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Everybody Knows Me Now

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“Look up here. I’m in heaven.” When Bowie wrote it, he at least suspected he was going to die. Ostensibly, when he recorded the video, he knew he was going to die. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama–can’t be stolen.” Going to heaven is an introvert’s worst nightmare.

Perhaps he wasn’t writing about his own death. Perhaps he was writing about Stephen Hawking’s impending doom. The brainiac Science-worshipers, the moral elites, the dispassionate purveyors of fact-based justice–they demonstrated their chops at the maudlin: “He’s zooming around the cosmos, now,” demonstrating that their maudlin sentimentality is at least on par with the unchurched Presbyterian daughter, whose father just died, and who says, “He’s looking down and smiling, now,” demonstrating their desire for something after a bitter end.

“I’m in heaven!” is greeted by a chorus of guitars tuned to the dirge. We know Stephen Hawking did not believe in heaven. Did Davie Bowie believe in heaven? “Well, David Bowie is looking down on us now, now, our celestial Major Tom.”

Ugh.

He’d built quite a catalogue. Perhaps the near-certain spike in sales would pierce into the heavens themselves, where we might achieve a near-certain nirvana, living in harmony. It was supposed to be here. It was supposed to be in New York, where ordinary men can live like kings, ruling the world with a mere scowl, a sardonic quip, and an encroaching horizon. The encroaching horizon was welcome. The cancer was not.

He’s dead, and now I’ve reviewed his catalogue, and with the wonders of YouTube, I’ve seen every televised or otherwise visually-recorded interview with David Bowie, of whom I am a fan on-again, off-again. I’ve analyzed every tic, probed every Straussian utterance, and scrutinized every single transformation as he sought Transfiguration.

I mean, that androgyny bit was just shtick, wasn’t it? It was shtick to conceal. He wanted us to know him, but he wanted us to know that it was all just a show, and the shtick enabled him to sell more records and more tickets.

I don’t believe that for one second, and that’s what he dreaded in dying. His work becomes static without him. He rots away, and his catalogue lies in state. We’re going to know him now.

We know he was a type, and he was a noble type, though tragic. As for me, I was off-again when he said some particularly nasty things about my God, but, then again, my fellow-Christians did some things to sully the name of my God, so why wouldn’t he say some particularly nasty things about my God? Was he looking for God, but when he saw him, he saw those things which sully? Who will wipe up all David’s filth? “Look up here! I’m in heaven!”

Heaven is no place to be when you are fond of hiding yourself behind a fortress of your own filth. “Oh, no, everybody knows me now.” With knowledge is judgment. With judgment, there is no love, only merit. And merit scratched only reveals the fortress of filth. We all know him now, but we all already knew him. We were hoping he’d find a way for us. Instead, he backed into a casket which embraced him with its doors.

The song is called “Lazarus.” Lazarus was raised from the dead. Lazarus was carried up by the angels to nestle in the bosom of Abraham. “Look up here” is a taunt. From where are we looking? For whom is the dirge? Does everybody know him now?



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adamgurri
4 days ago
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In Defense of “Men Without Chests”

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The End of History and the Romantic Return

Many public commentators, including Tyler Cowen and Yuval Levin,  have noted that ours is an age of Western nostalgia. People seem to long for a mythology of time past, when ‘things were in their place’, and the heads of the common folk were held high. Furthermore, of a time when belief in a transcendent public cause was dominant, and the individual responded to commands made by the group. Populists and nationalists across the board have heard the call and spread it with abandon. Leading the pack has been Trump’s bombastic sloganeering and moves towards restricted movement of people and migration, xenophobic rhetoric, protectionism in trade, and other policies reminiscent of earlier populist movements. In France, Marine LePen has railed against globalization and attacked what she sees as a dominant ‘neoliberal’ free market order. These views, along with her harsh stances on migrants and refugees, particularly from Arab, African, and Islamic countries, are (if anything) more virulent than Trump’s own. They have been followed by similar movements and figures across Europe and in certain non-Western developing countries such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.

