This Academic Life
  Anything but the void?
In this day and age, what we seem to fear the most is randomness. The idle metaphysical speculations that I have been posting lately as I try to articulate the importance of contingency in realms as empirically different as that of organized baseball and social theory touch on something that I think bothers all of the societies suffering from Enlightenment hangovers -- and bothers them in ways that no other societies have been bothered. Donning my "anthropologist on [or, perhaps better, from] Mars" hat for a moment, I invite my readers to consider the following excerpt from an essay written by a superstitious Red Sox fan (is there any other kind?) before hell froze over and the Sox swept the Cards last week:

"Most of us, I suspect, would rather believe that the devil is running things than that no one is in charge, that our lives, our loves, World Series victories, hang on the whims of fate and chains of coincidences, on God throwing dice, as Einstein once referred to quantum randomness. I've had my moments of looking back with a kind of vertigo realizing how contingent on chance my life has been, how if I'd gotten to the art gallery earlier or later or if the friend I was supposed to have dinner with had showed up, I might not have met my wife that night, and our daughter would still in be an orphanage in Kazakhstan.

Anything but the void."

There's real pathos here, a genuine anxiety about the lingering possibility that "shit happens" really is the only valid account of events. And also the implication that if things are random, then they have no broader significance; the "vertigo" that the author speaks of seems to be induced by the sudden realization that nothing supports or upholds the way that things are except for the simple fact that things are that way, or at least seem to be. Maybe they aren't. Maybe we're even wrong about that, and we have no way of knowing it. Cue extreme existential angst.

But what is perhaps most fascinating and revealing in this article is that the author goes on to tell a story about how random chance rules the world. In so doing, he deploys a metaphor derived from quantum theory (or, at least, from stories about "quantum theory," since the distinguishing characteristic of the mathematics of quantum theory is precisely that they defy anything remotely like an ordinary narrative account. I don't think that anyone has yet improved on J.B.S. Haldane's observation -- albeit from a different context -- that the universe may be queerer than we can suppose, and quantum theory properly understood certainly provides yet another example of this) to justify his refusal to watch Red Sox games:

"But it's easy to imagine that in baseball, where a quarter of an inch or a hundredth of a second can be the difference between a home run and a grounder to first, the Heisenbergian touch can have a profound effect, and my words -- just the thought -- were enough to collapse the wave function and the Red Sox. The branch of the universe in which the Red Sox are winners split away into some other parallel space, as near as an irrevocable breath, as unreachable as a black hole."

The incident in question involves the the author's decision to turn on the TV during the tenth inning of game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and to allow himself to think that he was about the watch the Red Sox win the World Series…just a moment before the infamous incident where the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs and allowed the Mets to score the winning run, which was followed two evenings later by the Mets' victory in game 7. So the author draws on "quantum theory" (granted, in a tongue-in-cheek manner) to blame himself for the loss. Is this really any different than blaming the Red Sox's 86-year drought of World Series victories on the "Curse of the Bambino," supposedly derived from the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees shortly after the Red Sox's previous World Series victory in 1918? Or explaining dramatic Yankee comebacks in Yankee Stadium with reference to the "ghosts" hovering around the place?

Anything but the void, indeed. This appears to be so much a part of contemporary humanity, humanity the way we have constructed it for the moment, that we are incapable of living in a void; we spin stories like spiders spin webs. Even stories about random chance remain stories, accounts crafted in language that lend meaning and significance to the occurrences that they relate, even if they do so by virulently denying that there is any larger significance to those occurrences. Nietzsche's admonition in The Genealogy of Morals that "the human being would rather will nothing than not will" partakes of the same spirit: anything but the absence of meaning, even if the meaning is that there is no meaning.

Now, to be accurate, stories about curses and ghosts affecting the outcomes of baseball games aren't stories about meaninglessness; they are stories about The Universe Itself caring whether the Yankees or the Red Sox win and lose games. In this way they have more in common with salvation narratives and Enlightenment attempts at "universal" (or "philosophical") history, in which the author tries valiantly to grasp the inner course and direction of history as a whole. "The Universe hates me," like Machiavelli's stories of virtu-ous rulers being confounded by the evil bitch goddess Fortuna, work by displacing randomness in favor of its polar opposite: determinism. Ditto "the Universe loves me." In both of these cases, the outcome is foretold, and the course of occurrences is nothing but a little bit of local color. And as a result, nothing that any of the characters in the story can do will have much impact on the narrative flow; agency, as the capacity to have done otherwise, disappears. And in a final twist, determinist accounts often give rise to the suspicion that nothing holds them up other than the author's insistence on their validity, leading to cynical nihilism…but Nietzsche already said this so I'm not going to repeat his brilliant diagnosis of the sickness of the Enlightenment at this point.

