Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Ideological Animal

Daniel Dennett was here in Montreal the other day, and we went to his lecture at UQaM. The title was "From Animal to Human: How Culture Makes Up Our Minds," and I have to say that I correctly predicted the thesis before attending: We human beings are so special!

On the way to that rather predictable thesis, however, he said a number of very interesting things, mostly in the form of anecdotes and examples passed on from all manner of scientific research. My favorite: according to Paul MacCready's calculations, human beings and their domesticated animals made up 0.1% of the terrestrial biomass 10,000 years ago, at the origin of settled agriculture. Today, we and our companions (mostly our cattle) make up 98% of the terrestrial biomass. That's a lot of domestication!

He also had several very good lines. My favorite: "Not a one of us thinks maximizing our progeny is the summum bonum of our lives."

Nonetheless, the most interesting parts of his talk, for me, were the parts that were unintentionally interesting: toss-away lines or formulations that were extremely revealing, even though this revelation was not at all thematized by Dennett himself. Here I have several examples.
  • Discussing viruses, he said "they have a shape, and hence they have a function." Aristotle lives!
  • He repeatedly cast both biological and cultural evolution as a process of exchange, saying at one point that differential replication was the currency with which evolutionary adaptations ("research and development") were paid for. Differential replication is the common denominator of all historical processes.
  • "Our power depends on the culture that allows us to divide labor and share expertise," he said at one point. He seems to put a great stock in techniques and expertises, which he basically equated with understanding.
This last point, however, was in tension with another point he did emphasize, that "one of the great things about language" is that you don't have to understand it to remember it and pass it on. So, on the one hand, he equates technique with understanding the reasons why we do something, but on the other hand, he situates these techniques in a social division of labor mediated by language which guarantees that no one actually understands why they're doing something because no one actually has a grasp of the whole within which their particular technique has its place. The power of the incomprehensible division of labor gives way to the power of technical comprehension, and each underwrites the other. That is, my technique is only a real expertise, and a real bit of knowledge, if it is validated by the non-technical and incomprehensible social totality, but that social totality is itself only powerful (as opposed to suicidal or self-destructive) insofar as it promises to set in motion more and more powerful techniques.

Finally, I think this tension brings us back to Dennett's thesis. Dennett represents a discourse that wants to scientifically explain culture as the transmission of memes, "data structures that act virally," in his own, very nice, phrase. His argument rests on developing a narrative about the proliferation of such viral data structures, a narrative in which human subjectivity is, necessarily, absent. And yet, Dennett ended his talk by claiming that "we alone represent our reasons," and "that's what makes us responsible." He reverts to precisely that theological and humanist discourse that is most at odds with his own project.

What would it take for memeticists to turn their analysis back on themselves? What is the structure of the discourse of representation, reason, and responsibility such that it acts virally upon us? Is it a case of something we don't have to understand in order to remember and pass on? What about the memetic discourse itself? Can they give a scientific account of their own science? If such a leap could be made, memetics might prove itself to be the science of ideology that Althusser tried so hard to inaugurate.

It seems to me (and I admit, I have not done any reading in this area in several years) that memetics does not yet have an operative concept of "structure" by which it can begin to analyze memes in their specificity. I think there really is room for fruitful research here, and it might be research that would allow Marxism to make a contribution to the science of genetics to make up for Lysenko.

Friday, June 27, 2008


The function of the concept of origin, as in original sin, is to summarize in one word what has not to be thought in order to be able to think what one wants to think.
Louis Althusser
Reading Capital
I. From Capital to Marx's Philosophy, p. 63

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Obama's Principle Contradiction

I have come to think that the organizing contradiction of the Obama campaign is that between competence and changing the rules. On the one hand, Obama appeals to many Democratic partisans (it seems to me) because he is both a competent politician (unlike Gore or Kerry) and promises competent governance (unlike Bush). On the other hand, he appeals to activists and independents, it seems, because he speaks and looks and acts differently from anyone else in politics, and because he promises to radically change how politics works in America (and his campaign has already fulfilled this promise to some extent). In other words, Obama has to play the game better than anyone else AND change the rules, change the game.

This is not meant to be a criticism, or even a diagnosis of a problem with Obama's campaign. As Lenin said, "Antagonism and contradiction are not at all one and the same." Obama can be both a player and a revolutionary. In fact, he has to be both. He slips up only when he is neither (as with the current FISA and telecom immunity shenanigans). So long as Obama is anything other than lame, he'll win.

