‘Bad twitter’ : exit, voice, and social media

I made the mistake in the past couple of days of checking my Twitter feed. I did this because there are some cool people on Twitter and I want to have conversations with them.

Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I started to read things that made me upset.

I used to think that a benefit of Twitter was that it allowed for exposure to alternative points of view. Of course you should want to see the other side, right?

But then there’s this: if you do that for long enough, you start to see each “side” make the same mistakes over and over again. It’s no longer enlightening. It’s just watching a train wreck in slow motion on repeat.

Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is relevant to this. Presumably, over time, those who want a higher level of conversation Exit social media (and its associated news institutions, such as Salon.com) to more private channels, causing a deterioration in the quality of public discourse. Because social media sites have very strong network effects, they are robust to any revenue loss due to quality-sensitive Exiters, leaving a kind of monopoly-tyranny that Hirschman describes vividly thus:

While of undoubted benefit in the case of the exploitative, profit-maximizing monopolist, the presence of competition could do more harm than good when the main concern is to counteract the monopolist’s tendency toward flaccidity and mediocrity. For, in that case, exit-competition could just fatally weaken voice along the lines of the preceding section, without creating a serious threat to the organization’s survival. This was so for the Nigerian Railway Corporation because of the ease with which it could dip into the public treasury in case of deficit. But there are many other cases where competition does not restrain monopoly as it is supposed to, but comforts and bolsters it by unburdening it of its more troublesome customers. As a result, one can define an important and too little noticed type of monopoly-tyranny: a limited type, an oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy which is the more durable and stifling as it is both unambitious and escapable. The contrast is stark indeed with totalitarian, expansionist tyrannies or the profit-maximizing, accumulation-minded monopolies which may have captured a disproportionate share of our attention.

It’s interesting to compare a Hirschman-inspired view of the decline of Twitter as a function of exit and voice to a Frankfurt School analysis of it in terms of the culture industry. It’s also interesting to compare this with boyd’s 2009 paper on “White flight in networked publics?” in which she chooses to describe the decline of MySpace in terms of the troubled history of race and housing.*

In particular, there are passages of Hirschman in which he addresses neighborhoods of “declining quality” and the exit and voice dynamics around them. It is interesting to me that the narrative of racialized housing policy and white flight is so salient to me lately that I could not read these passages of Hirschman without raising an eyebrow at the fact that he didn’t mention race in his analysis. Was this color-blind racism? Or am I now so socialized by the media to see racism and sexism everywhere that I assumed there were racial connotations when in fact he was talking about a general mechanism. Perhaps the salience of the white flight narrative to me has made me tacitly racist by making me assume that the perceived decline in neighborhood quality is due to race!

The only way I could know for sure what was causing what would be to conduct a rigorous empirical analysis I don’t have time for. And I’m an academic whose job is to conduct rigorous empirical analyses! I’m forced to conclude that without a more thorough understanding of the facts, any judgment either way will be a waste of time. I’m just doing my best over here and when push comes to shove I’m a pretty nice guy, my friends say. Nevertheless, it’s this kind of lazy baggage-slinging that is the bread and butter of the mass journalist today. Reputations earned and lost on the basis of political tribalism! It’s almost enough to make somebody think that these standards matter, or are the basis of a reasonable public ethics of some kind that must be enforced lest society fall into barbarism!

I would stop here except that I am painfully aware that as much as I know it to be true that there is a portion of the population that has exited the morass of social media and put it to one side, I know that many people have not. In particular, a lot of very smart, accomplished friends of mine are still wrapped up in a lot of stupid shit on the interwebs! (Pardon my language!) This is partly due to the fact that networked publics now mediate academic discourse, and so a lot of aspiring academics now feel they have to be clued in to social media to advance their careers. Suddenly, everybody who is anybody is a content farmer! There’s a generation who are looking up to jerks like us! What the hell?!?!

This has a depressing consequence. Since politically divisive content is popular content, and there is pressure for intellectuals to produce popular content, this means that intellectuals have incentives to propagate politically divisive narratives instead of working towards reconciliation and the greater good. Or, alternatively, there is pressure to aim for the lowest common denominator as an audience.