There is a third option for telling stories, however: the embrace of contingency instead of either randomness or determinism. But in the social sciences, we seem to prefer accounts that incline to determinism, either the determinism of statistical correlations among variable attributes or the determinism of "progress" as the ultimate guarantor that our work is meaningful. Statistical correlations work reasonably well when we have a relatively closed system of social relations, which is why correlations are meaningful in the game of baseball -- but they don't yield determinism even there. As for "progress," well, I defy anyone to demonstrate that such a notion has any epistemic status other than that of ghosts and curses. (It might have normative status, but that's a different matter.)

Accounts based on either determinism or on randomness are problematic ones, if the teller of the tale has any desire to preserve agency. If we have social institutions that are erected to generate accounts on one or the other principle, such accounts might capture what is going on reasonably well, but they do so only by temporarily accepting the denial of agency that the institutions embody. ("The contemporary post-season generates random outcomes" is in this sense a story that reflects a set of social institutions, perhaps as a preparation for criticizing those institutions, but not necessarily -- some commentators love the randomness. "The academic job market / academic publishing market generates random outcomes for individuals" works the same way.) At the most extreme, anti-agentic accounts end up combining both misleading principles to generate strikingly silly arguments like this suggestion that Curt Schilling is the greatest post-season pitcher of all time

"That's the thing about discussions of greatness: They're not just straight analytics. They come with resonances of expectation and surprise. They're all bound up with the who, how, and when.… So even if Schilling never pitched another day in his life after Game 7 of the 2001 Series, he'd be in the discussion of great postseason performers because his stuff coincided with the stuff we carry around with us. Because it felt, as it was unfolding, pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning, historic. Momentous.… This [Schilling's ALCS game 6 performance, in which he pitched through extreme pain in his ankle] was mythic, woven into the incredible story of the Red Sox coming back from 0-3, carrying on its shoulders the birth of hope from where hope had died a sad, writhing death."

Please. Spare me. Here we have a celebration of the randomness of the post-season [parenthetically, it makes no sense to talk about "post-season greatness," because almost no one has enough innings played in the post-season (which used to be just the World Series itself) for their performances to mean much of anything] combined with the post-facto determinism of the innate near-divinity of Curt Schilling -- who is a very good pitcher, I'd argue, but not one of the game's all-time greats. What did Schilling do to deserve these accolades? He pitched well in a couple of key games. If he hadn't, the story would have been very different: the Red Sox made a mistake spending so much money on a has-been, the curse lives, etc. So the judgment that Schilling is "great" would have been very different if a few minor things had been different, illustrating the collapse of determinism into randomness.

Both judgments -- Schilling is great because of some clutch performances, Schilling is not great because of some clutch performances -- are in my opinion equally silly. Whether Schilling is a great pitcher or not depends not on his performance on any given day, but on his performance over the long term. Such a judgment would take contingency into account in a way that placing overmuch emphasis on singular events simply does not. And I will be deeply disturbed if the people who award the Cy Young award allow themselves to be influenced by arguments about "post-season greatness" and end up giving it to Schilling this year instead of to the far more worthy Johan Santana.

I run into this problem when designing syllabi all the time. Which works do I want to make students grapple with? I generally adopt something of a historical standpoint when teaching things like social theory or epistemology, and argue that it is important to read people like Weber and Popper and Searle and Wittgenstein at least in part because the conversation that came after them is all but incomprehensible without knowing what it is that they said. Plato is worth reading not because of some inherent greatness that The Republic possesses, and not because of some "timeless truths" that Plato communicates to contemporary readers out of the mists of history (in point of fact, one of the most striking things about Plato is just how different ancient Greek values were from ours, whether we're talking about epistemology or social mores), but because Machiavelli and Hobbes argued with him, and Kant argued with them, and Nietzsche and Habermas argued with him, right on up to the present moment. The story I tell to animate the syllabus is about contingency: things could have gone that way, but they didn't, they went this way, and if you want to understand what's going on now you need to know how things developed and why they did so. Nothing higher or deeper involved here, as far as I'm concerned; if you get vertigo in the absence of Absolute Certainty, don't look down.