Friday, June 20, 2008

We've got your statism right here...

Senator Kit Bond (R-MO):
"I'm not here to say that the government is always right, but when the government tells you to do something, I'm sure you would all agree that, I think you all recognize that is something you need to do."
Tell me again how conservatives are for small government, government small enough to drown in a bathtub, government that won't interfere in your god-given right to live your life as you god-damned please, etc.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Chairman Romer

The Future's So Bright...

Unemployed Negativity has a nice post up about neoliberalism and relational social ontology. Here's an excerpt:
Yann Moulier-Boutang has underscored the importance of grasping the paradoxical logic of externalities in contemporary capitalism. Traditionally defined externalities are the various impacts that a given transaction has on those who are not party to the transaction. Examples of this include such “negative” externalities as pollution and such “positive” externalities as the unintended cultural and social benefits of the formation of cities. In each case there are effects that are not paid for, not a part of anyone’s calculation. As Moulier Boutang presents it, “externalities are the representation of the outside of the economy acting on the economy.” One could push this a bit further to say that externalities are the way in which a neoliberal society imagines its constitutive conditions, they are everything that do not correspond to the strict calculation of cost for benefit. As such they represent the economy’s, or the market’s, attempt to represent its outside.

The problem is that these externalities have become increasingly difficult to ignore. This is especially true with respect to the environment, as a negative externality, and the knowledge involved in the production process, as a positive externality. There is a historical argument here about the transformation of capital, and it should be viewed critically, perhaps even dialectically, to recognize the continuities that underlie the changes, the complex mix of the new and old that constitutes any conjunction. It seems bizarre to say that the “environment” and “intellectual labor” are in any way new, but at the same time there is a certain manner in which they have recently become unavoidable. Capital’s negative effects on the environment go back to the very beginning, but have recently become unavoidable due to the density of population and intensity of accumulation; in other words, there are no new colonies left to exploit. At the same time capital has always put to work the accumulated knowledge of society, but for a long time it was able to work with the knowledge hierarchies that it found ready made, the medieval system of the university, the feudal system of guilds, etc, but now it must rewrite knowledge in its own image.
I'd like to compare this critical account with a triumphalist account of the same thing: an interview with Paul Romer from reason. Here's a degustation:
reason: In terms of real per capita income, Americans today are seven times richer than they were in 1900. How did that happen?
Paul Romer: Many things contributed, but the essential one is technological change. What I mean by that is the discovery of better ways to do things. In most coffee shops these days, you'll find that the small, medium, and large coffee cups all use the same size lid now, whereas even five years ago they used to have different size lids for the different cups. That small change in the geometry of the cups means that somebody can save a little time in setting up the coffee shop, preparing the cups, getting your coffee, and getting out. Millions of little discoveries like that, combined with some very big discoveries, like the electric motor and antibiotics, have made the quality of life for people today dramatically higher than it was 100 years ago. The estimate you cite of a seven-fold increase in income--that's the kind of number you get from the official statistics, but the truth is that if you look at the actual change in the quality of life, it's larger than the number suggests. People who had today's average income in 1900 were not as well off as the average person today, because they didn't have access to cheap latt├ęs or antibiotics or penicillin.
Three cheers for positive externalities!
The understanding which most sharply distinguishes science from the market has to do with property rights. In the market, the fundamental institution is the notion of private ownership, that an individual owns a piece of land or a body of water or a barrel of oil and that individual has almost unlimited scope to decide how that resource should be used. In science we have a very different ethic. When somebody discovers something like the quadratic formula or the Pythagorean theorem, the convention in science is that he can't control that idea. He has to give it away. He publishes it. What's rewarded in science is dissemination of ideas. And the way we reward it is we give the most prestige and respect to those people who first publish an idea.
Here is some notion that the positive externalities cannot be internalized without endangering the whole project. Romer gets even more explicit about it.
There are very good theoretical reasons for thinking that market and property rights are the ideal solution for dealing with things, but there are also strong theoretical reasons for thinking that in the realm of ideas, intellectual property rights are a double-edged sword. You want to rely on them to some extent to get their benefits, but you want to have a parallel, independent system and then exploit the tension that's created between the two.
Thus, there must be a strong distinction made between things and ideas. For things, a system of absolute individual property rights is ideal. this means that there are no meaningful non-internalizable negative externalities of the sort environmentalists and neo-marxists are worried about. If every "thing" is given over to the market, that would solve our externalities problems. For ideas, however--the fruit of "intellectual labor"--there is an absolute need to maintain a realm of positive externalities, and to institutionalize this realm as the realm of scientific research, etc. So long as intellectual labor can be exploited in this manner, the negative externalities can always be managed and re-internalized.