At this point, I am forced to declare myself an elitist who is simply against provocation of any kind. It’s juvenile, is the problem. (Did I mention I just turned 30? I’m an adult now, swear to god.) I would keep this opinion to myself, but at that point I’m part of the problem by not exercising my Voice option. So here’s to blogging.

* I take a particular interest in danah boyd’s work because in addition to being one of the original Internet-celebrity-academics-talking-about-the-Internet and so aptly doubles as both the foundational researcher and just slightly implicated subject matter for this kind of rambling about social media and intellectualism (see below), she also shares an alma mater with me (Brown) and is the star graduate of my own department (UC Berkeley’s School of Information) and so serves as a kind of role model.

I feel the need to write this footnote because while I am in the scholarly habit of treating all academic writers I’ve never met abstractly as if they are bundles of text subject to detached critique, other people think that academics are real people(!), especially academics themselves. Suddenly the purely intellectual pursuit becomes personal. Multiple simultaneous context collapses create paradoxes on the level of pragmatics that would make certain kinds of communication impossible if they are not ignored. This can be awkward but I get a kind of perverse pleasure out of leaving analytic puzzles to whoever comes next.

I’m having a related but eerier intellectual encounter with an Internet luminary in some other work I’m doing. I’m writing software to analyze a mailing list used by many prominent activists and professionals. Among the emails are some written by the late Aaron Swartz. In the process of working on the software, I accepted a pull request from a Swiss programmer I had never met which has the Python package html2text as a dependency. Who wrote the html2text package? Aaron Swartz. Understand I never met the guy, am trying to map out how on-line communication mediates the emergent structure of the sociotechnical ecosystem of software and the Internet, and obviously am interested reflexively in how my own communication and software production fits into that larger graph. (Or multigraph? Or multihypergraph?) Power law distributions of connectivity on all dimensions make this particular situation not terribly surprising. But it’s just one of many strange loops.

Hirschman, Nigerian railroads, and poor open source user interfaces

Hirschman says he got the idea for Exit, Voice, and Loyalty when studying the failure of the Nigerian railroad system to improve quality despite the availability of trucking as a substitute for long-range shipping. Conventional wisdom among economists at the time was that the quality of a good would suffer when it was provisioned by a monopoly. But why would a business that faced healthy competition not undergo the management changes needed to improve quality?

Hirschman’s answer is that because the trucking option was so readily available as an alternative, there wasn’t a need for consumers to develop their capacity for voice. The railroads weren’t hearing the complaints about their service, they were just seeing a decline in use as their customers exited. Meanwhile, because it was a monopoly, loss in revenue wasn’t “of utmost gravity” to the railway managers either.

The upshot of this is that it’s only when customers are locked in that voice plays a critical role in the recuperation mechanism.

This is interesting for me because I’m interested in the role of lock-in in software development. In particular, one argument made in favor of open source software is that because it is not technology held by a single firm, users of the software are not locked-in. Their switching costs are reduced, making the market more liquid and, in theory favorable.

You can contrast this with proprietary enterprise software, where vendor lock-in is a principle part of the business model as this establishes the “installed base” and customer support armies are necessary for managing disgruntled customer voice. Or, in the case of social media such as Facebook, network effects create a kind of perceived consumer lock-in and consumer voice gets articulated by everybody from Twitter activists to journalists to high-profile academics.

As much as it pains me to admit it, this is one good explanation for why the user interfaces of a lot of open source software projects are so bad specifically if you combine this mechanism with the idea that user-centered design is important for user interfaces. Open source projects generally make it easy to complain about the software. If they know what they are doing at all, they make it clear how to engage the developers as a user. There is a kind of rumor out there that open source developers are unfriendly towards users and this is perhaps true when users are used to the kind of customer support that’s available on a product for which there is customer lock-in. It’s precisely this difference between exit culture and voice culture, driven by the fundamental economics of the industry, that creates this perception. Enterprise open source business models (I’m thinking about models like the Pentaho ‘beekeeper’) theoretically provide a corrective to this by being an intermediary between consumer voice and developer exit.

