Posts tagged ‘ANT’

March 24, 2013

Wild yeast sourdough starter

by Carl Dyke

As a logical next step in my fiddlings with bread-making, I just baked my first sourdough loaf with home-made wild yeast starter the other day. To eliminate all suspense, it came out great – by which I mean, it reminded me of all the things I like about sourdough bread without introducing any new negative associations. I especially like it because I did it ‘all wrong’, which is what this post will now document.

“Softly now, softly now – try it, you won’t die.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings

So, how I went about this is I got on the ol’ internet and googled ‘sourdough starter’. A little reading got me pretty quickly to the further qualification, ‘wild yeast’ – thus distinguishing the truly artisanal starter from the kinds someone else made that you can buy for a whole lot of money from specialty baking stores, if you’re a clueless snob, or Amazon, if you’re even more clueless but at least not a snob. So once I had the correct verbiage for cheap-ass diy starter, I did some more searching and read through some instructions. (I omit the links because I just told you how to diy, get it?)

Well, opinions about exactly what’s happening with sourdough starter seem to vary a bit, starting with where the wild yeasts are actually coming from. Is it the air around us? Is it the flour? Is it the whole grains you must treat with excruciatingly careful reverence to yield Gaia’s bounty of biomagic? With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I decided it was probably all of the above, plus everywhere else, since that’s where yeasts are. So I ignored the instructions that said I had to be careful not to cover the starter vessel with plastic wrap or anything else impermeable. I also ignored the instructions that said I had to hermetically seal the starter vessel, sterilize every instrument that ever came in contact with the starter, wear a hazmat suit, never use stainless steel, always use stainless steel, never use silicon, always use silicon, and so on.

Go Green!

Go Green!

In fact I pretty much ignored every single instruction designed to seal off the wild yeast starter from the environment it had somehow come from. I also ignored all the instructions designed to make my starter a delicate, difficult thing that required constant, meticulous care. I know people whose lives are given a rich sense of meaning by arranging to provide constant, meticulous care to other creatures, but that’s not me and if it was, I’d pick creatures other than yeasts and lactobacilli.

Speaking of lactobacilli, I paid a lot of attention to discussions of the multi-biotic nature of sourdough starter. It’s not the yeasts that are making the sour, it’s the bacteria. But the bacteria don’t make the bread rise, and they also have a tendency to make the ‘spoilt’ version of sour when they get lonely and pig out. So a functional sourdough starter is actually a community of beasties each creating some of the conditions for each others’ happiness, encouraging each others’ strengths and discouraging each others’ excesses, and incidentally each handling part of a fairly complex little biological process that assembles into a tangy leavening. Which of course wasn’t at all what they ‘intended’, but makes an excellent complement to garlicky cream cheese. So anyway, ‘building’ a starter is a process of getting that community together to work out a harmonious relationship under the conditions they enjoy.

“Control is when others’ locked-in interactions generate a flow of collective behavior that just happens to serve one’s interests.” Padgett and Ansell, “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434;” see also Padgett and Powell, The Emergence of Organizations and Markets (2012).

Those conditions are: flour and water. We’re talking about fermentation here, after all, which in real life is hard to keep from happening if you’ve got moist sugars around. Which brings up the mold problem, of which there’s plenty in my house, the dominant strain for unmysterious reasons being ‘bleu cheese’. But fortunately, between the acid the bacteria start producing right away, the alcohol the yeasts start producing soon enough, and the natural division of labor among the artistes of organic decomposition, mold is not actually much of a threat if you’re not trying hard to kill the yeast and bacteria somehow.

Mmmmmmm, stinky.

OK, so I read a whole lot about ambient temperature, water temperature, using bottled water, using distilled water and adding minerals back in, using orange juice, using pineapple juice, using white flour, using rye flour, not using white flour, not using rye flour. With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I reflected on the global success under the most extreme conditions of yeasts and lactobacilli, and decided not to sweat any of these factors too much (although, in principle, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised if a chlorine spike in my suburban tap water had set the critters back a bit). I did decide to take some of the chance out of the lactobacilli, mostly because I had an old tub of plain yogurt handy. And no, it was not any particular brand or type of plain yogurt, but it was past its expiration date as it happens.

I also looked at a lot of instructions about getting a kitchen scale, getting one that measures in grams because they’re more precise, calibrating hydration ratios, using a tall, straight-sided vessel with a dedicated lid, sterilizing this vessel and your hands before handling it, scraping down the sides so that, gosh, I don’t know. So anyway, here was my beginning recipe for my wild yeast sourdough starter:

Some flour
Some water
Some plain yogurt.

