Friday, August 13, 2004

(Books for this political season)

Originally posted: Fri, 13 Aug 2004 09:06:13

As we gear up for the Republican convention and a fall campaign that will quite possibly be close and brutal, I've assembled a "top ten" list of books for this political season. These are in no particular order, and they include plenty of books that don't seem obvious. They also exclude some obvious picks, such as Machiavelli's The Prince and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. And no, they don't include Joe Trippi's recent book or Extreme Democracy, neither of which I've been able to read yet. But these selected books all have direct bearing on aspects of this year's presidential election.

So here they are:

1. Kaufer and Butler. Rhetoric and the Arts of Design.

Kaufer and Butler's discussion of rhetoric as a design art is quite valuable, especially when applied to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The authors provide a really useful taxonomy for structurally analyzing those debates -- and I find myself applying it to the current candidates' speeches as well. Although Douglas was eventually declared the winner of his debates with Lincoln, Kaufer and Butler successfully argue that he overrelied on tactics, underinvested in a persistent rhetorical strategy, and underestimated the impact of print media on the campaign. Look for parallels in the upcoming debates.

2. Machiavelli. The Discourses.

While Kaufer and Butler provide a close analysis, Machiavelli's analysis of the Roman republic has a much larger sweep. Machiavelli, an ardent republican (small R, of course), discusses in detail what makes a republic work and what kills it. This book has plenty of advice that is pertinent to this political season. President Bush could have benefited from his advice not to trust exiles, for instance. Most interesting to me is Machiavelli's contention that republics almost always make better decisions than princes.

3. Latour. Pandora's Hope.

Latour was heavily influenced by Machiavelli, so it's no surprise that he draws a similar conclusion. In two consecutive chapters in Pandora's Hope, he analyzes the debate between Socrates and Callicles from The Gorgias. Too often, he says, we want to take sides in the debate: Might (Callicles) or Right (Socrates), power or knowledge, earth or heaven. One leads to tyranny, the other leads to the philosopher-kings lauded in Plato's Republic. But even as Socrates and Callicles were hashing out this choice, the democratic Athenians were enacting their own solution: negotiating, haggling, bargaining, and compromising to yield a workable solution. The debate between Might and Right, Latour charges, is at its core antidemocratic -- and foolish in its tunnel vision.

4. Surowiecki. The Wisdom of Crowds.

Latour and Machiavelli agree that crowds make better decisions than princes or kings. So does James Surowiecki, in this book -- which I'm still finishing up. I picked up Surowiecki's book after reading the recommendation on Dan Drezner's site, but my wife also heard a blurb about it on NPR. Like Latour and Machiavelli, Surowiecki argues that "crowds" can often make better decisions than individuals, even if the individuals are not terribly well informed or intelligent; as long as their input is aggregated well, decision-making turns out to be far more accurate even than the experts'.

Now, to my mind, this thesis is severely flawed in that it is explicated by reference to problems whose answers can be retrospectively verified, typically with quantitative measures. Examples include guessing a heifer's weight, the coordinates of a lost submarine, or a political candidate's margin of victory. Surowiecki explicitly disallows the question of deliberation (though he sneaks it in through the back door) -- the focus is on aggregations of guesses, the closing in on an objective solution, not the forging of open-ended political settlements. So the real value of The Wisdom of Crowds this political season, I think, will be in the examination of polls and voter data.

5. Zuboff and Maxmin. The Support Economy.

Voters have changed considerably over the years, of course, and Zuboff and Maxmin suggest that this can be explained partially through a paradigm shift in the economy. Citizens, they say, are looking for more individualized choices. That's true in the market, their primary focus, but they suggest that the shift can also be seen in how citizens have left large political organizations in favor of smaller a la carte movements. Whereas our parents might have been willing to subsume their political will to an organization, letting (for instance) a union leader speak for them, we are more apt to want to represent ourselves. Witness the success of Howard Dean's online fundraising -- and, I would argue, its swift collapse. And notice also the proliferation of blogs representing constituencies that can't be catalogued using the traditional left/right dichotomy. This phenomenon led to bloggers at this year's conventions as well as the rapid fact-checking of older media.

6. Bakhtin - The Dialogic Imagination.

Of course, the explosion of political blogs reminds us of something we too often forget, which is that the Republican and Democratic parties are themselves fragile and contentious coalitions. Discussing what the "typical" Democrat or Republican thinks leads to straw person arguments because the discussion rests on the notion that each party has core principles to which all members subscribe -- typically something you can put on a bumper sticker. Bakhtin's most read book provides a valuable corrective to that notion by reminding us that different dialogues are always going on, combining and coexisting perhaps, but not necessarily synthesizing in the sense that dialectic would have us imagine. What a timely message as both candidates begin their attempts to chip away at the constituencies of the other party.