Some time ago, Francis Fukuyama called attention to this potential turn in modern liberal democratic politics in his book “The End of History and the Last Man”. Fukuyama is often characterized as making the claim that the liberal democratic state itself is the Final Form (™) of political organization into which we will all inevitably transform, that the rough and tumble of social change is over. For Fukuyama, the End of History represents the move out of constant tribal warfare and premodern forms of social behaviour and interaction. It is true that Fukuyama argued that the institutional framework of liberal democracy was the most workable set of structures given the contradictions and tensions society faces. However, it is crucial to stress that his larger argument was to demonstrate the profound ways in which modern institutions represent something uniquely new in human organization and self-understanding.

Crucially, what Fukuyama was truly calling attention to the power of the ideas that liberal modernity reflects. It is the ideas of liberalism and democracy and the related bundle of concepts that ever after, change the way we think about the world and what is normatively important in our social structures, unlike that of regimes in much of previous history. Notably, liberal democracy philosophically challenges the competitors to it to self-justify in contrast. We can find this phenomenon in many places, from attempts by illiberal regimes to defend their human rights record at the UN, to reactionary leaders spinning rhetoric that damns liberalism whole cloth.

In the words of Salvador Dali: “Don’t bother about being modern. Unfortunately, it is the one thing that, whatever you do, you cannot avoid.” Or as the sociologist Peter Berger might put it, in the world we live in, everyone is a heretic.

A second key emphasis are the significant ways in which Fukuyama was not uncritically sanguine or confident about History as nothing but a fading theme. He had argued, via Hegel, that the search for recognition was a key driver of institutional and social shifts over time. For Fukuyama, a central theme of the transitions of history have been about how to confront thymos– the deep desire in all of us to hold status and be valued as unique and important. At the same time, he emphasized that the face of recognition, like that of Janus, has more than one side.

As Paul Sagar recently noted:

Some human beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best – and others will resent them for that, and vie back. This has the potential to cause a lot of trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they don’t feel that they are getting it, they break things – and people – in response.

It was this psychological feature of people, Fukuyama claimed, that guaranteed that although we might have reached the end of History, there was nothing to be triumphalist about. Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist democracy – could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent conflicts and contradictions – it didn’t mean that the unruly and competitive populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that. Late capitalist modernity might be the highest civilizational point we could achieve, because it contained the fewest contradictions. But there was strong reason to suspect that we’d slide off the top, back into History, down into something worse.

This was because, Fukuyama thought, human beings didn’t just exhibit thymos, but also what he termed ‘megalothymia’: a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways. Megalothymia was by no means always or necessarily a bad thing: it was what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works of art, found empires and political movements, and generally help push the direction of History forwards. But if not channelled to appropriate ends it could quickly turn vicious, finding an outlet in the domination and oppression of others.

This urge for recognition not solely as one of equally portioned human dignity, but as a force which can edge into dominance and social control, is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, many of these themes can be found in what Isaiah Berlin famously termed ‘’The Counter-Enlightenment”, and the emergence of Romanticism in the 19th century.

The Romantic movement was a composed out of many different cultural and philosophical impulses. Part of Romanticism was a rebellion against the ideal of reason as held up by the Enlightenment, understood as the chief tool in solving the various political, social and philosophical problems we face. Romantics argued that the focus on reason had dulled the most essential parts of humanity, the primeval spirits which make life full of flavour and depth. They attacked the modernist project for seeking to make life too ordered, too regular, too peaceful, too lacking in tragedy, grand narratives and extreme, sacralised passions.

As an illustration, consider this conversation between John the Savage and Mustapha Mond in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’

‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer, the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ There was a long silence.

‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.

Naturalism served as another focal point. Romantics prized a return to nature, to the baser urges in humanity for physicality through sex and free love. It counseled in favour of the primitive over the press and push of industrial civilization. We can find this view in many places, from the poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley to the work of thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Nietzsche. They sought authenticity and self-discovery, a precursor to the generations that would come with the beatniks and the hippies. At the same time, they often interpreted this authenticity in favour of a restrictive elitism, in which certain exalted individuals and ‘Great Men’ held a natural superiority and self-identity to the rest that made their passions and interests more important than those of ‘’common people”.

