Wednesday, May 06, 2015

To Open Minds

"To Albers mind, you couldn't get anywhere until you'd mastered the fundamentals. School was not a place to let loose and express yourself, or even to make art. School was a place for developing skills that would enable you to work effectively later. His approach was a pragmatic one, steeped in an old-world ethos of diligence and craftsmanship, values often dramatically at odds with those in force in American schools today." (Frederick A. Horowitz)

For my birthday, my wonderful ex-wife and children recently got me the beautiful biography of Josef Albers, To Open Eyes (Phaidon, 2006), by Frederick Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz. I'm a huge admirer of Albers, both as an artist and as a teacher, and this book explains, in elaborate detail, why that is. Like most people, I first learned of his approach to teaching art through his book, Interaction of Color, which spoke to me immediately. "Because of the laboratory character of these studies," Albers wrote, "there is no opportunity to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything, or to express something—or one's self." He was trying to open the students' eyes to colour, he wanted to get them to experience what colour does on the page. In that same spirit, I've long thought of my own project as opening students' minds to words.

Albers wanted to teach students how to produce particular visual effects simply by the careful arrangement of patches of colour. He was adamant that students would only learn how to do this by deliberate experimentation toward solutions to the simple problems he would set them. He did not want to teach them a "theory" of colour that their work might then demonstrate or illustrate. He wanted to make them good at organising colours deliberately. By a similar token, I want to make students good at arranging words, sentences and paragraphs into articles (little collections of "joints") with literary effects. In philosophy, this is the ability to write your concepts down. In science, it's being able to write down what you know.

While this does, as I wrote about recently*, ultimately involve "representation" (of facts) and "expression" (of beliefs), the objects and subjects of my authors' writing are not really any of my concern. I take it for granted that they know things and that they have something to say. This becomes merely the material and the occasion for thinking seriously about how to write. I do sometimes point out that an author has not adequately supported a claim in a particular paragraph, or that their theory sounds very strange or puzzling. This is not a comment on their ideas but their expression of them; it is a critique of what they have accomplished on the page (with their hands), not what's on their minds (in their heads). If they reach a conclusion about their ideas on this basis, however, they are of course welcome to do so.

"School," says Horowitz in his introduction, "was [for Albers] a place for developing skills that would enable you to work effectively later." That's my attitude too. I don't really expect students (at any level) to discover the "truth" about their subject matter. I don't care whether or not what they are saying is a correct description of reality. I care about whether the words they write carry a definite meaning. Whether they make sense. Just as Albers cared mainly whether the student's work had an effect, whether it made a definite visual impression. Our common goal is to teach people how to "work effectively". It is to this end that we must open their eyes and minds.

*See this post and this one. Note that I'm here also echoing Horowitz's worry about the "values ... in force in American schools today". "In many schools," he writes earlier, "[visual training has been replaced] with courses and exercises that address social, scientific, political, gender, and ethnic concerns." This looks a lot like the displacement of the prose essay in the composition classroom that Freddie deBoer cautions against. Horowitz admits that our values look "old-fashioned". I prefer the hipper expression: I'm old-school!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Leisure Day!

"Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man." (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

In a recent column, Steve Fuller argues that "'privacy invasion' has become the new 'worker exploitation' in our era of informational capitalism." So we need what he calls "Marx 2.0" to mobilise an effective resistance. But, as I argued on Wednesday, Marx's original focus on the exploitation of workers missed the underlying or pre-requisite exploitation of nature's bounty. It's not the worker's labour that is exploited, but the worker's leisure. Capital does not really need workers to achieve its goals; machines and natural processes do most of the actual work. Capital needs mainly to prevent Diggers: people who "work the lands in common and ... make the waste grounds grow". Capital needs to get us to rely on work for purchasing power, and on purchasing power to satisfy our needs. Capitalism needs consumers, not workers.

Interestingly, Norman Mailer made this argument for a kind of Marx 2.0 way back in the late 1950s. In a short piece called "From Surplus Value to the Mass-media", he analysed mass consumerism as an exploitation of the "personal leisure" that is needed for us to repair the damage inflicted on us by "a war-and-pleasure economy". What is so appalling about surveillance, if you ask me, is that it invades a privacy that has already been exploited. After all, our privacy is, let's say, that secret part of our leisure that has not already been discovered by the State and the Corporation and tapped for profit.