Roughly the same amount of each, by eyeball, probably a bit less yogurt because I thought of that as a ‘supplement’.

“My friends always say, the right amount’s fine. Lazy people make rules.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings”

All of this went in a plastic bowl (with sloped sides because it has sloped sides) I also eat cereal, pasta, and curry from sometimes; with some plastic wrap loosely draped on top to keep it from drying out too fast. This then went on a corner of the kitchen table I wasn’t using for anything else right then. I am woefully ignorant of the exact temperature of this spot, but I can guarantee it was neither hot enough to bake nor cold enough to freeze my arse. I started with bread flour, I think, but I ran out of that before the next feeding so I switched to rye for awhile because I had a bag of that open and it kept getting mentioned in the instructions. Then for awhile what I had open and easy to get at was some white whole wheat flour, so I used that.

And speaking of feeding, I read all kinds of instructions about pouring out exactly [some ratio I forget] of the starter before each feeding, adding back [another exact ratio I forget] of flour and water, doing this once a day at first and then every 12 hours, carefully swabbing down the sides of the container, adding strips of tape to allow precise measurement of the starter’s expansions and contractions, holding the container between your knees and counting to 6,327 by perfect squares, and checking carefully for ‘hooch’, which is such a precise technical term that at least half of the folks using it have no idea it’s why there’s NASCAR.

Medicinal purposes only, of course.

What I did instead was pour some out and add some back, roughly the amount it had expanded in the interim; when I remembered it, which was anything from a couple times a day to every couple of days. I tried to keep it pretty soupy because I read the beasties like to be wet, and I’ve found this to be true. I did this for something between a week and two weeks – I did not keep track. About day 2 or 3 it got that sourdough smell, then it settled into a kind of sweet peachiness I had not expected. I got back onto the internet and found a long forum thread on the many, many different permutations of ‘sweet peachy’ smell ranging all the way to ‘spiced apple’ that can be expected from a properly harmonizing community of yeasts and bacteria. Reassuring. So when I got sick of waiting any longer, although I think I was supposed to, instead of pouring out the extra I poured it into a bowlful of the flour I happened to have handy and open right then. Whole wheat, rye, and kamut as I recall – kamut btw is fun stuff, an heirloom grain that has a lovely buttery flavor and adds amazing elasticity to a dough.

Here was the ‘recipe’: salt in the right amount for the flour, bit of sugar to be friendly, touch of olive oil and enough warm (tap) water to make a wet dough just drier than a batter. Because the beasties like to be wet. Once they’d fermented that up for most of a day, I stretched, folded, smeared, punched and kneaded in enough more flour that it would stay in a loaf shape (not doing this is how you get ciabatta); let it think about that for maybe an hour longer; threw it in a hot oven on the pizza stone; dumped some water in the bottom of the oven to get some steam to keep the crust from setting too quickly (thank you internet); and some time later there was delicious whole wheat / rye / kamut multigrain sourdough bread.


Through all this I was aware that by failing to control for every possible variable the project could go horribly awry rather than pleasantly a rye. I reflected on the $.50 of flour and aggregate 10 minutes of work that would be irretrievably lost, and decided to roll those dice.

Does this mean none of the variables all that internet fussing is trying tightly to control don’t matter? On the contrary, I’m sure they do. But my little experiment suggests most of them other than flour, water, a container, and temperatures somewhere between freezing and baking are conditions of the ‘inus’ variety:

“The inus condition is an insufficient but non–redundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition” [quoting Cartwright, Nature’s Capacities and their Measurement, 1989, citing Mackie, The Cement of the Universe, 1980]. It’s best to read that backwards: you identify causal conditions sufficient to produce a given effect, but know that there are other conditions that could have produced the same effect. Within the sufficient conditions you’ve identified is a condition that couldn’t produce the effect by itself, is separate from all the other conditions that along with it could produce the effect, but must be among them for the effect to be produced through the causal pathway that’s been picked out. The inus scenario (any scenario containing an inus condition) shows up frequently in attempted causal analyses, and has to be accounted for somehow in any comprehensive causal theory (Chuck Dyke aka Dyke the Elder, “Cartwright, Capacities, and Causes: Approaching Complexity in Evolving Economies,” draft-in-progress).

There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Which means there’s an interesting sociology of popular science lurking in the internet’s various treatments of wild yeast sourdough starter. There are many strategies on offer, each presenting a series of essential steps to success. And each of the strategies will in fact result in a successful culture, while adding procedures that may be important only to offset the sabotage added by other procedures, or to create an outcome distinguished only by the specific way it was achieved; or not important at all except for attention focus or ritual (which, by the way, are not trivial considerations). Apparently when a thing happens to work one way, we can be inclined to leap to the conclusion that this is the one best way to make it happen; ignoring all evidence to the contrary, for example all the other ways described in their own loving detail by other practitioners just as convinced of the robust essence of their accidental triumphs.

