Wednesday, June 30, 2021

I discovered something new today. Latour, Chalmers [repeats of repeats of..], and now, Lambros Malafouris: "Material Engagement Theory"

The only way for pedants raised with the assumptions of liberal individualism to escape atomization is a return to religion. I'd originally added "animism" in this case, but he hedges. The thought of formative relations with other people is impossible.

Switch out the pot on the wheel in the first paragraph with another human being on a bed. "Focus, for instance, on the first minutes of action..." Imagine fucking.     

Consider a potter throwing a vessel on the wheel. Think of the complex ways brain, body, wheel and clay relate and interact with one another throughout the different stages of this activity and try to imagine some of the resources (physical, mental or biological) needed for the enaction of this creative process. Focus, for instance, on the first minutes of action when the potter attempts to centre the lump of clay on the wheel. The hands are grasping the clay. The fingers, bent slightly following the surface curvature, sense the clay and exchange vital tactile information necessary for a number of crucial decisions that are about to follow in the next few seconds. What is it that guides the dextrous positioning of the potter’s hands and decides upon the precise amount of forward or downward pressure necessary for centring a lump of clay on the wheel? How do the potter’s fingers come to know the precise force of the appropriate grip? What makes these questions even more fascinating is the ease by which the phenomena which they describe are accomplished. Yet underlying the effortless manner in which the potter’s hand reaches for and gradually shapes the wet clay lies a whole set of conceptual challenges to some of our most deeply entrenched assumptions about what it means to be a human agent.

There are two obvious ways to proceed in order to meet these challenges and answer these questions: the first is to turn and ask the potter directly. As a great deal of cross-cultural ethnographic observation will testify, confronted with the ‘how do you do it?’ question, potters would prefer to ‘show you’ rather than simply ‘tell you’ their answer. If, however, the question gets very precise, for instance, ‘how did you decide the force of the grip?’ or ‘how did you decide the appropriate speed of the wheel’ or ‘when and how much water to add on the clay?’, they usually have very little to say. They can do it but they do not know how they do it or they simply lack the means to express or communicate this form of tacit knowledge. No one – not even the potter himself – can have access to this type of information because no one – not even the potter himself – can tell the fingers how hard they can press the clay in and up so that the walls of the vessel will not collapse. When it comes to embodied skill, potters are no exception to the rules of action and material engagement. Potters know more than what they can tell or explain and their hands often have reasons of which their mind is not aware and which the clay may resist or accommodate. Verbal description, however detailed, can hardly capture the phenomenological perturbations of real activity and the reciprocality between the crafted and the crafter. This is also why the affordances of the wheel throwing technique need to be discovered each time, in real time and space, within the totality of the interactive parameters.

Let us now turn to the second way of answering our previous questions, namely to look for some ‘internal’ mental and inaccessible mechanism. From such a perspective, the potter’s fingers do nothing but execute the orders of the potter’s brain and it is there that we should be looking for an answer. The potter’s fingers simply receive information from the clay and transmit it to the appropriate area inside the potter’s brain; they have nothing to do with the central ‘executive’ mechanism responsible for the ‘executive processing’ and decision making. The moment you subscribe to the above popular scenario, you have already com- mitted yourself also to a specific agency judgement. That is, you have already implicitly answered another question, what in this chapter I shall be calling the ‘agency question’, ie, who did it? Who is the author of the act? The paradox is that although the potter may again be totally unaware about how or when his brain is making all these fine small decisions or even about what precisely they consist of, this time, he is, more often than not, going to answer that question, with the ease of a natural-born dualist: ‘I’ did it. The following example from G. Bateson nicely illustrates this anthropocentric ‘I did it-stance’ that I shall be calling in this chapter the ‘agency problem’:

Consider a man felling a tree with an axe. Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke. This self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system, trees-eyes- brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree; and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind. . .But this is not how the average Occidental sees the event sequence of tree felling. He says, ‘‘I cut down the tree’’ and he even believes that there is a delimited agent, the ‘‘self’’, which performed a delimited ‘‘purposive’’ action upon a delimited object (Bateson 1973, 318).