7. Wertsch. Voices of Collective Remembering.

Bakhtin, of course, labored in obscurity in the Soviet Union -- served often by his ability to hide his un-Soviet theorizing in Marxist language. He invoked the dialectic as a sort of trope for dialogism. That protective reframing was, of course, widespread practice in the Soviet Union. In Voices of Collective Remembering, Wertsch helps us to examine the false histories, the double consciousness, and the clandestine discussions that would occur in the USSR. Furthermore, he suggests that in some cases these harsh conditions actually resulted in more critical examinations of history than here in the US. This book reminds us of what is at stake in telling history, and suggests to me that the current wild diversity in the blogosphere could help us to become more critical consumers of news and history.

8. Jungck. Future Workshops.

As we consider new computer-mediated opportunities to expand our political participation (what some are calling "extreme democracy"), we might recall an older, more time-consuming aproach meant to route around accreted political-bureaucratic structures. Robert Jungck's approach, future workshops, involved recruiting interested citizens for intensive brainstorming, problem solving, and consensus building. The point was to avoid the groupthink and blind allegiance that characterized the Nazi regime as well as the mindset of the early Cold War. The H-bomb horrified Jungck; he believed that if he could get ordinary citizens to invest themselves in decision-making, real change could occur. Future workshops later became integral to the participatory design approach, in which workers strove for political and technological change in their workplaces.

9. Latour. War of the Worlds.

And that brings us to this slim pamphlet, the second entry of Latour's on this list. Based on lectures Latour has given over the last several years, and framed by the events of 9/11, War of the Worlds suggests

that these events should spur a reexamination of how we think about other cultures. For too long, Latour says, we have approached other cultures through either ethnocentrism or multiculturalism -- two sides of the same coin, he argues. Our mistake, he says, is to posit that there are several cultures but only one nature. So we may "respect" other points of view, but deep down we believe there's only one correct one -- ours, since we are expert at apprehending nature as it really is. Nonsense, Latour says. There are just as many natures as cultures: in a later book, he uses the term "natureculture" to drive home the point that any separation is artificial. And if that's so, we should earnestly negotiate settlements with others to agree on a world we can coinhabit. That doesn't mean giving up on our cherished values and beliefs, but it does involve understanding that theirs may be just as cherished and valued.

10. Law. Aircraft Stories.

Finally, along the same lines, we get to a book to which I gave an uncharitable review a while back. I don't regret that review -- but let's give credit where it is due. Politics become instantiated in the material environment, and not just in the obvious ways discussed by so many cultural theorists. In his study of how aircraft were designed and built for the British military, Law demonstrates quite well that a variety of constraints guided this complex work. Among those constraints were the representations of the Soviet Union, its strategies and tactics, its technologies and pilots. These were just as important and concrete as wind shear and other "natural," "objective" constraints. Examining Law's argument here helps us to reexamine the supposed split between politics and technology, politics and nature, politics and work.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Reading :: The Mangle of Practice

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Aug 2004 19:49:58

The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science

by Andrew Pickering

Some time back, I was busy buying books at I had gone on a grant-funded spending spree that involved several science and technology studies (STS) books: Latour, Law, Mol, etc. After a few purchases, Amazon began making suggestions, and the foremost suggestion was always Andrew Pickering's The Mangle of Practice.

Not long afterward, I presented some of my research to the School of Information here at UT, and one of the audience members suggested that a problem I had raised had been solved by Pickering in the same book.

Since all of the signs seemed to point in the same direction, I ordered the thing. What I found was, indeed, an important book -- but, I think, more important in its critique of STS and in its general solution than in the specifics. This review will be long because I think it's vital to understand what this important book does.

Let's start with the critique. Although I don't think Pickering explicitly says this, the book is constantly in dialogue with actor-network theory (or "the actor-network," as Pickering calls it, perhaps to justify his habit of calling his theoretical-methodological approach "the mangle"). Pickering repeatedly makes clear that he owes a debt to ANT (see, e.g., footnote 9 on p.7; p.11). He agrees with its critique of traditional STS and, to some extent, its critique of sociology in general. But he finds that it has its own troubles. The mangle is an attempt to deal with those troubles via a performative understanding (achieved through practice) rather than a representational understanding. Latour and other actor-network theorists, he charges, tend to shift between the two modes -- drawing on the performative understanding for much of their analysis, but shifting to a representational (semiotic) mode whenever they are called on it! (See pp.9-20, esp. p.13, footnote 20.) Indeed, Pickering says,