This lead many Romantics to also emphasize a move towards the collective against the concept of the autonomous individual. They argued that we should divert the passions of self in favour of a group mission that was bigger than any one person, to achieve a way of being higher than our own self-directed preferences. This permitted these people uniquely to act as leaders and reflect the “General Will’’ of the group. Emergent with these themes were ideologies of nationalism, social hierarchy and racial division. Romanticism easily led into the writings of authors such as Johann Fichte, Johann Herder, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and others, who brought racialism and volkisch ideology to the fore.

However, intellectual history is extremely complex, and the division I have been describing is a deeply crude generalization about different historical and philosophical debates with a variety of perspectives (such as Enlightenment divides between anti-authoritarian individualists and technocratic central planners, and/or between skeptics and advocates of the unrestricted application of reason). Thus, perhaps contrary to some recent accounts, the Enlightenment (as the name unhelpfully encourages) was not a simple binary between the forces of reason and liberty against those of mysticism and authority.  Nonetheless, we can arguably identify an important broad split, between the believers in the idea of progress and scientific inquiry, in working towards social uplift, in the values of moral equality, universal autonomy and common suffrage, and those who argued for a return to the passions, to enmity between groups, to primal urges and strong hierarchy.

We can find a recurrence of these themes in the rhetoric and focus, both explicitly in the alt-right, as well as less bluntly via the return of modern populism. For the alt-right, like their declinist forebears, liberal democracy has abandoned the natural divisions of mankind, between social groups, gender, and most prominently, race and ethnicity. They call themselves, in the words of Richard Spencer, the defenders of “ethnostatism”, and “white nationalism”. In strategic and economic terms, they see the world in “win-lose”, rather than “win-win” sets of exchanges. They are staunch critics of free and open economies, paralleling their larger vendetta against pluralistic, egalitarian and cosmopolitan institutions.

Likewise, for the new populism, the only way forward is to work in terms of group dominance, putting natives before foreigners, majorities before minorities, and so on. This zero-sum mentality parallels that of the alt-right, albeit in less explicit racialized terms. For populists, the answer to the problems of contemporary life is to seek solace in strongman leaders who will represent these interests, “get things done”, and “speak their minds”, feeding from, as well as encouraging, the drives of the public. Furthermore, these leaders are perceived representatives of a restorative zeitgeist that will re-establish lost honour. They will Make America Great Again.

As Fukuyama presciently argued, for these late children of the Romantics, what is truly disturbing about modernity has been the emergence of “men without chests”. This phrase, borrowed from Nietzsche, describes the social condition of people in modernity who no longer wish to live with the hierarchies and power relations of old. Modern people have put aside concepts like honour, spread thinly in the distribution of status, in favour of doctrines like the equality for all.

Yet, this move towards moral egalitarianism and respect for persons is only part of what I think is truly problematic for the alt right, and indeed, for the new populism. Liberalism, as the central ideology of the modern world, is a creed that prioritizes liberty and equality as its defining political values. As a result, it dismisses ‘megalothymia’ in favour of simply ‘thymia’. Liberalism insists on universal recognition, equality, and freedoms for all. As Jeremy Waldron argues, the Enlightenment contribution was to declare all human beings dignified, to raise them up, and by doing so, level the moral playing field. As I will discuss, these ethical shifts went hand in hand with institutions that produce systems of dynamism over stasis. This has proven to be deeply unsettling for many. Crucially however, these are not bugs, but features. On net, they present an array of opportunities, compared with the potential for loss.

Modern Disruption and Liberal Existentialism

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”  – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

“The absurd depends as much upon man as upon the world.”

– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

As creatures of late or even post-modernity, we constantly seek new ways of finding our place in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world. Market forces under inclusive institutions, while immensely powerful and responsible for the single greatest reduction in poverty in all of world history, are also extremely disruptive- hence the justly famous notion of “creative destruction”. Democratic and republican systems have likewise reshaped the relations between rulers and those they govern, making the state (if very imperfectly) more accountable to the public. At the same time, they have resulted in the tug and pull of messy coalitions, constant turnover and party politicking. This sharply contrasts with the predictable rhythms of monarchy or tribe, in which power rarely changed hands and dynasties stretched on for long periods. As the world industrialized, huge movements of people traveled from the country to the city, changing ways of life for millions.