Mailer was very concerned about the consequences of this on "the mind of civilised man". Indeed, the full quote from which the epigraph is taken runs as follows:

It is likely that the survival of capitalism is no longer possible without the creation in the consumer of a series of psychically disruptive needs which circle about such wants and emotions as the desire for excessive security, the alleviation of guilt, the lust for comfort and new commodity, and the consequent allegiance to the vast lie about the essential health of the State and the economy, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality and thus drive them closer to apathy, psychosis, and violence. Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man. (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

What does all this have to do with academic writing? you might ask. Well, let's remember the original Greek meaning of "school", namely, "spare time, leisure, rest, ease; idleness". Our schools are precisely what should prevent the destruction of the mind of humankind by providing at least some people (and all people until a certain age) with means for "the adequate exercise of personal leisure" to recover from the "psychic havoc" of capitalism. As one might expect, however, they are all too often just another site of exploitation.

Since this is the International Workers' Day, also sometimes called Labour Day, I'd like to end this post by joining those who are calling for its reframing as Basic Income Day or what I would call Leisure Day. What we really need is not "coveillance" to push back against state and corporate surveillance by redefining "intellectual property", as Steve argues. What we need is a direct and adequate compensation for the hoarding of the earth's natural productivity by capitalist rent seekers. Our privacy means very little without leisure. We don't need to own our private thoughts. We need, first and foremost, time to think them!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Towards a Critique of the Labour Theory of Value

“What a strange machine man is! You fill him with bread, wine, fish, and radishes, and out comes sighs, laughter, and dreams.” (Zorba the Greek)

I suppose it's an oversimplification, but for me Marx stands for the idea that value is rooted in labour and worth is rooted in capital. History, on this view, becomes a struggle for control of the means of production. I was once a "Marxist" in this sense, but I will never forget the strange lightness that came over me many years ago when I was reading Ezra Pound: "Nature habitually overproduces. Chestnuts go to waste on the mountainside, and it has never yet caused a world crisis."

The other side of this insight is that almost everything that is worth having is free, almost everything that has to get done "just happens". The sun, the rain, even the long process of fossilisation, owes us nothing. The creativity of the seed far exceeds our own inventiveness. Even our own bodies, as Zorba points out, are mainly self-operating, self-cleaning natural processes. We put some fuel in them and out comes human behaviour. Without granting too much ground to Freud, we even have to agree that most of our mental activity goes on without our knowledge or guidance.

There's the old joke that 90% of life is just showing up. We can expand this: 99% of everything just sort of happens. Life mainly continues—"goes on", as they say. It is as important to get out of the way as it is to make an effort. Even when we do work, it's not so much a matter of putting your shoulder to the wheel as pushing in the right direction. Most of the process is already underway.

This is important to keep in mind when working on your intellectual projects. Not only should you not try to lift them and move them somewhere all at once, not only should do a measured amount of work on them each day ... You should remember that an intellectual project, both as it exists within you and as it goes on around you, both as it belongs to you and as it belongs to others, is always already making progress, always already going somewhere.

It doesn't need you to do all the work. Certainly not all the time. Most of it happens all by itself. And many of the chestnuts really do go to waste. It happens all the time. It's not a crisis in the history of ideas when it does. [Update: with so many of us thinking so hard about so many things these days, I think I can rest assured that an idea I don't happen to make the most of will be "independently discovered" by someone else soon enough.]

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Scholar's Almanac and Daily Register

(With apologies to Dudley Leavitt)

This may sound a bit clichéd, but as I get older I really do find I know myself better. This is probably in part because every day teaches us something about ourselves and in part because as we get older our personalities stabilise. We gain in experience and we become more knowable. We both begin to penetrate some of our inner mysteries and become less mysterious. This goes for our selves as scholars, too, of course.

I was thinking about this recently when enjoying my annual bout of spring euphoria. Copenhagen is further to the north than the city I grew up in, so the summer days are longer, and the winter nights too. Since moving here, twenty years ago, along with all the other changes one goes through over so many years, I seem to have settled into an annual rhythm characterised by a somewhat melancholy winter, letting up when the light comes back in the spring. The thing is that it's only been recently that I've truly experienced this, as it is happening, as a kind of natural cycle. Something I expect.

We don't think the weather is damaged or broken in the winter, when days get shorter and the air gets colder. We just say it is winter. We don't think of spring as some sort miraculous and permanent return of life. We just recognize the seasons for what they are. But we sometimes forget this about ourselves, imagining that a current nadir or apex of mood is somehow fundamental, indicative of who we "really are".