A testable hypothesis is whether and to what extent a software project’s responsiveness to tickets scales with the number of downstream dependent projects. In software development, technical architecture is a reasonable proxy for industrial organization. A widely used project has network effects that increasing switching costs for its downstream users. How do exit and voice work in this context?

The node.js fork — something new to think about

For Classics we are reading Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Oddly, though normally I hear about ‘voice’ as an action from within an organization, the first few chapters of the book (including the introduction of the Voice concept itselt), are preoccupied with elaborations on the neoclassical market mechanism. Not what I expected.

I’m looking for interesting research use cases for BigBang, which is about analyzing the sociotechnical dynamics of collaboration. I’m building it to better understand open source software development communities, primarily. This is because I want to create a harmonious sociotechnical superintelligence to take over the world.

For a while I’ve been interested in Hadoop’s interesting case of being one software project with two companies working together to build it. This is reminiscent (for me) of when we started GeoExt at OpenGeo and Camp2Camp. The economics of shared capital are fascinating and there are interesting questions about how human resources get organized in that sort of situation. In my experience, there becomes a tension between the needs of firms to differentiate their products and make good on their contracts and the needs of the developer community whose collective value is ultimately tied to the robustness of their technology.

Unfortunately, building out BigBang to integrate with various email, version control, and issue tracking backends is a lot of work and there’s only one of me right now to both build the infrastructure, do the research, and train new collaborators (who are starting to do some awesome work, so this is paying off.) While integrating with Apache’s infrastructure would have been a smart first move, instead I chose to focus on Mailman archives and git repositories. Google Groups and whatever Apache is using for their email lists do not publish their archives in .mbox format, which is pain for me. But luckily Google Takeout does export data from folks’ on-line inbox in .mbox format. This is great for BigBang because it means we can investigate email data from any project for which we know an insider willing to share their records.

Does a research ethics issue arise when you start working with email that is openly archived in a difficult format, then exported from somebody’s private email? Technically you get header information that wasn’t open before–perhaps it was ‘private’. But arguably this header information isn’t personal information. I think I’m still in the clear. Plus, IRB will be irrelevent when the robots take over.

All of this is a long way of getting around to talking about a new thing I’m wondering about, the Node.js fork. It’s interesting to think about open source software forks in light of Hirschman’s concepts of Exit and Voice since so much of the activity of open source development is open, virtual communication. While you might at first think a software fork is definitely a kind of Exit, it sounds like IO.js was perhaps a friendly fork of just somebody who wanted to hack around. In theory, code can be shared between forks–in fact this was the principle that GitHub’s forking system was founded on. So there are open questions (to me, who isn’t involved in the Node.js community at all and is just now beginning to wonder about it) along the lines of to what extent a fork is a real event in the history of the project, vs. to what extent it’s mythological, vs. to what extent it’s a reification of something that was already implicit in the project’s sociotechnical structure. There are probably other great questions here as well.

A friend on the inside tells me all the action on this happened (is happening?) on the GitHub issue tracker, which is definitely data we want to get BigBang connected with. Blissfully, there appear to be well supported Python libraries for working with the GitHub API. I expect the first big hurdle we hit here will be rate limiting.

Though we haven’t been able to make integration work yet, I’m still hoping there’s some way we can work with MetricsGrimoire. They’ve been a super inviting community so far. But our software stacks and architecture are just different enough, and the layers we’ve built so far thin enough, that it’s hard to see how to do the merge. A major difference is that while MetricsGrimoire tools are built to provide application interfaces around a MySQL data backend, since BigBang is foremost about scientific analysis our whole data pipeline is built to get things into Pandas dataframes. Both projects are in Python. This too is a weird microcosm of the larger sociotechnical ecosystem of software production, of which the “open” side is only one (important) part.

data science and the university

This is by now a familiar line of thought but it has just now struck me with clarity I wanted to jot down.