Is there then no destiny that shapes our ends? Maybe from a God's-eye view, what we think of as random really isn't random. But we'd never know whether this were the case or not, given our apparent tendency to retrospectively reconstruct sequences of occurrences as though they had a coherent plot. But this is where faith enters the picture, stepping beyond the knowledge that we produce into something wholly different. In fact, I'd actually argue that embracing contingency is in no way incompatible with having faith in a divine plan, as long as that plan remains ineffable instead of rationally knowable: while a rationally knowable plan shades off into determinism, an ineffable divine plan (or meaning of history) gives us a narrative challenge: tell the story in such a way that a larger purpose emerges. And organize human social institutions in such a way that a larger purpose emerges, and doesn't get trampled under by sheer randomness or absolute determinism.

In this way, contingency -- the preservation of human agency -- emerges as the most defensible way to generate meaning and to preserve the human capacity for doing so. When we design our syllabi, when we write our accounts of occurrences, even when we enter into debates about baseball, we should keep that goal in mind. I would argue that connexion as a purpose, and certain kinds of competition as ways of enhancing and generating the worlding that emerges from and is implicated in such a way of being, advances this goal and preserves human agency. We should have the courage of our convictions, I think, and celebrate and defend contingency -- rather than continually trying to evade what may be our highest and truest calling as human beings.

[Posted with ecto]
This kind of thing is what bothers me about mainstream baseball analysis. The author -- a Post staff writer -- suggests that the 4-for-23 record of the Cardinals' 3, 4, and 5 hitters (Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds) in the World Series thus far is some kind of a blight on their regular-season record of excellence. As though the performance of the three through two games meant anything meaningful. In particular, the author argues:

"Most puzzling is Rolen's slump. He has yet to get his first hit of the World Series. Prior to the series, Schilling had said Rolen was perhaps well on his way to becoming the best third baseman in the history of the game. That designation seems unfair at this point."

Okay, hold on a second. Ted Williams -- Ted Williams, the "Splendid Splinter," the last man to bat over .400 in a season -- hit .342 during the 1946 regular season, but only hit .200 with no home runs during the World Series that year (also Red Sox-Cardinals). Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, and numerous other Hall of Fame hitters have experienced similarly dismal World Series performances in the midst of stellar careers. But no one would say that these folks weren't among the best to ever play the game. Whether Rolen does well in this World Series or not is not only no reason to change a judgment of him as one of the best third basemen in the history of the game, but it is no reason to make the opposite judgment either. In fact, performance during any series of games, or during any set of games less than several hundred in size, isn't adequate grounds either. "He had a good year" or "he had a bad year" doesn't tell you much of anything about whether or not someone is a good ballplayer; look at Roger Clemens' last year with the Red Sox in 1996, when he went 10-13 with a 3.63 ERA, and then went to Toronto and went 41-13 for the next two years and won two consecutive Cy Young awards.

The point here is that a player's greatness (or their crappiness) doesn't emerge in a single game, or series, or finite set of games. (Statistically, the number of games in a long career in the major leagues is just about the same as an infinite number of games.) Because of the genius of regular-season baseball's design, random fluctuations even out over the long haul, and we are left with contingency rather than randomness: what happens to someone over the long term is largely due to their ability to perform on the field, and can't be just a fluke. There are clutch hits and clutch performances, in which people come through at precisely the right moment, but there aren't clutch players; even the best players have bad days, bad series, bad years.

What I am leaning towards here is a notion that contingency is a function of a system of rules and procedures that shapes and processes randomness in specific ways, so as to temporarily arrest entropy and produce a standing wave in an ocean of sheer chance. Randomness -- and I am about to utter a strictly metaphysical principle here, something that is completely outside of the realm of logical or rational evaluation, and is thus strictly nonsensical, even as it forms the boundaries of the world I am sketching -- is basic. Shit happens, and it has no inherent order or sense or meaning. Chaos, not order, is at the bottom of the turtle-pile. (Note that this statement is precisely the same, operationally speaking, as the claim that there is an underlying order of nature to which we have no privileged access. In either case, the point is that we never know whether our claims touch "reality" or whether they do in fact "carve nature at its joints." But the stronger metaphysical claim may make the point better, or at least more dramatically.)

