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Tag: Habermas

Managerialism and Habermas

Managerialism is an “in” topic recently in privacy scholarship (Cohen, 2019; Waldman, 2019). In Waldman’s (2019) formulation, the managerialism problem is, roughly: privacy regulations are written with a certain substantive intent, but the for-profit firms that are the object of these regulations interpret them either as a bothersome constraint on otherwise profitable activity, or else as means to the ends of profitability, efficiency, and so on themselves. In other words, the substance of the regulations are subjugated to the substance of the goals of corporate management. Managerialism.

This is exactly what anybody who has worked in a corporate tech environment would expect. The scholarly accomplishment of presenting these bare facts to a legal academic audience is significant because employees of these corporations are most often locked up by strict NDAs. So while the point is obvious, I mean that in the positive sense that it should be taken as an unquestioned background assumption from now on, not that it shouldn’t have been “discovered” by this field in a different way.

As a “critical” observation, it stands. It raises a few questions:

  • Is this a problem?
  • If so, for whom?
  • If so, what can be done about it?

Here the “critical” method reaches, perhaps, its limits. Notoriously, critical scholarship plays on its own ambiguity, dancing between the positions of “criticism”, or finding of actionable fault, and “critique”, a merely descriptive account that is at most suggestive of action. This ambiguity preserves the standing of the critical scholar. They need never be wrong.

Responding to the situation revealed by this criticism requires a differently oriented kind of work.

Habermas and human interests

A striking about the world of policy and legal scholarship in the United States is that nobody is incentivized to teach or read anything written by past generations, however much it synthesized centuries of knowledge, and so nothing ever changes. For example, arguably, Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests (KHI), originally published 1972, arguably lays out the epistemological framework we would want to understand the managerialism issue raised by recent scholars. We should expect Habermas to anticipate the problems raised by capitalism in the 21st century because his points are based on a meticulously constructed, historically informed, universalist, transcendental form of analysis. This sort of analysis is not popular in the U.S.; I have my theories about why. But I digress.

A key point from Habermas (who is summing up and reiterating a lot of other work originating, if it’s possible to say any such thing meaningfully, in Max Weber) is that it’s helpful to differentiate between different kinds of knowledge based on the “human interests” that motivate them. In one formulation (the one in KHI), there are three categories:

  1. The technical interest (from techne) in controlling nature, which leads to the “empirical-analytic”, or positivist, sciences. These correspond to fields like engineering and the positivist social sciences.
  2. The pragmatic interest (from praxis), in mutual understanding which would guide collective action and the formation of norms, leads to the “hermeneutic” sciences. These correspond to fields like history and anthropology and other homes of “interpretivist” methods.
  3. The emancipatory interest, in exposing what has been falsely reified as objective fact as socially contingent. This leads to the critical sciences, which I suppose corresponds to what is today media studies.

This is a helpful breakdown, though I should say it’s not Habermas’s “mature” position, which is quite a bit more complicated. However, it is useful for the purposes of this post because it tracks the managerialist situation raised by Waldman so nicely.

I’ll need to elaborate on one more thing before applying this to the managerialist framing, which is to skip past several volumes of Habermas’s ouvre and get to Theory of Communicative Action, volume II, where he gets to the punchline. By now he’s developed the socially pragmatic interest to be the basis for “communicative rationality”, a discursive discipline in which individual interests are excluded and instead a diversely perspectival but nevertheless measured conversation about the way the social world should normatively be ordered. But where is this field in actuality? Money and power, the “steering media”, are always mussing up this conversation in the “public sphere”. So “public discourse” becomes a very poor proxy for communicative action. Rather–and this is the punchline–the actually existing field of communicative rationality, which is establishing substantive norms while nevertheless being “disinterested” with respect to the individual participants, is the law. That’s what the legal scholarship is for.

Applying the Habermasian frame to managerialism

So here’s what I think is going on. Waldman is pointing out that whereas regulations are being written with a kind of socially pragmatic interest in their impact on the imagined field of discursively rational participants as represented by legal scholarship, corporate managers are operating in the technical mode in order to, say, maximized shareholder profits as is their legally mandated fiduciary duty. And so the meaning of the regulation changes. Because words don’t contain meaning but rather take their meaning from the field in which they operate. A privacy policy that once spoke to human dignity gets misheard and speaks instead to inconvenience of compliance costs and a PR department’s assessment of the competitive benefit of user’s trust.

I suppose this is bothersome from the legal perspective because it’s a bummer when something one feels is an important accomplishment of one’s field is misused by another. But I find the professional politics here, as everywhere, a bit dull and petty.

Crucially, the managerialism problem is not dumb and petty–I wouldn’t be writing all this if I thought so. However, the frustrating aspect of this discourse is that because of the absence of philosophical grounding in this debate, it misses what’s at stake. This is unfortunately characteristic of much American legal analysis. It’s missing because when American scholars address this problem, they do so primarily in the descriptive critical mode, one that is empirical and in a sense positivist, but without the interest in control. This critical mode leads to cynicism. It rarely leads to collective action. Something is missing.