Overall, modern life has been characterized by massive social changes. As Max Weber famously argued, modernity “disenchanted” the world, replacing the mystical warmth of traditional and charismatic authority with coldly bureaucratic legalism and the “iron cage” of mechanical efficiency and rational calculation. Thus, while the new populism may be attributable in varying degrees to both economic disruption and xenophobic nativism, these elements are but triggers for a larger existential sense that the world is not set firmly on it’s moorings, and that some kind of larger spiritual home is missing. As a result, the populist revival is notably welded to reconceiving peoplehood, nation and group identity, to recover the sense of psychic stability found in premodern villages and tribes. Like the inventions of the concepts of biblical “inerrancy”, “literalism” and “infallibility” (far less common in premodern religious hermeneutics), the new populism trades on a need to rebuild a foundational creed. It is no accident, for example, that the alt-right is full of romance for the tropes of the medieval era.

As Benedict Anderson noted in his classic study Imagined Communities, the construction of national identities in the modern era came on the heels of the social and cognitive trends outlined by Weber. Its social roots grew in the soil of modern technologies like the printing press and later industrialism, contributing to the spread of national languages along with standardized calendars and time keeping, feeding into broader cultural self-conceptions. Over time, people began to view themselves not as members of a local area with its own dialect and customs, but as member of a larger social group. These organic shifts were expanded upon and purposefully manipulated by ruling authorities to pull disparate groups together, via the self-conscious creation of patriotic narratives of common belonging. Notably, modern governments wed the natural emergence of a common culture in service of state power and imperialist war-making. This “reactionary modernism” sought somewhat paradoxically use the tools of modernity such as the mass media to reify premodern, mythic narratives of group pride and control. Notably, these stories never rested on any genuine historical narrative, but rather the simulacra of one. It is not insignificant that Bismarkian militarism appropriated Wagnerian opera, which was itself a kind of pastiche of pagan warrior narratives, reconceived as the past primeval history of Germany. Likewise, it is important that Napoleon attempted to portray himself as the heir to Charlemagne.

These collective narratives emerged alongside a distinctly different cognitive shift. In his opus, Sources of the Self, the philosopher Charles Taylor argued that a defining component of modern life was the discovery and construction of the self. For Taylor, the concept of the self is a modern invention, emergent from prior concepts like the soul, but not contiguous with them. My awareness and sense of “Me”, as a fully separate person with a distinct personality, individual tastes and preferences, needing both physical and emotional space only developed fully in the modern era, resulting from a number of technological, economic, political and cultural factors. Over time, there was a notable break from a person existing as a subsumed unit of the group or the body politic, to seeing oneself as a unique being with a one’s own path. From such changes came the creation of literary forms like the novel, focusing around the trials and tribulations of a specific protagonist, with his or her own self-created journey. We discovered what it means, as Virginia Woolf put it, to have “a room of one’s own.”

This emergence however, has been two sided. Having to figure out who I am and what I’m all about is often rife with confusion and anxiety. The ability to be authentic and true to myself, with a distinct place in a universe that will often feel strange or absurd, is a lifelong struggle. Modern liberal democracies provide little guide here, as systems marked by their principled support for a heavily pluralistic individualism. They hold to the idea, as articulated by thinkers like John Stuart Mill, that there is no single “good life” appropriate for everyone, and together with post-Lockean and Kantian liberalism, in the value of each person as a separate end in themselves, owed equal respect and human rights.

As such, liberal democratic states (at least ideally) try to refrain from setting too much prescription on how to live or on whose life is truly of value, believing such judgements should emerge from the appreciation of the many communities that compose it, seeking different goals and interests. Likewise, the heavily associational and multicultural environment of democracy provides a plethora of options. Therefore, it is often very unclear what the “true” hierarchy is, and what kind of recognition society should assign, and to whom. Some people think of professional athletes as extremely important, while others could care less. There are people that love and revere great chefs, or the Pope, or reality tv stars. Still others prefer the writers of dark surrealistic graphic novels, musicians who play melancholic progressive death metal, and Shakespearean actors that wax philosophically in cult science fiction series.

