Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Reading :: Hermes

Originally posted: Wed, 29 Jun 2005 18:43:15

Hermes : Literature, Science, Philosophy

by Michel Serres

Michel Serres' work is often praised (or condemned) as "poetic," beautiful in the French, and almost impossible to translate because of the high quality of the prose. That's probably true. Although the stories and metaphors that Serres uses seem to translate fairly well, the prose in this translated version tends to be dense and not terribly enjoyable. And unfortunately the high density of metaphor and allegory tends to obscure rather than productively illustrate Serres' points.

Nevertheless, the book is interesting and, with patience, rewarding.

I came to Serres because he was so influential to Bruno Latour (whose prose, unlike Serres', tends to be translated in ways that retain his style) and Michel Callon. Callon is said to have borrowed the notion of translation from Serres' Hermes volume 2, which sadly does not appear to be translated into English in its entirety. Nevertheless, this collection gives us an idea of what we are missing. Most interesting is Serres' discussion in Chapter 2 of Aesop's fable "The Wolf and the Lamb". Serres detects an arborescence: a genealogical tree or ordered structure. The wolf is upstream from the lamb and more powerful than it; but he pretends to be downstream, wronged by it (p.19). The structure organizes the game-space: "Without a set provided with an ordering relation, there would be no game" (p.20). And this game is called dialectic: "Stable structures and dialectical processes are inseparable" (p.21). Dialectic assumes and provides the structure. It imposes order under the guise of explaining it. So should we stick with the dialectic or attack the ordered structure? (p.22).

(Alert readers will detect some of the same thought here that guided Deleuze & Guattari -- absolute limits, flows, and arborescence.)

In the next chapter, Serres discusses Jules Michelet's La Mer (1861), in which Michelet proposes a chain of beings, an ontogeny, a phylogeny (p.29). It sounds half-baked the way Serres describes it. But it interests Serres because of these accounts. For instance, Michelet describes the Carnot cycles, the cycles in the northern and southern hemispheres flowing from warm to cold spots. The Carnot cycles are named, of course, after Sadi Carnot, who labored to develop a theorem that became the second law of thermodynamics -- a theorem that, as Engels says, summarizes the work of a steam engine and on which subsequent steam engines were based. The world, then, is a steam engine by this reckoning. But it is also many other sorts of machines. "The world is a static machine, a compression engine, an electrical engine, a chemical machine, a steam engine; the world is an organism -- all without contradiction" (p.35). Serres uses this text to make his own argument, not about the world, but about method:

It is not necessary to introduce methods to read this text: the method is in the text. The text is its own criticism, its own explication, its own application. This is not a special case; it is one that is perfectly generalizable. Why should there be a dichotomy between texts, between the ones that operate and the ones that are operated upon? There are texts, and that is all. (p.38)

This does sound quite structuralist (and in the book I borrowed from the library, someone penciled in the word "structuralist" next to this passage).

Well, let's skip a bit, because much of what Serres discusses is not relevant to my projects (and this blog, ultimately, is all about me). I mentioned that Serres was one of Latour's biggest influences and that he provided the origin for what actor-network theorists call translation. Translation is touched upon late in the book (p.132), but not really explicated. Black boxes are discussed but not explicated (p.80). The reversibility of time is discussed but not explicated (p.71). On the whole, alas, I see a lot of seeds but not much fruit for my project here. Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning of this review, the book can be rewarding with patience. Not everything has to be fruit.

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Reading :: Thoughts of a Statesman

Originally posted: Wed, 29 Jun 2005 20:08:03

Thoughts of a Statesman

by Niccolo Machiavelli

The link above is to a great online library in which older works have been scanned and turned into PDFs along with the embedded machine-readable text. So, for instance, you can read the scanned page from this 1882 book, then highlight lines and copy them. Or you can use the find-as-you-type feature in MacOS X's Preview to find relevant passages. What a time saver.

The book itself is "a compilation of some of Machiavelli?s most famous thoughts arranged by the editor of the 1882 edition of his works," originally appearing in vol. 2 of The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. Let's call it a book anyway. It's a 32-page "collection of maxims, extracted from the works of Machiavelli ... to show the injustice of the charges against the writings of Machiavelli, resulting from an unfair prejudice and imperfect understanding of his sentiments" (from the prefatory note, p.435). It even comes with a fake-but-accurate letter purportedly written to Machiavelli to his son, sounding for all the world like the last chapter of Latour's Pandora's Hope:

I know that some one has poured out his venom against my writings because he has formed his judgment upon each one separately, instead of all together, and has looked more to the words than the spirit; as if one could judge correctly of a work or a science or art from a single part, and not the whole together, or could judge of the colors without regard to the drawing. (p.435)

Poor Machiavelli!

