This Academic Life
  Permanent contenders
Last night the Yankees kicked the crap out of the Red Sox, 19-8, in a marathon game that broke all kinds of records: it "established LCS game records for the most runs (19) and extra-base hits (13), t[ied] the marks for most hits (22), doubles (8) and home runs (4). The game was also the longest nine-inning contest in postseason history, clocking in at 4:20," according to's wrap-up. Kind of fun to watch as a Yankees fan, but a little boring after a while. I would have preferred a taught, tight game like the previous two; even though individual players like Matsui and Sheffield had great moments of triumph against what is actually a very good Red Sox pitching staff, the game as a whole wasn't played at the highest level of excellence. Give me a 1-0 pitching duel any day.

Almost immediately I can hear people grumbling about the evilness of the Yankees, how they don't "deserve" to win and advance to the World Series yet again (for the sixth time in seven years!). Fafblog nicely satirizes the habit of mind:

"But Giblets how can the Yankees suck if they have beaten the Red Sox so many times?" says me.
"That is not what sucking means!" says Giblets. "Sucking is a moral property Fafnir! It does not reflect what the Yankees have done but what the Yankees intrinsically are. And they are intrinsically evil and suck!"
"I am not sure about your theory of sucking Giblets," says me. "I always believed sucking was reducible to natural properties such as double-parkin your car or stiffin your roommate on rent or leavin in Pedro Martinez for too long."
"No!" says Giblets. "Sucking is an objective irreducible moral property an we can intuit when sucking is present! It is an objective moral truth that the Yankees suck!"

As though somehow "Yankeeness" were responsible for anything -- as though it were a cause rather than an effect. Yes, the Yankees seem to be permanent contenders for the World Series title, and have been so for years and years, but they have done this in different ways in different eras of the game. When having your own farm system was the way to generate the best players, the Yankees had a great one. When it became possible -- due to free agency and the income generated by regional sports networks -- to basically bypass the farm system and buy the best players from other teams, the Yankees started doing that. If anything is at fault here it is not the Yankee sand their "Yankeeness," but the system of rules and practices that permits a baseball team to win by playing something other than baseball.

But are they really playing something other than baseball? Let's think about this. There's the game of baseball proper, which is the thing played on the field between two teams; these games are officiated by umpires who are in turn policed by MLB, which also sets the schedule and decrees rule changes. So that's the game. Then there's the metagame: the things that baseball team organizations do off the field to improve their competitive chances. This includes playing the free agent market, maintaining a farm system, utilizing the draft effectively, making good trades, and even trying to keep other teams out of your region to increase your profits [as Peter Angelos has consistently done in the DC area; that seems to be changing, though, suggesting that either a) he lost that part of the metagame or b) they cut a deal to keep his profits up; or c) both].

Now, the metagame involves more than simply having a lot of money. You can have a large payroll and still field a crappy team (e.g. the New York Mets), or you can do very well on a smaller payroll (e.g. the Minnesota Twins or the Oakland A's). There are successful strategies on and off the field, and becoming a perpetual contender means doing well at both aspects. Doing well in the metagame means being able to field a team of talented players, and to fill up holes in that team by getting replacement players when you need them; this directly contributes to success in the game on the field, as you can play with more balanced teams that have a better chance of winning over the long term. The Houston Astros are a good example of team that is playing well on the field but not as well off the field (although their acquisition of Carlos Beltran during the season, and their courting of Roger Clemens to coax him out of "retirement," were brilliant moves), as evidence by the sorry state of their pitching rotation and bullpen. Because of their metagame failures, they can't field as good a team for the on-field competitions, and in the long run it will probably hurt them -- although they might get to the World Series this year anyway, due to random streakiness and the like.

Note that the aim here is not something unrealistic like "winning the world Series every year," because any given series involves so many random factors, like Curt Schilling developing a weird ankle thing or Mike Mussina suddenly pitching better than he has for a couple of years -- at least for six innings), that it really isn't a fair test or a realistic goal. Doing well over the long haul is the actual measure of success for a baseball team, the one that is meaningful; winning a particular game is largely a matter of luck. And that's what makes baseball such an exciting sport: anyone can win any particular game, but over time the system is set up to differentiate between good, sound teams and pure random happenstance. Anyone can play good or bad baseball for a short length of time; the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were doing quite well for a while this year, and the Yankees had some serious slumps over the course of the season. But in the end, the right teams made it to the playoffs ("right" defined in this case by their season win-loss records), and it is looking like the silliness of the contemporary playoff system will not succeed in producing an absurd match-up for the World Series. The "right" World Series would be a Yankees-Cardinals series, since those were the two best season records in baseball this year, and it is looking very likely that we will get that World Series -- much to the delight of those of us who are not enamored of the increased randomness introduced by such innovations as the wild card playoff spot.