This deep ambiguity about who we should honour can be tremendously unsettling. The fact that modern life is not wholly pre-set makes the work of carving out an existence that is satisfying more difficult, since it is always easier to rest on the winds of forces beyond you to assign value to the world. It thus perhaps unsurprising that modern individualism reached new heights together with the creation of tribal nationalism and populism. And I find it interesting that the libertine 1910’s and 20’s led into the era of fascism in the 30’s and 40’s.

Yet as Taylor alsoreminds us, the idea of the self, the ability to find out where we are, and where we might be, presents a grand opportunity to discover meaning in ways never before possible, and to uncover a deeper sense of what life can offer us.  The lack of any guarantee for certain kinds of recognition also comes with the possibility to create new forms of recognition that were never previously available.  As Taylor noted in “The Politics of Recognition”, one important idea of the Romantics was the ideal of authenticity, which pushed against certain rationalist Enlightenment trends that dismissed the value of being true to oneself and one’s experiences.

There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life. But this notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.

These social elements of liberalism – the prioritization of understanding oneself, and the possibility for many ways of living, present people with both the ability and the moral necessity of carving their own stories. It leads people toward creating communities that work on their behalf, and to forge relationships that are even more meaningful for having been made by them, rather than for them. In his powerful classic defense of a libertarian minimal state, Robert Nozick emphasized this point as the key inspirational feature of his vision. For Nozick, the deep existential appeal of the minimal state is the opportunity to pursue one’s own ends, in seeking the life that best reflects each person’s own commitments. However, Nozick’s argument can be understood not merely in service of a strictly night-watchman government, but more broadly in the spirit of liberal pluralism. As Nozick writes,

There will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.

Thus, not only are liberal ideals important as a matter of not perpetuating oppression, but also as a matter of enriched living. As John Tomasi argues, liberal institutions (particularly economic ones) are valuable not simply because they address concerns over rights and justice, but also because they present us with opportunities for self-authorship.

A crucial insight here is that recognition and success do not have to be zero sum. There can be, and is, a natural harmony of interests, if only those opportunities are appreciated. The world does not have to be divided, as the fascist philosopher Carl Schmidt would have it, between friends and enemies. Rather, the game of recognition can be played mutually, as a product of living in a civil society with many opportunities for association and collective solidarity. To be great and make significant contributions do not need to come at the expense of others, but as part of a reciprocal process of belonging to different communities that make up a larger body politic. Different relationships can exist in stronger forms within civil associations and local communities. Weaker but nonetheless important connections can exist across the whole of society, with all its different parts. We do not need to feel threatened by the reassignment of recognition, if we make efforts to realize its potential.

I realize that this argument may not appeal to those who do not find this way of living and set of values sufficient. My purpose here is simply to defend against the charge that simply because liberalism is less prescriptive, more dynamic, and in favour of universal dignity, that it lacks a robust message about the possibility of meaning. Noting this is vital, not merely as a matter of abstract philosophy, but as a fighting creed. As liberal societies are increasingly driven by rifts over identity, it is crucial that different paths of meaning are open to people, that they can create lives for themselves that feel valuable and important without being exclusionary. While liberal institutions undoubtedly have a lot of work to do in achieving greater justice for many groups, particularly minority communities, it nonetheless remains a set of social relations that has and can succeed in offering lives of worth for everyone.

Featured image is from Public Domain Pictures

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adamgurri
13 days ago
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Autogyros

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I understand modern autogyros are much more stable, so I've probably angered the autogyro people by impugning their safety. Once they finish building the autogyros they've been working on in their garages for 10 years, they'll come after me.
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adamgurri
27 days ago
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3 public comments
satadru
23 days ago
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Autogyros can do VTOL if the horizontal rotor is spun up by a motor just for takeoff. I wonder why more drones aren't built in autogyro configurations. Apparently companies are working on it? http://www.unmannedsystemstechnology.com/2016/11/groen-aeronautics-to-develop-vtol-gyroplane-drones/
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alt_text_at_your_service
27 days ago
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I understand modern autogyros are much more stable, so I've probably angered the autogyro people by impugning their safety. Once they finish building the autogyros they've been working on in their garages for 10 years, they'll come after me.
Vixy
27 days ago
Wait what is the one thing?
hobbified
27 days ago
Adding thrust and putting the nose down when there's insufficient lift from the rotor. This makes you fall out of the sky.
alt_text_bot
27 days ago
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I understand modern autogyros are much more stable, so I've probably angered the autogyro people by impugning their safety. Once they finish building the autogyros they've been working on in their garages for 10 years, they'll come after me.

