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.

Why do American teachers stink at learning how to teach?

Via the Facebook page of Making Thinking Visible (Project Zero, Visible Thinking) comes an interesting article from the NY Times, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”

It turns out a big chunk of the answer is, because American teachers stink at learning how to teach. This stinkage is illustrated by contrast to the Japanese, who ironically got jazzed about American innovations in teaching theory and practice during the ’80s, and implemented them at the same time they were going nowhere in the U.S. The article, which is adapted from Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book Building a Better Teacher, argues that although the U.S. is a leader in conceptual innovation and extraordinary experimentation, we do a particularly bad job of general implementation because we fail to actually show teachers how to do the exciting new thing. This has happened over and over again. In contrast again, the Japanese made a commitment to the change and poured tremendous institutional and peer support into training up the educators. So in fact Green’s thesis is that it’s not that we stink at learning how to teach, but at teaching how to teach.

No doubt this is true, or at least it’s a perennial complaint. But there’s something a little odd about the argument. The consistent theme of each iteration of innovation is to take an experimental attitude to teaching, and to commit to an open-ended process of discovery. The Japanese teacher offered as model is Takeshi Matsuyama. “At the university-affiliated elementary school where Matsuyama taught, he turned his classroom into a kind of laboratory, concocting and trying out new teaching ideas.” The idea is to set up a discovery-oriented environment, then let students figure it out for themselves.

So, why does Green think teachers themselves need something other than this? I realize there are all sorts of strategies that ‘facilitate’ this process – I’ve developed many by doing, learned others by paying attention and reading and making connections. There’s much more for me to learn, and plenty I’ve forgotten that I shouldn’t have. I could tell all this to apprentices. But again, the point of the method is self-discovery through recursive experimentation and research and reflection. It’s really the opposite of ‘we need to show these people how to do this algorithm’, which is precisely the old model that we’re trying to get over. On this view, we don’t at all need to show teachers how to do this. We just need to set them to the task and let them sort it out.

Well in actual fact, that hasn’t worked. Instead, confusion reigns and the reform collapses back into old habits. Which, as Dave Mazella keeps saying, have the substantial merit of not working in familiar ways that define the norm, reinforced and perpetuated by what Green calls the “apprenticeship of observation.” And since it’s clearly the case that failure is endemically acceptable – normal, in fact – in the American education system, so things remain. Would teaching the teachers how to teach change that?

I’m not sure. It’s the disposition of discovery and risk that’s missing; that would seem to be built into our system, but it was in Japan too. And it would seem to be simple enough – it’s a one-page handout, a blog post – to convey the concept of moving from an “I, We, You” to a “You, Y’All, We” classroom framework. Try it, work with it. Here’s a problem: “Without the right training, most teachers do not understand math well enough to teach it the way [innovator Magdalene] Lampert does.” But Lampert’s method does not require the teacher to understand math, yet. It requires the teacher to understand the process of figuring math out, which, as the math-in-the-wild examples in the article show, is available to anyone who accepts the need to do so and puts their mind to it. Again, the idea that there’s some special training teachers need here seems off-base.

Green tells poignantly of teachers trying to do it right, but instead taking the new script and jamming the old one into it.

And how could she have known to do anything different? Her principal praised her efforts, holding them up as an example for others. Official math-reform training did not help, either. Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones.

How could she have known? Well, did her students figure something out or not? Did they start getting right answers or not? Why were their answers right or wrong? Really, she has to be told that eventually the point is to get to right answers? She’s looking for a recipe, rather than paying attention to what’s happening. It’s not hard to know if students are learning or not, if you pay attention and think a little.

What’s needed is curiosity and responsibility. When teachers have these, all is well, just as when students have them, all is well. The Japanese (and Finnish, and exotic flavor-of-the-month) example show that this can, to a degree, be generalized. I’m not sure what it would take to enable this in the American setting, but years of failed innovation suggest it’s not a one-variable problem.


In the Bad Writing class Patrick and I have been showing the students how to know things. Of course they know many things, in a variety of modes. What we’re after is the kind of knowledge that can be communicated without local acculturation, personal experience, empathy, conversion, or conquest – knowledge that in principle could look right from many perspectives and regardless of perspective. Not the ‘God’s eye view’, certainly. But robust, responsible, credible findings – the pragmatic midrange of the epistemological field.

Again, we’re not (much) nazis about this. We’re all for alternative ways of knowing and suspicion toward the metanarratives of knowledge. We’ve read Foucault and Said, Harding and Haraway. But we also work with a whole bunch of people, some of them students, whose default mode of knowing is to pull stuff out of their butts. Like, ironically, the Nazis did. We think educated folks ought to have some facility with a less stinky, more intersubjectively valuable mode of knowing, one that doesn’t require us to nod politely while holding our noses when the turds of wisdom are extruded. In such contexts the epistemological niceties are obliterated by brute ignorance and naked ideology. It’s our job to fix that.

This mode is, really roughly, science. (I know, I know, Latour.) In the evening section of the class I remarked to the group that so far (a week, two meetings, 4 hours) it might seem that the class was a chaotic mess. Nods and wide eyes all around. OK, says I, describe what we’ve done so far. Well, we’ve read things. And then we’ve talked about them. We’ve tried to figure them out, and ended up with a lot of questions. Then we’ve done research on some of those questions, and read more things, and found some stuff out. Which we’ve talked about.

And so on. I said, this is it – this is the process. You start with something you’re trying to figure out. You familiarize yourself with it and then do some brainstorming. That leads to questions for research. You do the research, and get answers that lead to more questions. At each stage of the process you know more than before. What you know teaches you to ask better questions, and to modify what you thought you knew before. And so it goes forever. Our answers are never final, but they become part of an expanding network of robust understandings.

So, to make the rubber hit the road again, what we’re showing them is a mode of ‘getting it right’ that, if practiced correctly, allows us to say that Arthur Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races is not just inconvenient to our current sensibilities, or politically incorrect, or immoral, but also actually ‘wrong’, that is, bad as knowledge.

We gave them a snippet from his conclusion. I’m going to paste it here for reference, and also to make it easily accessible since I didn’t find it ready-for-use on the web:

I have shown the unique place in the organic world occupied by the human species, the profound physical, as well as moral, differences separating it from all other kinds of living creatures. Considering it by itself, I have been able to distinguish, on physiological grounds alone, three great and clearly marked types, the black, the yellow, and the white. However uncertain the aims of physiology may be, however meagre its resources, however defective its methods, it can proceed thus far with absolute certainty.

The negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder. The animal character, that appears in the shape of the pelvis, is stamped on the negro from birth, and foreshadows his destiny. His intellect will always move within a very narrow circle. He is not however a mere brute, for behind his low receding brow, in the middle of his skull, we can see signs of a powerful energy, however crude its objects. If his mental faculties are dull or even non-existent, he often has an intensity of desire, and so of will, which may be called terrible. Many of his senses, especially taste and smell, are developed to an extent unknown to the other two races.

The very strength of his sensations is the most striking proof of his inferiority. All food is good in his eyes, nothing disgusts or repels him. What he desires is to eat, to eat furiously, and to excess; no carrion is too revolting to be swallowed by him. It is the same with odours; his inordinate desires are satisfied with all, however coarse or even horrible. To these qualities may be added an instability and capriciousness of feeling, that cannot be tied down to any single object, and which, so far as he is concerned, do away with all distinctions of good and evil. We might even say that the violence with which he pursues the object that has aroused his senses and inflamed his desires is a guarantee of the desires being soon satisfied and the object forgotten. Finally, he is equally careless of his own life and that of others: he kills willingly, for the sake of killing; and this human machine, in whom it is so easy to arouse emotion, shows, in face of suffering, either a monstrous indifference or a cowardice that seeks a voluntary refuge in death.

The yellow race is the exact opposite of this type. The skull points forward, not backward. The forehead is wide and bony, often high and projecting. The shape of the face is triangular, the nose and chin showing none of the coarse protuberances that mark the negro. There is further a general proneness to obesity, which, though not confined to the yellow type, is found there more frequently than in the others. The yellow man has little physical energy, and is inclined to apathy; he commits none of the strange excesses so common among negroes. His desires are feeble, his will-power rather obstinate than violent; his longing for material pleasures, though constant, is kept within bounds. A rare glutton by nature, he shows far more discrimination in his choice of food. He tends to mediocrity in everything; he understands easily enough anything not too deep or sublime. He has a love of utility and a respect for order, and knows the value of a certain amount of freedom. He is practical, in the narrowest sense of the word. He does not dream or theorize; he invents little, but can appreciate and take over what is useful to him. His whole desire is to live in the easiest and most comfortable way possible. The yellow races are thus clearly superior to the black. Every founder of a civilization would wish the backbone of his society, his middle class, to consist of such men. But no civilized society could be created by them; they could not supply its nerve-force, or set in motion the springs of beauty and action.

We come now to the white peoples. These are gifted with reflective energy, or rather with an energetic intelligence. They have a feeling for utility, but in a sense far wider and higher, more courageous and ideal, than the yellow races; a perseverance that takes account of obstacles and ultimately finds a means of overcoming them; a greater physical power, an extraordinary instinct for order, not merely as a guarantee of peace and tranquillity, but as an indispensable means of self-preservation. At the same time, they have a remarkable, and even extreme, love of liberty, and are openly hostile to the formalism under which the Chinese are glad to vegetate, as well as to the strict despotism which is the only way of governing the negro.

The white races are, further, distinguished by an extraordinary attachment to life. They know better how to use it, and so, as it would seem, set a greater price on it; both in their own persons and those of others, they are more sparing of life. When they are cruel, they are conscious of their cruelty; it is very doubtful whether such a consciousness exists in the negro. At the same time, they have discovered reasons why they should surrender this busy life of theirs, that is so precious to them. The principal motive is honour, which under various names has played an enormous part in the ideas of the race from the beginning. I need hardly add that the word honour, together with all the civilizing influences connoted by it, is unknown to both the yellow and the black man.

Arthur comte de Gobineau, The Inequality of Human Races (1853-55), excerpt from “Recapitulation; respective characters of the three great races; the superiority of the white type, and, within this type, of the Aryan family.”

Blech. I think pretty much everyone nowadays gets it that this is offensive, politically regressive, and immoral. For most purposes that’s enough. But none of those things means it’s factually wrong. Is this the kind of fact we’ve chosen to ignore for higher purposes? If it’s wrong, how can we tell?

Well for one thing, there is a century and a half of further research that abundantly shows this is all a bunch of crap. By settled and robust finding, there is no such thing as biological race in the way Gobineau thought. But can’t we give him a pass for being early in the investigation and not knowing better yet, like we give Newton a pass for not knowing Einsteinian relativity yet? Isn’t this ‘good’ science patiently going through its process of partial findings later revised as evidence and analysis improve – as in fact happened?

No. We can start with the “absolute certainty” his admittedly flawed method supposedly gives us about the existence and essence of races. There’s nothing in science justifying claims of absolute certainty. This points to a more systematic problem, his presentation of, at best, provisional observational findings as definite biological conclusions rather than hypotheses (questions) for further investigation.

We also have assertions of various facts not in evidence. Although we can’t know without reading the whole book what his dataset was, we can reasonably doubt that all Black folk have undiscriminating appetites, all Yellow folk are fat and lazy (how’d they get that wall built?), and all White folk are bright and creative. Surely this evidence is verifiably selective; and partial findings require more research, not overbroad final conclusions. He also seems to know what other peoples’ feelings are. This was a common conceit for Romantic types, but it’s not science – our data about the feelings of others are at best inferential. When research starts to go in circles we’ve reached the limits of possible knowledge.

Not finally, but enough for now, judgments are made and presented as settled fact using concepts that have no settled or settleable scientific content – liberty, honour, desire, and most notably the whole conceptual apparatus of evaluative ranking (superior, inferior). What criteria and data would we use to research the superiority of a race? Like flu virus, vultures, and the majestic slime mold, we can know that continued existence means living things are ‘fit enough’ for something or other. We can figure out what that is. But whether that something or other is ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘better’, or ‘best’ depends on what else you might be trying to accomplish from time to time. It’s a place to form a preference between alternatives rather than a place to find out more, and therefore it’s another of those circles where knowing ends and agendas of various kinds begin. Not that there’s anything automatically wrong with agendas. Just that when we see them happening, we have a whole new sort of question to answer and puzzle to figure out.

We won’t do that agenda-and-audience investigation together on Gobineau, although a student or students might pick the scientific racism genre of bad writing as their own research project. But we will do at least a little of it with “The Communist Manifesto,” to which we’ll be turning next week.

Imagination, identification, and learning

We’re often told that we learn best from people ‘like us’, with whom we share a bond of identification. Along the fortified borders of identity work this is supposed to mean the big trouble categories like gender, race, and class.

I’m not going to dispute the premise, or even its vulgar applications. Clearly some women learn better from women, some working class kids learn better from teachers who share that background, and so on. Also, some white boys learn better from other white boys, which is where the liberal fantasies attached to the empirical observation run into trouble. Because we very much want white boys to learn from women and people of color, don’t we. And we also don’t want white boys to be the only ones who can see past the ends of their own noses. Nor, of course, do we want our Gen Ed business or engineering or nursing students to come out the other side of our classes still thinking of history, literature and philosophy as the wonky preserves of impenetrable weirdos.

We’ve got to learn more broadly, not less, and that means we need to construct our identifications more broadly, not less. I’m not saying anything Anthony Appiah didn’t already take for granted when he was 6. But he and I have led charmed lives that immediately enabled a more inclusive imagination about who and what is ‘like’ us enough to learn from. I was lucky to have Gerald Durrell, Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, and The Hobbit around when I was a kid. It never occurred to me you couldn’t learn from turtles, spiders, rabbits, and trees. Deliberation, patience, loyalty, and taking the long view, among other things.

I get that enabling a broader imaginative identification is more of a struggle for some folks. But still I’m fascinated that a culture busily churning out learning aids for children and imaginative entertainments peopled by plants and animals can also produce self-evident garbage about the identity-matching of teachers and students. Even that old bastard Kipling understood, in his hierarchical and racist way, that we can learn just fine from the Other. And I get that the discourses of identity and representation can be important leverage to open up spaces in education and society for people who are otherwise excluded. I get that there’s something existentially horrifying and materially disabling about a whole educational career that dramatizes the exclusion of people ‘like you’ from the positions of authority and status.

But that’s a devil’s bargain, a desperate shortcut. That ‘like you’ is a trap. The problem is not that ‘we’ are not represented in the world of learning. The problem is that we conceive ourselves too narrowly, and so we learn much less than we could, and should.

OK, so how does this cash out in my practice? Well, I can’t just come at my classes with exhortations to engage imaginatively with the Otherness of the past. They get plenty of scolding about their limitations; those just push them deeper inside their shells. And I’m certainly not going to do a little lecture in which I assure the black lesbian women that we’re more alike than they think. We are, but we’re not there yet. As always, imaginative identification has to be constructed, it can’t just be asserted by fiat.

A lot of what I do is just sidestep the whole issue of categorical identification. I don’t think it’s an issue, so I don’t make it one. I grant that the past is uninteresting (we have no ‘interests’ in it) to disable the usual defenses, then jump right in with intriguing material that’s obviously more complicated than that. Curiosity does the rest – it has to, unless you want to get into a mutually demeaning disciplinary regime of constant prodding and quizzing. But curiosity has to be enabled, which is where a classroom practice heavy in recursive questioning comes in. Every answer raises three more questions, and the mystery gets deeper the more of it we solve. This is not just process, it’s payoff, but there’s a big nut to crack here – our students have now been trained by several generations of positivistic educational assessment to think there needs to be a definite answer for an upcoming test. So here’s a place to talk about answers being more or less ‘robust’ rather than ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – but that’s another post.

So what’s the answer? I’m still finding out. But with some robustness I can say that anyone can be interested in anything by anybody as long as curiosity is engaged. And what engages curiosity is a kind of ignorance that’s readily fixed by finding out, plus an environment in which good questions are valued and good answers lead to more good questions.

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.

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.