Into that chaos come human beings, with their stubborn insistence on meaning and their attachment to order and stability. Spiders spin webs; birds build nests; foxes make dens; human beings produce knowledge, both the abstract kind embodied in philosophical and social-theoretical edifices and the concrete kind embodied in social institutions and organizations. And knowledge can either embrace randomness, strive to eliminate randomness, or seek to shape and channel it. Most professional sports embrace randomness because it makes individual games "more exciting," since everything rides on certain specific outcomes; electoral systems which feature the drawing of lots (as some ancient Greek cities had) do this too. Most pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment systems of morality strive to eliminate randomness in favor of some kind of claim that is categorically true and can provide an absolute basis on which to found everything else, whether that basis is God or Reason or whatever.

But baseball -- like a functioning constitutional system in which a successful amendment has to make it through a number of obstacles before being accepted, or a well-embedded marketplace in which there are adequate start-up resources to overcome barriers to entry along with a determined refusal to commodify basic necessities of living -- occupies a strange middle-ground. Specific interactions are random in their outcome, but over the long haul that randomness is weeded out in favor of a more or less accurate reflection of the strategic soundness of the strategies and abilities of the players. Here we have what I'd call fair competition: a system based on contingency, where randomness is arrested and channelled so as to produce something relatively enduring, something that brings out excellence and ingenuity and creativity and the like. [I am deliberately setting aside the speculative question of whether or not this is the only way to achieve such a condition of "being in form." There might indeed be other ways to get here, ways that do not involve inter-personal competition. But I find myself quite unable to imagine what they would look like.]

The problem, I think, is our "Enlightenment hangover." We have not yet come to grips with the fact that Kant failed to decisively link individual freedom with the principle of pure reason, and that Hegel's grand dialectical synthesis collapsed under its own weight (and the inability of his followers to resist the temptation to either glorify the present for its inherent rationality or to vilify that present in favor of a more rational future), decisively demolished by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and their descendants. No grand rational system has ever succeeded. No grand irrational system can survive the blows of rational criticism. So the solution to living in a post-Enlightenment world may be to stop looking for guarantees, to stop trying to found outcomes and courses of action on absolute certainties that turn out in retrospect not to be so absolute after all, and instead to embrace the randomness of specific outcomes -- so that we can get back to the business of designing systems that create space for meaningful contingency.

Note that because we are talking about knowledge here, academics have a role to play in developing their accounts of things. If we look for easy answers, such as reasoning from "intrinsic properties" directly to outcomes, or compiling data on systematic correlations and projecting them into the future, we are still operating with that Enlightenment hangover. If we toss up our hands and simply say that things happen for no apparent reason, we are abandoning the whole project of trying to explain anything. But if we instead operate with an analytical stance that embraces contingency, and then apply that stance in a disciplined manner to the empirical material tossed up by the (random?) universe, we can build worlds that preserve agency and creativity and the space for truly outstanding performances. Analyses like the one in the Post bother me in part because they miss the genius of baseball, and forward the absurd notion that perfect performances are possible -- and are even to be expected. I am not convinced that things work this way, or that it is a good idea for us to operate as though they did.

Rolen may be the greatest third baseman in the history of the game. But we don't know yet, and we won't, until we have a long-term set of statistics to compare to other third basemen. And even if he were the greatest third baseman in history, he could still very easily have a bad series. No guarantees -- that's the randomness part. Things work themselves out in the long run -- there's the contingency.

[Posted with ecto]
  Teacheable moment
When I am leading a discussion, I usually have something of a hands-off policy, in that I generally allow the students to go wherever they want to go. I intervene and press, but in a more or less inductive fashion -- I let the overall dynamic of the space flow where it wants to flow, and look for openings and spaces to leap into. Teaching in a technologically enabled classroom adds another dimension, in that I literally have the whole InterNet available to use for illustration -- and in my particular techno-classroom, the students all have wireless 'Net access via computers which I can very easily link to the room display system. So we will be chatting and arguing along, and someone will find an interesting website related (even if only tangentially) to the topic, which I can subsequently toss up on the screen for everyone to examine.

This makes for a very dynamic classroom environment, since I have no idea where things are going before they go there. As a result, almost anything can become an example, depending on how we as a group end up dealing with it. Today we used a comment one student made about another student being an "overachiever" -- and having been "born that way" -- as a wedge to get into issues about essentialism, identity, and whether truth was purely a matter of consensus or needed to be grounded on something beyond consensus. (Okay, this was one example among others, but it was a major part of the discussion.)