3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

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The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

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adamgurri
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Clinical Comedy

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It is impossible to change people’s minds. Every new fact is taken as confirmation of pre-existing bias, every criticism of our in-group taken as a sign of the critic’s bad faith. We are more sure than ever that we are more sure than ever, we are of one opinion on our stubbornly divided opinions. Everything is seen as a confirmation of confirmation bias.

I mean to persuade you that rather than expanding our understanding of persuasion or the lack thereof, cognitive science has lead us astray. Our public rhetoric has been polluted with an ever-expanding vocabulary of bias and tribalism and irrationality. It should come as no surprise that the pop-science version of this literature has overreached. Cognitive scientists themselves are often complicit in this popularization. More to the point, they approach the matter in question with a fundamentally flawed framework. In so doing, they have damaged our belief in the possibilities of public discussion, and warped our understanding of ourselves.

In March of 2010, Abdesslem Trimech committed self-immolation in protest of injustice. A humble street vendor lit the powder keg which sent Tunisia’s president packing and began what became known as the Arab Spring. But Trimech was not that street vendor. Instead, a different street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, committed self-immolation nine months later, leading to a much more dramatic response. Trimech, tragically, was met largely by silence—at least compared to what Bouazizi’s act appears to have done.

My theory of how these things work is modeled on stand-up comedy. There’s something mysterious about a truly successful set. The comic spends no small amount of time laying groundwork, and then lands a punchline that lights up the room. There’s a palpable effect; people loosen up, they’re more likely to laugh at things they might have only chuckled at mere moments earlier. In a sense, the comedian seeks to master the room rather than any specific people in it. But he never knows ahead of time, or even most of the time he’s up, whether he’s going to pull it off or not. Comedians, especially unknowns and especially unknowns performing at open mics, step into a situation of great uncertainty and emotional vulnerability.

Even seasoned comics with well-tested material can blow it and face the agony of an uncomfortably or tensely silent room. There’s never a guarantee, no matter how good they are, that this day won’t be a bad one, this performance won’t win the audience over. And that is after years of years of almost entirely bad days. In short, it takes not only practice, but considerable commitment in the face of discomfort and humiliation in order to become skilled at comedy.

Now imagine cognitive scientists attempting to study humor. They have a set of pre-written jokes and have people read them in a controlled environment. Or use your imagination—try to think of any controlled environment in which they could systematically study humor. I can’t. Professional comedians brave pitiless audiences for years in order to master the art of formulating and delivering jokes. If they can’t be guaranteed to make you laugh, do you really think cognitive scientists could, much less reliably and in a way that replicates?

It is no wonder that cognitive scientists make it seem as though we never change our minds. It is much easier to create conditions which fail to change our minds than the other way around! Just as it is a lot easier to elicit polite chuckles than to make your audience laugh so hard they tear up.

The conditions in which we change our minds are highly personal and contingent. Cognitive scientists have never reliably created those conditions in lab settings. If they could, they would make some marketers extremely rich! We ought to be more skeptical of claims in this domain. Persuasion, comedy, and mass movements occur in complex social environments where tons of people spend a lot of time, thought, effort, and money trying to develop the skill to reliably change people’s minds, make them laugh, or get them to take action. The things you can learn on these topics in a controlled environment are just so vanishingly small, and so insignificant.

But the impact of the claims that cognitive scientists and popularizers make are not insignificant. Like a joke told at an open mic, they can land or they can fall flat. Only in this case, when they land, the effect is more than laughter. It is closer to the case of the Arab Spring. It alters our sense of what is possible, and in the realm of rhetoric, politics, and society, our sense of what is possible is very hard to distinguish from what is possible. A crucial facet of a liberal order is a commitment to handle problems through agreement, argument, and compromise. In persuading us that persuasion is impossible, popularized cognitive science effectively argues against argument itself. The alternative to persuasion is, quite obviously, force. The very success of cognitive science is ample demonstration of both the power of persuasion, and its dangers.