It is hard to convey how amped up and optimistic both the interviewer and Romer are about all this, but I think it is worth noticing just how strange their rose-hued future is. They want us to get excited about the prospect of constant and ever-expanding intellectual labor for the sake of staving off ecological and resource-scarcity crises. Their optimism comes from their conviction that we will always succeed in doing so, or else recover from our failures to do so, or else be replaced by other societies that will succeed better than us in doing so.

Therefore, I'd like to propose a slogan for neo-liberalism, something Romer et al. could put on banners and posters: Maximize positive externalities for the sake of minimizing negative externalities!* Inspiring, no?

* Translation: We need more and more people spending more and more time and energy more and more frantically thinking up ingenious ways to save our asses!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Modernity's Manichean Pugilists

So now I'm a bit obsessed with Stephen Holmes (see previous post). I went back and read one of his earliest contributions to political theory, "Aristippus in and out of Athens" (first published in APSR in 1979, but just included in Aristotle's Politics: Critical Essays). He clearly comes out of the school of modernization theory that also shaped Habermas, and insists that the structural and institutional differentiation that marks modernity (a la Durkheim and Simmel) makes any appeal to the Greeks not only romantic and anachronistic, but inherently irrational and "totalitarian" (his scare-quotes).

I'm interested in one polemical move that he shares with Habermas. On the one hand, the sociological theory that supports the above claim leads him to dismiss the students of Heidegger (Strauss and Arendt) for their idealistic belief that modernity's origination can be traced to "a shift in attitudes" rather than to structural and institutional transformations. Thus, he seems to cast himself as a materialist and empiricist.

But, on the flip-side, he floats the "hypothesis" that "modern 'totalitarian' regimes rely for ideological legitimation on a diffuse rancor against modernity and on an anachronistic nostalgia for the integrated and heavily politicized life of the Greek city-state." In other words, "totalitarianism" is in part explained by the irrational attitudes of the pious and romantic anti- and post-modernists. A completely idealist explanation is offered.

Modernity had to be; it is objectively grounded in structural transformations. Anti-modern totalitarianism, on the other hand, is contingent, and can be blamed, in part at least, on this rancor and nostalgia. That "modernity" might itself call forth this very rancor and nostalgia is never contemplated. That the very structural differentiation that makes Greek city life impossible under current conditions might also make us long for it and for a transformation of our conditions is ignored as a possibility.

There is thus a fundamental Manicheanism at work in Holmes' discourse (and that of Habermas). Modernity is fundamentally good, and all the good that characterizes our modern life is explained by modernity itself. But all of the evil (or, at least, the greatest evil) that besets our condition is explained by something outside, by something non-modern or anti-modern. The assumption is that modernity is at home with itself, unified and non-contradictory. To have a happy modernity, we just need more modernization and more liberalism, and to eliminate fully the vestiges of this rancorous longing for undifferentiated unity (be it political or religious or whatever).

Such modernization discourse is fundamentally at odds with and (to my mind) inferior to the Marxist "modernization" theory. Marxism insists that modernity is a fundamentally contradictory phenomenon, and that the problems of modernity can thus never be solved merely by adding more modernity. That is also why, it seems to me, Marxism doesn't lend itself to the sort of extreme moralism that drips out of an essay by Holmes or Habermas.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Anti-Liberalism and Political Theory

I just read something I probably should have read years ago, Stephen Holmes' "The Permanent Structure of Antiliberal Thought." (It was blown up into a book, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, I believe.) Since I definitely consider myself an anti-liberal in some sense (Aristotelian, and hence "conservative," but also Marxist, and hence "radical"), I feel a bit silly for having missed Holmes' essay until now.

Holmes claims "to identify twenty fundamental fallacies or intellectual failings of antiliberalism: six theoretical confusions and fourteen historical errors." That's quite a bit to tackle. I'll say only this about the "fourteen historical errors": I'm sympathetic to Holmes' point on some of these, but he seems, in the midst of his list, to forget that he is supposed to be pointing out historical errors. That is, he begins by pointing to claims anti-liberals make about the liberal tradition that distort the history of that tradition (no liberal actually believes in pre-social human beings, for example), but then he ceases making historical claims at all, and reverts to supposed conceptual confusions (like the anti-liberal skepticism about state neutrality).

