Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Social Darwinism

On Interfluidity, there is an argument to the effect that opacity in our financial system is good, or at least functional, because it convinces enough people to be "in" in the markets, which is what enables enough capital to get moving. I am somewhat late in posting my reflections on this, and the comment-storm is now abating (the posts are dated last December and January), but I want to record a few thoughts. Steve Waldman argues there in a series of three separate posts that the critical mass of investment is reached only by virtue of everyone being convinced that in the event of the (inevitable) downturn, it will be someone else, not them, who takes the loss. I have some questions about the differences between institutional opacity vs. the ordinary kind of inability to accurately assess risk and the tendency to devalue the future which just seem to beset human choice-making by nature, but the argument is unsettling and provocative, as evidenced by the numerous comments Waldman received. Waldman followed up his original post with some clarifications and further clarifications about where he himself stands, to wit: opacity has all kinds of deleterious effects, and he is not championing it but describing what he thinks its current function is. I think he gets right the magnitude of the problem, in a way I find something hopeful in its candor, even though it is none too optimisitic:
I became interested in financial systems as a large scale information system. It is with great unhappiness and reluctance that, after devoting years of my life to thinking about finance, I’ve concluded that financial systems are better characterized as large-scale disinformation systems and that disinformation is at the core of how they function.... I think we should try to develop financial systems that are honest and transparent, that do not combine kleptocracy and effectiveness into a bundle that’s both impossible to refuse and debilitating to accept. But that is a larger and very different project from, say, increasing capital and liquidity ratios at status quo banks.... developing such a system is an ambitious and ahistorical project, not a mere matter of “fixing what’s broken”. Under present arrangements, transparency and what we perceive as effectiveness stand in opposition to one another.
Moreover, Waldman points out, there is a historical correlation between this opacity and industrial success:
societies with financial systems that mobilize capital opaquely and at very large scale have completely dominated those that have relied only upon consenting risk assumption by well-informed individuals. Industrialization occurs in societies with corrupt and fragile big banks, or else in societies where the state coerces and obscures risk-bearing and reward-shifting on a large-scale, or (more usually) both.
Now Waldman is not arguing from an "Austrian" economic perspective a la Hayek, but I cannot help but be reminded of Hayek's paradoxical definition of economics' "curious task",
to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. (The Fatal Conceit p 76)
In other words, it may be impossible to design good mechanisms of "transparency," and this might (Waldman argues) not be a wholly bad thing.

What Waldman's argument amounts to is the contention that many, many more people must believe in their chances of succeeding than can realistically expect to succeed, in order for anyone to succeed; but that, over the long term, this relative scarcity of success is compensated for by the scale of the success. This compensation does not mean that Waldman approves, as I think my citations show; he thinks we can and should aspire to a different sort of system, but he wants us to be realistic about what is involved in such aspirations. I have long held that the economy can be justly described as a more or less functional pyramid scheme. I understand, of course, that a classical pyramid scheme is supposed to be inherently unstable and so eventually doomed to implode, and I recognize that the mechanism which theoretically destines that implosion is different in the case of the economy "as a whole," but the working assumption still seems to be that the implosion is coming, boom-and-bust-cycle fashion, and that therefore the economy is a game with inherent winners and losers, a game of musical chairs, albeit one in which you can supposedly reserve your seat ahead of time as well. The whole thing depends upon our believing that we won't be the one stuck with the check at the end of the binge, when we all also acknowledge that the end will surely come. But this "end" is also a function of a collective choice, or at least the congeries of millions of choices--the choice to stop the money from "moving."

There is something about this that seems deeply perverse. No wonder the psychoanalysts and the alchemists link the symbolism of shit and gold, money and waste. Gregory Bateson argued that information asymmetry was an inherent feature of all systems; it was not just a fact, but an important and indispensable fact, that ones left hand might not know what one's right hand did. Bateson's choice illustration of this principle was from Coleridge: when the Ancient Mariner, cursed for his crime of shooting the albatross, finds himself alone on his ship in the south seas, he gazes over the rail and sees below him the writhing and flashing of water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white
And when they moved, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes
Something in their beauty enchants him, and despite his forlorn and lost condition, he cannot help but be glad of and for them:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
He "blesses" the water-snakes--but, Coleridge writes, he blesses them "unaware," not knowing what he is doing. At that moment the curse is broken and the albatross falls off from around the Mariner's neck where his crew had (most improbably) hung it. But, Bateson pointed out, had the Mariner intended to go to the south seas and track down some water-snakes to bless, the poem would have been a farce. Coleridge's point (and he belabors it, using the adjective "unaware" twice) succeeds only because the Mariner blesses the snakes in his heart without knowing what he is doing, spontaneously.

Bateson's point was that in many circumstances it is salutary to have an unequal distribution of information. For Bateson this "communication gap" was a fundamental principle, and he applied it widely. Across anthropological settings, there is frequently a cultural pressure to demarcate the everyday world from the sacred, a category Bateson treated as knowledge pertaining to the whole. This gives a clue as to what the gap meant to Bateson: it had to do with his application of the Russell-Whitehead Theory of Logical Types; cross-communication was a category mistake. Prohibitions on continuity of communication can be compared to one another in different sorts of context. Bateson cites myths concerning communication across gender lines (e.g. the story of Tiresias' blinding, according to which Tiresias, who having been magically transformed into a woman for seven years was in a position to know, declared (in settling a bet between Hera and Zeus) that women had "ten times" the pleasure men had during sex; the disgruntled Hera blinded Tiresias and Zeus tried to make it up to him by granting him the gift of prophecy (seeing the future, another ambiguous case boundary-crossing information). Bateson also applied this to the case of our inability to accurately introspect on our own mechanisms of perception, even though we may understand these in a third-person way.