Why am I writing about this? Not simply because I like pontificating about baseball, although I do so enjoy that :-) I want to forward a moral claim that emerges from the preceding analysis, and has direct relevance to the ongoing discussion between Magic and myself about competition and aggression, and the like: as long as the metagame associated with any particular game is connected to that game in a meaningful fashion, the hierarchal relations produced through competition are acceptable ones. And this also relates to a causal claim: in a situation like the one that I am envisioning, competition produces connexion of a sort that simply cannot be matched in a more cooperative setting.

Magic agreed with me that competition can in fact produce connexion through the "touché" moment -- when I acknowledge your skills, and salute you for a well-played round, and we suddenly and abruptly bond over the competitive activity -- but suggested that since competition's "true goal" was "the creation of winners and losers -- a goal that creates alienation" and hence impedes connexion. [He also suggested that I misplayed my argument by suggesting that the notion of "internal competition" was unstable; I disagree, and I think that the idea that we can keep competition purely internal is logically problematic for precisely the same reasons as Wittgenstein thought that a "private language" was problematic -- any activity that has rules implies a social practice of enforcing those rules, and whether or not we organize that practice formally or not seems a secondary issue. How we organize that practice: now there's a more interesting issue.] So the burden on me now is to demonstrate that competition doesn't inevitably lead to connexion-destroying alienation. And my argument is that as long as competition is organized like baseball is organized, alienation need not result and connexion can be generated through the recognition of excellence in the other player.

Think about it. What is problematic to people about, say, the campaign system in the United States? I'd venture that it is the complete and utter disconnect between the "game" -- the clash between visions of the country -- and the "metagame" -- the ability to generate large sums of privately donated cash, and to dominate the airwaves and the popular press with repetitions of slogans instead of carefully worked-out arguments. Case in point: Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy released an open letter signed by a veritable who's who of IR scholars that advanced arguments about how the invasion of Iraq was inconsistent with the war on terrorism. US news media coverage: minimal. (Foreign news coverage: high. Google "security scholars sensible foreign policy" to see who has picked up the story.) Does this have anything whatsoever to do with the "game" -- the argument advanced in the open letter? No. Instead, what gets into the public sphere for discussion is determined by factors having nothing to do with the game, but instead with a whole different set of factors. It's as if winning at baseball had nothing to do with your on-field performance at all. And that rankles, and hurts, and impedes connexion -- unless one shifts games entirely, starts to play "shape the public space" full-time, and ignores the argument's intellectual coherence altogether. I suppose that would work to produce connexion among spin-meisters -- James Carville and Mary Matlin may be cases in point here -- but at the cost of abandoning the original game entirely.

The same can be said of the academic profession, I suppose. There's clearly a "metagame" involving invisible colleges, citation circles, mutual back-patting and reinforcing, and cross-promotion of one another's students. At the same time, there's this game involving argument, evidence, debate, and so forth. But there is a disconnect between on-field performance and professional success, so that we have people who can't make or even appreciate good arguments officiating over the major journals and public spaces in the discipline, shaping that space according to some completely different set of criteria. Once again the divorce of the game and the metagame produces an imperfectly competitive situation, in which one can "win" via dirty tricks and nonsense as opposed to winning by fielding the better team.

In baseball, this can't happen because at the end of the day teams still have to compete with one another, and these competitions have rules and procedures for adjudication that are intersubjectively valid and thus produce locally non-arbitrary outcomes. (John Searle would probably say that the rules of baseball were ontologically subjective but epistemically objective, which strikes me as a bizarre conflation of two distinct claims that is only made possible by an unquestioned root individualism: just because something appears to be "objective" from the perspective of an individual involved in the activity, as the rules of baseball appear to a player or a manager, does not mean that these rules enjoy some kind of transcendental status! Calling them "epistemically objective" confuses the issue, IMHO, by obscuring the extent to which those rules are nothing but systematized social practices, and that the process of achieving consensus about those practices may adopt the form of honing in on a correspondence with something that pre-exists the consensus itself without actually having anything pre-existing to correspond to. You and I discuss the rules and then go to the rulebook to adjudicate our argument; then we generally have to argue about what the rule means, and hopefully end up achieving some kind of consensus. But there wasn't a "right answer" out there waiting for us to discover it in advance, which is what a phrase like "epistemically objective" seems to imply. Even consensus about the validity of a statement like "there is no money in my checking account" is intersubjectively achieved rather than simply adjudicated by an appeal to the Real True Facts In The World, as we need to set rough boundaries on words like "no" and "my" and "money" in order to evaluate the statement in the first place; those boundaries, and not "the world," produce the truth and falsity of the statement.)