One of the potential drawbacks to doing it this way is that I don't have time to think out particular examples very far before I use them. Something comes up, and I react to it: teaching as hitting, as I have written elsewhere. See a pitch, go with the pitch -- don't try to do something complicated with it, but just go with it. Today an example raised its head and I swung at it instinctively: the students were discussing "popular consensus" about the use of military force, and someone raised the issue of scholarly consensus versus popular consensus. So I pulled up Scholars for A Sensible Foreign Policy, and we had an interesting discussion about a) the lack of press coverage for this in the US media versus the massive coverage in the rest of the world; and b) the difference between public reasoning and academic reasoning about issues like this, and whether the public should trust "experts" or not. Fascinating conversation.

Now, the problem -- or potential problem, I'm not sure yet -- is that I am a signatory of the letter. And if the students poke around on the site they'll find out that I am involved more heavily than just as another signatory. The issue that this raises is that I have both supporters and critics of the Iraq war in the class, and showing them the site puts me on record as taking a specific stand on the issue. After class I became a little worried about the appearance of having compromised my detachment, especially when one of my students asked me about it -- and then said that she'd googled me and discovered that I was all over the place. which I am -- well, not all over the place, but when you google me some stuff comes up, publications, etc.

It was easier to be a blank slate in the classroom when I had no publications. Then, people would ask me my opinion on something and I'd just defer. And I still do that, but they can sometimes find my stance on certain issues out there on the 'Net. I don't think that this compromises my detachment, but I am a little concerned about the appearance of having done so. It might make my job a little harder if students started saying and doing things because they thought that I'd agree with them, given my published stances on some things.

Fortunately, I'm a theorist, so most of what I publish isn't as directly relevant to contemporary political issues as it might be. And I can still defer such questions. In fact, if anyone asks, I can morph it into a discussion about scholarly detachment and classroom conduct, and ask the students why they think that my having opinions should matter. Yet another teachable moment. So it makes things a little more complicated, but hopefully doesn't present an insurmountable obstacle. I have to be able to teach while I am in print on certain subjects, after all…I just hope that students don't start freaking out if they think that I disagree with them on some political matter.

[Posted with ecto]
Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.
Last night's Red Sox victory in the ALCS has gotten me thinking about, of all things, the academic job market. What, you ask, is the connection between the two? Not surprisingly, the answer for me has to do with how the two systems organize and process competition. As I try to think through the issue of what an agonistic approach to knowledge would actually look like in practice, it occurs to me that what bothers me about academia is similar to what bothers me about baseball. It's not the game/metagame thing I was talking about in the previous entry, or not precisely that. Instead, it's the fact that both the academic job (and publishing) market and the present major league baseball system are structured to allow too much randomness and not enough contingency. That's what bothers me about both domains of action.

The Red Sox made it into the playoffs this year as the "wildcard" team, which is the team with the best record that didn't win its division. This change was made in the early 1990s in order to promote a more "exciting" end to the baseball season, modeled on the successful "March Madness" playoff system in college basketball. ("Exciting" here means "larger television ratings and more ad revenue," not necessarily "better on-field play.") As a result, it is now quite possible for a team to make it to the World Series and win it without having amassed the best record in its league over the course of the year, and this now happens regularly. The last two World Series were won by wildcard teams (the Florida Marlins in 2003, and the Anaheim Angles in 2002), and this may be the second time in three years that the World Series is played between two wildcard teams if Houston defeats St. Louis tonight.

What's the problem here? The wildcard system -- the playoffs in general, but especially with the introduction of the wildcard -- introduces a great deal of randomness into a season of baseball. By "randomness" I mean that the outcome of the competitive interaction between teams is reduced to a roll of the dice; there is very little that one can do to affect that outcome in any meaningful sense. The genius of baseball as a sport is precisely that, although the outcome of any particular game is unpredictable due to random fluctuations, the regular season as a whole is designed (whether by accident or on purpose is something that I am still trying to determine) to eliminate those random fluctuations, by having teams play enough games over the six-month extent of the season that good teams rise to the top of the standings and weaker ones fall to the bottom. Baseball statistics are meaningful, precisely because there are enough measurable situations that one can draw conclusions that stand up. A shorter season, or a design that emphasizes particular games, magnifies the importance of random fluctuations, and the outcome of any such situation is effectively a crapshoot. Any team in baseball can beat any other team in any particular game, but over the long haul, not any team can amass an excellent overall record.

What this design does is to make winning and losing contingent on factors like team design and balance, and on the way that particular players are deployed during the whole campaign. By "contingent" I mean that the outcome of the competitive interaction between teams depends on things that those teams do rather than on factors completely beyond their or anyone's control. The regular season system differentiates between good and bad teams by making the outcome of the campaign contingent on what those teams do; this involves both on-field game and off-field metagame, and as I argued before I have no problem with this as long as the metagame is related to and in a sense subordinate to the on-field game itself. One bargains hard in the off-season free agent market in order to enhance one's on-field performance; one trades during the season for the same reason. And all of this activity comes to a head on the field over the long haul: teams streak and slump, but in the end the team with the better players and better strategy prevails.