I hope it won't be controversial to say that individuals will differ here, as will groups. I seem to have recognisable annual cycle of moods, some of which is determined by geography some by idiosyncrasy. Others, of course, have a monthly one, conditioned in part by gender and, again, in part by plain individual quirk. (Just because something is natural doesn't mean it affects everyone equally.) And then there's the whole changing arc of life events—marriage, children, divorce, grandchildren, retirement. We have to let these natural processes have some explanatory power with regard to our ability to get work done and derive satisfaction from it. We have to take them into account. As a culture we understand all this; as individuals we sometimes forget.

One reason to plan your writing process is that it gives you away of experiencing how your naturally changing moods affect your ability to work. It lets you anticipate times when your work will go slowly and painfully, and when it will proceed easily. It will keep you from drawing too dramatic conclusions from how things are going right now. See your planning and journaling as a kind of "almanac" of your scholarship, a document of your experience. Know when to sow and when to reap, if you will. Know when you should not make major life decisions, because your optimism is likely to be unhinged, and when you should not expect to submit a paper, because your confidence is likely to be lacking.

One last thing. This winter I was less disciplined than usual, which showed me something important. Natural cycles can be tempered by personal habits. If, as the winter darkness approaches, you begin to live less healthily—you exercise less, say, and drink more—this will of course exacerbate the problem. Obviously, you have to be less ambitious at times when you have less energy, but it can be a good idea to be as, let's say, deliberate about what you are doing. Physical health helps you face the changes better. It also makes the euphoria of spring less, let's say, disruptive.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (3)

Here's a practical little trick that sometimes helps people write their paragraphs. Remember that my advice is always to decide today what and when you'll write tomorrow. (Happiness is knowing that tomorrow you will write.) You have to choose something that you know well enough to write about today, but then wait until tomorrow to write it. Tomorrow, then, you sit down at the appointed time and write your paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, stating a claim and providing support for it. You begin with the sentence you chose yesterday ...

And this is where people sometimes run into to trouble. What seemed to be "the truest sentence that you know" yesterday afternoon, seems altogether less founded in the morning as you try to construct a paragraph to support it. You feel vague, even ignorant. What should you do? Well, you should not stop writing and start reading, and you should not try to think of something else to write about. You've made a commitment to this paragraph. For the next twenty-seven minutes, make an honest effort to represent the fact it is about.

But what to do with your doubts about whether it is even a fact? Whether you know what you're talking about? Here's the simple trick. Write the negation of the sentence. If you had hoped to say, e.g., that the Internet has changed the way companies communicate with their customers, but can't think of why that is or how that is true, then type out the following sentence: "The Internet has not changed the way companies communicate with their customers." However much you may be in doubt about the first sentence, you'll probably now feel an immediate sense of certainty that this sentence is false. Okay, write down the reasons you are so sure, and then notice that these are also reasons to think your original sentence is true.

Another trick is to tweak the original sentence a little until you feel it's sitting more comfortably on your knowledge base. Maybe it isn't the Internet but social media you meant, maybe it's not businesses but organisations, maybe it's not customers but stakeholders. The original idea was true enough; you had just chosen the wrong words to express it.

All of this work of negating and tweaking your decision from the day before is to be done in the twenty-seven minutes you have given yourself to represent a particular fact in a particular paragraph of prose. Get used to doing this work. It really is at the core of scholarship. It's what we expect scholars to be capable of doing. With time, you will derive real pleasure from succeeding.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (2)

Consider the following two sentences.

Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

Bertrand Russell believed that language is basically assertive.

The first can be established merely by providing a reference (e.g., "Russell 1961: x", and the associated entry in the bibliography). I have claimed that Russell has written an eleven-word sentence. (As I pointed out yesterday, that claim is almost true: my memory got ten of those eleven words right. I'll address this issue on Friday.) The second, however, requires an argument, in which the first may play a role. The fact that Russell wrote a particular sentence will serve as evidence for the larger and much more interesting fact that he held a particular belief.