One of Bateson's central exhibits in his case was Darwinism. Darwinism was superior to Lamarckianism, Bateson contended, not just as a description of evolution, but as an actual state of affairs, precisely on these grounds. A symmetrical flow of information from genotype to phenotype, as Lamarck posited, is not only supported by no apparent mechanism; if it had such a mechanism, Bateson contended, it would stymie evolution, because offspring would be overdetermined by the input from parents. Species would either change too rapidly or become locked into rigid forms.

But there is also a perverse or a vicious non-communication, which Bateson also analyzed famously in his consideration of the double-bind. This is a situation in which meta-communication contradicts communication. One of Bateson's examples is the unkind parents "assuring" the child of their love verbally but maintaining a rigid over-controlling hostility to all self-expression, a state of affairs Bateson linked to the genesis of some instances of schizophrenia. The salient detail here is that comment upon the meta-communication is disallowed. This is what leads to the elephant-in-the-room feeling of family therapy sessions, in which no one can mention Dad's drinking or kid' brother's chronic incapacity to live within his means. On a large scale, this is summed up in Marx's telling definition, in Capital, of ideology a la false consciousness: "Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es". "They do not know it, but they are doing it."

All of this is what I thought of as I read through Waldman's argument and the comments. There is a widespread understanding that no economic arrangement will benefit all; that our economy is a zero-sum game with winners and losers, and far more of the latter. With one side of our mind, we accept this. But we also (says Waldman) deny it, because the game's occurring depends upon the illusion that winning is a plausible and even likely eventuality. Which is why I consider the pyramid-scheme of our economy, and our continual denial that it is a pyramid-scheme, a kind of perverse apotheosis of Marxian ideology. As is well known, Žižek (in The Sublime Object of Ideology) takes a page from Peter Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason to re-cast marx's definition for our era: "They know very well what they are doing, and yet they do it." I am reconfirmed in this conclusion every time I get a reaction of righteous condescension to my use the words "pyramid scheme" or "Ponzi scheme" for the economy in general. But I do not know what else to call a system in which money is created by banks in a kind of sanctioned forgery, in which money is nothing but an agreement to respect certain electronic entries in computer ledgers, in which we endure "cycles" of musical chairs in which it is known from the outset that the number of seats is dwarfed by the number of tickets sold, and in which, somehow, huh!, there's this chasm between the super-rich and everyone else, including the merely rich.

It is interesting that some reaction to Waldman's pieces included the feeling that he had himself broken a kind of taboo, communicating about what was best left unsaid; that he was providing an excuse for unethical non-disclosure of risks to investors in the name of providing a lubricating "belief in the system". Waldman responded , in his third article:
It is worth trying to understand the mechanics of real-world capital mobilization, and its role in underwriting prosperity (or perhaps militarism). I don’t think we have to fear talking about this stuff. The proposition that looting and misdeployment of capital serve the public good is easy to debunk. The proposition that there are arrangements which serve useful purposes but also create space for corruption is not controversial. We need to understand how institutions actually function and how they are abused if we are to have any hope of minimizing their pathologies while preserving their benefits. And we have to understand the purposes our institutions actually serve if we are to have any hope of replacing very problematic arrangements with something better.
It seems to me that in the absence of the full-scale world meltdown of industrial capitalism which some expect, what this "something better" would look like is a little Social Lamarckianism. When I think this, I am haunted by Hayek's warning that this could just be hankering after a category mistake. And then, I hear Žižek's dark chuckle.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wisława Szymborska

Years ago, my girlfriend and I were sitting on the floor of a friend in Berkeley, California, arguing theology, reading poetry, drinking tea. I observed about a poem of Wisława Szymborska's that it felt "Buddhist"--a perilous remark, as the friend we were visiting had studied Buddhism at Naropa, whereas I what I had done at the time was a little sitting at the Zen Center and some reading. Truth be told, that's still what I've done. "Hmmmm," said my girlfriend, raising an unconvinced eyebrow. "Buddhist?!" retorted our host. "There's too much self in it!" The poem, if I recall corretly, was the title poem in her 1995 selected poems:
View with a grain of sand

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine, without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.

Our glance, our touch means nothing to it.
It doesn't feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is not different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it has finished falling
or that it is falling still.

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn't view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.

The lake's floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
The water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural.
They splash deaf to their own noise
on pebbles neither large nor small.

And all this beheath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.

A second passes.
A second second.
A third.
But they're three seconds only for us.

Time has passed like courier with urgent news.
But that's just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make believe,
his news inhuman.
There's a lot of chatter I could offer here, about qualities and things, about the indifference of the in-itself. I could add that that I stand by my assessment of the poem as resonating with (though probably not motivated by) Buddhism. But I want to juxtapose the poem to another of Szymborska's which certainly has, I think, more "self" in it, albeit in a way which sits easily alongside the other poem. The difference between poetry and theory is that poetry is not anxious about getting its story straight. It has an easier conscience, or at least it knows what it's likely to get.
Could Have

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.

You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.

Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw just then was floating by.

Thanks to, because, despite, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
A step, a hair away...?

So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more wonderstruck, can't be silent enough.
how your heart pounds inside me.
The first poem keeps undoing it's own figures, reminding us that its simile is "only a simile," that our descriptions of the lake or the pebble or the cloud mean nothing to them. The self is there, but compelled to assume its quiet and contingent station. In the second poem, the self's contingency is center stage, but it is not "my" contingency--until the eerie and disorienting inversions of the last stanza and especially the last line.

Wisława Szymborska died today. She was 88 years old.