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?

I'll show you mine if you show me yours

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

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

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


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

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

Out of the box

We’ve been talking about constraint and causation (or ‘enablement’, as Garfinkel might say), and this morning I’ve stumbled into a chain of associations that illustrate the point. Specifically, two juxtaposed reviews in the NYRB, on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels and Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe; the book Rachel is reading, Charlatan, on medical quackery in the fin de siecle; her previous research on Olaus Rudbeck; and a movie we just watched, “(untitled).” All of these are cautionary tales about thinking outside the box, and therefore reminders of the enabling function of boxes.

Let’s start with Rudbeck, a Swedish scientist who taught Linnaeus and (perhaps) discovered the limbic system. Rightly celebrated as a Renaissance man, he spent the second half of his life and blew his reputation pursuing his idee fixe that Atlantis had been in Sweden. Clearly a creative thinker, once he got into a field where his thinking was unconstrained by conventions and a developmental programme of investigation he came unglued and started making stuff up to suit his emotional preferences, then selectively interpreting the evidence to fit. This fact was clear to everyone but him.

In the review of Wertheim, Freeman Dyson tells a similar story about Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant astronomer whose observations of deflected starlight were instrumental to the experimental support of Einsteinian relativity, and whose lucid writing and teaching on the subject helped establish the new orthodoxy. But Eddington also had his own “Fundamental Theory,” an idiosyncratic mishmash of “mathematical and verbal arguments… [with] no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.” “Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man.”

What’s striking about these examples is how people exquisitely functional within one set of conventions can spectacularly implode outside them, and without any apparent reflexive awareness that this is the case. St. Aubyn’s novels (which I have not read) would seem to be excruciating meditations on this theme. Patrick Melrose, the main character, is an unwilling participant observer in a horrifying upper-crust British social milieu in which publicly effective people behave abominably to each other in private, with no apparent sense of disconnect. In fact, they seem to use the effective parts of their lives as systematic displacements of self-reflection. Patrick, in contrast, is practically disabled by self-awareness (“how could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) and floats through drug addiction before finally working himself around to an effective balance of interiority and exteriority.

Charlatan is about a guy who got rich transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men anxious about their virility. Needless to say this was a fool’s errand and a septic nightmare, but neither he nor his patients seemed clear on these obvious facts. In Physics on the Fringe Wertheim writes about Jim Carter, a successful engineer and entrepreneur who spends his spare time concocting experiments to prove his pet theory that the universe is composed of hierarchies of “circlons,” of which smoke rings are the demonstrative exemplars. It turns out that unbeknownst to Carter a very similar theory was once entertained by Lord Kelvin, but dropped for lack of convincing evidence – despite/because of experiments much like Carter’s, experiments which he finds amply probative, although he cannot convince the scientific community to agree.

In his review of Wertheim, Dyson champions the fringe creatives working outside the box as courageous poetic visionaries. But the tricky thing is figuring out what the ‘good’ versions of this are, since both psychosis and ordinary crackpottery are also often characterized by poetic vision. “untitled” comes at this question from the arts side and shows that Dyson’s offloading of the question onto art only works because his understanding of art is romantic. (Of course he does not know this about himself.) The movie’s central characters are an experimental musician, his brother the painter, and the gallerist who takes an interest in both. The painter is a hack, but does not know it; his paintings sell very well to hospital chains for use as soothing motifs in their lobbies, which is how the gallerist funds her showings of the serious art that does not sell. The musician produces elaborate cacophanies; he tells us that tonality is over, now just a matter of “pushing notes around,” which is essentially what his brother the painter is doing with color. The problem is that although it’s clear the painter is a hack, it’s not at all clear whether the musician is something better. There are norms of judgment for the former, but not the latter. Is that just unpleasant noise, or is it a brilliant meditation on the contingency of norms of pleasantness? As the musician tells us, all sound is noise unless it’s welcome. What makes it welcome?

The problem turns out to be that outside the box, there’s no way to settle these questions, to move things forward or even to know what forward would be. “It’s all good,” as they say. But a river without banks is a swamp. So constraint, a box of some kind, is essential to getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space (Garfinkel again, but see here for another awesome citation controversy, although oddly enough a different Garfinkel) against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is that enough of a point for this post? It will have to be, because I’ve said all I had in mind to say at this time.

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.

Useful uselessness

Bookmark here. Something to connect to previous posts and conference papers about the usefulness of history being its uselessness. Found in Peter Manseau’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution:

All animals of a certain level of complexity, Bellah explains, engage in forms of “useful uselessness,” the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s term for behaviors that do not contribute to short-term survival yet do ensure long-term flourishing. In the play of animals, we can see a number of interesting elements: The action of play has limited immediate function; it is done for its own sake; it seems to alter existing social hierarchies; it is done again and again; and it is done within a “relaxed field,” during periods of calm and safety. Put another way: Play is time within time. It suggests to its participants the existence of multiple realities—one in which survival is the only measure of success, and another in which a different logic seems to apply.