  1. Code is law, so the full weight of human inquiry should be brought to bear on software system design.
  2. (1) has been understood by “hackers” for years but has only recently been accepted by academics.
  3. (2) is due to disciplinary restrictions within the academy.
  4. (3) is due to the incentive structure of the academy.
  5. Since there are incentive structures for software development that are not available for subjects whose primary research project is writing, the institutional conditions that are best able to support software work and academic writing work are different.
  6. Software is a more precise and efficious way of communicating ideas than writing because its interpretation is guaranteed by programming language semantics.
  7. Because of (6), there is selective pressure to making software the lingua franca of scholarly work.
  8. (7) is inducing a cross-disciplinary paradigm shift in methods.
  9. (9) may induce a paradigm shift in theoretical content, or it may result in science whose contents are tailored to the efficient execution of adaptive systems. (This is not to say that such systems are necessarily atheoretic, just that they are subject to different epistemic considerations).
  10. Institutions are slow to change. That’s what makes them institutions.
  11. By (5), (7), and (9), the role of universities as the center of research is being threatened existentially.
  12. But by (1), the myriad intellectual threads currently housed in universities are necessary for software system design, or are at least potentially important.
  13. With (11) and (12), a priority is figuring out how to manage a transition to software-based scholarship without information loss.

a brief comment on feminist epistemology

One funny thing about having a blog is that I can tell when people are interested in particular posts through the site analytics. To my surprise, this post about Donna Haraway has been getting an increasing number of hits each month since I posted it. That is an indication that it has struck a chord, since steady exogenous growth like that is actually quite rare.

It is just possible that this means that people interested in feminist epistemology have been reading my blog lately. They probably have correctly guessed that I have not been the biggest fan of feminist epistemology because of concerns about bias.

But I’d like to take the opportunity to say that my friend Rachel McKinney has been recommending I read Elizabeth Anderson‘s stuff if I want to really get to know this body of theory. Since Rachel is an actual philosopher and I am an amateur who blogs about it on weekends, I respect her opinion on this a great deal.

So today I started reading through Anderson’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Feminist Epistemology and I have to say I think it’s very good. I like her treatment of the situated knower. It’s also nice to learn that there are alternative feminist epistemologies to certain standpoint theories that I think are troublesome. In particular, it turns out that those standpoint theories are now considered by feminist philosophers to from a brief period in the 80’s that they’ve moved past already! Now subaltern standpoints are considered privileged in terms of discovery more than privileged in terms of justification.

This position is certainly easier to reconcile with computational methods. For example, it’s in a sense just mathematically mathematically correct if you think about it in terms of information gain from a sample. This principle appears to have been rediscovered in a way recently by the equity-in-data-science people when people talk about potential classifier error.

I’ve got some qualms about the articulation of this learning principle in the absence of a particular inquiry or decision problem because I think there’s still a subtle shift in the argumentation from logos to ethos embedded in there (I’ve been seeing things through the lens of Aristotelian rhetoric lately and it’s been surprisingly illuminating). I’m on the lookout for a concrete application of where this could apply in a technical domain, as opposed to as an articulation of a political affinity or anxiety in the language of algorithms. I’d be grateful for links in the comments.


Wait, maybe I already built one. I am not sure if that really counts.

scale and polemic

I love a good polemic but lately I have been disappointed by polemics as a genre because they generally don’t ground themselves on data at a suitable scale.

When people try to write about a social problem, they are likely to use potent examples as a rhetorical device. Their particular ideological framing of a situation will be illustrated by compelling stories that are easy to get emotional about. This is often considered to be the hallmark of A Good Presentation, or Good Writing. Somebody will say about some group X, “Group X is known for doing bad things. Here’s an example.”

There are some problems with this approach. If there are a lot of people in Group X, then there can be a lot of variance within that group. So providing just a couple examples really doesn’t tell you about the group as a whole. In fact, this is a great way to get a biased view of Group X.