The playoff system, especially with the wildcard, is random rather than contingent. Any team can prevail in any finite number of games; any team can win a five-game series, and any good team can win a best-of-seven series. Which one actually wins is not contingent on the fundamental soundness of the team or the ability of its players, but is instead basically random: even the best pitchers have bad starts, and even the greatest sluggers have poor-hitting slumps. So we get the absurd notion of "clutch players": people who supposedly perform better under pressure, when everything is on the line, which is basically is all the time in a short series that will decide whether or not one advances to the next round. Sabermetric studies have confirmed for years that there ain't no such thing as a clutch player; no one in the major leagues performs significantly better in the "post-season" than they do in the regular season, once one takes into account the difference between playing a handful of games and playing 162 games. Short spans of time distort a player's record and mis-state his ability; short series, or a set of series stacked so that each one is do or die, are nothing but an arena for pure random chance to take over and determine who goes to the next round. Fortuna -- Machiavelli's evil bitch goddess -- is given free reign.

The academic job and publishing market is like this too, in that whether one gets hired or published is basically a matter of random chance instead of being contingent on one's abilities and long-term ability to compete and perform. An article sent to three reviewers might have gotten a firm reject had it been sent to three other reviewers. A candidate might have made the short list for interviews for a position if her or his advocates on the committee had not been out-maneuvered by the supporters of another candidate, or if they hadn't cut a deal to bring in or hire a compromise candidate. My book is about to go to contract, after a multi-year struggle to get it reviewed; the reason for this is that a colleague with whom I was having a conversation at a conference that I do not normally attend happened to mention the book to an editor that he knew at a press that I had not previously approached; the editor liked the concept, read the manuscript, and arranged to have it reviewed by people not fundamentally hostile to the approach that I take in the work. Random. The book being published has zippo to do with its quality, or importance, or logical soundness; it has to do with a chance meeting and a chance conversation. Ditto my job here, which owes more to the presence on the hiring committee of someone I knew from before, who could vouch for me and keep my file near the center of the committee deliberations…

What bothers me here is that the outcomes in each case are a matter of chance instead of being the sort of thing that you can do something about. Yes, there's a networking game that you can play to try to get articles reviewed favorably or place students in jobs (or in graduate school: same basic principles apply here). But this is a much trickier game, without firm rules and lacking a clear strategy for success. Baseball -- regular-season baseball -- has a simple recipe for success: hitters with high on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and pitchers who induce outs by not walking people and by striking hitters out (and perhaps also by getting more groundouts than flyouts, although the debate rages on about the importance of this factor). Score runs; don't permit your opponent to score runs. Easy to articulate; hard to achieve, but at least feasible and knowable, as well as being within the sphere of a team's control (again, to the extent that the metagame is "fair," which at the present point in time in baseball probably requires a more aggressive luxury tax on team payrolls and a better distribution of advertising revenue).

The academic job and publishing market is even more random than baseball with the wildcard system. I write an article and send it off to a journal, and I might as well be making it into a paper airplane and launching it from my office window. There are some steps I can take to help maximize its chances of seeing the light of day in print, but in the end whether or not it happens is a matter of sheer random happenstance. It's like winning a particular game: whether you do well on a given day or not is largely unpredictable. A system based on contingency is also unpredictable, but in a different fashion: a contingency-system makes the outcome dependent on something within the actor's sphere of control, while a randomness-system makes the outcome dependent on things quite beyond the actor's control.

Then there's always a third option: the "rigged" system, in which someone always win and someone always loses because the outcome is determined in advance. No agency in this system. Note that bargaining situations in which people have fixed preferences are "rigged" in this sense, as no outcome other than the one pre-determined by people's objectively-given interests can possibly come to pass. Agency, however, is contingency, not randomness; a randomness-system is just as problematic for a meaningful conception of social action as a system in which the outcome is determined in advance.

Thank God that we still have the regular season. I wonder what a regular season equivalent in academia would look like.