Morality

A missing piece of the puzzle, one which cannot ever be accomplished through empirical descriptive work, is the establishment of the moral consequence of managerialism which is that human beings are being treated as means and not ends, in contradiction with the Kantian categorical imperative, or something like that. Indeed, it is this flavor of moral maxim that threads its way up through Marx into the Frankfurt School literature with all of its well-trod condemnation of instrumental reason and the socially destructive overreach of private capital. This is, of course, what Habermas was going on about in the first place: the steering media, the technical interest, positivist science, etc. as the enemy of politically legitimate praxis based on the substantive recognition of the needs and rights of all by all.

It would be nice, one taking this hard line would say, if all laws were designed with this kind of morality in mind, and if everybody who followed them did so out of a rationally accepted understanding of their import. That would be a society that respected human dignity.

We don’t have that. Instead, we have managerialism. But we’ve known this for some time. All these critiques are effectively mid 20th century.

So now what?

If the “problem” of managerialism is that when regulations reach the firms that they are meant to regulate their meaning changes into an instrumentalist distortion of the original, one might be tempted to try to combat this tendency with an even more forceful use of hermeneutic discourse or an intense training in the social pragmatic stance such that employees of these companies put up some kind of resistance to the instrumental, managerial mindset. That strategy neglects the very real possibility that those employees that do not embrace the managerial mindset will be fired. Only in the most rarified contexts does discourse propel itself with its one force. We must presume that in the corporate context the dominance of managerialist discourse is in part due to a structural selection effect. Good managers lead the company, are promoted, and so on.

So the angle on this can’t be a discursive battle with the employees of regulated firms. Rather, it has to be about corporate governance. This is incidentally absolutely what bourgeois liberal law ought to be doing, in the sense that it’s law as it applies to capital owners. I wonder how long it will be before privacy scholars begin attending to this topic.

References

Benthall, S. (2015). Designing networked publics for communicative action. Interface1(1), 3.

Bohman, J., & Rehg, W. (2007). Jürgen habermas.

Cohen, J. E. (2019). Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism. Oxford University Press, USA.

Habermas, J. (2015). Knowledge and human interests. John Wiley & Sons.

Waldman, A. E. (2019). Privacy Law’s False Promise. Washington University Law Review97(3).

Considering “Neither Hayek nor Habermas”

I recently came upon an article from 2007, Cass Sunstein’s “Neither Hayek nor Habermas”, arguing that “the blogosphere” would have neither as an effective way of gathering knowledge or as a field for consensus-building. There is no price mechanism, so Hayekian principles do not apply. And there is polarization and what would later be called “echo chambers” to prevent real deliberation.

In an era where online “misinformation” is a household concern, this political analysis seems quite prescient. There never was much reason to expect free digital speech to amount to much besides a warped mirror of the public’s preexisting biases.

A problem with both Hayekian and Habermasian theory, when used this way, is the lack of institutional specificity. The free Web is a plurality of interconnected institutions, with content and traffic flowing constantly between differently designed sociotechnical properties. It is an naivete of all forms of liberal thought that useful social structure will arise spontaneously from the interaction between individuals as though through some magnetic force. Rather, social structures precede and condition the very possibility of personhood and discourse in the first place. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Indeed, despite all the noise on the Internet, there are Hayekian accumulations of information wherever there is the institution of the market. One reason why Amazon has become such a compelling force is because of its effective harnessing of reviews on products. Free speech on the Internet has been just fine for the market.

What about for democracy?

If free digital speech has failed to result in valuable political deliberation, it is wrong to fault the social media platforms. Habermas expected that money and power will distort public discourse; a privately-owned social media platform is a manifestation of this distortion. The locus of valuable political deliberation, therefore, must be in specialized public institutions: most notably, those institutions dedicated to legislation and regulation. In other words, it is the legal system that is, at its best, the site of Habermasian discourse. Not Twitter.

If misinformation on the Internet is “a threat to our democracy”, the problem cannot be solved by changing the content moderation policies on commercial social media platforms. The problem can only be solved by fixing those institutions of public relevance where people’s speech acts matter for public policy.

The closest thing to such a Habermasian institution in the Internet today is perhaps the Request for Comments process on adminstrative regulations in the U.S. There, citizens can freely express their policy ideas and those ideas are, when the system is working, moderated and channeled into nuanced changes to policy.

This somewhat obscure and technocratic government function is overshadowed and sometimes overturned by electoral politics in the U.S., which are at this point anything but deliberative. For various reasons concerning the design of electoral and legislative institutions in the U.S., politics is only superficially discursive. It is in fact a power play, a competition over rents. Under such conditions, we would expect “misinformation” to thrive, because public opinion is mostly inconsequential. There is nothing, pragmatically, to incentivize and ground the hard work of deliberation.

It is perhaps interesting to imagine what kind of self-governing institution would deserve this kind of investment of deliberation.

