Saturday, October 02, 2021

Finding, Discovery and the episteme me hearties


I’ve always thought Foucault missed a trick, in Les Mots et les choses, by not devoting attention to the epistemological position of the term “discovery” in the 17th and 18th century. I don’t think that neglect was negligible, either – it points to one of the oddities of Foucault’s book, which is that it removed the conceptual history he was telling from the trans-Atlantic context of colonialism that was one of the great material events of his donnee. Not only trans-Atlantic, but Indian and South Asian as well. Restoring “discovery” to its place would both confirm certain of Foucault’s intuitions and shuffle the order of things in interesting ways – it would give us a handle on deconstructing Foucault’s text. Discovery is writ large not only in the period’s natural philosophy, but in its law, its ‘anthropology”, such as it was, and in the practice of adventure that traverses the disciplines. Discovery did an enormous amount of work at the time, legitimating a trans-Atlantic order that still exists, and that was built on top of the discovery myth.
“Finding” has no such royal pretentions. If discovery is a kingly word, finding is a jack in the pack. It is still related to the basic nature/culture divide, so a part of the raw essence of the discovery ideology, but there is a modesty in finding. It suits the contemporary sciences, where every researcher comes up with a “finding” – ah, the mock humbleness of it all! Natural philosophers, those baroque sages, came up with “discoveries”, a term that is hard to hide in the bureaucracy.
The above does not exhaust the semiotic career of finding, of course. One of the great childhood activities is finding. Partly this is because children are built on a scale that allows corners and pockets to assume a greater prominence in their world. Partly this is because finding is basic to a number of childhood games – indeed, Freud’s construction of the fort/da game is built upon a relational element, the finding. In a culture that takes the child as an image of the authentic person – all social vices scraped away – finding will have a certain innocent aura.
A casual search in Science, a journal that has been in existence for about 150 years, finds that finding as a noun came after a long career of x "finding" y - which meant concluding, or sensing, or becoming aware of, etc. Finding here is not so different from finding as a child's activity, although put to an adult purpose. By the 1890s there was some indication that all of this finding, all of this sticking thumbs in the vast plum pie of the world, was in need of a noun that was less charged with the imagination and projection of the subject than discovery. Of course, discovery was still around, and is still around as a candidate for finding, but it has become a little too boastful as a noun - it is more pop science than science. Finding migrated into science discourse from legal discourse - where the finding as a judgement has been an official term since the seventeenth century, as far as I can find. I believe it is Tony Gibbons who noticed the steady creep of judicial speech into other speech domains, and the consequent transposition of concepts of equity in ordinary life situations. But the creep of judicial speech into the realm of science has not been, as far as I know, extensively studies.
So this is the lost and found, or found and lost, of discovery and finding. Some future Foucault should note these things.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Who are the "poor"?

 Who are the "poor"?

A few years ago, Paul Collier penned a review of some left leaning economics books in the TLS that contained an exemplary rightwing view of what left wing economics is all about. The key sentence is here:
“In thinking coherently about capitalism, a helpful starting place is to ask yourself: why are poor people poor?”
Brandishing this question, Collier proceeds to find the left wing answer inadequate, and offers his own critique of financialized capitalism.
However, for a left winger, this is certainly not a helpful starting place to plunge into an analysis of capitalism. It hasn’t been a helpful starting place since Karl Marx, in 1842, starting reading the French radicals and discovered the economic and sociological category of “class”. Such is the amnesia that has befallen contemporary liberal and lefty-leaning groups, who’ve inherited all the shit of the Third way movement of the 80s and 90s, that they have forgotten their own history, and might well fight Collier over the best way to ‘help’ the ‘poor’. For the better two thirds of the twentieth century, however, leftists would have laughed at this starting point. These thinkers, activists and politicians knew full well that Marx was right, at least about this point. In fact, they asked a much different question, at least outside of the Soviet bloc. That question went: can a system based on the exploitation of the worker be so modified that the level of exploitation goes down, even as the system becomes global?
From this vantage point, we can derive another question: why are the middle class people middle class? A question tentatively answered by Karl Polanyi when he pointed out that the classical liberal consensus broke down in the twentieth century as the state became a very large actor in the creation of the economy. In the US, with the New Deal and the Great Society; in France, with the dirigiste regime; in the UK, with the welfare system; in Scandinavia, with a combination of strong unions and the socialist parties. During this time, state intervention, which included massive public employment, enlarged the middle class beyond all recognition. What had once been a class mainly of professionals, administrators and other actors in the sphere of distribution (workers who, as Marx put it, performed non-productive labor) was now flooded with new members, not all of whom shared the same middle class values, but all of whom shared the aspiration for a middle class life style.
Who paid for this? Capital. The state, by its regulations, its taxation, and its support of labor’s bargaining power, hoisted the middle class on the neck of the capitalists.
There are many reasons this period did not last. Suffice it to say that the middle class era is ending, with the middle class life style now an uncertain matter, and the financialization of households a new phenomenon. It is not a phenomenon that Marx foresaw, but it is fascinating. Marx did believe that under pure capitalism, the level of exploitation would go up until the worker owned nothing. This hasn’t exactly happened. Rather, the level of exploitation and the level of financialization have worked in tandem to this goal. In 2004, the OECD published a report on the indebtedness of American households, divided by income. Those households that made below 64,000 dollars – in other words, the middle class – owed, at that point, approximately 238 percent more than they earned. St. Paul is right: in this world, we must see as though in a glass, darkly. Thus, the period of the “ownership” society under Bush was the period of peak non-ownership. As the crash showed in 2008 up until now, these figures aren’t abstract. Many millions of middle class people literally own nothing. If you sell their main asset, the house, they will only get what they paid for it or less.
Are these the “poor”? By no means. But the left is concerned with classes – the poor are not a class, but a description that doesn’t place their members in the real, capitalist economy. As Marx discovered in 1842, the poor is not the correct description of the working class. It turns a sociological category into an object of charity. The disappearance of the working class as a category, and the substitution of the term “poor”, is an example of Third way and right wing trolling.
Don’t fall for it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Atomic Soldiers on Parade - a poem by Karen Chamisso

