at them, I just want to roll around in a little disgust among friends.

“”By beginning ‘world history’ in 1450, the College Board is essentially sending the message that premodern culture and events are unimportant. It is impossible to make sense out of the political and historical climate of the mid-fifteenth century without a grounding in what came before. It is especially unfortunate to suggest, with the 1450 start date, that “world history” effectively begins with the arrival of white Europeans in North America, coupled with the mass extinction (chiefly through disease) of substantial segments of native populations. A pre-1450 start date would facilitate study of a global Middle Ages, a period when regions such as China, Mali, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Egypt had great achievements, in conditions of relative parity, before the oceanic dominance of a few western powers (Portugal, Spain, Holland, England, France). We have all seen how misappropriation of medieval history leads to the advancement of dangerous, racist narratives. Only education can counter such misuse of history. Teaching the reality rather than the fictionalized fantasy of the Middle Ages has never been more important than it is today.””

Good lord this is vacuous.

“”By beginning ‘world history’ in 1450, the College Board is essentially sending the message that premodern culture and events are unimportant.”

It is essentially sending the message that premodern stuffs are nonessential. Since there’s no absolute grounding other than complete and comprehensive inclusion for declaring particular histories essential, this is unremarkably true. What’s needed then is a claim about premodern stuffs being important in this context, not aggrieved partisan handwaving. Here it comes:

“It is impossible to make sense out of the political and historical climate of the mid-fifteenth century without a grounding in what came before.”

Sure! But it’s also impossible to make sense of what came before without a grounding in what came before that, so this is an inane infinite regress. We must start somewhere.

“It is especially unfortunate to suggest, with the 1450 start date, that “world history” effectively begins with the arrival of white Europeans in North America, coupled with the mass extinction (chiefly through disease) of substantial segments of native populations.”

World history may start billions of years ago, depending how you count and what questions interest you. Modern world history, where all the questions modern people have are inescapably located, does plausibly begin around 1450.

“A pre-1450 start date would facilitate study of a global Middle Ages, a period when regions such as China, Mali, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Egypt had great achievements, in conditions of relative parity, before the oceanic dominance of a few western powers (Portugal, Spain, Holland, England, France).”

Neat! Seriously, good stuff! Rock on with that, professional past knowers! Write books, articles, and blogs for all who become curious what happened long ago to discover and revel in.

“We have all seen how misappropriation of medieval history leads to the advancement of dangerous, racist narratives.”

We have? While we were at it, did we see anything about shady linear monocausal argument by assertion? If I said, We have all seen how dangerous, racist narratives lead to misappropriation of medieval history, how might you go about disentangling this elementary causal loop? Is this the quality of analysis we can expect from careful study of the Global Middle Ages?

“Only education can counter such misuse of history.”

This is a religious statement, likely false, and possibly completely false. But let’s keep giving education a try in case it starts working this time.

“Teaching the reality rather than the fictionalized fantasy of the Middle Ages has never been more important than it is today.””

And here, at last, we can agree.

H/t Colin Drumm.

February 8, 2018

People, bodies, characters

by Carl Dyke

Dyke the Elder recommended a fun book recently, The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis C. Rasmussen. It’s about the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith and I’m looking forward to reading it. As we were talking about it I also thought of the book I’m using as the core text in all of my classes this semester, the Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America, from the year 1772, to 1777 : elucidating the history of that country, and the description of its productions, viz. quadrupedes, birds, fishes, reptiles, trees, shrubs, fruits, & roots; with an account of the indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea. By Captn. J.G. Stedman. Illustrated with 80 elegant engravings, designed from nature, by the author, 1796. I am not an expert on this text! I’m teaching it so I can learn new things.

As you know, Bob, all sorts of interesting stuff was happening in the late 18th century Atlantic World around the universal themes of freedom, rights, and humanity. And for just as long people excluded from the universe of propertied white men have been pushing back on their degradation to the service of their oppressors. The mismatch between the high pronouncements and glittering achievements of the Enlightenment and the grim practices of the colonial slave economy that financed it is clear enough to us now that it may even seem it was clear to everyone then, too. A book like Stedman’s is interesting because it’s right in the middle of the ideas and practices we’re interested in, but isn’t the product of hyper-elaborated cutting edge high intellection. What did a guy who was pretty much just a guy think about, for example, the personhood of enslaved Africans?

Stedman was an interesting nobody, a low level Atlantic World cosmopolitan born and raised in the Netherlands but identifying as an Englishman, a brevet Captain in a Scots regiment who couldn’t afford to buy himself a higher rank, who shipped out to Dutch Guiana because that’s where the action was for an ambitious guy of talent but little social or economic capital like him.