References

Benthall, Sebastian. “Designing networked publics for communicative action.” Interface 1.1 (2015): 3.

Bruns, Axel. “It’s not the technology, stupid: How the ‘Echo Chamber’and ‘Filter Bubble’metaphors have failed us.” (2019).

Sunstein, Cass R. “Neither Hayek nor Habermas.” Public Choice 134.1-2 (2008): 87-95.

A brief revisit of the Habermas/Luhmann debate

I’ve gotten into some arguments with friends recently about the philosophy of science. I’m also finding myself working these days, yet again, at a disciplinary problem. By which I mean, the primary difficult of the research questions and methodologies I’m asking at the moment is that there is no discipline that in its primary self-understanding asks those questions or uses those methodologies.

This and the coronavirus emergency have got me thinking, “What ever happened to the Habermas/Luhmann debate?” It is a good time to consider this problem because it’s one that’s likely to minimize my interactions with other people at a time when this one’s civic duty.

I refer to Rasch (1991) for an account of it. Here is a good paragraph summarizing some of the substance of the debate.

It is perhaps in this way that Luhmann can best be distinguished from Habermas. The whole movement of Habermas’s thought tends to some final resting place, prescriptively in the form of consensus as the legitimate basis for social order, and methodologically in the form of a normative underlying simple structure which is said to dictate the proper shape of surface complexity. But for Luhmann, complexity does not register the limits of human knowledge as if those limits could be overcome or compensated for by the reconstruction of some universal rule-making process. Rather, complexity, defined as the paradoxical task of solving a solved problem that cannot be solved, or only provisionally solved, or only solved by creating new problems, is the necessary ingredient for human intellectual endeavors. Complexity always remains complex and serves as a self-replenishing reservoir of possibilities (1981, 203-4). Simply put, complexity is limited understanding. It is the missing information which makes it impossible to comprehend a system fully (1985, 50-51; 1990, 81), but the absence of that information is absolutely unavoidable and paradoxically essential for the further evolution of complexity.

Rasch, 1991

In other words, Habermas believes that it’s possible, in principle, to reach a consensus around social order that is self-legitimizing and has at its core a simple, even empty, observer’s stance. This is accomplished through rational communicative action. Luhmann, on the other hand, sees the fun-house of perspectivalist warped mirrors and no such fixed point or epistemological attractor state.

But there’s another side to this debate which is not discussed so much in the same context. Habermas, by positing a communicative rationality capable of legitimization, is able to identify the obstacles to it: the “steering media”, money and power (Habermas, 1987). Whereas Luhmann understands a “social system” to be constituted by the communication within it. A social system is defined as the sum total of its speech, writing, and so on.

This has political implications. Rasch concludes:

With that in mind, one final paradox needs to be mentioned. Although Habermas is the self-identified leftist and social critic, and although Habermas sees in Luhmann and in systems theory a form of functionalist conservatism, it may very well be to Luhmann that future radical theorists will have to turn. Social and political theorists who are socially and politically committed need not continue to take theoretical concern with complexity as a sign of apathy, resignation, or conformism.’9 As Harlan Wilson notes, the “invocation of ‘complexity’ for the purpose of devaluing general political and social theory and of creating suspicion of all varieties of general political theory in contemporary political studies is to be resisted.” It is true that the increased consciousness of complexity brings along with it the realization that “total comprehension” and “absence of distortion” are unattainable, but, Wilson continues, “when that has been admitted, it remains that only general theoretical reflection, together with a sense of history, enables us to think through the meaning of our complex social world in a systematic way” (1975, 331). The only caveat is that such “thinking through” will have to be done on the level of complexity itself and will have to recognize that theories of social complexity are part of the social complexity they investigate. It is in this way that the ability to respond to social complexity in a complex manner will continue to evolve along with the social complexity that theory tries to understand

Rasch, 1991

One reason that Habermas is able to make a left-wing critique, whereas Luhmann can correctly be accused of being a functionalist conservative, is that Habermas’s normative stance has an irrational materialist order (perhaps what is “right wing” today) as its counterpoint. Whereas Luhmann, in asserting that social systems exist only as functional stability, does not seem to have money, power, or ultimately the violence they depend on in his ontology. It is a conservative view not because his theory lacks normativity, but because his descriptive stance is, at the end of the day, incomplete. Luhmann has no way of reckoning with the ways infrastructural power (Mann, 2008) exerts a passive external force on social systems. In other words, social systems evolve, but in an environment created by the material consequences of prior social systems, which reveal themselves as distributions of capital. This is what it means to be in the Anthropocene.

During a infrastructural crisis, such as a global pandemic in which the violence of nature threatens objectified human labor and the material supply chains that depend on it, society, often in times of “peace” happy to defer to “cultural” experts whose responsibility is the maintenance of ideology, defers to experts in different experts: the epidemiologists, the operations research experts, the financial analysts. These are the occupational “social scientists” who have no need of the defensiveness of the historian, the sociologist, the anthropologist, or the political scientist. They are deployed, sometimes in the public interest, to act on their operationally valid scientific consensus. And precisely because the systems that concern them are invisible to the naked eye (microbes, social structure, probabilities) the uncompromising, atheoretical empiricism that has come to be the proud last stand of the social sciences cannot suffice. Here, theory–an accomplishment of rationality, its response to materialist power–must shine.