Incidentally, this is also how I think about education in general, and general education in particular.

November 5, 2009

The werewolf and the silver bullet: ANT/Gramsci, pt. end.

by Carl Dyke

As I’ve said recently I quite agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals for social, political and economic alternatives.” If we take these to be worthy goals, the blog medium is promising for both.

It should be noted that marxists have historically been reluctant to do 2), going back to the young Marx’s scathing and perhaps counterproductive dismissals of the ‘utopian socialists’ with their neat little plans for ideal worlds. In this sense although the communist telos remains definitive in marxism and creates some distinctive categorical limitations, marxism and ANT have been consonant in a theory of practice for which networks and structures must be actively assembled rather than posited as givens.

It is possible to extract just this sort of theory of practice from Gramsci’s journalism and prison notes; he does some of that work himself, although presumably his plan to turn the Notebooks into a finished text for the ages included more such. But the thing to remember is that Gramsci’s practice was praxis (it was theorized), so extracting the theory from it and setting it aside as a thing in itself is not (yet) gramscian praxis. Gramsci’s theory of practice emerges from and depends upon its actual deployments, in the same sense that Bourdieu resisted extractions of his theory from his concrete studies. There’s a certain amount of making it up as we go inherent in ANT/Gramscian praxis; as the Notebooks show, everything is in play, from popular literature to philosophy and from party politics to the organization of work.

Ultimately the point I want to get at with all this ANT/Gramsci stuff, and it may not be all that new or interesting, is that neither ANT nor Gramsci authorize a practice oriented toward killing the werewolf with the silver bullet. There’s no single, focused problem, nor is there a single, focused solution. Of course this does not mean that ‘it’s all good’ as we go about the business of making the world a more pleasant place, but it does suggest that a flexible, recursive distribution of analysis and action is more likely to move us along, because it’s the only thing that ever does.

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November 5, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 6: Networks, nodes, relations, alliances

by Carl Dyke

Because of the way the blog medium arose out of the interactive affordances of the internet, each blog, post and comment creates a node in a possible network of relations and alliances. Or they can just sit there doing nothing but taking up space.

Whether networks actually come of blogs depends to some degree on their content, and to a large degree on the work of authors and readers to create, maintain, intensify and extend links to other nodes. One of the first things I figured out is if I didn’t want to be just another odd online hermit muttering alone in my own cave, I’d have to go out and drum up business by finding other blogs with dimensions of affinity and making comments suggesting connections. (This can be a pleasure in its own right, of course.) Sometimes folks follow the trail of breadcrumbs and sometimes they don’t, sometimes they like what they find at the end and sometimes not. Over time, though, there tends to be an accumulation of readership and participation.

Good luck with that.

To shift metaphor, a blog is a bit like a gravitic mass. If it just sits in one place its pull is limited to the stuff that happens to wander by from the depths of outer space. But if it gets on a trajectory and visits other star systems it has a better chance of encountering capturable bodies, ranging from close orbiters to eccentric comet flybys; or even to get caught itself in a multi-gravitic system, like a group blog or a stable multiblog network. So anyway, dynamic motion and a certain weight of presence are important; connections don’t just happen because we’re nice people and our moms like us.

(For some reason Moby seems to think being made of stars helps ya get hot babes.) Btw, from the standpoint of this analysis the current series of posts has been a fail, attracting very little traffic or commentary [thanks to you who did!] and no links. So far Dead Voles has had its biggest days with posts that can be interpreted as gossip. This too is community-building, albeit negatively. Rather than moaning about this the next step might be to reflect on what it is about that communicative mode that attracts attention and participation so well, then find a way to inflect the dynamic for good purposes.

As I’ve already mentioned, the blog medium is not well-suited to enforcing orthodoxy, but it can work well to assemble alliances of affinity. It’s a good way to find and hook up with people who share interests and agendas. This is both a strength and a weakness. Communities’ tendency to create and maintain narrow, exclusionary biases can just be amplified and propagated. But if the community affinities remain open to negotiation and revision there’s an opportunity for the whole to become emergently more than the sum of the parts. I’m afraid I’m not saying much more than the creation myth of Web 2.0 here….