The maxims which follow are decontextualized, but they do point to the fact that Machiavelli was not simply a schemer. When reading The Prince, sometimes it's easy to forget that Machiavelli believed "That government alone is durable which rests upon the free will of the governed" (p.439). Other bon mots:

Whoever is harsh and cruel in commanding is badly obeyed by his subjects; but whoever is kind and humane meets with ready obedience. (p.440)

To command a multitude it is better to be humane than proud, and merciful rather than cruel. (p.440)

We ought to attach little value to living in a city where the laws are less powerful than men. That country only is desirable where you can enjoy your substance and your friends in security, and not that where your property can be easily taken away from you, and where your friends, for fear of their own property, abandon you in your greatest need. (p.444)

It is the laws that make men good. (p.444)

A good prince must preserve perfect justice in his states, and in giving audiences he must be affable and gracious. (p.446)

Those provinces where there is money and order are the nerve and sinews of the state. (p.450)

Those only deserve to be free who apply themselves to good works, and not to evil ones; for liberty badly employed injures itself and others. (p.452)

And so forth. The great thing about lists of maxims is that they have already done the hard work of pulling out great quotes. The problem is that these quotes become detached from the overall argument. In this case, the editor has selected many, many quotes in which Machiavelli agrees with common wisdom and morality. But that means that Machiavelli's most interesting moments -- and his method -- become lost, and his observations become banal. When they are reintegrated into the overall arguments that Machiavelli advances, they again become vital and original.

Take the statement that "It is the laws that make men good" (p.444). In itself, it seems a fairly banal observation, in consonance with the church of Machiavelli's day (though contrasted to the book of Hebrews, which states that the Law was given in order to expose and multiply sin). But integrated into Machiavelli's overall political philosophy, it becomes a pragmatic statement: one must establish a law to which men can relationally calibrate themselves. It is the difference that makes a difference, to paraphrase Bateson.

In all, it's an interesting document. I've not flinched from recommending Machiavelli, but I'll recommend this one with a caveat: read it after reading Machiavelli's major works.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Engestrom's umpires and Latour's cosmos)

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Jun 2005 18:55:55

We have two very different articles today, with no theme binding them together save that they are both responses to articles I have not yet read.

Engeström, Y. (2000). Activity theory and the social construction of knowledge: A story of four umpires. Organization, 7:301?310.

In this response to an article by Blackler et al. on activity systems, Engestrom uses the illustration of four baseball umpires to illustrate epistemological and methodological issues of activity theory. Engestrom's trying to clear the way for moving AT from a psychological theory to "an original and potentially powerful approach to the social construction of knowledge" that "may prove useful for practice-based attempts to reconceptualize knowledge in organizations" (p.301).

The four umpires represent the epistemological stances of traditional realism, constructivism, constructionism, and activity theory. From Karl Weick:

The story goes that three umpires disagreed about the task of calling balls and strikes. The first one said, 'I calls them as they is.' The second one said, 'I calls them as I sees them.' The third and cleverest umpire said, 'They ain't nothin' till I calls them.' (quoted on p.301)

Engestrom methodically goes through these three stances, arguing that the shared problem is individualism: "the assumption that he or she as an individual is the center of construction of knowledge and reality" (p.302). But in the fourth, activity-theoretical perspective, the umpire can be "the center of activity" at moments, but not throughout. "In the next action, someone else takes the position of the subject" (p.304). In this activity system, the activity can be disturbed and dealt with by various actors occupying the subject position. Engestrom gives the example of an umpire who, observing the reactions of the crowds during foul balls and reviewing the stats afterwards, works with her colleagues to uncover a betting scandal. Engestrom's point is that the activity is collective and works through contradictions; "the fourth umpire crosses the boundaries of her given role and becomes involved in the initiation of a historical reorganization of the entire game of baseball in Finland" (p.305).