‘Useful uselessness’ is how I’ve been framing history, so I’ll need to track down Gopnik. Other links: Gramsci’s advocacy of ‘dead languages’, Hegel’s remark about history being too different than the present to offer useful lessons, Watzlawick et. al.’s critique of Freudian psychology to the effect that knowing the causal origins of a complex in one’s developmental history is of no use in resolving it since we cannot go back in time and change them.

Aren’t all of the humanities, at least as taught in Gen Ed to people who will not be following them into serious scholarship, this kind of useful uselessness? Wouldn’t it be good to be clear about this fact and be appropriately playful about them?

What done sign my name?

Tim Tyson, following the old black spiritual, says it’s blood. Blood Done Sign My Name (2004) centers on the murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, east North Carolina in May, 1970. Marrow was beaten and shot to death by white merchant Robert Teel and his sons, supposedly for chatting up one of the sons’ wife outside their store. The actual tale of the murder takes up a few pages right in the middle of the book, most of which is historian Tyson’s autobiographical attempt to understand the event in context. He was 10 at the time, friends with another of the killer’s sons.

This is a rightly celebrated book (there’s also a movie). Tyson tells tales like someone raised in a rich oral tradition, which as the son and grandson of preachers he was. He’s at his best when he uses multiple narrative strands to frame each other, patiently weaving together stories and perspectives to create a densely layered reconstruction of a surprisingly complex situation. Tyson is not at his best when he gets impatient and steps outside the narrative to attempt more formal analysis. He has the genre’s understandable but unhelpful tendency to substitute moral preening for rigorous investigation, and like any ideology his liberalism and religiosity default to pat answers too quickly and easily.

I’m currently stuck on a section exemplary of both tendencies (I’m about 2/3 through the book, which I picked up in a thrift store and am reading as an homage to my colleague Peter Murray), so I’m kind of live-blogging here a little bit. Starting about p. 180 in the paperback Tyson sets up a lovely narrative contrast between three men, Robert Teel and two Tysons: Tim’s own father Vernon, Methodist pastor of Oxford, and his notorious second cousin Elias, aka ‘the Gator’. It turns out Teel and Vernon grew up a short distance from each other in virtually identical material circumstances; the same could be said for Gator. Yet they turned out very differently. Tim ponders this:

I have often contemplated the differences between my father and Gerald’s father, and how they shaped our lives. Daddy and Teel were within a year of each other in school and grew up only a few miles apart. Neither of them liked school worth a damn. They wore overalls, ate cornbread and beans, drank their iced tea heavily sweetened, and knew what it was to work hard in the tobacco fields from sunup to sundown. Each of them left eastern North Carolina wanting something better, something more.

Here we have one of those grails of explanatory analysis, the divergent effect from seemingly identical causes. Why, given all the common antecedents, did Robert become an angry, violent racist while Vernon became a decent, humane social activist? Here’s Tim:

The difference between them couldn’t be boiled down to socioeconomic class; neither of their families had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, as the saying went. In fact, while Teel had his G.I. Bill educational benefits to pay his way through any school, my father had to borrow and scrounge. But Daddy went to a liberal arts college founded by the Quakers, where he met pacifists, liberals, radicals of various descriptions, and black people far more educated than himself. More important, he had Reverend Jack Tyson for a father. At the heart of our differences, I think, stand the many-sided visions of Jesus that haunt the South. Although eastern North Carolina was awash in Baptist fundamentalism, the Teel clan did not seem to have had the softening influence of the gospel in their lives, at least not the same gospel that Jack Tyson preached.

Hm. I’m sure this is right, and I like the image of ghostly kaleidoscopic Jesus. But among other things we might like to know why Vernon pursued school even without liking it, why he picked the Quaker one and stuck it out despite all the cognitive dissonance, how the family got entrained on the ‘right’ version of the gospel, and so on. Here as usual Tim’s storytelling steps up to do the much heavier lifting.