The question, as always, is not whether there can be progress based on a rational simplification, but to what extent and economy supports the institutions that create and sustain such a perspective, expertise, and enterprise.

References

Habermas, Jürgen. “The theory of communicative action, Volume 2: Lifeworld and system.” Polity, Cambridge (1987).

Mann, Michael. “Infrastructural power revisited.” Studies in comparative international development 43.3-4 (2008): 355.

Rasch, William. “Theories of complexity, complexities of theory: Habermas, Luhmann, and the study of social systems.” German Studies Review 14.1 (1991): 65-83.

mathematical discourse vs. exit; blockchain applications

Continuing my effort to tie together the work on this blog into a single theory, I should address the theme of an old post that I’d forgotten about.

The post discusses the discourse theory of law, attributed to the later, matured Habermas. According to it, the law serves as a transmission belt between legitimate norms established by civil society and a system of power, money, and technology. When it is efficacious and legitimate, society prospers in its legitimacy. The blog post toys with the idea of normatively aligned algorithm law established in a similar way: through the norms established by civil society.

I wrote about this in 2014 and I’m surprised to find myself revisiting these themes in my work today on privacy by design.

What this requires, however, is that civil society must be able to engage in mathematical discourse, or mathematized discussion of norms. In other words, there has to be an intersection of civil society and science for this to make sense. I’m reminded by how inspired I’ve felt by Nick Doty’s work on multistakerholderism in Internet standards as a model.

I am more skeptical of this model than I have been before, if only because in the short term I’m unsure if a critical mass of scientific talent can engage with civil society well enough to change the law. This is because scientific talent is a form of capital which has no clear incentive for self-regulation. Relatedly, I’m no longer as confident that civil society carries enough clout to change policy. I must consider other options.

The other option, besides voicing ones concerns in civil society, is, of course, exit, in Hirschmann‘s sense. Theoretically an autonomous algorithmic law could be designed such that it encourages exit from other systems into itself. Or, more ecologically, competing autonomous (or decentralized, …) systems can be regulated by an exit mechanism. This is in fact what happens now with blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. Whenever there is a major failure of one of these currencies, there is a fork.

legitimacy in peace; legitimacy in war

I recently wrote a reflection on the reception of Habermas in the United States and argued that the lack of intellectual uptake of his later work have been a problem with politics here. Here’s what I wrote, admittedly venting a bit:

In my experience, it is very difficult to find support in academia for the view that rational consensus around democratic institutions is a worthwhile thing to study or advocate for. Identity politics and the endless contest of perspectives is much more popular among students and scholars coming out of places like UC Berkeley. In my own department, students were encouraged to read Habermas’s early work in the context of the identity politics critique, but never exposed to the later work that reacted to these critiques constructively to build a theory that was specifically about pluralism, which is what identity politics need in order to unify as a legitimate state. There’s a sense in which the whole idea that one should continue an philosophical argument to the point of constructive agreement, despite the hard work and discipline that this demands, was abandoned in favor of an ideology of intellectual diversity that discouraged scrutiny and rigor across boundaries of identity, even in the narrow sense of professional or disciplinary identity.

Tapan Parikh succinctly made the point that Habermas’s philosophy may be too idealistic to ever work out:

“I still don’t buy it without taking history, race, class and gender into account. The ledger doesn’t start at zero I’m afraid, and some interests are fundamentally antagonistic.”

This objection really is the crux of it all, isn’t it? There is a contradiction between agreement, necessary for a legitimate pluralistic state, and antagonistic interests of different social identities, especially as they are historically and presently unequal. Can there ever be a satisfactory resolution? I don’t know. Perhaps the dialectical method will get us somewhere. (This is a blog after all; we can experiment here).

But first, a note on intellectual history, as part of the fantasy of this argument is that intellectual history matters for actual political outcomes. When discussing the origins of contemporary German political theory, we should acknowledge that post-War Germany has been profoundly interested in peace as it has experienced the worst of war. The roots of German theories of peace are in Immanual Kant’s work on “perpetual peace”, the hypothetical situation in which states are no longer at way. He wrote an essay about it in 1795, which by the way begins with this wonderful preface:

PERPETUAL PEACE

Whether this satirical inscription on a Dutch innkeeper’s sign upon which a burial ground was painted had for its object mankind in general, or the rulers of states in particular, who are insatiable of war, or merely the philosophers who dream this sweet dream, it is not for us to decide. But one condition the author of this essay wishes to lay down. The practical politician assumes the attitude of looking down with great self-satisfaction on the political theorist as a pedant whose empty ideas in no way threaten the security of the state, inasmuch as the state must proceed on empirical principles; so the theorist is allowed to play his game without interference from the worldly-wise statesman. Such being his attitude, the practical politician–and this is the condition I make–should at least act consistently in the case of a conflict and not suspect some danger to the state in the political theorist’s opinions which are ventured and publicly expressed without any ulterior purpose. By this clausula salvatoria the author desires formally and emphatically to deprecate herewith any malevolent interpretation which might be placed on his words.