But what is this agency problem really about? Subject to the level of analysis (micro-macro), the agency problem can take many different forms. However, what hold those different forms together are two categorical errors that they have in common: The first is an error of apparent mental causation and the second and correlated one is that of agency attribution. According to Wegner, both errors pertain to the fact that people tend to experience conscious will, and thus agency, quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and actions (Wegner 2004, 654). The following example can take us to the heart of the issue:

Imagine for a moment that by some magical process, you could always know when a particular tree branch would move in the wind. Just before it moved, you knew it was going to move, in which direction, and just how it would do it. Not only would you know this, but let us assume that the same magic would guarantee that you would happen to be thinking about the branch just before each move. You would look over, and then just as you realized it was going to move, it would do it! In this imaginary situation, you could eventually come to think that you were somehow causing the movement. You would seem to be the source of the distant branch’s action, the agent that wills it to move. The feeling that one is moving the tree branch surfaces in the same way that one would get the sense of performing any action at a distance (Wegner 2004, 654).

The above example embodies the crux of Wegner’s famous ‘illusion of conscious will argument’ (Wegner 2003; 2002) which directly relate to the crucial questions about ‘what is the origin of an event we need to explain?’ (see Law, this volume) and about ‘who is the author of an act’? However, I should clarify that despite using Wegner’s example as my starting point to the agency problem, my strategy for tackling this problem and my interpretation of the reasons behind it would be rather different and to a large extent contradictory to Wegner’s account. In particular, following the Material Engagement approach (Malafouris 2004), I will suggest that the agency problem is not so much the product of human illusion or some other attribution error of our left hemisphere ‘interpreter’ (Gazzaniga 1998) but of a certain acquired imbalance between mental and physical causality that destabilises the human cognitive equation.

To redress this imbalance at the root of the agency problem in this chapter I shall be introducing the notion of material agency. The concept itself, that is, material agency, is to some extent a misnomer, yet I believe it serves well my basic hypothesis which can be very simply expressed as follows: If human agency is then material agency is, there is no way that human and material agency can be disentangled. Or else, while agency and intentionality may not be properties of things, they are not properties of humans either: they are the properties of material engagement, that is, of the grey zone where brain, body and culture conflate.

To explore my working hypothesis and develop the argument for material agency, I shall be looking in between, rather than within, persons and things. Specifically, I shall be focusing on the brain-artefact interface (BAI) and using the potter’s wheel as a good illustration of such a bio-interface....

"the brain-artefact interface (BAI)" Always a new concept. 

Why not? From the manuscript, p 52, at least for now. 

[T.J. Clark] quotes Picasso later in his life saying he preferred The Three Dancers to Guernica because he painted it “sans arrière-pensée”, without ulterior motive. Clark refers to this as cryptic.

Maybe he meant, again with Rimbaud’s dictum in the background, that the work happened essentially without him –him the thinking individual- and all that he could do was look at it as baffled (and admiring) as the rest of us.

Rimbaud’s dictum is not his. Picasso is following Rimbaud only as Rimbaud followed Baudelaire, and as Baudelaire followed Homer: “Goddess, sing me the anger of Peleus' son, Achilles.” A craftsman follows his training and his reflexes. A dancer follows the rules of the dance, and in performing them, hopes for more. A batter at the plate has no time to articulate thought, but in the moments before swinging the bat, he’s thinking. When Soccer players from Catholic countries look up and cross themselves after scoring a goal, it’s not just faith or false humility, it’s an acknowledgement of their own surprise. This is how most decisions are made, for better or worse, and in the arts it’s standard practice. You don’t have to indulge in romance, 19th century or otherwise, to understand how these acts function in relation to philosophy and morality. It’s the history of art, contra pedantry, that I’ve laid out here before.

Humility doesn't require religious belief beyond faith in free will, only the awareness of something bigger than yourself that's nonetheless constitutive of what you are—the relation of a writer to a language and the distinction between writers and reporters. Also as I've said, determinism doesn't mandate individualism. I haven't read Wegner but I hope he's better than Alex Rosenberg, who defends determinism and still thinks "he" "thinks". I hope he has a sense of humor—or that fate granted him one.
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Another example of the same argument, the product of the same drift, without the scholastic's need to separate philosophy from literature, pretend theory precedes practice. In both the religiosity is just under the surface, but rationalism is always the religion of mandates, looking down, and the metaphysics of empiricism looks out and up: iconic/hieratic vs narrative/demotic.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Janet Malcolm was famous for reminding American journalists that journalism is sleazy.
She was sophisticated enough to understand the distinction between journalists and writers, but was always more the former, with the passive self-effacement of self-hatred.