There are consequences to this kind of rhetoric. Once there’s a narrative with a compelling example illustrating it, that spreads that way of framing things as an ideology. Then, because of the well-known problem of confirmation bias, people that have been exposed to that ideology will start to see more examples of that ideology everywhere.

Add to that stereotype threat and suddenly you’ve got an explanation for why so many political issues are polarized and terrible.

Collecting more data and providing statistical summaries of populations is a really useful remedy to this. While often less motivating than a really well told story of a person’s experience, it has the benefit of being more accurate in the sense of showing the diversity of perspectives there are about something.

Unfortunately, we like to hear stories so much that we will often only tell people about statistics on large populations if they show a clear trend one way or another. People that write polemics want to be able to say, “Group X has 20% more than Group Y in some way,” and talk about why. It’s not considered an interesting result if it turns out the data is just noise, that Group X and Group Y aren’t really that different.

We also aren’t good at hearing stories about how much variance there is in data. Maybe on average Group X has 20% more than Group Y in some way. But what if these distributions are bimodal? Or if one is more varied than the other? What does that mean, narratively?

It can be hard to construct narrations that are not about what can be easily experienced in one moment but rather are about the experiences of lots of people over lots of moments. The narrative form is very constraining because it doesn’t capture the reality of phenomena of great scale and complexity. Things of great scale and complexity can be beautiful but hard to talk about. Maybe talking about them is a waste of time, because that’s not a good way to understand them.

formalizing the cultural observer

I’m taking a brief break from Horkheimer because he is so depressing and because I believe the second half of Eclipse of Reason may include new ideas that will take energy to internalize.

In the meantime, I’ve rediscovered Soren Brier’s Cybersemiotics: Why Information Is Not Enough! (2008), which has remained faithfully on my desk for months.

Brier is concerned with the possibility of meaning generally, and attempts to synthesize the positions of Pierce (recall: philosophically disliked by Horkheimer as a pragmatist), Wittgenstein (who first was an advocate of the formalization of reason and language in his Tractatus, then turned dramatically against it in his Philosophical Investigations), second-order cyberneticists like Varela and Maturana, and the social theorist Niklas Luhmann.

Brier does not make any concessions to simplicity. Rather, his approach is to begin with the simplest theories of communication (Shannon) and show where each fails to account for a more complex form of interaction between more completely defined organisms. In this way, he reveals how each simpler form of communication is the core around which a more elaborate form of meaning-making is formed. He finally arrives at a picture of meaning-making that encompasses all of reality, including that which can be scientifically understood, but one that is necessarily incomplete and an open system. Meaning is all-pervading but never all-encompassing.

One element that makes meaning more complex than simple Shannon-esque communication is the role of the observer, who is maintained semiotically through an accomplishment of self-reference through time. This observer is a product of her own contingency. The language she uses is the result of nature, AND history, AND her own lived life. There is a specificity to her words and meanings that radiates outward as she communicates, meanings that interact in cybernetic exchange with the specific meanings of other speakers/observers. Language evolves in an ecology of meaning that can only poorly be reflected back upon the speaker.

What then can be said of the cultural observer, who carefully gathers meanings, distills them, and expresses new ones conclusively? She is a cybernetic captain, steering the world in one way or another, but only the world she perceives and conceives. Perhaps this is Haraway’s cyborg, existing in time and space through a self-referential loop, reinforced by stories told again and again: “I am this, I am this, I am this.” It is by clinging to this identity that the cyborg achieves the partiality glorified by Haraway. It is also this identity that positions her as an antagonist as she must daily fight the forces of entropy that would dissolve her personality.

Built on cybernetic foundations, does anything in principle prevent the formalization and implementation of Brier’s semiotic logic? What would a cultural observer that stands betwixt all cultures, looming like a spider on the webs of communication that wrap the earth at inconceivable scale? Without the same constraints of partiality of one human observer, belonging to one culture, what could such a robot scientist see? What meaning would they make for themselves or intend?