From my point of view, the most attractive feature of the actor-network approach is precisely that its acknowledgement of material agency can help us to escape from the spell of representation. It points to a thoroughgoing shift into the performative idiom. And from this perspective, the appeal to semiotics in the face of [criticism] looks like a kind of retreat, a return to the world of texts and representations that one does not wish to make. (p.13)

Pickering charges in a footnote that in actor-network theory -- particularly in Latour's work -- semiotics "seems invariably to be invoked under pressure" (p.13, footnote 20). He prefers John Law's approach of avoiding semiotics entirely -- and in fact the whole notion of appealing to performance sounds a lot like Law's later work (e.g., Aircraft Stories) as well as Mol's (e.g., The Body Multiple). In fact, Pickering's critique leads him to a difficulty I've discussed elsewhere, which is that ANT doesn't have a good account of cultural-historical development -- or, as Pickering expresses it, temporally emergent agency (p.14). Pickering's counter-account is that scientific practice involves a process of "tuning" or "delicate material positioning" in which material agency emerges through an interaction or dialectic among parts of the material environment -- some of which are human (p.14). More on this in a minute.

The second and related problem with ANT, according to Pickering, is that it implies interchangeability between human and material realms: "Semiotically, as the actor-network insists, there is no difference between human and nonhuman actors" (p.15). But clearly, Pickering argues, there are significant differences among various actors -- partial proof being that humans delegate tasks to nonhumans, but never the other way round. (I disagree with this point and tend to think that the notion of tuning is itself an example -- but let's leave that for now.) Yet

actor-network theory is onto something in its extended symmetry, actually two things. One is that there exist important parallels between human and material agency, concerning both their repetitive quality and their temporal emergence; the other is that a constitutive intertwining exists between material and human agency. (p.15)

Pickering goes on to discuss his own vision, in which fields of machines are "enveloped by human practices" and around which we humans tend to act like machines (p.16). We do indeed have our own agency, our own intentionality with specific plans and goals, but we tune that agency with our material environment. "Disciplined human agency and captured material agency are, as I say, constitutively intertwined; they are interactively stabilized" (p.17). This interactive stabilization is later figured as a "dance of agency" (p.21). (Personally, I don't like dance metaphors very much; I can trace my dislike to Tom Kent's discussion of communication as a "hermeneutic dance" -- apparently "interpretive dance" was already in use.) And this leads us to what Pickering calls the "mangle":

The dance of agency, seen asymmetrically from the human end, thus takes the form of a dialectic of resistance and accommodation, where resistance denotes the failure to achieve an intended capture of agency in practice, and accommodation an active human strategy of response to resistance, which can include revisions to goals and intentions as well as to the material form of the machine in question and to the human frame of gestures and social relations that surround it.

The practical, goal-oriented and goal-revising dialectic of resistance and accommodation is, as far as I can make out, a general feature of scientific practice. And it is, in the first instance, what I call the mangle of practice, or just the mangle. (pp.24-25)

If you had trouble understanding that explanation, don't worry -- Pickering repeats it in more or less the same level of detail and volume of words throughout the book. n.b.: A mangle, apparently, is an "old-fashioned device ... used to squeeze the water out of the washing" (p.25).

Readers who have made it this far may note that Pickering's "dance of agency" is like Kent's "hermeneutic dance" in more than nomenclature. This "dialectic of resistance and accommodation" sounds very familiar to me, pragmatist in fact, and Pickering makes the pragmatist connection clear in Ch. 6 -- although I think he drops the ball by criticizing Donald Davidson's take on incommensurability without understanding that Davidson, whose work underpins Kent's, wrestled with the same basic problem and came up with the same basic answer. So do the actor-network theorists in much of their work, and Lucy Suchman, and others -- as Pickering acknowledges. So what is the ground-breaking significance of the mangle? I'm really not sure, and I confess that I'm not sure whether this is because I'm being thick or because Pickering is overselling his work. I lean toward the second interpretation, though, especially when Pickering explicitly tries to turn the mangle into a "theory of everything" in the last chapter. My note on p.203 reads: "Gee, the mangle does everything."

Although I'm critical of the totalizing claims of the mangle, I respect the degree to which Pickering has theorized and categorized the "dialectic of resistance and accommodation." All in all, this book is really valuable -- which is why I spent so much time reviewing it, of course -- although that value tends to be more in the critique than in the general solution.

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(New online book: Extreme Democracy)

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Aug 2004 18:47:26

Those who are interested in politics and technology might be interested in the new online, er, book Extreme Democracy. The book, which is still being put together, has a foreword by former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi -- which should tell you what you need to know about the enthusiasm and attitude in the collection. I'll try to review it soon.

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