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November 3, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 5: Emergency!

by Carl Dyke

I mentioned in pt. 3 that Gramsci’s goal of a homogeneous collective revolutionary consciousness might itself be what he called an ‘Enlightenment’ error. And in pt. 4 I poked some fun at the distinctive wigglings of Left intellectuals hoist on this petard. The problem is a fundamentally doomed and therefore frustrated command-and-control model of political action. With Actor Network Theory we get closer to something that can illuminate politics’ unintended consequences by showing how multiple actors in various modes at various scales bump and ooze their way into particular emergent configurations and trajectories.

Emergence is not linear. What you can hope for in non-linear dynamics is outcomes (themselves moments in longer-term emergent processes) somewhere within a range of possibility. Momentum builds, tipping points are reached, little causes produce big effects. In the more ‘ethnographic’ notes in the Notebooks Gramsci shows this happening for capitalism and begins to theorize it for communism. But because in the more synthetic notes he premises capitalism and communism as the procrustean beginning and ending points, there’s only so far he can get with it before defaulting to stretching and cutting expedients. This is a cautionary tale for ANT/Gramscian blogging praxis. The trick would be to keep your options open and your feet moving, that is, to build links across a range of sites and to nudge it all toward tendential assemblages with lots of little angular pushes. Sort of like herding cats.

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November 2, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 4: Left intellectuals and the correct line

by Carl Dyke

In a post at Crooked Timber on the history of the terms ‘politically correct’ and ‘liberal fascism’ John Quiggin writes

At least since the 1970s, the description “politically correct” or, in Australia, “ideologically sound”, had been used within the left to mock those who were excessively concerned with doctrinal and linguistic orthodoxy. The story of how “political correctness” turned from an inside joke to a Marxist-inspired assault on All We Hold Dear is reasonably well known. Bernstein traces its emergence as a pejorative to a conference by the Western Humanities Conference held, appropriately enough, in Berkeley.

Ha! I used to live just south of Berkeley, cosmic epicenter of well-intentioned impotent righteousness. In the comments John Emerson muses

The phrase I remember, used seriously within some Marxist groups, was “correct position”. It was used seriously by people who thought that solving the dialectical questions came first, and and that before these were solved, any political activity was opportunistic and doomed. It was used jokingly within this same groups by those of a more activist sort. One guy told me how, after a succession of Trotskyist splits, his group had ended up being of about 50 people in one room—but they had the correct position. And then he laughed uproariously.

I think that a lot of the ideologues of that time did not actually believe it, but just were trying to make a stand against the amazing sloppiness of the free-lance left.

Later the term “politically correct” came to be used internally to label the minute rules of cultural politics within the left. At the beginning the term was sometimes used by old-school macho leftists to ridicule the newer feminists and gay liberationists. But the personal cultural politics really did get extreme.

Scylla – sectarianism. Charybdis – sloppiness. With a touch of genius – both.

Can actor networks fix this? Well, given commitments to sectarianism or sloppiness, no. But otherwise a flexible orientation to alliances may offer both an analytical grasp on the conditions, configurations, operations, strengths and weaknesses of whatever situation one might want to change; and an activist grasp on actors likely to share and/or obstruct the agenda.

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November 1, 2009

Tentative Album Cover

by Asher Kay

Comments are welcome. Does the finger look “just photoshopped enough”?


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October 31, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 3

by Carl Dyke

I need something or two short, pithy and on-point to frame my talk, perhaps even to pass out to participants. To both validate and complicate the idea that the blog medium can participate in the assembly of networks of Gramscian praxis, consider this from the Prison Notebooks, Q 24 (also in Selections from Cultural Writings):

The unitary … elaboration of a homogeneous collective consciousness demands a wide range of conditions and initiatives. … A very common error is that of thinking that every social stratum elaborates its consciousness and its culture in the same way, with the same methods, namely the methods of the professional intellectuals. … It is childish to think that a ‘clear concept’, suitably circulated, is inserted in various consciousnesses with the same ‘organizing’ effects of diffused clarity: this is an ‘enlightenment’ error. … When a ray of light passes through different prisms it is refracted differently: if you want the same refraction, you need to make a whole series of rectifications of each prism.

It may be that the goal of a homogeneous collective consciousness is itself an ‘enlightenment’ error; in view of the revolutionary terrors of the last century, a dangerous one. The balancer here is Gramsci’s understanding of the diversity of consciousness, culture and methods that must be honored with “a wide range of conditions and initiatives” rather than bulldozed with domineering dogmatic intellectualism. This is the preparatory work of the ‘war of position’ for hearts and minds among the ‘forts and pillboxes of civil society’ that must precede the more classically revolutionary ‘war of maneuver’.

Thinking then in terms of war of position, Gramsci encourages us away from a singular magic bullet approach and toward a plural strategy of initiatives and methods responsive to diverse conditions. Oppositional consciousness is not an existing thing but, as John Law says in explaining ANT, the contingent product of network-ordering relationships among objects, “better seen as a verb — a somewhat uncertain process of overcoming resistance — rather than as the fait accompli of a noun.”

There are ways in which the blog medium, which in itself encompasses “a wide range of conditions and initiatives,” is well-suited to the work of resistance-overcoming network construction, if not the construction of homogeneous collective consciousness. And there are ways it’s not. But that’s for a following post. Any thoughts?

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October 29, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 2

by Carl Dyke

This is the actual title and proposal as submitted to RM.

ANT and Blogging as Gramscian Praxis

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were not written for public consumption. Nevertheless, they often read like blog posts, little condensed nuggets of information and analysis linking to a wide range of observations, readings and reflections. As praxis, they point to Gramsci’s understanding of the operations of hegemony across an immense and crosslinked field of structures and relations and the need patiently to respond in kind. Nevertheless, in their current form the notes are not easily ‘activated’ as praxis because their targeting is distorted by their removal from context.

In this paper I propose to participate in the growing conversation between Marxism and Actor Network Theory by thinking through what Latour’s concepts of alliance and network might offer to an understanding of how to activate Gramscian noting as praxis through the blog medium.

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October 28, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 1

by Carl Dyke

Over the next week I hope to do a series of posts setting up my talk on Actor Network Theory, Gramsci, and the practice of blogging at this year’s Rethinking Marxism conference. The current post will describe some rules and methods I’ve settled on for this project.

*I will not be writing a formal paper at this stage. I’ve always thought there was something almost catastrophically hilarious about academics going to conferences and reading canned prose at each other as fast as possible, often going over their time and using up the discussion period, leaving the productive dialogue to happen by accident around the edges. Oral communication is a different rhetorical form than written text; how do we of all people not know this? The answer, as usual, is to be found not in the manifest but in the latent functions of these events.

*My purpose is not to report finished work but to think out loud. My presentation will be brief, and oriented toward giving the audience enough to go on to think along with me.

*I have something like a point to make, but I will not ‘close’ the point in my presentation. My aim is a real discussion, not a socratic deathmarch to a predetermined conclusion.

*I may try to suggest connections with my fellow panelists’ work, although because I submitted a solo proposal I’m on a Sunday morning whatsis panel so those connections may not be obvious.

*In line with the theme of the project, I am working mostly from blog and other e-sources. The talk will be like a blog post with links.

*I will preview as much of it here on this blog as possible, and I invite discussion of all of it, including this outline of my plan.

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October 28, 2009

The left intellectuals and the God trick

by Carl Dyke

I’ve had bits of a thought on some recent blog exchanges on intellectual activism and the role of the left intellectual stuck in my throat for the last little while, and since I’m now right up against my deadline for the Rethinking Marxism talk I have to prepare I’m just going to hack them up in a little pile. Pardon the mess.

Dysphoria is currently a theme for radical exploration – ‘a loss of symbolic attachments’ – really? How is this not just routine existential crises, anomie? In modern life someone who hasn’t had at least one existential crisis yet isn’t even in the game. That’s like an ante.

But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom.

As ads without products goes on to say, it would be cool if this diagnosis then turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For sure: see Fascists, Nazis, al Qaeda. Teh question is whether it can be channeled appealingly.

There’s trouble with the moralizing that animates the Left when it relies on Big Principles, so that the theoretical push tends toward the Big Problem, Big Enemy and Big Solution, a whole theology. There’s always the danger of producing and reproducing the Big Other to sustain our sense of the Big Us. This God trick may give revolutionaries the leverage to act (in part by creating what they fight against). Along the way it may generate Orthodoxy struggles – who’s on the side of the angels, who’s a dupe, a shill, a renegade, an enemy of the people.

Further, if the Other construct and the Us construct are mythologies, it’s a gamble whether the messier assemblages of real situations and processes can be horsed into a close enough approximation of the model to get it to work. More likely the projective everywhere of the Big Other and the functional nowhere of the Big Us are just paralyzing, leading to a spastic cycle of spectacular gesture and dysphoric despond. This is especially true if anything short of the Big Revolutionary Gesture is stigmatized as complicity with The Man.

I don’t find very productive the kind of analysis where ‘capitalism’ (or ‘patriarchy’, or ‘white supremacy’, or ‘Satan’) turns out just to be a name for everything that pisses us off. Nor do I think every malaise and dispepsia is potentially a little slice of revolution. How they might become so needs some work that isn’t just a smokescreen for self-validation. And therefore I agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals [based on 1)] for social, political and economic alternatives.”

Again, my apologies for the mess.

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