 

Featured image is Stand-up Comedy, by Carlos Delgado

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adamgurri
41 days ago
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The Really Real

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“There is no ‘we’,” was a catchphrase among the GMU econ company I kept when I went to grad school there. The only really real things were individuals, who made choices, had preferences, and had blood running through their veins, by God! Groups are not really real. They are a myth, a superstition, and excuse for the strong to continue the exploitation of the weak that has gone on since the first social hierarchy was established.

Years later, I explore the communitarians. They seemed to say that there could be no individual at all, without community. I talked with Catholic leftists who would spit out the accusation of “Thatcherite!” at the mere mention of the word “individual.”

The communitarians seem to have some powerful insights, but the community which glued it all together and made these insights work eluded me. Every time I thought I had my hands on it, it melted away and I had to start anew.

I asked, “what is community?” I kidnapped Dave away from his loving wife and children, at any hour of the night or day, to demand an answer of him. I asked and I asked.

Benedict Anderson, a Marxist, made his legacy on the claim that communities are imagined. But this was not the claim of my GMU mentors, who insisted on the unreality of “we.” Anderson’s communities were imagined only in as much as they were so large, we can never meet all of their members, even though we strongly believe that they are there, and that we stand in a meaningful relationship to them. Anderson did not deny groups in order to embrace only the “really real,” and criticized Marxists who did:

With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

Examples of these “styles” include vast networks of kinship, Christendom, and Anderson’s primary subject matter, the nation.

By the time I began scratching my itch to understand community until I drew blood, I had already been lead to view things through the lens of intersubjective relationality; or the language-games of Wittgenstein and Gadamer. But a community is not a game. So what is it? The grounds of the game, in some abstract sense?

The metaphor of the game was one way of approaching the question of human relationality. But there are many types of relations. In the wee hours, as I interrogated him for some sign of how I might understand this question of community, Dave modestly suggested that membership might have something to do with it. It took quite some time for me to listen to what he was saying.

One thing that helped crystalize this for me was reading Michaele Ferguson’s book Sharing Democracy, in which she attempted to discuss imagined community as I might have, before my many conversations with Dave. Here is the relevant part of my review:

Intersubjective relations are a useful starting place, but relationality per se is not very informative. There are many types of relations, with different implications in different contexts. One important relation that is absent from Ferguson’s analysis is membership. This relation is not between individuals, but between an individual and an entity—an “imagined” entity, in Anderson’s sense, though this is misleading. When the conditions are right, such entities are no more or less imagined than money. Imagined social entities in which individuals are members are precisely the collective agencies that Ferguson mis-defines.

I could not see the entity for so long. But it’s there, often explicitly acknowledged in the ways we relate to one another. We play various roles in our social games, and these roles relate to our standing as members in some common group – or of rival groups, or of cooperating but nevertheless distinct groups. The way our imagined communities shape our relations to one another as individuals is as real as the way money influences our behavior. Free will is not subsumed; I can choose not to accept money. I can choose to walk away. But the reality of what I’m walking away from is not changed by this; I could have taken that money, and I could have used it to acquire possessions or hire people to render services.

So too with the group – it is precisely because I am a citizen of the United States of America, living within the territory of its sovereign body, that I expect to be able to use dollars and not pounds to acquire my possessions. It is because I am an employee of a company that I expect they will let me enter the building and go into the area outsiders are not allowed to wander through unescorted.

Anderson makes reference to “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” which he excepts, tentatively, from being “imagined.” This is a kernel of the Romantics, who judged modernity as false against the really real of the authentically primitive. In the mouth of a Romantic, just as in the mouth of an economic individualist, “imagined” is spat, much like “Thatcherite” in the mouth of a Catholic leftist. It is an epithet against that which is not really real.

Perhaps it is time we loosened our grip on the really real, and grew more comfortable with the reality of the imagined.



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adamgurri
45 days ago
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