When the old masters are dismissed as being irrelevant or dense, it denies them the credit for being very clever.

That said, I haven’t read this essay yet! But I have a somewhat informed hunch that more contemporary work that deals with the problems it raises directly make good headway on problem of political unity. For example, this article by Bennington (2012) “Kant’s Open Secret” is good and relevant to discussions of technical design and algorithmic governance. Cederman, who has been discussed here before, builds a computational simulation of peace inspired by Kant.

Here’s what I can sketch out, perhaps ignorantly. What’s at stake is whether antagonistic actors can resolve their differences and maintain peace. The proposed mechanism for this peace is some form of federated democracy. So to paint a picture: what I think Habermas is after is a theory of how governments can be legitimate in peace. What that requires, in his view, is some form of collective deliberation where actors put aside their differences and agree on some rules: the law.

What about when race and class interests are, as Parikh suggests, “fundamentally antagonistic”, and the unequal ledger of history gives cause for grievances?

Well, all too often, these are the conditions for war.

In the context of this discussion, which started with a concern about the legitimacy of states and especially the United States, it struck me that there’s quite a difference between how states legitimize themselves at peace versus how they legitimize themselves while at war.

War, in essence, allows some actors in the state to ignore the interests of other actors. There’s no need for discursive, democratic, cosmopolitan balancing of interests. What’s required is that an alliance of interests maintain the necessary power over rivals to win the war. War legitimizes autocracy and deals with dissent by getting rid of it rather than absorbing and internalizing it. Almost by definition, wars challenge the boundaries of states and the way underlying populations legitimize them.

So to answer Parikh, the alternative to peaceful rule of law is war. And there certainly have been serious race wars and class wars. As an example, last night I went to an art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum entitled “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America”. The phrase “racial terror” is notable because of how it positions racist lynching as a form of terrorism, which we have been taught to treat as the activity of rogue, non-state actors threatening national security. This is deliberate, as it frames black citizens as in need of national protection from white terrorists who are in a sense at war with them. Compare and contrast this with right-wing calls for “securing our borders” from allegedly dangerous immigrants, and you can see how both “left” and “right” wing political organizations in the United States today are legitimized in part by the rhetoric of war, as opposed to the rhetoric of peace.

To take a cynical view of the current political situation in the United States, which may be the most realistic view, the problem appears to be that we have a two party system in which the two parties are essentially at war, whether rhetorically or in terms of their actions in Congress. The rhetoric of the current president has made this uncomfortable reality explicit, but it is not a new state of affairs. Rather, one of the main talking points in the previous administration and the last election was the insistence by the Democratic leadership that the United States is a democracy that is at peace with itself, and so cooperation across party lines was a sensible position to take. The efforts by the present administration and Republican leadership to dismantle anything of the prior administration’s legacy make the state of war all too apparent.

I don’t mean “war” in the sense of open violence, of course. I mean it in the sense of defection and disregard for the interests of those outside of ones political alliance. The whole question of whether and how foreign influence in the election should be considered is dependent in part on whether one sees the contest between political parties in the United States as warfare or not. It is natural for different sides in a war to seek foreign allies, even and almost especially if they are engaged in civil war or regime change. The American Revolutionary was backed by the French. The Bulshevik Revolution in Russia was backed by Germany. That’s just how these things go.

As I write this, I become convinced that this is really what it comes in the United States today. There are “two Americas”. To the extent that there is stability, it’s not a state of peace, it’s a state of equilibrium or gridlock.

Habermas seems quaint right now, but shouldn’t

By chance I was looking up Habermas’s later philosophical work today, like Between Facts and Norms (1992), which has been said to be the culmination of the project he began with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962. In it, he argues that the law is what gives pluralistic states their legitimacy, because the law enshrines the consent of the governed. Power cannot legitimize itself; democratic law is the foundation for the legitimate state.

Habermas’s later work is widely respected in the European Union, which by and large has functioning pluralistic democratic states. Habermas emerged from the Frankfurt School to become a theorist of modern liberalism and was good at it. While it is an empirical question how much education in political theory is tied to the legitimacy and stability of the state, anecdotally we can say that Habermas is a successful theorist and the German-led European Union is, presently, a successful government. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that this is at least in part due to the fact that citizens are convinced, through the education system, of the legitimacy of their form of government.

In the United States, something different happened. Habermas’s earlier work (such as the The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) was introduced to United States intellectuals through a critical lens. Craig Calhoun, for example, argued in 1992 that the politics of identity was more relevant or significant than the politics of deliberation and democratic consensus.

That was over 25 years ago, and that moment was influential in the way political thought has unfolded in Europe and the United States. In my experience, it is very difficult to find support in academia for the view that rational consensus around democratic institutions is a worthwhile thing to study or advocate for. Identity politics and the endless contest of perspectives is much more popular among students and scholars coming out of places like UC Berkeley. In my own department, students were encouraged to read Habermas’s early work in the context of the identity politics critique, but never exposed to the later work that reacted to these critiques constructively to build a theory that was specifically about pluralism, which is what political identities need in order to unify as a legitimate state. There’s a sense in which the whole idea that one should continue a philosophical argument to the point of constructive agreement, despite the hard work and discipline that this demands, was abandoned in favor of an ideology of intellectual diversity that discouraged scrutiny and rigor across boundaries of identity, even in the narrow sense of professional or disciplinary identity.

The problem with this approach to intellectualism is that it is fractious and undermines itself. When these qualities are taken as intellectual virtues, it is no wonder that boorish overconfidence can take advantage of it in an open contest. And indeed the political class in the United States today has been undermined by its inability to justify its own power and institutions in anything but the fragmented arguments of identity politics.

It is a sad state of affairs. I can’t help but feel my generation is intellectually ill-equipped to respond to the very prominent challenges to the legitimacy of the state that are being leveled at it every day. Not to put too fine a point on it, I blame the intellectual laziness of American critical theory and its inability to absorb the insights of Habermas’s later theoretical work.

Addendum 8/7/17a:

It has come to my attention that this post is receiving a relatively large amount of traffic. This seems to happen when I hit a nerve, specifically when I recommend Habermas over identitarianism in the context of UC Berkeley. Go figure. I respectfully ask for comments from any readers. Some have already helped me further my thinking on this subject. Also, I am aware that a Wikipedia link is not the best way to spread understanding of Habermas’s later political theory. I can recommend this book review (Chriss, 1998) of Between Facts and Norms as well as the Habermas entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which includes a section specifically on Habermasian cosmopolitanism, which seems relevant to the particular situation today.

Addendum 8/7/17b:

I may have guessed wrong. The recent traffic has come from Reddit. Welcome, Redditors!

 

Varela’s modes of explanation and the teleonomic

I’m now diving deep into Francisco Varela’s Principles of Biological Autonomy (1979). Chapter 8 draws on his paper with Maturana, “Mechanism and biological explanation” (1972) (html). Chapter 9 draws heavily from his paper, “Describing the Logic of the Living: adequacies and limitations of the idea of autopoiesis” (1978) (html).

I am finding this work very enlightening. Somehow it bridges between my interests in philosophy of science right into my current work on privacy by design. I think I will find a way to work this into my dissertation after all.

Varela has a theory of different modes of explanation of phenomena.

One form of explanation is operational explanation. The categories used in these explanations are assumed to be components in the system that generated the phenomena. The components are related to each other in a causal and lawful (nomic) way. These explanations are valued by science because they are designed so that observers can best predict and control the phenomena under study. This corresponds roughly to what Habermas identifies as technical knowledge in Knowledge and Human Interests. In an operational explanation, the ideas of purpose or function have no explanatory value; rather the observer is free to employ the system for whatever purpose he or she wishes.

Another form of explanation is symbolic explanation, which is a more subtle and difficulty idea. It is perhaps better associated with phenomenology and social scientific methods that build on it, such as ethnomethodology. Symbolic explanations, Varela argues, are complementary to operational explanations and are necessary for a complete description of “living phenomenology”, which I believe Varela imagines as a kind of observer-inclusive science of biology.

To build up to his idea of the symbolic explanation, Varela first discusses an earlier form of explanation, now out of fashion: teleological explanation. Teleological explanations do not support manipulation, but rather “understanding, communication of intelligible perspective in regard to a phenomenal domain”. Understanding the “what for” of a phenomenon, what its purpose is, does not tell you how to control the phenomenon. While it may help regulate ones expectations, Varela does not see this as its primary purpose. Communicability motivates teleological explanation. This resonates with Habermas’s idea of hermeneutic knowledge, what is accomplished through intersubjective understanding.

Varela does not see these modes of explanation as exclusive. Operational explanations assume that “phenomena occur through a network of nomic (lawlike) relationships that follow one another. In the symbolic, communicative explanation the fundamental assumption is that phenomena occur through a certain order or pattern, but the fundamental focus of attention is on certain moments of such an order, relative to the inquiring community.” But these modes of explanation are fundamentally compatible.

“If we can provide a nomic basis to a phenomenon, an operational description, then a teleological explanation only consists of putting in parenthesis or conceptually abbreviating the intermediate steps of a chain of causal events, and concentrating on those patterns that are particularly interesting to the inquiring community. Accordingly, Pittendrich introduced the term teleonomic to designate those teleological explanations that assume a nomic structure in the phenomena, but choose to ignore intermediate steps in order to concentrate on certain events (Ayala, 1970). Such teleologic explanations introduce finalistic terms in an explanation while assuming their dependence in some nomic network, hence the name teleo-nomic.”