Marr: a passage I've used as a screen shot elsewhere, but never quoted.
Certainly British journalism is not a profession. Over the years they have tried to make it one. In the United States they have mostly succeeded. There, every year, tens of thousands of journalism graduates are turned out in a sophisticated production process – Squish, gloop, plonk journalist! Squish, gloop, plonk journalist! They are taught about the technical skills and the ethics, the heroes of American journalism and its theory. In the process they are moulded and given a protective gloss of self-importance. They have Standards and, in return, they get Status. In Britain it isn’t like this at all. Journalism is a chaotic form of earning, ragged at the edges, full of snakes, con artists and even the occasional misunderstood martyr. It doesn't have an accepted career structure. necessary entry requirements or an effective system of self-policing. Outside organized crime it is the most powerful and enjoyable of the anti-professions. No country in the world has been as journalism-crazed as Britain. Yet. broadly. we do not respect the people who deliver us the very thing we ache for.   
People get into journalism by mistake; or via some obscure trade magazines, or through writing pornography, or family connections. There are well-known journalists today who got in by starting as telephonists, printers or secretaries. Others, the winged ones, floated in from Oxbridge colleges straight to The Economist or Financial Times. Yet others had, besides their talents, the happy good fortune to be brought up in journalistic dynasties - to be a Coren, Lee-Potter, Lawson, Dimbleby, Wintour, Carvel or Dacre.   
However they got in, the vast majority are journalists because of an irresistible, scratchy need. People will sit for years in local news paper offices cold-calling the police and hospitals, try desperately to stay awake in local council planning or water and sewerage meetings, write about garden ornament design, accountancy vacancies for trade journals, and sit being bellowed at by drunken old news editor tyrants. And in the end many fail. We fail sideways; we go off and do something with easier hours and better pay, such as becoming a press officer or public affairs consultant for a company or public body. Or we fail upwards, discovering that we have a greater talent for writing novels, plays or film scripts, and then the good things of life, from mossy territories to first-class plane seats and daughters who know what Verbier is, fall softly into our laps. Or we…just plain. ordinary. everyday damn-it-can’t-pay-the-bills fail. But for those who want to be journalists, the wanting, the urgent desperation to be a hack is the only thing that really matters. 

repeats. back to the beginning.

Monday, June 21, 2021

power concedes nothing if you're not polite.

 A recipe from/for an intellectual bubble economy.

"Moral Accounting" and good governance

Robert J. Bloomfield--an accounting professor at Cornell, who has written a number of papers tying accounting to philosophical issues, including limits to speech, and pragmatics of language--is seeking feedback from philosophers about his current project on "moral accounting" and governance.  Professor Bloomfield discusses the philosophical issues here, and some practical implications here.   These blog posts also include his email address, for those who would like to offer Professor Bloomfield comments.

And it's right below a post about the Rosenbergs, which is right below this.
He's so confused.
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I made a comment at the third link, without reading it; I was responding to Leiter's description. Bloomfield responded in a new post. I replied and he's refused to allow it, which proves the obvious point.
Bloomfield: "[W]ith power comes obligation." The burdens of power. It's all a bit much. 

If I'd read the original post I would have been crueler but he wouldn't have accepted it.
One line from my failed response: most people think police are necessary; few would want to live in a state where everyone's a cop. After writing it I remembered I've said it before.
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Here.  the post and the link at the bottom: serendipity.

Take away the sophistication of the language and the argument itself is at the level a bright and very serious 20-year-old.  

Marx and Nietzsche, the two lodestars of modern philosophical anthropology, differ most interestingly not in their moral outlooks--which are indeed contradictory--but in their explanatory methods. Marx has, as it were, no psychology, only an anthropology and economics, while Nietzsche relies almost exclusively on explanation in terms of individual psychology, appearing at times willfully blind to social and economic causes. This difference is most apparent in their contrasting approaches to human suffering. Marx understands suffering to be primarily a consequence of socio-economic circumstances, while Nietzsche traces it primarily to defects in individual psychology and physiology (the latter manifesting themselves at the psychological level). To put it crudely, for Nietzsche, most people are by nature “sick” and thus disposed to suffer, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, while for Marx, people’s suffering is an artifact of their socio-economic circumstances, and thus amenable to amelioration. 

I consider various kinds of evidence for Nietzsche’s thesis—including the existence of religious orthodoxy among the affluent; the social phenomenon of “aggrievement hunters”; and the prevalence of ascetic moralities and of non-guilty means for assuaging suffering—concluding that it does not clearly support Nietzsche’s explanation for suffering against Marx’s. Along the way, I show that Nietzsche (like Marx) views religion as an “opiate,” but (unlike Marx) he deems it a necessary one given the socio-economic prerequisites for great culture. I also examine Nietzsche’s opposition to blame for suffering. I conclude with a diagnosis of Nietzsche’s own antipathy towards the “sick” as a kind of Freudian reaction formation.