The contradiction is identified as the primary contradiction of capitalism, use-value vs. exchange-value, here featured as the conflicting outcomes of winning vs. profit. Organized betting has tipped the scales here, leading to a secondary contradiction between the game's rules and its object.

So far so familiar. But here we get to the methodological issues.

The first issue: "Blackler et al. (this issue) state that, rather than analyzing an organization as a single activity system, they deem it more satisfactory to analyze the organization as a network of nested and overlapping activity systems" (p.307). "But I favor carefully grounded analyses and worry about shortcuts. From Blackler et al.'s article we learn little about the 'internal systemic connections' of the three Strategy Development Groups, and even less about their concrete actions" (p.308).

The second issue: Engestrom applauds the concept of multiple perspectives, but these perspectives can be discussed under multivoicedness (Bakhtin) and is "inherent in the speech, thought, and action of every individual" (p.308). That is, perspectives should be empirically demonstrable through speech rather than inferred, second-order constructs.

The third issue: Learning. "Activity theory is at its best in analyzing such poorly understood processes of developmental transformations over time. Expansive learning is energized by historically accumulated developmental contradictions within and between activity systems, and it is triggered by disturbances and concrete innovative actions" (pp.308-309).

Latour, B. (2004). Whose cosmos, which cosmopolitics? Comments on the peace terms of Ulrich Beck. Common Knowledge, 10(3):450?462.

In this response, Latour goes over the argument he developed in War of the Worlds, that the separation of nature and culture serves as a way to underpin ethnocentrism/multiculturalism (two sides of the same coin). He starts out with a great illustration:

famous disputatio that Spaniards held to decide whether or not Indians had souls susceptible of being saved. But while that debate was under way, the Indians were engaged in a no less important one, though conducted with very different theories in mind and very different experimental tools. Their task, as Viveiros de Castro describes it, was not to decide if Spaniards had souls?that much seemed obvious?but rather if the conquistadors had bodies. (p.451)

Were the Europeans spiritual entities, or human beings?

The Amerindians? experiment was as scientific as the Europeans?. Conquistador prisoners were taken as guinea pigs and immersed in water to see, first, if they drowned and, second, if their flesh would eventually rot. (p.452)

So the Europeans looked for social proof while the Amerindians used a naturalistic methodology. The point?

The relevance of this anecdote should be apparent: at no point in the Valladolid controversy did the protagonists consider, even in passing, that the confrontation of European Christians and Amerindian animists might be framed differently from the way in which Christian clerics understood it in the sixteenth century. At no point were the Amerindians asked what issue they took to be in dispute, nor is Beck asking now. (p.452).

The Europeans and Amerindians both assumed that there is a univeral baseline for the negotiation of a dispute (p.453) -- a limiting factor to the disputes, a universal stasis that all parties can reach. Latour says no, and draws on Isabelle Stengers' work for backing. And that's the basis of his critique of Beck:

For Beck, as for most sociologists and all political scientists, wars rage because human cultures have (and defend) differing views of the same world. If those views could be reconciled or shown to differ only superficially, peace would follow automatically. This way of understanding cosmos and cosmopolitics is limited in that it puts a limit to the number of entities on the negotiating table. But if cosmosis to mean anything, it must embrace, literally, everything?including all the vast numbers of nonhuman entities making humans act. (p.454)

This view is not satisfactory: "If this be peace, I must say I prefer war. By war I mean a conflict for which there is no agreed-upon arbiter, a conflict in which what is at stake is precisely what is common in the common world to be built" (p.455). Open war is preferable to cold war, in which one side indulgently allows "multicultural" interpretations of the one nature, i.e., separates nature and culture with the implicit understanding that one culture really does understand nature better than the others. Nature becomes an absolute arbiter, the voice of God. We might as well have open war leading to open negotiations than this cold war in which resentments fester! And they do, not just in the "other cultures": "anyone who holds that fabricated means untrue, and made means fake, tends toward fundamentalism" (p.460). "And when one fundamentalism butts heads with another, no peace talks are possible because there is nothing to discuss: pedagogical wars are waged to the bitter end" (p.461). And here's the knockout: "My main objection, then, to the peace terms of Ulrich Beck is that he has not put the West?s own native fundamentalism up for discussion. Our naturalism has failed: it was a war plan disguised as a peace plan, and those against whom we directed it are no longer fooled. Naturalism, like any fundamentalist ideology, amounts to a prejudice against fabrication" (p.461, my emphasis).