[Posted with ecto]
I have not turned into a closet Habermasian. I do not think that the natural or inevitable tendency of argument is towards consensus, let alone rational consensus. But I do think that argument as a language-game has rules, and those rules can be specified and can provide grounds for judging whether some metagame surrounding argument is "fair" or "unfair." The rules have as much transcendental validity as the rules of baseball, which is to say, none whatsoever. But they are pragmatically useful in generating that kind of connexion that comes from (s)wordplay.

Argument language-games are still about winning and losing. All competition is. I am not entirely sure what social life would look like if it were conducted in a non-competitive manner, but I do know that I for one would miss the ebb and flow of agonistic argument.

Maybe I am so adamant about this because I am not a Habermasian. Since I do not trust that the rules of argumentative (s)wordplay are somehow transcendentally presupposed in the act of speaking, I feel like I should be somewhat aggressive in advancing and defending them. Someone has to, right?

[Posted with ecto]
  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]
  Sensible Foreign Policy
I have been absent from this blog for a while because I've been working on a piece of political activism: a website to publicize the overwhelming consensus among IR scholars that the current direction of US foreign policy, especially in Iraq, is not a good one. The website is now up, and can be viewed at

Please publicize it far and wide!

How do I square this political involvement with my strong Weberian stance? For one thing, this campaign is not about my teaching or research practices. Those remain "scientific" in the logical sense, inasmuch as they are not efforts to justify a pre-determined political position on some temporal matter. Now, they are a form of long-term philosophical politics, if you want to put it that way, since I am clearly advocating in my research a particular way of viewing and apprehending and worlding the world. But as far as local, "timely" issues are concerned, my research itself stays neutral.

Also, remember that the Weberian stance does not mean that one has no politics. it means that one does not choose to further one's political agenda through one's work with students either inside or outside of the classroom, and that one does not subordinate one's research to a particular partisan agenda. This website -- this whole campaign -- is not a piece of research. And I would never claim it as such. It is a political intervention which deploys the rhetorical resource "IR expert" so as to perhaps change the contours of the present debate about US foreign policy. The fact that many of the signers base their support on things derived from their research is incidental, especially since the scholars on the list disagree severely about issues of methodology and the like. This is why it is so striking that so many diverse scholars have chosen to sign on to the open letter.

It would be logically wrong to conclude that our research has demonstrated that US foreign policy is bad, and this is not the goal; instead, the goal is to point out that if one wants to fight terrorism, invading Iraq is a very bad way to go about doing so. So in that sense we are engaged in the sort of value-clarification that Weber advocated, and my stance should be under no stress at all. (There was talk of becoming a 527 group and really acting in a more partisan fashion, but that made some of us -- myself included -- uncomfortable so we didn't pursue that option.)

Hence: the politics of a non-political scholar. Such is what is given to me by my decision to treat academia as a vocation, and not merely as a means to an end.

[Posted with ecto]
  "Everyone made good points"
The other day a television crew contacted the student who runs our campus debate society, for which I serve as the advisor. (Shocking, huh? Me advising debate?) They wanted to do a piece in preparation for the presidential debates that evening, in which they would interview some "real" debaters and try to gain some sense of what a "real" debate was like. So they came onto campus with a camera, and I advised my debaters to stage a mock debate on the topic of -- cue "post-y meta" alert tone -- whether or not presidential debates were helpful to the political process. So they did the mock debate was filmed, in addition to a few brief interviews with each of us (which were of course subsequently chopped into small soundbites for use in the piece). And just at the end, as I was about to offer something approximating a summary judgment about who won (the anti-presidential debate side, I thought, did a nice job of demonstrating the contradictions in her opponent's position), the interviewer started clapping and said: "Wow. I thought everyone made good points. Thanks." And then they packed up to leave.

I have to admit that I was a bit floored. "Everyone made good points"? What is this, kindergarten? Of course everyone made good points; these are college debaters, and so by definition they are able to make good points. That's like saying "they played well" after a major league baseball game; duh, they wouldn't be in the major leagues for long if they didn't. [And when we say "they didn't play well" after a game, we mean "they didn't play up to the expected level of performance," i.e. something unusual happened and they didn't do as well as expected. Anyone on a major league baseball team can most probably out-play anyone who isn't, just by virtue of the operation of the system of professional baseball.]

It occurred to me later that evening while watching said presidential debates that the interviewer's comments were probably more representative of the attitude of most viewers than mine was. People don't know how to play this game called "argument," and they don't seem to feel that they have any obligation to learn the rules before wading in and making judgments about who won -- or, even worse, before becoming complicit in reducing the whole exchange to a meaningless exchange of soundbites and one-line zingers. Yes, the presidential debates -- given their position in the news cycle, and given the way that televisual media usually processes spoken words -- have increasingly become structured as that kind of performance. But participating in an evaluation of debates in that way furthers the process, sustains the (re)framing, and destroys any potential that the competitive clash of (s)words(s) has to produce connexion.

