Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reading :: Fanatical Schemes

Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus
By Patricia Roberts-Miller

I've been meaning to pick this book up ever since it came out. That's not because of its subject matter, which is outside my research area or expertise, but because Trish is a colleague, and I like to read my colleagues' books. And Trish does crank out the books: this is her third, and she's currently working on her fourth.

Maybe I should call her "Roberts-Miller" for the purposes of this review.

Fanatical Schemes is Roberts-Miller's examination of proslavery rhetoric of the 1830s. She's arguing with other scholars of this period: the common understanding is that proslavery rhetoric became more strident in response to increased stridency of abolitionists, but Roberts-Miller argues that this causal argument is incorrect. Ratheer, she argues that the inflammatory aspect of proslavery rhetoric preceded abolitionist rhetoric; it was, she says, inherent to proslavery rhetoric. Roberts-Miller sees this as a crucial point because it has definite implications: when "civility" is the yardstick, the only permitted criticism is from superiors to inferiors; substantive social change is impossible because "under such limitations, rhetoric cannot solve political conflicts"(p.6).

Indeed, she argues, the South – despite the education in rhetoric afforded its citizens – actually silenced deliberation in routine ways; it made certain topics off-limits. And consequently it could not deliberate properly with Northern politicians, nor could it deliberate internally, making war all but inevitable (p.31). Prudence was considered mildly dishonorable (p.65); proslavery public discourse was dominated by the epideictic (p.64); discourse was framed by in-groups vs. out-groups (Ch.2); and hyperbole characterized the discourse (p.42). Roberts-Miller describes this discourse as yielding self-referential absurdity that demanded loyalty to the group rather than the logic (p.41). That situation leads to "cunning projection," in which the same behavior is considered a virtue in the ingroup but a vice in the outgroup (p.106).

Roberts-Miller concludes the book by discussing cunning projection in terms of Orwell's "doublethink" (p.219). Personally, I would have liked to see an actual rather than a fictional phenomenon here, such as double consciousness or dialogism, both of which are grounded in actual cases that involve believing contradictory ideas, both of which are well theorized and may have gotten to the layers of argumentation in a less modernist way. But Trish (let's call her Trish again now) indicated to me in a hallway conversation that neither quite get to the group loyalty aspect she was trying to express. See what you think – and I do recommend the book.

Reading :: Supersizing the Mind

Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension
By Andy Clark

Someone in my Twitter stream recommended this book, and it sounded interesting enough that I picked it up and read it on the plane from PA the other week. Essentially, it's an apologia for Clark's assertion that the human mind is best understood as extended beyond the skull, not "brainbound" as his critics suggest. He begins the book with the illustration of Richard Feynman's writing, which Feynman insisted was not simply a representation of his thinking but actually part of his thinking. Clark characterizes this extension of thinking across artifacts as "the outward loop as a functional part of an extended cognitive machine" (p.xxvi). Although the brain is certainly an essential, perhaps the only essential, part of this loop, the extended perspective is needed to understand the full range of cognition. Environmental engineering, he says, is self-engineering (p.xxviii).

In my case, as you might imagine, Clark could be characterized as preaching to the choir. But his "sermon" is more exigetical than hortatory: in answering his critics from cognitive science, he marshalls illustrations and evidence touching on aspects of cognition that are not familiar to lay audiences. For instance, he reports work in sensory substitution conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, in which blind subjects were fitted with grids of "nails" on their backs, nails that gently stimulated the skin based on input from a head-mounted camera. Incredibly, after a short while, the subjects began to interpret the stimulation as "quasi-visual experiences of objects looming and so forth," even ducking balls thrown at them (p.35). They interpreted these experiences visually. Similarly, in a 2003 study, patients with leprosy were fitted with sensor gloves that stimulated sensation at a forehead-mounted disk; they quickly began to interpret the forehead stimulation as occurring at the fingertips (p.36). Based on these and other cases, Clark argues that three grades of embodiment exist: mere, basic, and profound (p.42).

In a profoundly embodied organism – I.e., us – language functions as "a form of mind-transforming cognitive scaffolding" (p.44). Clark takes us from material symbols stripped of cues, which result in "fast-and-frugal subroutines" (p.45), to the use of "spatial proximity [e.g., stacks, piles] to reduce descriptive complexity" (p.46), to mathematics and language. "Our mature mental routines," he concludes, "are not merely self-engineered: they are massively, overwhelmingly, almost unimaginably self-engineered" (p.60).