Most bright, serious 20-year-olds would disagree with Leiter's claim that "Marx’s general view about suffering... has prevailed in popular culture", but so does Leiter, which is why the paper is marked "not for quotation or citation". It's a draft; the line won't last. 

Nietzsche allows here that some human misery is due to socio-economic causes, but denies, by implicature, that all is--and that would clearly be true if most people suffer because of their innate condition.

Implication  The conclusion that can be drawn from something although it is not explicitly stated.
Implicature  The action of implying a meaning beyond the literal sense of what is explicitly stated.
Both definition from Oxford Languages.
Re-nouning a verb form. 

Implicature dates from 1975.  (Grice)
What's a distanced understanding of distancing as methodology? Is it Marxist? Nietzschean? Freudian?

repeats, ad infinitum:
Thoughts have become concepts.
Concepts are called objects.
Writers of financial contracts are called financial engineers.
Contracts are called instruments.
Banking has become an industry.
Politics and economics are called science.
Rationalism has become empiricism.
Metaphysics has become physics.

All that is solid melts into air, and all that is ephemeral becomes manifest in form.
Late capitalism as 12th century nonsense, without irony.

I shall make a poem out of [about] nothing at all:
It will not speak of me or others,
Of love or youth, or of anything else,
For it was composed while I was asleep
Riding on horseback.

"Capitalism, in an irony Marx would have enjoyed, returns us to the ancient past, the Bronze Age: the age of stories. The Golden Age is the age of kings, or at the very least aristocrats; capitalism at its grandest is gilded. Architects now are stage designers. The museum of capitalism is the shopping mall, our greatest art made from the conversations of observers of the scene, sitting and talking under the palm trees at Starbucks."

Leiter's on a roll.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

 In the Berkshires with my dying stockbroker. 

“A nice gin and tonic, with four cubes of ice and a slice of lime.”

Monday, June 14, 2021

I tried, and gave up. If no one gets my jokes. It's no use going anywhere else. 
I write for myself. 

I'm not even sure it's interesting that so many members of the left wing intellectual class, including those I want to like, mostly non-American, continue to refer to old figures of the high bourgeois left without reference to their heroes' class, and indulge revolutionary romance without reference to their own. It's impossible to read an angry Oxbridge academic, proud scion of the old Egyptian elite, without noticing a disconnect. Leiter and AbuKhalil were never earnest defenders of democracy. They contradict themselves openly; that was always the fun of it. But the younger crew are as oblivious, if at a higher level of "discourse", as the most self-righteous hipster. All part of the academicization of politics: authoritarianism without admitting to it.
But Sibylle does begin at the beginning: her childhood memories, her father’s infrequent visits, come early in the book and appear almost dreamlike. Thibaut nearly fell to his death during a visit to a castle in Brittany, but was saved when Lacan grabbed hold of his clothes at the last second – ‘a miracle!’ Lacan would treat Sibylle to extravagant dinners – her first taste of oysters and lobster and meringue glacée. Her memories sharpen when her barely there father turns out to be someone else’s. On the girls’ first meeting, Judith is so beguiling that Sibylle is thrown into a jealous anguish: ‘She was so pleasant, so perfect, and I so awkward and bungling. She was all sociability and poise, I was the Peasant of the Danube. She had a womanly air, I still looked like a child ... I was overwhelmed, ashamed. Moreover, she was studying philosophy and I was only studying languages.’ She was mortified to learn that Judith also went to the Sorbonne, that she had probably known who Sibylle was, had passed her in the courtyard, pretending not to recognise her. Sibylle was boyish, with a turned-up nose, short mousey hair and a brow often fixed in a furrow. She was ‘cute’, but Judith was beautiful, inheriting Lacan’s dark hair, which she wore long and held in place with an Alice band. When the girls holidayed together with their father in Italy, Judith relayed stories of her many admirers in the philosophy department, stories that Lacan seemed to take pride in hearing. At a village fête in Saint-Tropez, Sibylle watched as he and Judith danced together ‘like two lovers’. In the eyes of their father, Judith ‘was Queen’. It didn’t help that in his consulting room at 5 rue de Lille there were no photographs of ‘the Lacan children’ – indeed, no photos at all – except for one of Judith as a young girl, ‘presiding over the fireplace’ in a neat sweater and skirt....