He was a smart cookie but he was little educated and no philosopher, so it’s interesting to see how he thought about the leading intellectual issues of the day, or rather, how he didn’t. His book was published as an abolitionist tract, complete with gorgeously gruesome engravings of slave torture by William Blake. But Stedman himself was untroubled by slavery, which he mostly didn’t think about, but when he did thought was convenient and patriotic and probably good for the slaves all in all. What bothered him was excessive cruelty in the treatment of slaves, which he reports with outrage and ascribes not just to the Dutch, but to everyone else as well, especially the Jews.

The front matter of the text is full of conventional hyperventilation about his poor literary gifts and the advantages of authenticity and veracity this guarantees. But in the same breath he tells us that

Here, in the different characters of a Commander — a Rebel Negro — a Planter, and a Slave — not only tyranny are exposed — but benevolence and humanity are unveiled to the naked eye. Here the Warrior — the Historian — the Merchant — and the Lover of Natural Philosophy will meet with some gratification; while, for having introduced my private adventures, I must make some apology — but none for those of the lovely Slave, who makes not the least interesting figure in these pages — as female virtue in distress, especially when accompanied with youth and beauty, must ever claim protection.

So are there any people in this text? Well sort of — there are characters, literary abstractions, some of them people-based, some of them (tyranny, humanity, female virtue) more directly concept-based. He certainly elevates the lovely Slave by treating her as a princess and a lady, but does he humanize her? It’s a better character than barbarous Jew, that’s for sure, and also than domestic labor appliance, and perhaps than mere “black body,” as we now say to dramatize the degradation of African humanity within systems of oppression. But characters dehumanize everyone. Her character certainly tells us nothing about her as a particular person nor, as feminist scholars have thoroughly established around the princess and lady tropes in our day, is it likely to lead there. She, whoever she was, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a damsel in distress. And when it turns out from Stedman’s diaries that he purchased her from her mom as domestic help, and abandoned her readily for a proper white wife (who he didn’t get along with and used for socially appropriate reproduction) on his return to Europe, and that he was just routinely having sex with all of the slave women when the mood struck him, there’s just not much human left under the romanticism to have anything like human rights, let alone all of the detail people have.

Compare all this to one of the first stories Stedman tells in the main text, in chapter 1. He’s on the ship taking him to Surinam, in the middle of the Atlantic. He’s just told us about some interesting sea birds and gunnery practice.

On the 14th, in the morning-watch, we passed the Tropic, when the usual ceremony of dunking the fresh-water sailors was ransomed by tipping the foremast men with some silver. About this time the Boreas most unluckily lost one of her best seamen, the boatswain’s mate, whose hand slipping by the wet, he pitched from the fore-yard-arm into the sea. His presence of mind in calling to the captain, as he floated alongside, “Be not alarmed for me, sir,” in the confidence of meeting with relief, attracted peculiar compassion, and even caused some murmuring, as no assistance was offered him; in consequence of which, after swimming a considerable time within view, the unfortunate young man went to the bottom.

The next paragraph covers trade winds and dolphins, which he thinks are superficially charming mooches.

Are there any people in this story? There’s the mate, the captain, and the compassionate murmurers. It might be more accurate to call all of these ‘roles’. Presumably the Captain, in his authority, made a cost benefit kind of decision between hauling the whole ship around and losing way vs. losing a boatswain’s mate, and found the latter loss more tolerable. In a split second of responsible decision this fine fellow finds his value, and it’s remarkably low. Glug, glug. Well, right about the same time you’d line up rows of guys like this a few paces apart and have them blast away at each other with muskets until one side or the other broke. Talk about bodies. That was Stedman’s world.

I think it’s fair to say that Stedman had nothing at all resembling an abstract theory of universal humanity, and so the discourse of dehumanization would have made little sense to him. People came in various characters, roles, ranks, types, uses, and situations. He seems to have been able to deal with them accordingly without making any conclusions about their further attributes or qualities, sort of like the Walmart checker and I do with each other. Killing rebellious Negros or any other sort of enemy was fine with him; making them suffer unnecessarily in the process was not. There was a person in those bodies, but for the most part he wasn’t concerned with who that was. In fact across the board, he seems to have thought that wasn’t any of his concern.

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2, 2017

Code switching and complexity

by Carl Dyke

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.

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by Carl Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by Carl Dyke

One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!

In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.

So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.

A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularismSecularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.

Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.

What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.

All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.

Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.

But no, look, not complex systems, complex systemsComplex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.

Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by Carl Dyke

Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.

What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.

So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”

It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)

Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.

But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).

So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.

But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.

(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)

The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.

The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.

P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.

July 5, 2015

Making work

by Carl Dyke

Among other things, the unfolding drama in Greece is a reminder that in the world today, and for quite some time past, there is not and has not been enough work for people to do. Rather than find some other way to organize and valorize human life, the response to this has been to make work.