Clark argues that embodiment seems to matter in three ways. First, it spreads the load of cognition, making problem-solving and adaptive response more fluid and efficient. Second, it allows the organism to self-structure information. Third, it supports extended cognition, co-opting "bioexternal resources into extended but deeply integrated cognitive and computational resources" (pp.196-197).

I'm skipping over a lot here, in part because Clark's book is actually a conversation with many critics and I'm neither fully privy to that conversation nor expert enough to recapitulate it well. If you are, you may find this book to be more enlightening. I found it to be both intriguing and difficult in the same sense that A.N. Leontiev's experiments with lights and gels were; I saw many examples of counterintuitive function, but I don't have enough grounding in the subject to evaluate them. So in the end, my takeaway from Clark's book was not as rich as I would have liked. If you are grounded in Vygotsky, Hutchins, Bateson, and similar scholars, you'll get the gist as I did – but I will personally hesitate to lean too heavily on this book when making my own arguments.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reading :: The Rise of the Creative Class

The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life
By Richard Florida

Last week, I tweeted that I had picked up this book and that it was thicker than I had expected. My favorite response was: "It's thin on the inside."

True? More or less. The book is 404 pages, including appendices and index, and it is not all unique material. I actually shook my head in amazement when Florida explained on p.150 et passim that the Creative Class suffer from a "time famine" and have little patience for slow, low-yield activities – a point that Florida makes after recycling various other statements about the Creative Class repeatedly. What person suffering from such a time famine has time to read a 404-page book, one that could have been slimmed down considerably while making the same points? (Me, apparently.)

So what are those points? I'll attempt to summarize first, then critique.

Florida argues that the Creative Class is an emerging class, the dominant class of our day, comprising 30% of the workforce (p.ix). Creativity has become "the driving force of our economic growth" (p.ix) and is "the key factor in our economy and society" (p.4). Others, he says, have characterized our economy a "knowledge economy" or "information economy," but the key factor is creativity – which he defines, quoting Webster's dictionary, as "the ability to create new forms" (pp.4-5). Creativity, he says, is technological, economic, artistic, and cultural, and all these forms reinforce each other (p.5). Once-fringe groups, viewed in the past as "bizarre mavericks," are now "at the very heart of the process of innovation and economic growth" (p.6).

Such creative people may be everywhere, but they tend to congregate in specific places: "Place has become the central organizing unit of our time, taking on many of the functions that used to be played by firms and other organizations" (p.6). And those places are tolerant places, he says: the Creative Class seeks places and organizations that are diverse and tolerant, particularly in terms of same-sex partners, but also in terms of "odd personal habits or extreme styles of dress," because "many highly creative people" fit that bill (p.79). Florida acknowledges that such tolerant places and organizations seem to be short on one particular aspect of diversity – African-Americans – but pins this shortfall on the digital divide (p.80, for instance). Tolerance, he says, is a core and necessary value for the Creative Class, since creativity is so highly valued that employers can't turn it away: "we are more tolerant and liberal both because our material conditions allow it and because the new Creative Age tells us to be so" (p.82).

Tolerance, Florida says, is epitomized by a place's or organization's attitude toward gay people. He notes a remarkable, statistically significant correlation between high-tech centers and the Gay Index – an index based on US Census data that connects unmarried partners data and data on same-sex roommates (p.255). (I should point out here that, based on the methodology, this index is more of an "Out" index.) The Gay Index, Florida says, is "a reasonable proxy for an area's openness to different kinds of people and ideas" (pp.244-245).

Creativity, Florida says, provides a more precise definition than "existing, more amorphous definitions of knowledge workers, symbolic analysts, or professional and technical workers" (p.9). At the same time, he takes pains to say that creativity can be a factor in any job, including factory work (p.10), the tacit creativity of copy machine repair (p.70), and the increasingly coordinative work of the secretary (p.70). But the Creative Class proper includes a "Super-Creative Core" of "scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers and architects, as well as the thought leadership of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts and other opinion-makers" (p.69). They produce "new forms or designs that are readily transferable and widely usable" (p.69). The Creative Class also includes "creative professionals" who serve in "high-tech sectors, financial services, the legal and health care professions, and business management." "These people engage in creative problem solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems" (p.69).