To those familiar with Lacan’s work, it may come as no surprise that he could be vexing and cocksure – a womaniser. But what A Father does reveal is Lacan’s avarice and his tendency to treat those of a lower social class – he referred to them as ‘subalterns’ – with contempt. He was rude to waiters and would send his housekeeper, Paquita, into a frenzy: ‘a spinning top, first twirling this way, then that, to keep up with her employer’s painful demands’. Sibylle once saw him ask some passers-by to lift his car out of an especially tight parking spot: ‘He made not the slightest gesture to help, instead standing to the side and giving orders.’

Switch out Lacan for someone else, or some other kind of hero, the issue is the same: the relation of people and ideas.

Never without a book, whether bound for a tutorial or the local A&E, for decades he disappeared off for tramping holidays or conferences anywhere from Catalonia to Cuba the moment term ended. One friend, on holiday in southern Italy in 1957, saw two men in a field and said to her husband: ‘But look, it’s Eric!’ And, she recalled, ‘it really was Eric, with a peasant. He was interviewing the peasant.’

Maybe he was just talking to him. 

I like Hobsbawm. I'm a hardass not a moralist. Moralists have more friends than I do.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Ozark, the art of the times.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Blyth in 2006. And on the pop-technocratic happy-talk 3QD. It makes sense in a way that they’d let it slip through. Popular is sloppier for worse and for better. 

Towards the end of this year, The American Political Science Review will publish its 100th anniversary issue. In researching for a submission to this centennial issue, I examined what political scientists have been saying for the past 100 years, and in doing do something very odd struck me: that the arguments that I have been having for a decade with my colleagues about the idea of a science of politics being at all possible are the same arguments that have been going on in the pages of The American Political Science Review since its inception.

Then and now, political scientists tend to fall into two camps. In the first camp are those who wear the badge of ‘scientist’ and see their field as a predictive enterprise whose job it is to uncover those general laws of politics that ‘must’ be out there. The second camp contains those who think the former project logically untenable. For years now I have tried (largely in vain) to convince my colleagues in the first camp that the idea of a political ‘science’ is inherently problematic. I have marshaled various arguments to make this case, and each of these has been met by a some variant of; ‘political science is a young science’; ‘what we face are problems of method’; and that ‘more ‘basic research is required’. Then, with ‘more and better methods’ we will make ‘sufficient’ progress and ‘become’ a science. I remain unconvinced by this line of argument, but it was enlightening to see it played out again and again over a century....

From its inception in 1906 until World War One American political scientists took ‘public administration’ as its object and the Prussian state as the model of good governance. Sampling on this particular datum proved costly to the subfield however when the model (Germany) became the enemy during World War One and the guiding models of the field collapsed. Following this debacle, political science retreated inwards during the 1920s and 1930s. One can scan the American Political Science Review throughout these tumultuous decades for any sustained examination of the great events of the day and come up empty. What I did find however were reports on constitutional change in Estonia, committee reform in Nebraska, and predictions that the German administrative structure will not allow Hitler to become a dictator.

After World War Two this lack of ‘relevance’ haunted the discipline and its post-war re-founders sought to build a predictive science built upon the process notions of functionalism, pluralism, and modernization. These new theories saw societies as homeostatic systems arrayed along a developmental telos with the United States as everyone’s historical end. Paradoxically however, just as the field was united under these common theories, they were suddenly, and completely, invalidated by the facts of the day. At the height of these theories’ popularity, the United States was, contrary to theory, tearing itself apart over civil rights, Vietnam, and sexual politics while ‘developing’ countries were ‘sliding back’ along the ‘developmental telos’ into dictatorships. Despite these events being the world’s first televised falsification of theory, once again political science turned inward and ignored the lesson waiting to be learned – that prediction in the social world is far more difficult than we imagine, and the call for more ‘rigor’ and ‘more and better methods’ will never solve that problem. Our continuing prediction failures continue to bear this out. Since its ‘third re-founding’ in the 1980s till today, political science has predicted the decline of the US (just as it achieved ‘hyper-power’ status); completely missed the decade long economic stagnation of Japan (just as it was supposed to eclipse the US); missed the end of the Cold War, the growth of international terrorism, and the rebirth of religion in politics. 

After reviewing this catalog of consistently wrong calls, a very simple question occurred to me. If political science is a science by virtue of its ability to predict, and its prediction rate is so awful, can it be a science even in its own terms? I would say that it cannot. But this answer itself begged another, and I think more interesting, question; why is my field’s ability to predict so bad? The answer to this question is not found in the pages of the American Political Science Review. Rather, it is found in how political science as a discipline, through its training, thinks about probability in the social world.

Political scientists haven’t predicted the future, but history repeats.