In Greece, among many other places, this has taken the form of massive systems of neo-feudal governmental and quasi-governmental employment (farmers of government payments like the defense and health industries, for example), funded through various extractive and inventive strategies ranging from taxation to money printing to ‘public debt’. (Since the fiat currencies of the modern state are essentially circulating debt, there is no essential difference between these strategies except the levels of public confusion and therefore the pseudo-politics caused by each.)

Because countries like Greece are not big and scary enough to control their own narratives, this fabrication of life and value is commonly referred to there as ‘corruption’. In countries big and scary enough to control their own narratives like the United States and Germany, it is referred to as ‘the public sector’. But in all cases most of the work in question deploys the otherwise unemployed to provide each other, at each others’ expense, with ‘services’ the need for which is largely created by their availability.

Clearly this is not ‘gainful’ or ‘productive’ employment, except in the pragmatic and existential senses that life and value are created by it. As the story goes, truly productive employment only occurs in the ‘private sector’, where the work is driven by real market demand rather than corrupt and/or unproductive shenanigans.

Which brings me to landscaping.

versailles gardens

Landscaping might be described as an inherently unproductive modification of land. Farms are not landscaped, they are worked. Lawns without sheep are an ecological monstrosity, and ‘yards’ need only be cleared enough to keep pests and predators from immediate contact with the buildings. Unremarkable local plants do the trick just fine with minimal inputs of effort. Spare land may well become valuable through garden planting, or left fallow. Of course flowers that attract pollinators, fix nitrogen, and the like may add splashes of color and texture. Productive land has its own beauty, as do the lumpy bodies of productive people. Human / land interaction is traditionally labor and attention intensive. Ordinary folks lived like this for millenia.

And yet, in the United States alone landscaping is an $80 billion ‘industry’. Some of this of course is public and quasi-public landscaping like government lawns and highway medians, but most of it is private and therefore market driven. There is a robust demand for landscaping.

The need to beautify commercial/residential property as a place for relaxation, entertainment or work, has long nourished the interest in landscaping. The worth added to the value of property by decorative structures, ponds, patios, and green-winding pathways too cannot be undermined. Keeping in view the growing popularity and importance of landscaping as an art, science, and commercial value proposition, it is of little surprise that landscaping services has now become one of the most important domains in the overall services industry.

From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Over 800,000 people are employed in just the direct provision of landscaping services such as “sod laying, mowing, trimming, planting, watering, fertilizing, digging, raking, sprinkler installation, and installation of mortarless segmental concrete masonry wall units,” over 15,000 in “death care services” alone. This does NOT include the production of landscaping supplies and equipment, agriculture of sod and ornamental plants, industry and academic study of same, fractions of transportation, water, and sewer infrastructure devoted to moving the stuff and the stuff’s inputs and outputs around, yard ‘waste’ removal, and so on. Taken all together, it would probably be safe to say that private demand for the inherently unproductive modification of land annually generates about a million jobs and about $100 billion dollars. Yay, markets!

As the husband and friend of artists I know that there are all sorts of ways to argue about the nature and value of beauty. As the (hopefully) soon-to-be owner of a farm originally set up for ornamental livestock (horses) that we hope gradually to convert to boutique farm-to-table production, I am aware that there are no clear lines between the production and productivity of aesthetic and alimentary experience. The other thing that folks did for millenia was eat gruel. And horseflesh.

1265 panorama

But this is my point. If we take an old-school approach to productive labor, there’s very little of that left to do after the machines get done. MOST of the work that people do now, especially in the developed world, is makework. My job certainly is, in a way that’s obvious enough to produce real strains at the point of sale, and incredibly vulnerable by the productivity standards that waves of businessy types periodically try to enforce on it. For education (employment: 8 million+) in anything that required real productivity, tech schools and apprenticeships, largely taught by mechanical reproduction, would surely do the trick. The rest is landscaping.

And therefore, makework had better be alright. As much as I’d like to get on my high horse about Greek (or Italian) ‘corruption’, there’s none of my life that doesn’t participate in the same dynamics. I try to pay off, maybe in ways public sector employees give up on or never learn, but given the spread of outcomes that’s not much more than noise in the signal. What does Germany think it’s doing that’s so much better than what the Greeks are doing? For the life of me, I can’t work that out.

sisyphus

June 23, 2015

Bellwether?

by Carl Dyke

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.

January 2, 2015

Funny as a spinal tap

by Carl Dyke

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?

heisus

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

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

Haha! Empowerment.

September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by Carl Dyke

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

kliban eye poke

August 20, 2013

Yeast again

by Carl Dyke

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions