Most semesters I’ll have at least a couple of students who are torturing themselves with perfectionism. Sometimes it’s so bad and they get so completely in their own way that they can’t do any work at all. I am well aware that there are some neurological and psychological dimensions to this, but as a sociological response it’s interesting as well.

In my specific experience perfectionism manifests as flailing around standards and expectations. These are the students who beg me to tell them what I want, to give them a checkbox algorithm for success. Turing me up, they say. “I want you to become responsible for an area of investigation and figure out some things about it” does not compute in the language of standards and expectations they are using.

What’s happening is that they’re waiting for someone else to define the domain and the task in a way that makes perfection possible. They’re waiting for this because over and over again, this is what they have in fact gotten. Perfection makes complete sense as a standard when perfection is achievable. In the familiar model, this looks like a test with a hundred questions on it. Although it’s difficult to answer a hundred questions correctly, it certainly can be done and often is. Perfection is a harsh but reasonable standard under these circumstances.

All through our lives engineered linearizations like tests and classes and disciplines and jobs compress and control the situations we’re in, so no one has to answer more than a hundred questions at once. But these tours de force come with some severe consequences. The world is not actually divided up into hundred question domains. There are millions of questions, and they’re irreducibly interrelated. Answering them with some level of understanding requires openness to unstructured learning, and pulling in information and strategies from across multiple domains. Perfection is not possible and therefore not a reasonable standard. We’re pulling together what we can and trying to do better. Although a division of labor and/or the emergent wisdom of markets can simulate that to some degree, such arrangements leave each actor desperately ignorant about how anything actually works.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think you can scaffold the transition from a hundred question mindset to a million question mindset. It’s not a matter of scaling up an existing cognitive routine. The existing cognitive routine is in the way, which is where the flailing comes from once it starts to fail. So I think you have to insistently make it impossible to scale the task down to a hundred questions and let the magnitude of that failure work its magic. At least that’s what I do, and it works often enough that the occasional tragic virtuoso of perfectionism looks like a sad but acceptable price to pay.

Text, subtext, and 'accessibility'

I just realized, silly me, that I’m a subtext Nazi. As a trained critical reader in the human studies, history / sociology / anthropology, I pretty much assume that most of what I’m interested in will be in the subtext. Because as Wittgenstein remarks, “the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”

And as a ‘sophisticated’ reader of cultural product, I expect to have my intelligence challenged by puzzles of interpretation. I am immediately put off by overly-expository presentation, which strikes me as crude and amateurish. If I’m being told the plot and the characters are soliloquizing their backstories within the first five minutes / pages, I’m out. In fact, I really don’t want to be told that stuff at all – I want it to emerge from the dynamics of a more subtle, dare I say lifelike development.

Here is no doubt where my visceral disgust with the discourses and judgments of ‘accessibility’ comes from. It’s all just so vulgar, and I mean that with all the sniffy poindexter class warfare pique I can pack into that nasty little word. Who needs things to be obvious? Stupid people, obviously. Or lazy people, but definitely not people I want on my team.

In my reading circles the students struggle at first with ‘difficult’ texts in which the characters do not reveal themselves immediately, the plot is joined in medias res, and perspectives or timelines are nonlinear. Pretty much anything ‘literary’ knocks them into a resentful funk. But these are students – they are ignorant, not stupid, and we’re here to fix ignorance. Their expectations are all textual, so they don’t know how to feel about the mysteries of subtext. I make their frustration explicit – the author is playing them, making fun of them. Here’s another way to think about it – the author is respecting your intelligence, not saying every little thing, trusting you to work it out. Turns out they’re mostly not lazy either, they just don’t feel authorized to read between the lines. May even feel that it’s rude. Which in lots of everyday contexts, it is.

Let’s think of this as a workout for our brains, I say. Is it a good workout if it doesn’t make you sweat? Do you see results immediately when you work out? Is it worth it in the longer run to have a mind that can handle a heavier load? What would be the advantages of being someone who doesn’t need to be told every little thing – the bird that can find its own worms rather than needing someone else to chew them up and spit them down you?

So, is this class war?

The years of rice, salt and science

Among the books I’m reading right now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a fictional alternate history of modernity premised on the Black Death wiping out Europe completely so that Islam and China rise to dominance instead. It’s a good book in many ways but I was struck for present purposes by how Robinson gets science to happen. Like in all good alternative histories he’s trying to figure out what differences make a difference; for reasons peculiar to this particular history he’s also trying to figure out what sames make the same.

So expediently but interestingly, he restaffs yet recapitulates the developing experimentalism of Galileo, Grimaldi and Boyle et. al. pretty exactly, but in an environment in which the global context and intertext are far more explicit. That is, his story reads much more directly as a dynamic assemblage of existing elements than the usual heroic individual string-of-pearls discovery tales of triumphal Western Progress. For narrative purposes it’s all compressed into a single place/time (the khanate of Bokhara, 1020 AH) and group of people, but here are some of the factors:

*A Silk-Road nexus teaming with travelers and books from across Greater Asia

*A catastrophically-failed and disenchanted Arab alchemist whose day job is armory and gunpowder engineering

*A Tibetan fellow-alchemist and glassblower who has no reason to be impressed with Aristotle

*A self-absorbed khan with predatory enemies on all sides and a pragmatic principal advisor more interested in useful military technology than orthodoxies

*A well-established scholarly madressa community, including mathematicians, philosophers and Sufi mystics

The regional-military practicalities create one kind of enabling constraint, the failure of alchemy another, the Muslim theological-philosophical system a third. It helps a lot once the alchemy fails that the Tibetan guy is there to decenter Aristotle and that as a craftsman he’s of an empirical bent. His glassblowing enables lenses and vacuum vessels without too much need for suspension of disbelief. But all of that had been around there from time to time ‘forever’, we might say. What Robinson shows elegantly is that it took a particular configuration of those elements under particular dynamic stresses to create a new system, which quickly became self-organizing and expansive. All of the parts did their parts by doing their parts, but what they did was repurposed, with the radically-empiricized former alchemist as the catalyst.

So having invented the barometer, against the Aristotelian speculations of the Arab philosophers the emergent scientist grumbles

As if stones or the wind could want to be someplace or other, as a man does…. Things fall because they fall, that’s all it means. Which is fine, no one knows why things fall…. All the seeming cases of action at a distance are a mystery. But first we must say so, we must distinguish the mysteries as mysteries, and proceed from there, demonstrating what happens, and then seeing if that leads us to any thoughts concerning the how or the why.

Clearly this is the hero of the linear progress-of-science metanarrative, but Robinson doesn’t leave it at that. To get the right ferment, or alchemy so to speak took more than this, including the irrelevant or counterproductive stuff the new scientist was pushing against, like his son-in-law’s Sufioid handwaving about the universal force of love:

The Sufi scholars were still inclined to extrapolate from any given demonstration to the ultimate nature of the cosmos, while the mathematically inclined were fascinated by the purely numerical aspects of the results, the geometry of the world as it was revealed. These and other approaches combined in a burst of activity, consisting of demonstrations and talk, and private work on slates over mathematical formulations, and artisanal labor on new or improved devices.

This is where I stopped last night. I’ll update in the comments if necessary as I read on.

Complexity in practice pt. 2: writing and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very, very sad story that.

Complexity in practice: a plea for pedagogical plurality

What would it look like if our scholarly practice was actually informed by our shiny new theories of complexity? Below the fold is one possible answer, a draft review article by absential-in-chief Chuck Dyke (Temple University) covering neologism, “ecologies of practice” and theoretical propagation in Deacon, Stengers, Juarrero, Thompson and others. The introductory section is here below the fold; the whole piece (pdf, with notes) is linked at the end:

Continue reading

Aggregate, Arrange, Assemble

Today I had an ambitious day. I described paper writing to my intro World History sections as a process of aggregation, arrangement and assembly similar to the formation of stars as they collect atoms, compact them to fusion and burst forth in light. Then I told them about the episode of “Trailer Park Boys” in which Ricky breaks into a house to pick out an engagement ring for Lucy (aggregation = research), swallows the ring so he won’t get caught by the cops and throws it up again once they’re gone (arrangement = analysis), then hands it to Lucy and says “So, you want to get married or something?” (assembly = writing).

We talked about what’s wrong with stealing the ring (this would be the ‘plagiarized’ paper) and whether making Ricky a Viking who ‘plundered’ rather than ‘stole’ it made a difference. We considered why Lucy might have preferred a more ritualized arrangement of their eventual assembly, concluding that in this case the value of ritual lay at least in part in its enactment of focused competence and commitment in making arrangement for the assembled couple’s needs. It’s about credibility. We all agreed that the same ring might be stolen, plundered, bought or fabricated, transported in one’s guts or a velvet box, delivered via slingshot or placement in a glass of champagne, with each permutation of aggregation, arrangement and assembly making a significant difference in the meaning and value of ‘the same’ ring.

I took out some nice artisan multigrain bread I had aggregated to myself earlier and ate some. We talked about the process of chewing and digestion whereby the previous arrangement of the bread is broken down, rearranged into more directly nourishing compounds and waste, and ultimately reassembled into poo and me. We laughed a bit about making sure that these two assemblages not become mixed, and considered the consequences of substituting Skittles for bread in one’s regular diet. We talked about the paper that would result from just vomiting the bread back up or pooping it out without nutritional processing.

They may not immediately have digested all this, but they were intrigued and I had lots of fun.

Word to your Mama

I had a little fun with my scifi reading circle last week. They were pretty cranky about Gibson’s Neuromancer (although they picked it), which wasn’t giving them a nice clean linear narrative or conventionally identifiable / likeable characters. I told them it was all about getting cool with the unfamiliar, a slow difficult process in contrast for example to dating, boinking and marrying the woman who reminds you most of your mother. (It was boys doing the most vocal kvetching.) They were stricken.

[Update: It occurs to me that in a roundabout way this is one answer to Tim Burke’s question in his current post about why we think critical thinking should be work, not fun, or why we are suspicious of people seemingly just having fun.]