What I mean is this: there can be no dispute about who won a baseball game (except for the All-Star game a couple of years ago, which was a fiasco from start to finish and ended in a tie -- big scandal for a sport that always produces a clear winner and a clear loser in each game). There is a rough intersubjective consensus about the rules, about what makes for a winning performance (outscoring your opponent, and keeping them from scoring) and what doesn't; there is also an appeals system involving umpires for ambiguous on-field situations, and even a process of appealing those decisions in certain cases. And because there is rough intersubjective consensus about these parameters, and because the metagame is derivative of the central game itself (since everyone, rich and poor alike, still has to field a team), the hierarchical relations of winner and loser that the system generates need not lead to alienation and a lack of connexion. In that sense the game is fair. And to the extent that it is not, it can be tweaked through luxury taxes and other forms of redistribution of financial resources, a proposal that I generally support in the name of keeping the whole enterprise going.

Back to academia: I'd submit that our problem is that we don't embrace the competitive character of argument sufficiently to produce this kind of a result. As a result, professional success has almost nothing to do with our on-the-field play, and it's hard to produce the kind of connexion only generated by tough competitive interaction. But academia is weird in that we claim that we are interested in arguments, which gives space -- like panels and journals -- in which arguments can be engaged as arguments, which is to say, competitively. Now, people aren't used to this, so they are sometimes taken aback when I and others like me suddenly start taking the arguments advanced by various scholars very very seriously as arguments, and picking apart their inconsistencies or demonstrating that they have implications that the authors might not have foreseen. It's like everyone is getting together for a "friendly" game of softball (not quite sure what that means, but I have heard the expression before) and I show up and start playing hard. Not at all sure why one would ever play lightly or partially or weakly, though, unless perhaps you were playing with younger players and trying to teach them the game…and that would be pedagogical. (Although I am a fan of a pedagogy that challenges, so I play hard in the classroom too -- but it is surrounded by a different metagame involving debriefing, support, and constructive criticism for future improvement.)

In a conference setting, I am not trying to teach my professional peers (!) how to play the game. I assume that they already know how to play the game, and I come for a good tussle with the potential to lead to connexion. And I judge that taking those competitive situations seriously, exploiting the ambiguity of the game/metagame relationship that academic still affords, may help to improve the discourse of the profession in various ways. That may be a tactical error. But ultimately what I am interested in is connexion and not the profession, which is just a means (more often an impediment) to an end.

[Side-note: the notion of "being collegial" also impedes the competition in which I am interested. This is a particularly vicious metagame move used to shut down a good argument, especially within a departmental setting; it's especially nasty when a senior colleague pulls it out instead of responding to the arguments of a junior colleague about, say, hypothetically, the appropriate standards to use in evaluating a proposal for an honors thesis that the junior colleague has to approve on behalf of the honors program after the senior colleague has agreed to serve as the advisor for the project. And the senior colleague advances the ridiculous argument that a descriptive exploration of the issues involved in some conflict, drawing on secondary sources and a few interviews with activists, qualifies as a senior honors thesis, and the senior colleague then refuses to engage the junior colleague's entirely reasonable point that a senior honors thesis should at the very least have a research question and a literature review, plus something like a methodologically sound proposal for answering the initial question…no, no, don't raise objections, be "collegial" -- which means, back off and let me have my way, you insolent young punk. All hypothetically, of course. Such a thing would be deeply alienating, were it ever to occur, and it would be alienating precisely because the senior colleague would have refused to play the game and would instead have turned to a metagame with resources completely unconnected to performance on the field. And that would be inconsistent, and problematic, and wrong. Hypothetically.]

If there is alienation generated by competition, it is generated by competition in which advantages accrue to one side because of reasons that have nothing to do with the play of the game. So the solution is not to eliminate competition -- something I think largely impossible to accomplish, and not very desirable either: homogeneity is boring -- but to make it more explicit, more formal, more intersubjectively acknowledged. More like baseball.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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