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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

practice exercises

The death of Jean Baudrillard was marked by an obituary in the NYT that reminded its viewers how important the man was – why, he was quoted in a popular movie, the Matrix. That settles that. Surprisingly, though, the Guardian had two posts about him in their Commentisfree section, stirring my competitive and patriotic juices. What the fuck is happening? England, the land where the phlegmatic philistine was born and suckled, is now more intellectual than our Purple Mountain’s Majesty in these here states, where the masses go to classes? How low have we fallen in this age of Cheney?

The comment threads in the Guardian piece here and here are pretty good, although they eventually peter out in that futile and bizarre controversy that pits the unscientific and wild French against the scientific and rational Anglo-Americans. The many levels of ignorance involved in this controversy continue to astonish me. While the Anglo-Americans do read as though they were scientific and rational, i.e. the level of dullness of articles in analytic philosophy seems to be a quirk that the creators of that dullness are actually proud of, anybody who reads them soon gets that all over weird feeling, since it is like the Mad Hatter doing accounting. The A-A’s are always going on about things like possible worlds, coming up with completely stupid thought experiments, and spending decades formalizing supervenience relations – supervenience coming neither from science nor common sense, but being the overheated product of the cramped scientistic imagination. Actually, the best part of A-A philosophy is its wildness, which has its charms if one can only dust off the language in which it is chained. Meanwhile, for all Baudrillard’s rhetoric of hyperreality, his stuff is firmly anchored in tv, war, money, sex, fashion – watercooler and newspaper realities. Not for him the question: is H2O on our planet the equivalent of XYZ on Counter-Earth 1? On which tottering foundations careers have been built.

Well, as my favorite epileptic St. Paul said, we see now as in a glass, darkly.

But this is all an excuse for me to scribble a few notes in this post re a section of the preface I am writing for Silja’s book. Maybe this will straighten out my God damn argument, and I can just transfer it, minus the fucks, shits, damns, cunts and dicks with which I like to sprinkle my musings. Oops, did I forget pussy and cock? I do want to make the current rightwing blog craze for collecting naughty words easier.

A section of this preface is devoted to defending the conceptual reconstruction of the longue durée of economics that would permit citing economists across a pretty wide chronological spread. The argument that Silja makes is an immanent one: mainstream economics is astonishingly consistent with itself from its roots in the 18th century right up to, say, the attempt by Lucas in the 1980s to define the business cycle in terms of a sequence of equilibrium states – an attempt that even preserves Says law. Thus, the ruptures within economics – most notably, the recasting of the classical notion of value by the marginal utilitarians – do not have the profundity characteristic of ruptures found in other sciences, where real questions of reduction can be raised – interfield reduction is the useful phrase of Darden and Maull. Okay?

So: what does this mean? Well, here’s one way of looking at the story that Silja is telling. Take two moments in economics. One is a famous survey conducted by Leontief in 1982. Let’s quote Mark Blaug: “In a letter to Science, Wassily Leontief (1982) surveyed articles published in the American Economic Review in the last decade and found that more than 50 percent consisted of mathematical models without any empirical data, while some 15 percent consisted of nonmathematical theoretical analysis, likewise without empirical data, leaving 35 percent of the articles using empirical analysis.

Morgan (1988) has updated Leontief’s findings, showing oce again that half the articles published in the American Economic Review and the Economic Journal do not use data of any kind…”

One of the proudest claims of economics is that it is the physics of the social sciences – in fact, the only truly scientific social science. Economics imperialism sometimes goes so far as to claim that economics is the foundation of physics itself – a claim Schumpeter pushed in a rather bizarre passage in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Morgan both compared the economists to articles published in physics and chemistry journals, finding 12 percent of the articles in physics contained no empirical data and 0 percent in chemistry. Economists know this, of course. Alan Blinder has made a typical economist’s joke about it: an economist is "someone who sees that something works in practice and wonders if it also works in theory." The punchline wasn’t supplied by Blinder, but it is: if it doesn’t work in theory, then it simply can’t work in practice, and must be ignored until economists have successfully pressed for policies to destroy it. That is the story of the minimum wage law, for instance.

I select this survey in order to look back two hundred years to Dugald Stewart’s memoir of Adam Smith. In this memoir, Stewart introduced a brilliant phrase to describe the methodological justification that underlies Smith’s theories of language, ethics and political economic – in fact, all Smith’s theories about human institutions. Stewart called this “conjectural history”. “To this species of philosophical investigation, which has no appropriated name in our language, I shall take the liberty of giving the title of Theoretical or Conjectural History, an expression which coincides pretty nearly in its meaning with that of Natural History, as employed by Mr. Hume, and with what some French writers have called Histoire Raisonnee.” This history follows the contours of the “known principles of human nature” to understand “how all its various parts might have gradually arisen.” From theorizing about the origin of language, this method could be ‘applied to the modes of government, and to the municipal institutins which have obtained among different nations.” And in particular: “In his Wealth of Nations, various disquisitions are introduced which have a like object in view, particularly the theoretical delineation he has given of the natural progress of opulence in a country, and his investigation of the causes which have inverted this order in the different countries of modern Europe.” (Stewart, 34-36)

These two moments may seem as divided and different as the Wealth of Nations is, itself, from the mathematically sophisticated modeling of the standard essay in the contemporary mainstream economics journals. Yet a little analysis will reveal that conjectural history is at the very root of the modeling culture of modern economics.


patrick j. mullins said...

I'll get to the rest of the post later, but find it somewhat amusing that it was only in the NYT obit that I found out about Baudrillard's typically astute repudiation of something obviously cardboard, the matter of 'misunderstandings' by the Matrix people. This is actually important, although for people who don't know much about Baudrillard, that would necessarily be the only part they'd jump to. Zizek actually figured a way to derive himself from the Matrix, which comes as little surprise to me. I've always adored Baudrillard's absolute indifference to public opinion. That's why even his messes are interesting, of which they are many. He was serious, and people who don't know that have problems.

patrick said...

'of which there are', of course, an quasi-Freudian slippage into redneck grammar.