Actually, I am not particularly bothered by the application of soundbite standards to the presidential debate, where they seem appropriate and insightful. And they also preserve the fundamental character of the situation, which is its competitiveness: even if the exchange between the candidates is no longer an "argument" per se and has become a set of "dueling soundbites," it is still a competitive exchange that could, in principle, be scored and evaluated to determine a victor. One could imagine a scorecard: candidate one, six hits against the opponent, four times being touched by attacks, only two successful rebuttals…overall score of four. Compare to the other candidate and determine who gets to advance to the next round.

By contrast "everybody made good points" eliminates the competitive character of the activity in favor of a superficial and insubstantial sea of smiles and insincere good wishes. Blech. There's no connexion here, and no possibility of producing such, because no one is risking anything any more; everyone is comfy and smiley and set in their ways. Liberal heaven, perhaps: meet, greet, exchange meaningless pleasantries, go home and consume your goods in private. And then shoot me in the head, since that would be a quicker way of killing me.

Magic suggests that competition is always about establishing hierarchy, and that if I want to preserve human excellence I need to move to "internal competition" instead of looking for situations of interpersonal contest. "Internal competition, while it also produces a winner and loser, produces both in the same person. an internal hierarchy of better and lesser forms of self is established but no harm is done to outside others. Ergo: the production of excellence without the creation of hierarchy." Two reactions to this:

1) internal competition runs into the "private language" or solitaire problem, in that if I am simply playing by my own set of rules I can change them at whim, and thus not be playing by a set of rules in the strict sense at all. Rules mean that there is the possibility of making a mistake, as Wittgenstein argued, and that in turn requires a social practice through which the rules are (re)established -- because if I remain the sole judge of my own case I can award myself whatever I want to on a completely arbitrary basis. And if I end up engaging in such "internal competition" according to a set of social rules, there is at least in principle the possibility of judging between performances and performers (e.g. gymnastics, competitive diving, etc.). What this means to me is that "internal competition" is an unstable halfway house between competition and something else -- contemplation? navel-gazing? pure enjoyment of being alive? -- and as such doesn't produce a workable solution.

2) social relations are competitive, and they are about playing with hierarchical patterns. And I do mean all social relations here, whether we're talking about marriages or friendships or pedagogical interactions or whatever. [I have a colleague who serves on an admissions committee with me, and the other day at a meeting this colleague said the most extraordinary thing: that last year several students were admitted because this colleague was tired and not willing to fight as hard as some (pointed glance at me) about the issue. As though I was somehow to blame for having defended my preferred candidates during the admissions process. Of course an admissions process is a competitive situation, and often a zero-sum one: I have a vision of the program, and so does my colleague, and in order to realize that vision we each need students who fit that articulation of program identity. So we grapple for a limited number of slots. "Sore loser" is how my wife described this colleague when I told her the story, and I agree with one amendation: sore loser who is not willing to accept that the situation is and will remain a competitive one. Denying that a game was being played is a very convenient way of dealing with one's loss in a particular round of the game.]

But this does not mean that all social relations have to be about establishing "hierarchy." I am as uncomfortable with that formulation as I am with references to "structure" as an independent noun; structure is IMHO a way of seeing some-thing, a way of highlighting certain aspects of it and singling them out for analysis. "Hierarchy" is even worse, I think; I think that word should only be used as an adjective, as in "hierarchical pattern of social relations." Does competition -- and by extension, all social interaction, which I have suggested is somehow competitive by definition -- establish a hierarchical arrangement? Yes, it does. But need that hierarchical pattern persist outside of the local context? I think not. Someone wins one round of argument; everybody shakes hands and hugs, and then goes out for a beer. And because the players respect one another's abilities, they can shift modes from "playing this particular competitive game" to "playing a different game" -- a no less competitive one, but a game in which different skills matter and different people can emerge as (local, temporary) victors.

I am not interested in eliminating competition, or in getting rid of winners and losers. I am interested in using the competitive dynamic -- which does produce local winners and losers -- to promote that rare and precious kind of connexion that comes from a good (s)wordfight. And "everybody made good points" is the sworn enemy of such a project, which is why I despise it so much.

[Posted with ecto]
"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 :-)



Powered by Blogger