The Creative Class are, as a class, financially well-off but time-poor. So, Florida says, the Service Class increases to support the increase in the Creative Class, performing functions that were once performed in the family (p.76). But although they tend to be financially well-off, the Creative Class are not motivated by money: IT workers, for instance, prefer "challenge and responsibility, the ability to work a flexible schedule and a secure and stable work environment" to financial rewards (p.10). And those characteristics are needed, because, Florida tells us, creativity isn't like factory or service work. "It is not something that can be kept in a box and trotted out when one arrives at the office" (p.22).

Florida's book isn't just description, it's advocacy: he ends by imploring the Creative Class to develop a class consciousness that can support mass action (p.317). He also uses the word "we" a lot, clearly indicating that he sees himself as part of this nascent movement.

So what does a Creative Class member look like? Richard Florida has provided a ready, well-drawn example: Richard Florida. Florida repeatedly uses himself as an example of the Creative Class, so much so that by the end of the book I knew his birth year, his upbringing, his employment history, his kitchen setup, his eating habits, his preferred exercise, his usual casual clothing, and his many issues with his adopted home of Pittsburgh. After a while I felt as if Florida had invited me over to watch home movies or to read his autobiography, Florida on Florida. (As you may have guessed, Florida is a Baby Boomer.)

I suppose I have moved into the critique phase of this review, so let me bottom-line it for you. Florida has a kernel of a good insight here, but he makes several missteps in order to inflate his thesis.

First, he never really nails down the term "creativity" in which he invests so much importance. At the end of the book, I'm still not sure how to distinguish Creative Class jobs from service and working class jobs. I tried simply thinking of the Creative Class as a renaming of knowledge work, but Florida makes clear that some managers – the epitome of Drucker's knowledge work – did not qualify as creative (see p.308 in his case study on Pittsburgh, for instance). Without a solid definition, the Creative Class – despite its name – tends to be somewhat orthogonal to the other classes, with Florida even implying that service and working class jobs are increasingly creative (see above). The distinction is unclear. Compare that to Drucker's discussion of knowledge work, in which he paints a picture of knowledge work as becoming an increasingly larger factor in other forms of work. This is a crucial point: without a concrete, definable concept, the book is not terribly useful, even though I think Florida is genuinely detecting something in his comparative statistics.

Second, Florida cuts a lot of corners. He tends to play heavily on stereotypes of creativity: creativity is inspired, creativity is signified by outlandish dress, creativity is eclectic, creativity comes from everywhere. Bluntly, Florida seems to think of creativity as a personal attribute rather than a process anchored in culture. He tends to see the markers of creativity as continuous across times and cultures: "Artists, musicians, professors and scientists have always set their own hours, dressed in relaxed and casual clothes and worked in stimulating environments," he states (pp.12-13), seemingly unaware of how, say, 19th-century professors or 20th-century orchestra musicians dressed. But Florida also cuts corners in his citations: for instance, he name-checks Castells' The Power of Identity as illustrating how important individual identity is (p.229). That's like saying that Bakhtin emphasized the importance of storytelling. With examples like these, I quickly grew wary of Florida's other statements.

Third, Florida has tended to remake creativity in his own image. He's played what I think is a dangerous game, equating specific kinds of tolerance (particularly but not exclusively tolerance of gays) with tolerance in general, and pegging creativity to that liberal tolerance. Yet some of the most creative organizational thinking of this young century has been performed by the Islamic fundamentalists of Al Qaeda, and the aftermath of Prop 8 has of course problematized the notion of general, universal tolerance.

It was at this point that I realized what The Rise of the Creative Class resembles: Francis Fukuyama's The End of History. Fukuyama's book enthralled neoconservatives with its claim that capitalism and democracy had won – we had reached the end of history, the point at which the free market was systemically inevitable – and all we had to do was wait for its realization. And Florida's book makes similar promises to social liberals, telling them that they have won: tolerance and openness are inevitable, part of the systemic change brought by the Creative Class, and that we only have to wait for the class to develop its class consciousness; the Creative Class only needs to realize that it's in the driver's seat. Like Fukuyama's argument, Florida's argument is so attractive that it's hard to step back and gain the distance necessary to critique it. But once I did, the argument fell apart. We haven't reached the end of history yet.

I recommend the book – it has a kernel of an idea – but read it critically.