A symbolic explanation that is consistent with operational theory, therefore, is a teleonomic explanation: it chooses to ignore some of the operations in order to focus on relationships that are important to the observer. There are coherent patterns of behavior which the observer chooses to pay attention to. Varela does not use the word ‘abstraction’, as a computer scientist I am tempted to. But Varela’s domains of interest, however, are complex physical systems often represented as dynamic systems, not the kind of well-defined chains of logical operations familiar from computer programming. In fact, one of the upshots of Varela’s theory of the symbolic explanation is a criticism of naive uses of “information” in causal explanations that are typical of computer scientists.

“This is typical in computer science and systems engineering, where information and information processing are in the same category as matter and energy. This attitude has its roots in the fact that systems ideas and cybernetics grew in a technological atmosphere that acknowledged the insufficiency of the purely causalistic paradigm (who would think of handling a computer through the field equations of thousands of integrated circuits?), but had no awareness of the need to make explicit the change in perspective taken by the inquiring community. To the extent that the engineering field is prescriptive (by design), this kind of epistemological blunder is still workable. However, it becomes unbearable and useless when exported from the domain of prescription to that of description of natural systems, in living systems and human affairs.”

This form of critique makes its way into a criticism of artificial intelligence by Winograd and Flores, presumabley through the Chilean connection.

equilibrium representation

We must keep in mind not only the capacity of state simplifications to transform the world but also the capacity of the society to modify, subvert, block, and even overturn the categories imposed upon it. Here is it useful to distinguish what might be called facts on paper from facts on the ground…. Land invasions, squatting, and poaching, if successful, represent the exercise of de facto property rights which are not represented on paper. Certain land taxes and tithes have been evaded or defied to the point where they have become dead letters. The gulf between land tenure facts on paper and facts on the ground is probably greatest at moments of social turmoil and revolt. But even in more tranquil times, there will always be a shadow land-tenure system lurking beside and beneath the official account in the land-records office. We must never assume that local practice conforms with state theory. – Scott, Seeing Like a State, 1998

I’m continuing to read Seeing Like a State and am finding in it a compelling statement of a state of affairs that is coded elsewhere into the methodological differences between social science disciplines. In my experience, much of the tension between the social sciences can be explained in terms of the differently interested uses of social science. Among these uses are the development of what Scott calls “state theory” and the articulation, recognition, and transmission of “local practice”. Contrast neoclassical economics with the anthropology of Jean Lave as examples of what I’m talking about. Most scholars are willing to stop here: they choose their side and engage in a sophisticated form of class warfare.

This is disappointing from the perspective of science per se, as a pursuit of truth. To see where there’s a place for such work in the social sciences, we only have to the very book in front of us, Seeing Like a State, which stands outside of both state theory and local practices to explain a perspective that is neither but rather informed by a study of both.

In terms of the ways that knowledge is used in support of human interests, in the Habermasian sense (see some other blog posts), we can talk about Scott’s “state theory” as a form of technical knowledge, aimed at facilitating power over the social and natural world. What he discusses is the limitation of technical knowledge in mastering the social, due to complexity and differentiation in local practice. So much of this complexity is due to the politicization of language and representation that occurs in local practice. Standard units of measurement and standard terminology are tools of state power; efforts to guarantee them are confounded again and again in local interest. This disagreement is a rejection of the possibility of hermeneutic knowledge, which is to say linguistic agreement about norms.

In other words, Scott is pointing to a phenomenon where because of the interests of different parties at different levels of power, there’s a strategic local rejection of inter-subjective agreement. Implicitly, agreeing even on how to talk with somebody with power over you is conceding their power. The alternative is refusal in some sense. A second order effect of the complexity caused by this strategic disagreement is the confounding of technical mastery over the social. In Scott’s terminology, a society that is full of strategic lexical disagreement is not legible.

These are generalizations reflecting tendencies in society across history. Nevertheless, merely by asserting them I am arguing that they have a kind of special status that is not itself caught up in the strategic subversions of discourse that make other forms of expertise foolish. There must be some forms of representation that persist despite the verbal disagreements and differently motivated parties that use them.

I’d like to call these kinds of representations, which somehow are technically valid enough to be useful and robust to disagreement, even politicized disagreement, as equilibrium representations. The idea here is that despite a lot of cultural and epistemic churn, there are still attractor states in the complex system of knowledge production. At equilibrium, these representations will be stable and serve as the basis for communication between different parties.

I’ve posited equilibrium representations hypothetically, without having a proof or example yet on one that actually exists. My point is to have a useful concept that acknowledges the kinds of epistemic complexities raised by Scott but that acknowledges the conditions for which a modernist epistemology could prevail despite those complexities.

 

habitus and citizenship

Just a quick thought… So in Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity, he describes the habitus of the scientist. Being a scientist demands a certain adherence to the rules of the scientific game, certain training, etc. He winds up constructing a sociological explanation for the epistemic authority of science. The rules of the game are the conditions for objectivity.