 


O you bone-seeking babes of micro-light
You downwind masses with your glow-in-the-dark milk money!
You paid the secret tithe – secretly.
The pledge of allegiance in such small hands!
While Dr. Strangelove’s voyageurs explored the glands.
Desolation row has long been gentrified
In a win-win for the creatives, public-private funding.
What flakes blow in the hair dryer gusts
In the alley where the dumpsters overflow
With cartons of spoiled truffles, no one knows
Or measures with the zombie Geiger counter.
Down in the narco baroque private room,
A party is watered with La Mordorée 1991:
His money’s LBOs, hers, bein' 18
We’re all hypnotized by this barely legal routine,
And search the IAEA safety glossary
For appropriate responses.
“Migration: the movement of radionuclides”
“… most commonly in groundwater flow”;
It’s a cute meet as cute meets go
But my question’s about the whole body dose
Or “how to survive the atomic Bomb”, in paperback
Found in a box of Mama’s old clothes.
Bikinis from the atoll, sunglasses, cancer clusters
Bazooka Joe's dying, boys, dying like gangbusters.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

prisoner's dilemma world - Cold War lives

 


The conceptual children of the Cold War came out of its belly with the apocalypse in their eyes, a mindset conditioned by the great global unconditional surrender of the Axis. There was a ghastly optimism in it that danced in the nuked ruins of cities, and then rebuilt them carefully, like the potential targets that they were. Keep your high use population away from the epicenter, and let the low use population take the brunt - that was the day's secret slogan. Its secret epic was composed of the classified memos the AEC scientists and functonaries send each other about the "downwinders" who took the greatest fallout hit from above ground atom bomb tests. But downwind is a generous wind, which is how testbomb strontium 90 became a component of every pint of milk drunk on the Eastern seabord too.
Among this progeny one finds the “prisoner’s dilemma.” Like all the problems in game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma arose in the fold between economics and the Air Force – between the Cowles commission and the Rand corporation, between the economy of managed demand of the future and the Air Force’s interest in dropping hydrogen bombs, or at least threatening to, for maximum effect. In reality, it came out of a problem in game theory developed at Rand and observed by Albert Tucker, a Princeton mathematician who grasped the structure of the game in a story about two prisoners who are confronted with a “game matrix” of three options. They can either both stay silent, they can, one or the other, rat on the other, or they can both confess. The payoffs are structured so that the one who rats on the other will get the most benefit – if, that is, the other doesn’t rat on him as well. If they both confess they will get the least benefit. The most rational option, the “equilibrium” point, is the most irrational from the point of view of self interest: that they both stay silent. That irrationality evolves from the fact that neither knows what the other is doing – they are isolated from each other.
This impressed game theorists, who defined rational in that irrational way that utilitarians and economists define it: as maximizing one’s own ‘advantage’. In this world; the advantage of, say, true repentance a la the end of Crime and Punishment is hogwash – Raskolnikov got it right the first time when he axed the pawnbroker. But in the world of Bentham and Raskolnikov, the prisoner’s dilemma seems to show that situations can arise when an action that is logically rational turns out not to bring the maximum payoff – that is, it turns out to be irrational. Of course, iterated prisoner dilemma games often tend towards the maximum payoff, but this is because iteration sneaks in communication between the two parties.
In Alexander Mehlman’s Games Afoot, which explains the prisoner’s dilemma, he uses a beautiful, hoodish terminology to divide the strategic positions open to the prisoners: the sucker and the traitor.
If we look at the prisoner’s dilemma game long enough, we can see something more than a variation of détente and deterrence between the superpowers: we can see the deep structure of Cold Warf American politics and its drift after the war was “won”. It is a politics divided between “individualism” and “collectivism”, or, to put it more frankly, between traitors and suckers. Individualism is not actually a natural position – in the game, it is a condition enforced on the players via the simple but elegant use of iron cages. This is a more difficult thing to accomplish outside the think tank laboratory, but you can approximate it through a vast media noise machine. Which is exactly what we have. And then you have the suckers – the “liberals” – who have made their bet on solidarity. But of course this solidarity is a funny thing – suspecting the traitors of having the better deal, accepting the terms of rationality as Raskolnikov defines it, it is solidarity with a bad conscience. Suckers in American politics have long satisfied their thirst for solidarity by being solidaire with liberal financiers and corporate heads. Not, by any means, the dreadful suckers who sweat and, when you give them computers and the Internet, immediately start using them to play online poker and watch porno – the dark mass out there sometimes despairingly referenced by NYT’s finest one percent opinion columnists.
The prisoners dilemma regime is at an interesting point. The neo-liberalism that attempted to “do’ social democracy whilst allowing the 1 percent to gorge themselves with a vast share of the social product is now disappearing in the maw of “debt” – while who the “debt’ is owed to is a nicely obscured topic, never broached in polite circles. But as this happens, the prisoners start crowding into the cells. The capitalism that in their parents and grandparents lifetimes proved wildly beneficial, elevating lifestyles over three generation, is now spinning back. The generation coming up may be the first since the nineteen twenties to experience capitalism as a curse, rather than a blessing. The prison can only hold so many prisoners before they do start communicating. And who knows what “irrationality”will result.
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