The first thing that stands out is a rather different home life. Coming after dozens of smoothly flowing pages of the Tysons’ wholesome, affectionate, mutually respecting loviness, Teel’s broken home puts a squeal in the brakes. The missing father, the hardscrabble, woman-centered plan B, and eventually the worshipped stepfather and underage army enlistment all invite armchair psychologizing: arrested development, thwarted masculinity, status anxiety, joining issues. Tim wisely declines the invitation, spraying facts like aerosol and letting them settle into their own pattern. The account of his own father’s upbringing is occasion for some more gratuitous (albeit snarktastic) moral coup-taking, but in the process we find ol’ Grampa Jack actually reading the Bible and thinking about what it says, against rather than with received wisdom, a striking fact that clicks into the matrix of the Tysons’ multi-generational orneriness and disregard for common sense — supported by tale after tale of quixotic deeds — to suggest that bucking the tide is a Tyson thang, of dubious larger significance until conditions align for the greater enablement of such dispositional change agents. We can well imagine the same people becoming Communists or Anabaptists or Lutherans under different ideological conditions, but in the rural American South at mid-century the friendly reading of the gospels was the available conceptual framework for that contrary disposition.

In short, the Tysons are the kind of holy hemorrhoids who are doomed to frustrating irrelevance during normal times, but come into their glory when the poo hits the fan. Another cat who refused to be herded was cousin Gator, the cautionary tale, whose charismatic orneriness did not get channeled into oppositional intellectuality, perhaps slipping through the cracks as the beautiful baby of the family, and who therefore drifted into a highly successful but ultimately self-destructive amoral dissipation of boozing, fighting, gambling and womanizing. Tyson uses Gator to deliver a little homily about original sin. Much more of a herd animal but with no herd of his own or developed sense of how to function in one, Teel had ambition and saw that the main line of acceptance, success and influence ran through material accumulation and status conformity, not intellectual pursuit. He may have shared a dislike of school with Vernon and Gator, but unlike the former he had no positive models of deep thinking and also didn’t see the use of it; and in terms of the locally-dominant aspirational discourse, he was right. No doubt he was religious in the way Weber suggests lots of Protestants are religious, as a networking tool and symbolic guarantee of his trustworthiness in business. And no doubt his racism, clearly a subset of a more generalized anger and violence as stories of his various scrapes show, was motivated directly by the status anxiety of a climber needing backs to climb on, but it also has all the overcooked theatricality of an arriviste trying way too hard without any sense of nuance. It contrasts markedly with the more serene and subtle racism of the town’s old guard, who quietly shut down all the public parks rather than integrate them — probably as much as anything to avoid ugly scenes.

It’s not that Tyson’s religious explanation for the differences among these men is wrong; as Weber told us long ago in rising to the challenge of Marx’s materialism, ideas may often act as ‘switchmen’ among materially possible tracks. But we also want to know how elective affinities, as he called them, are established between particular circumstances, concepts and ideals, and how the particularities of disposition, experience, conditions and possibilities come together to produce actual life courses. I think Tim’s book does that, and it’s interesting for someone as tracked into complex formal analysis as I am to see it happening not in the analysis, but in the stories.

For real-time analysis, my favorite figure so far in the book is Goldie Frinks, who apart from the awesome name was a civil rights activist and former nightclub owner who shows up on p. 150. A shrewd Wittgensteinian, Frinks specialized in seeing situations from multiple perspectives and changing the game to dissolve problems and create opportunities.

As he explained to [Tim] at his home in Edenton two decades later, Frinks understood that Southern whites could hardly present a united front. Few whites truly backed the movement, especially in their own communities, but there were many shades of weak support, moral queasiness, deep misgivings, and reluctant opposition, in addition to the fire-eating racists. “You couldn’t forget that you had some good white folks, and even the other ones wasn’t necessarily all bad…. They were cramped because of the age-old mores of time,” Frinks asserted…. Dr. King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” argued that such people were often worse than outright opponents. But Frinks saw them as an opportunity. “A lot of the good whites couldn’t just come down here and speak. ‘You’re wrong, Mr. Teel,’ they couldn’t say that, but they had what you might call a silence that I could hear. If you forgot that, you wouldn’t be nowhere. A man like Teel, getting his badge of honor from the murder of a man who had no cause to be put to death, that man was somewhat out of place.”

Somewhat out of place is a beautiful way to think about a guy like Teel, perceptive and without moral patness. Nor does it make Teel any less destructive or any less the queasifying instrument of a system of domination, which Frinks actively fought. But it’s a lovely reminder that giving people a sense of place is an important tactic and purpose of humanist activism, just like rudely displacing people and requiring heroic saintliness of them is not a promising strategy for positive change.

Rusty wire and the wild ponies

This is how Rachel described her childhood, in contrast to an article she was reading in the Funny Times (because it’s pretty funny) about how American pediatricians are trying to get warning labels on hot dogs because they’re a dangerous food. They’re dangerous because about ten kids a year choke on them and die, which is of course ten too many but makes any given kid choking on a hot dog and dieing about a 1:6,000,000,000 shot. It’s sort of an amazing thing to think we need to take comprehensive positive steps to head off this danger, as compared to the subsistence farm where Rachel grew up at which rusty wire was unavoidably abundant and unsurprisingly devoid of warning labels. And the only ponies that could be afforded were the wild ones, and one of the first things she remembers is learning by trial-and-error how not to get kicked in the head by them.