This is not simply an issue of the interpretability of the algorithms used by such a machine. More deeply, it is the problem that these machines do not speak for themselves. They have no self-reference or identity, and so do not participate in meaning-making except instrumentally as infrastructure. This cultural observer that is in the position to observe culture in the making without the limits of human partiality for now only serves to amplify signal or dampen noise. The design is incomplete.

Horkheimer and “The Revolt of Nature”

The third chapter of Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason (which by the way is apparently available here as a PDF) is titled “The Revolt of Nature”.

It opens with a reiteration of the Frankfurt School story: as reason gets formalized, society gets rationalized. “Rationalized” here is in the sense that goes back at least to Lukacs’s “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in 1923. It refers to the process of being rendered predictable, and being treated as such. It’s this formalized reason that is a technique of prediction and predictability, but which is unable to furnish an objective ethics, that is the main subject of Horkheimer’s critique.

In “The Revolt of Nature”, Horkheimer claims that as more and more of society is rationalized, the more humanity needs to conform to the rationalizing system. This happens through the labor market. Predictable technology and working conditions such as the factory make workers more interchangeable in their jobs. Thus they are more “free” in a formal sense, but at the same time have less job security and so have to conform to economic forces that make them into means and not ends in themselves.

Recall that this is written in 1947, and Lukacs wrote in 1923. In recent years we’ve read a lot about the Sharing Economy and how it leads to less job security. This is an argument that is almost a century old.

As society and humanity in it conform more and more to rational, pragmatic demands on them, the element of man that is irrational, that is nature, is not eliminated. Horkheimer is implicitly Freudian. You don’t eradicate the natural impulses. You repress them. And what is repressed must revolt.

This view runs counter to some of the ideology of the American academic system that became more popular in the late 20th century. Many ideologues reject the idea of human nature at all, arguing that all human behavior can be attributed to socialization. This view is favored especially by certain extreme progressives, who have a post-Christian ideal of eradicating sin through media criticism and scientific intervention. Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is an interesting elaboration and rebuttal of this view. Pinker is hated by a lot of academics because (a) he writes very popular books and (b) he makes a persuasive case against the total mutability of human nature, which is something of a sacred cow to a lot of social scientists for some reason.

I’d argue that Horkheimer would agree with Pinker that there is such a thing as human nature, since he explicitly argues that repressed human nature will revolt against dominating rationalizing technology. But because rationalization is so powerful, the revolt of nature becomes part of the overall system. It helps sustain it. Horkheimer mentions “engineered” race riots. Today we might point to the provocation of bestial, villainous hate speech and its relationship to the gossip press. Or we might point to ISIS and the justification it provides for the military-industrial complex.

I don’t want to imply I endorse this framing 100%. It is just the continuation of Frankfurt School ideas to the present day. How they match up against reality is an empirical question. But it’s worth pointing out how many of these important tropes originated.

a new kind of scientism

Thinking it over, there are a number of problems with my last post. One was the claim that the scientism addressed by Horkheimer in 1947 is the same as the scientism of today.

Scientism is a pejorative term for the belief that science defines reality and/or is a solution to all problems. It’s not in common use now, but maybe it should be among the critical thinkers of today.

Frankfurt School thinkers like Horkheimer and Habermas used “scientism” to criticize the positivists, the 20th century philosophical school that sought to reduce all science and epistemology to formal empirical methods, and to reduce all phenomena, including social phenomena, to empirical science modeled on physics.

Lots of people find this idea offensive for one reason or another. I’d argue that it’s a lot like the idea that algorithms can capture all of social reality or perform the work of scientists. In some sense, “data science” is a contemporary positivism, and the use of “algorithms” to mediate social reality depends on a positivist epistemology.

I don’t know any computer scientists that believe in the omnipotence of algorithms. I did get an invitation to this event at UC Berkeley the other day, though:

This Saturday, at [redacted], we will celebrate the first 8 years of the [redacted].