Leaving those fourteen points aside, however, what about the six basic theoretical or conceptual confusions? As I understand them, they are:
  1. Anti-liberals criticize liberalism by appeal to some sort of ideal community, but never flesh out the institutions of that community in enough detail to allow for comparison; they get their gauzy ideal, while liberals have to defend a richly detailed and specific set of institutions and rules.
  2. Anti-liberals make an is/ought error, "deducing" the value of social life from the fact of social life, which is morally neutral. They do not differentiate good sociality from bad sociality.
  3. Similarly, they do not acknowledge the possibility of virtuous self-interest. Anti-liberals conflate selflessness with good and selfishness with bad.
  4. Anti-liberals vacillate between 1) provocative but indefensible claims about some form of society that is to replace liberal society and 2) defensible but trivial claims about the forms of community that should supplement liberal society.
  5. Anti-liberals vacillate between saying that liberal theory is wrong (that society isn't really what liberal theory says it is) and saying that liberal theory is an unfortunately correct description of what society has become.
  6. Anti-liberals behave as if a theoretical critique of liberal theory will itself do the work of reforming society.
I'm very sympathetic to (6); it's basically an application of The German Ideology. Anti-liberal academics are ideologues and idealists. Hard to argue with that.

I'm also sympathetic, to some extent, with (3), but it hardly seems to be a complaint about anti-liberalism as such. Rather, that seems to be an attack on a certain Christianity that pervades normative discourse. Certainly it cannot be applied to Aristotelians--we love ourselves best! This also sits uneasily with Holmes' own (correct) assertion that a "self-exception taboo" is central to liberalism. Conflating self-regarding behavior with bad behavior is problematic, I agree, but conflating self-excepting behavior with bad behavior is not obviously less problematic. Erecting fairness as the moral absolute is just as questionable as is erecting selflessness as such.

The other "confusions" (1, 2, 4, 5) all seem to be of a piece, and strike me as methodological. Here it seems to me that Holmes wants anti-liberals to play the same game that liberals play (a bit of righteous indignation at what he perceives as self-excepting behavior?). Liberal political theory (and political life) centers on discussing the rules and procedures we all should agree to follow, and the institutions that would best embody and secure the acceptance and stability of said rules. Basically, Holmes wants anti-liberals to join in that discussion. He says to anti-liberals: tell us more about this community you want, about its rules and institutions, its decision-making criteria for the use of state coercion, etc. When anti-liberals don't join this conversation, he accuses them of playing unfairly, of criticizing liberalism without opening themselves up to the same critical scrutiny.

This is obviously the complaint in (1) and (4), but I think it is also at work in his complaints about what I would call anti-liberalism's appeal to authenticity. Holmes thinks there is an is/ought error (2) or an outright contradiction (5) at work whenever anti-liberals say something to the effect that liberal society is not a "real" society, or that an authentic community acknowledges itself in ways that liberal society cannot. But, while "become what you are" is a paradoxical ethical demand, this does not mean that it is a nonsensical ethical demand. Or, if it is, then I doubt that liberalism can escape this nonsense any more than anti-liberalism can, despite the fact that the structure of the liberal theory game posits the ideal as something we can articulate outside of and prior to our action that would implement (or approximate) that ideal. Kant and the Kantian strand of liberal theory have always been on-board with the immanence of the norm to the domain ruled by the norm.

Anyway, have other thoughts about Holmes' article, but this is long enough already. I will say just one more thing: I've been reading a lot of very defensive liberals recently. George Sher's Beyond Neutrality opens with this astonishing bit about how "todays liberal thinkers are waging a necessary and courageous battle on behalf of certain vital but embattled Enlightenment attitudes," a battle against the dark forces of postmodernism, which would "reduce all political and intellectual disagreements to so much jockeying for power and advantage." Holmes' essay fairly drips with a similar sense of being embattled; one of his points against the anti-liberals is that they "uniformly underestimate the fragility and beleagueredness of the liberal tradition." Has this defensiveness passed out of liberalism? Was this just a symptom of the times (Holmes wrote in 1989 and Sher in 1997)? Was liberalism really so precarious (as a political theory) so recently? It just seems incredible to me now.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008