When I was working on a now defunct dissertation, I was comparing this formulation of science with a formulation of democracy and the way it depends on publics. Habermasian publics, Fraserian publics, you get the idea. Within this theory, what was once a robust theory of collective rationality as the basis for democracy has deteriorated under what might be broadly construed as “postmodern” critiques of this rationality. One could argue that pluralistic multiculturalism, not collective reason, became the primary ideology for American democracy in the past eight years.

Pretty sure this backfired with e.g. the Alt-Right.

So what now? I propose that those interested in functioning democracy reconsider the habitus of citizenship and how it can be maintained through the education system and other civic institutions. It’s a bit old-school. But if the Alt-Right wanted a reversion to historical authoritarian forms of Western governance, we may be getting there. Suppose history moves in a spiral. It might be best to try to move forward, not back.

discovering agency in symbolic politics as psychic expression of Blau space

If the Blau space is exogenous to manifest society, then politics is an epiphenomenon. There will be hustlers; there will be the oscillations of who is in control. But there is no agency. Particularities are illusory, much as how in quantum field theory the whole notion of the ‘particle’ is due to our perceptual limitations.

An alternative hypothesis is that the Blau space shifts over time as a result of societal change.

Demographics surely do change over time. But this does not in itself show that Blau space shifts are endogenous to the political system. We could possibly attribute all Blau space shifts to, for example, apolitical terms of population growth and natural resource availability. This is the geographic determinism stance. (I’ve never read Guns, Germs, and Steel… I’ve heard mixed reviews.)

Detecting political agency within a complex system is bound to be difficult because it’s a lot like trying to detect free will, only with a more hierarchical ontology. Social structure may or may not be intelligent. Our individual ability to determine whether it is or not will be very limited. Any individual will have a limited set of cognitive frames with which to understand the world. Most of them will be acquired in childhood. While it’s a controversial theory, the Lakoff thesis that whether one is politically liberal or conservative depends on ones relationship with ones parents is certainly very plausible. How does one relate to authority? Parental authority is replaced by state and institutional authority. The rest follows.

None of these projects are scientific. This is why politics is so messed up. Whereas the Blau space is an objective multidimensional space of demographic variability, the political imaginary is the battleground of conscious nightmares in the symbolic sphere. Pathetic humanity, pained by cruel life, fated to be too tall, or too short, born too rich or too poor, disabled, misunderstood, or damned to mediocrity, unfurls its anguish in so many flags in parades, semaphore, and war. But what is it good for?

“Absolutely nothin’!”

I’ve written before about how I think Jung and Bourdieu are an improvement on Freud and Habermas as the basis of unifying political ideal. Whereas for Freud psychological health is the rational repression of the id so that the moralism of the superego can hold sway over society, Jung sees the spiritual value of the unconscious. All literature and mythology is an expression of emotional data. Awakening to the impersonal nature of ones emotions–as they are rooted in a collective unconscious constituted by history and culture as well as biology and individual circumstance–is necessary for healthy individuation.

So whereas Habermasian direct democracy, being Freudian through the Frankfurt School tradition, is a matter of rational consensus around norms, presumably coupled with the repression of that which does not accord with those norms, we can wonder what a democracy based on Jungian psychology would look like. It would need to acknowledge social difference within society, as Bourdieu does, and that this social difference puts constraints on democratic participation.

There’s nothing so remarkable about what I’m saying. I’m a little embarrassed to be drawing from European Grand Theorists and psychoanalysts when it would be much more appropriate for me to be looking at, say, the tradition of American political science with its thorough analysis of the role of elites and partisan democracy. But what I’m really looking for is a theory of justice, and the main way injustice seems to manifest itself now is in the resentment of different kinds of people toward each other. Some of this resentment is “populist” resentment, but I suspect that this is not really the source of strife. Rather, it’s the conflict of different kinds of elites, with their bases of power in different kinds of capital (economic, institutional, symbolic, etc.) that has macro-level impact, if politics is real at all. Political forces, which will have leaders (“elites”) simply as a matter of the statistical expression of variable available energy in the society to fill political roles, will recruit members by drawing from the psychic Blau space. As part of recruitment, the political force will activate the habitus shadow of its members, using the dark aspects of the psyche to mobilize action.

It is at this point, when power stokes the shadow through symbols, that injustice becomes psychologically real. Therefore (speaking for now only of symbolic politics, as opposed to justice in material economic actuality, which is something else entirely) a just political system is one that nurtures individuation to such an extent that its population is no longer susceptible to political mobilization.

To make this vision of democracy a bit more concrete, I think where this argument goes is that the public health system should provide art therapy services to every citizen. We won’t have a society that people feel is “fair” unless we address the psychological roots of feelings of disempowerment and injustice. And while there are certainly some causes of these feelings that are real and can be improved through better policy-making, it is the rare policy that actually improves things for everybody rather than just shifting resources around according to a new alignment of political power, thereby creating a new elite and new grudges. Instead I’m proposing that justice will require peace, and that peace is more a matter of the personal victory of the psyche than it is a matter of political victory of ones party.