Notice that my claims about Russell's writing and Russell's mind themselves express beliefs—my beliefs. I believe that Russell wrote those words and I believe that he held that belief. Through my writing, I am hoping to persuade you to hold those same beliefs (what I believe about Russell, not what Russell believed about language). Now, I don't expect you to trust me blindly, certainly not when I'm writing for scholarly purposes, and that is why I will provide the reference for the quotation. You may or may not go back to my source to check my work, but the presence of the reference itself moves us beyond merely "blind" trust. After all, you can now assume that I at least looked at the page in question, and you can assume that one of my readers (perhaps one of my reviewers) has checked or will at some point check it. There's a fact in the world that corresponds to my claim and to the belief I want you to form, and I've told you exactly where you can see it for yourself.

Russell's state of mind in the early 1920s when he wrote those words is more difficult to establish, to be sure. But it is the presumption of scholarly prose that such states of mind are real and knowable. There is a kind of "fact of the matter" about what he meant. I'm not here talking about a general theory of mind, i.e., a philosophical position about the knowability of other people's state of mind. I'm talking about the knowability of the beliefs, opinions, ideas of other scholars, whose work we cite. We are naive, common-sense realists about the words they have written. And somewhat more sophisticated hermeneutic optimists about their meaning. That is, while we will always grant that there can be different interpretations, and while we may even grant that some of these disagreements are ultimately unresolvable (perhaps because of "the play of différance", perhaps because of "the death of the author"), we don't think that there is an entirely arbitrary relationship between the words a scholar puts on a page and the meaning that the scholar intended. Moreover, as scholars, we regularly invoke the intended meaning, committing both the original author and our fellow scholars to it. It's possible to get Russell's beliefs wrong, and being able to do so is an important part of being a philosopher.

I'll pick up the thread on Friday. Let me conclude today by marking two important limiting cases of this argument. First, when I say that there is a "fact of the matter" about what a scholar means, I do not mean that this fact is "empirical" and to be determined by the application of a "scientific method". I'm with Richard Biernacki on this point. Second, I want to stress again that this is neither a theory of mind nor a theory of language, nor even a theory of writing. It is a presumption about scholarly writing. It does not, for example, apply to the work (and perhaps not even the mind) of Gertrude Stein.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (1)

"What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" (Bertrand Russell)

What is it about a sentence that allows it to represent a fact? Let's not take the answer for granted. And let's not assume the question is unanswerable. Let's begin with a sentence of a kind familiar to scholars:

Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

Notice that this is not a sentence about either language or facts but about Bertrand Russell. It represents something he "said", i.e., wrote. It says that somewhere in Russell's writing the quoted sentence may be found. What is interesting is that it can say this without it being true. This is the most important clue to its capacity to represent. Many years ago, Karl Popper provided a much need counterpoint to the "verificationism" of the logical positivists by suggesting that the meaning of a proposition lies as much in what makes it false as what makes it true.

Consider the analogy of a map. We all know that the purpose of a map is to represent a territory. A good map will lead you to where you want to go. A bad map will mislead you. But it can only do this if you read the map as a representation of where you are and where you want to go. If all maps were made merely for the purpose of hanging decoratively on walls, i.e., if no one ever tried to get anywhere with their guidance, they would no longer represent their territories. But the map represents the territory even if I don't travel in order to verify it. The map tells me that Stockholm is to the north of Copenhagen. I don't have to go there in order to understand what this means.

But I do have to know how to read the map. Think about what that sentence about Bertrand Russell represents, what it means. First of all, the proper name has to refer to the famous philosopher, friend and mentor to Ludwig Wittgenstein, author of Principia Mathematica. Also, as I said, it must be taken not quite literally; Russell wrote it rather than said it. But I haven't yet said where; it is made true or false by the whole of Russell's work. (The whole of his life if we didn't narrow "said" to his professional writings, but let it refer to every utterance, spoken or written, by Russell.) Imagine a map that shows Stockholm to be to the north of Copenhagen but not how far. In fact, I can be much more precise:

In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

And more precise still:

In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts" (p. x).

Indeed, in order for that page reference to make sense I have to provide the 1961 Routledge edition as my source. Page x is actually the second page of the introduction. This is like putting lines of longitude and latitude on the map, and specifying a scale. To a properly trained reader, there is now a single page on which we may find or not find the quotation. And here's a twist I hadn't planned when writing this post: if you do go to check my quotation against its source you will find that Russell says "assert or deny" not "assert and deny" (as I discovered when I went to source to get the page number). That is, there is an inaccuracy in my representation of Russell's words, and those words, remember, are what my sentence is about. Someone who understands my words will get to the right place, and will confirm that it's the place I meant, but will find that it's not quite as I said it would be.

We'll continue this on Wednesday.