Current students, recent grads from Berkeley and Stanford, and a group of entrepreneurs from Taiwan will get together with members of the Social Data Lab. Speakers include [redacted], former Palantir financial products lead and course assistant of the [redacted]. He will reflect on how data has been driving transforming innovation. There will be break-out sessions on sign flips, on predictions for 2020, and on why big data is the new religion, and what data scientists need to learn to become the new high priests. [emphasis mine]

I suppose you could call that scientistic rhetoric, though honestly it’s so preposterous I don’t know what to think.

Though I would recommend to the critical set the term “scientism”, I’m ambivalent about whether it’s appropriate to call the contemporary emphasis on algorithms scientistic for the following reason: it might be that ‘data science’ processes are better than the procedures developed for the advancement of physics in the mid-20th century because they stand on sixty years of foundational mathematical work with modeling cognition as an important aim. Recall that the AI research program didn’t start until Chomsky took down Skinner. Horkheimer quotes Dewey commenting that until naturalist researchers were able to use their methods to understand cognition, they wouldn’t be able to develop (this is my paraphrase:) a totalizing system. But the foundational mathematics of information theory, Bayesian statistics, etc. are robust enough or could be robust enough to simply be universally intersubjectively valid. That would mean data science would stand on transcendental not socially contingent grounds.

That would open up a whole host of problems that take us even further back than Horkheimer to early modern philosophers like Kant. I don’t want to go there right now. There’s still plenty to work with in Horkheimer, and in “Conflicting panaceas” he points to one of the critical problems, which is how to reconcile lived reality in its contingency with the formal requirements of positivist or, in the contemporary data scientific case, algorithmic epistemology.

“Conflicting panaceas”; decapitation and dogmatism in cultural studies counterpublics

I’m still reading through Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason. It is dense writing and slow going. I’m in the middle of the second chapter, “Conflicting Panaceas”.

This chapter recognizes and then critiques a variety of intellectual stances of his contemporaries. Whereas in the first chapter Horkheimer takes aim at pragmatism, in this he concerns himself with neo-Thomism and positivism.

Neo-Thomism? Yes, that’s right. Apparently in 1947 one of the major intellectual contenders was a school of thought based on adapting the metaphysics of Saint Thomas Aquinas to modern times. This school of thought was apparently notable enough that while Horkheimer is generally happy to call out the proponents of pragmatism and positivism by name and call them business interest lapdogs, he chooses instead to address the neo-Thomists anonymously in a conciliatory footnote

This important metaphysical school includes some of the most responsible historians and writers of our day. The critical remarks here bear exclusively on the trend by which independent philosophical thought is being superseded by dogmatism.

In a nutshell, Horkheimer’s criticism of neo-Thomism is that it is that since it tries and fails to repurpose old ontologies to the new world, it can’t fulfill its own ambitions as an intellectual system through rigor without losing the theological ambitions that motivate it, the identification of goodness, power, and eternal law. Since it can’t intellectually culminate, it becomes a “dogmatism” that can be coopted disingenuously by social forces.

This is, as I understand it, the essence of Horkheimer’s criticism of everything: That for any intellectual trend or project, unless the philosophical project is allowed to continue to completion within it, it will have its brains slurped out and become zombified by an instrumentalist capitalism that threatens to devolve into devastating world war. Hence, just as neo-Thomism becomes a dogmatism because it would refute itself if it allowed its logic to proceed to completion, so too does positivism become a dogmatism when it identifies the truth with disciplinarily enforced scientific methods. Since, as Horkheimer points out in 1947, these scientific methods are social processes, this dogmatic positivism is another zombie, prone to fads and politics not tracking truth.

I’ve been struggling over the past year or so with similar anxieties about what from my vantage point are prevailing intellectual trends of 2014. Perversely, in my experience the new intellectual identities that emerged to expose scientific procedures as social processes in the 20th century (STS) and establish rhetorics of resistance (cultural studies) have been similarly decapitated, recuperated, and dogmatic. [see 1 2 3].

Are these the hauntings of straw men? This is possible. Perhaps the intellectual currents I’ve witnessed are informal expressions, not serious intellectual work. But I think there is a deeper undercurrent which has turned up as I’ve worked on a paper resulting from this conversation about publics. It hinges on the interpretation of an influential article by Fraser in which she contests Habermas’s notion of the public sphere.