Of course a decline-of-our-civilization-from-its-rugged-can-do-origins narrative would be easy here, as would a progress story about how much relatively safer our precious little darlings are. These are both pleasant affirmations of a worldview. And of course if we’re willing not to leap to judgment it’s more complicated than that. I’m reminded for example of JohnM’s comment awhile back remembering “an essay by Jean Briggs, an ethnographer who studied child-rearing among the Inuit. One of the things that disturbed her was the practice of setting problems for children, not providing the materials they needed, and teasing them when they failed to solve them. She initially thought it was cruel. She then came to realize that if, for example, an adult Inuit was out seal-hunting on the ice and some of his equipment broke down, the inability to improvise a solution would kill him.” What, weren’t these children being abused? Clearly understanding only happens here when judgment is suspended and practices are examined in relation to situations, not preconceived ideals.

This came together with something I just skimmed on Slawkenbergius’ recommendation, Eva Illouz’s Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (2008). Eva suggests that “[t]he point of cultural analysis is not to measure cultural practices against what they ought to be or ought to have been but rather to understand how they have come to be what they are and why, in being what they are, they ‘accomplish things’ for people.” Obviously I agree with this, and very well put.

But then in turn this came together with Dave Mazella’s great comment just now on the last post talking about how ‘hegemony’ is a “slippy-slidey concept… that… leads in one way or another to a rather deracinated ‘cultural studies.’ But that’s for another post,” which would be this one. Dave points to the danger of judgment, and perhaps more importantly action, indefinitely deferred. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx told us, and after several thousand years of philosophy who could disagree. Or as Erskine Bowles said recently, reflecting on his transition from finance and politics to academe as President of the University of North Carolina, “I come from a world of ready, fire, aim, and I came to a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim.” C’mon ya eggheads, fire already!

Weber provides one answer. The ethics of the scientist and of the politician are different: it’s the scientist’s job to get knowledge right, the politician’s to act in pursuit of ultimate ends. Mixing those tasks just makes the scientist unreliable and confounds the politician in detail and nuance. Nor is knowledge an adequate guide to action; as Durkheim said (in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life) “[s]cience is fragmentary and incomplete; it advances but slowly and is never finished; but life — that cannot wait. Theories whose calling is to make people live and make them act, must therefore rush ahead of science and complete it prematurely. They are possible only if the demands of practicality and vital necessities, such as we feel without distinctly conceiving them, push thought beyond what science permits us to affirm.” Still, more and more reliable knowledge is better than less and less reliable knowledge, no? And Orwell, Huxley, Hitler and Stalin showed us what happens when understanding is simply subordinated to politics, be they public or personal. Along those lines another option is the pragmatic tolerance and decency Rorty arrives at as the best way to love both Trotsky and the wild orchids.

Rachel points out, correctly, that the contemporary media-saturated world is a more immediately scary place than it used to be. A kid chokes on a hot dog in Dubuque and in minutes it’s right there on your news feed, as if it happened next door. But it’s not like the older world was less dangerous – rusty wire and wild ponies will kill you dead, and everyone knows it. What’s different now is that people apparently think it’s actually possible to intercept every possible danger. They don’t think their kids are going to end up stranded on an ice floe; the preciouses don’t need to be exposed to peril to toughen them up and make them resourceful in contingencies. Fate plays no part in our world. Hot dogs may be scary, but they’re finite and pragmatically manageable in a way that Satan, symbol of infinite jeopardy, never was.

Source analysis: contemporary world history

In lieu of my usual wise and witty posting I thought some of you might be interested to see what I’m up to lately in meatworld. The following is a repost from a blog (hidden from search engines) I set up for my current Contemporary World History class. We’ve been rambling our way through the analysis for the last few meetings; at the moment how the map and the poster go together is starting to click.

Please do play along if you’re so inclined!

*Here are a few sources for us to analyze. Take a look at them and see what you can figure out about what they tell us. We will discuss them in class, and that discussion will go better the more thinking you’ve done in advance. Of course comments here and/or on your own blogs are welcome!

The first source is a map of the ethnic zones of Kenya, a country in East Africa formerly under the colonial rule of Great Britain.

Ethnic map of Kenya

This next image is a Chinese propaganda poster from the Vietnam War:

Resolutely support the American people in their resistance against American imperialist aggression in Vietnam

The final document is the first page of a declassified CIA analysis of options to destabilize the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. As with each of these documents, find out more by clicking on the image.

CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954

Bonus: this is current, funny, and thought-provoking. Find the Telegraph’s report on it here.