In my reading, Fraser more or less maintains the ideal of the public sphere as a place of legitimacy and reconciliation. For her it is notably inequitable, it is plural not singular, the boundaries of what is public and private are in constant negotiation, etc. But its function is roughly the same as it is for Habermas.

My growing suspicion is that this is not how Fraser is used by cultural studies today. This suspicion began when Fraser was introduced to me; upon reading her work I did not find the objection implicit in the reference to her. It continued as I worked with the comments of a reviewer on a paper. It was recently confirmed while reading Chris Wisniewski’s “Digital Deliberation ?” in Critical Review, vol 25, no. 2, 2013. He writes well:

The cultural-studies scholars and critical theorists interested in diversifying participation through the Internet have made a turn away from this deliberative ideal. In an essay first published in 1990, the critical theorist Nancy Fraser (1999, 521) rejects the idealized model of bourgeois public sphere as defined by Habermas on the grounds that it is exclusionary by design. Because the bourgeois public sphere brackets hierarchies of gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc., Fraser argues, it benefits the interests of dominant groups by default through its elision of socially significant inequalities. Lacking the ability to participate in the dominant discourse, disadvantaged groups establish alternative “subaltern counterpublics”.

Since the ideal speech situation does not acknowledge the socially significant inequalities that generate these counterpublics, Fraser argues for a different goal: a model of participatory democracy in which intercultural communications across socially stratified groups occur in forums that do not elide differences but intead allow diverse multiple publics the opportunity to determine the concerns or good of the public as a whole through “discursive contestations.” Fraser approaches thes subgroups as identity publics and aruges that culture and political debate are essentially power struggles among self-interested subgroups. Fraser’s ideas are similar to those prevalent in cultural studies (see Wisneiwski 2007 and 2010), a relatively young discipline in which her work has been influential.

Fraser’s theoretical model is inconsistent with studies of democratic voting behavior, which indicate that people tend to vote sociotropically, according to a perceived collective interest, and not in facor of their own perceived self-interest (e.g., Kinder and Kiewiet 1981). The argument that so-called “mass” culture excludes the interests of dominated groups in favor of the interests of the elites loses some of its valence if culture is not a site through which self-interested groups vie for their objective interests, but is rather a forum in which democratic citizens debate what constitutes, and the best way to achieve, the collective good. Diversification of discourse ceases to be an end in itself.”

I think Wisneiwski hits the nail on the head here, a nail I’d like to drive in farther. If culture is conceived of as consisting of the contests of self-interested identity groups, as this version of cultural studies does, then it will necessarily see itself as one of many self-interested identities. Cultural studies becomes, by its own logic, a counterpublic that exists primarily to advance its own interests.

But just like neo-Thomism, this positioning decapitates cultural studies by preventing it from intellectually confronting its own limitations. No identity can survive rigorous intellectual interrogation, because all identities are based on contingency, finitude, trauma. Cultural studies adopt and repurpose historical rhetorics of liberation much like neo-Thomists adopted and repurposed historical metaphysics of Christianity. The obsolescence of these rhetorics, like the obsolescence of Thomistic metaphysics, is what makes them dangerous. The rhetoric that maintains its own subordination as a condition of its own identity can never truly liberate, it can only antagonize. Unable to intellectually realize its own purpose, it becomes purposeless and hence coopted and recuperated like other dogmatisms. In particular, it feeds into “the politicization of absolutely everything”, in the language of Ezra Klein’s spot-on analysis of GamerGate. Cultural studies is a powerful ideology because it turns culture into a field of perpetual rivalry with all the distracting drama of reality television. In so doing, it undermines deeper intellectual penetration into the structural conditions of society.

If cultural studies is the neo-Thomism of today, a dogmatist religious revival of the profound theology of the civil rights movement, perhaps it’s the theocratic invocation of ‘algorithms’ that is the new scientism. I would have more to say about it if it weren’t so similar to the old scientism.


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