Category Archives: Readings

Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.

Scanlon on Tolerance and Territorial Rivalry

From “The Difficulty of Tolerance” in Toleration. An Elusive Virtue:

Any society, no matter how homogeneous, will include people who disagree about how to live and about what they want their society to be like. (And the disagreements within a relatively homogeneous culture can be more intense than those within a society founded on diversity like the United States.) Given that there must be disagreements, and that those who disagree must somehow live together, is it not better, if possible, to have these disagreements contained within a framework of mutual respect? The alternative, it seems, is to be always in conflict, even at the deepest level, with a large number of one’s fellow citizens. The qualification “even at the deepest level” is crucial here. I am assuming that in any society there will over time be conflicts, serious ones, about the nature and direction of the society. What tolerance expresses is a recognition of common membership that is deeper than these conflicts, a recognition of others as just as entitled as we are to contribute to the definition of our society. Without this, we are just rival groups contending over the same territory. The fact that each of us, for good historical and personal reasons, regards it as our territory and our tradition just makes the conflict all the deeper.

Preston King on Acceptance

As I was saying:

Tolerance features a predominant objection to an item conjoined with some form of free acceptance of that item….one exhibits some general aversion to the item tolerated plus some kind of ‘acceptance’ of it….

Where one objects to an item without regard to any consequences that might flow from acting against it, it is plain that on the crest of that objection rides a predisposition to act against it. Where one dislikes or disapproves of an item, and yet freely accepts it, it is impossible that the objection can be understood as the reason for accepting it. There must be other considerations that stand outside and tend to cut across the objection, thereby producing the item’s acceptance….

When we speak of an objection what we are basically concerned with is a disposition or assessment. When we speak of acceptance, what we are basically concerned with, by contrast, are those consequential acts that are assumed to flow from the disposition or assessment. Assessment of course involves approval or disapproval. Similarly, consequential acts embrace rejection as well as acceptance. The consequence of approval tends to be acceptance. The consequence of disapproval tends to be rejection. In the tolerating conjuncture we discover elements both of objection (dislike/disapproval) and of acceptance. The consequence involved in tolerance, on balance, is acceptance, and it flows from an interruption of the objection. Thus the tolerant consequence is necessarily equivocal — involving either the surrender of some negative impulse or the indulgence of some limited act of association. When we tolerate an x, we accept it either in the sense that we associate with it or do not interfere with it in some limited sphere, in some limited degree. If we tolerate a doctrine, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not physically attempt to stop others from advocating it (although we would ourselves preach against it). If we tolerate a person, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not attempt to deprive him of fair trial procedure or of citizenship in our state (although we would not particularly wish to entertain him in our home). The act of acceptance, like the objection which precedes it, comes in varying degrees and applies on varying levels, in different spheres. If one objects to an x, that is a warrant for being dissociated from, or acting against, it. If one objects to a person or doctrine, that is in itself a warrant for having nothing to do with that person or for inhibiting the influence of that doctrine. To tolerate them implies an objection to them; but it also implies some limited form of association or non-interference with them. The act of acceptance, coming in degrees, may range from one to the other. Thus, when we say that we tolerate an x, assuming some form of acceptance of that x (starting for example at the minimal level of mere non-interference), the clarity of the assertion further depends on communicating the degree of our acceptance and the specific sphere or spheres to which it relates….when we display tolerance…we accept, but accept in the sense of some limited degree of association or non-interference with, the object of tolerance.

The act of acceptance in tolerance, since it frequently reduces to a non-act, must be seen most minimally as a remission from intolerance. One may negate one’s intolerance simply by declining to act out one’s disapproval, as also by acting in a manner wholly contrary to that ordinarily implied in or associated with one’s disapproval. The act of acceptance, therefore, has minimal and maximal degrees. Also, an item can be accepted on different levels. One may associate with a person in different degrees within the home, club, church, firm or state. One may tolerate a person when one is prepared to associate with him on some of these levels, but not on others. Suppose we tolerate a Jew, or a Catholic, or an Anglican in the sense that we object to him for religious reasons, while accepting association with him for pecuniary reasons. Our tolerance here may imply ready association on some levels, such as the firm and the state, but dissociation on other levels, such as the home, the club and the church. It may be objected that this is not tolerance but intolerance. The answer, however, is that it is both. One may be tolerant of an item on one level and intolerant on another. That is why it is essential to sort them out. Just as one may tolerate on different levels, so may one tolerate in different degrees on each of these levels. It is always essential to inquire in what area and in what degree a tolerator is tolerant. It makes no sense to speak of a tolerator as being completely tolerant of an item. Where an item is not rejected or discriminated against in any degree, or on any level, it cannot be disliked or disapproved in any degree on any level. Complete remission from intolerance is less a matter of tolerance than of indifference or love. It is for this reason that it is not particularly helpful to speak of a ‘pure’ tolerance…. Complete tolerance has to be regarded as an impossibility. (In saying this the distinction is assumed between tolerance and acceptance.)

-Preston T. King, Toleration, pp. 51-54

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post about Masha Gessen’s “Trump: The Choice We Face,” I remarked that the opposition Gessen sets up in her essay between realist and moral reasoning seems a little too clean and stark. It is also not one we can carry over, intact, into political life.

We should like to be able to choose, always, between right and wrong, and do what is right; but life does not present itself in these terms, and it’s easy to imagine cases in which moral reasoning might prevail and political action would thereby be limited, or impossible; where strict adherence to the moral could usher in its own Robbespierrean terrors; or where we simply failed to take into account the extent to which moral reasoning is already conditioned and determined by the actual, by the real.

Of course we should try to temper realism with moral reasoning, but we should probably not complete Gessen’s shift: we can never operate entirely from one side or the other.

It’s important to recognize the shortcomings of the transactional and still reserve the power to deliberate about what to do and outcomes we would like to see. A balanced view wouldn’t force the choice between realism and morality, but allow for the fact that sometimes people have to get their hands dirty; and when they must, they can and should act while remaining fully aware — at times they will be tragically aware — of the moral difficulties in which they have entangled themselves.

It’s rare in life, and in political life rarer still, that we are able simply to substitute moral reasoning about right and wrong for practical deliberation, just as it’s always cold and inhuman to reduce practical deliberation to a calculation of costs and outcomes without consideration of what we owe to ourselves and others.

A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

Serious Conversations, 12

In a brief Twitter essay on Richard Spencer’s claim that the Nazi salutes at his “Hail Trump” speech were “clearly done in the spirit of irony and exuberance,” New Republic editor Jeet Heer quoted a few sentences from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew that resonated with some of the writing I’ve done on the conversational stance and what makes a conversation serious (especially this post and this one). So I went back to Sartre’s 1944 text and read for context.

Here, our “post-truth” crisis looks more like a raging pandemic of bad faith:

How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it. He never sees very clearly where he is going; he is “open”; he may even appear to be hesitant. But there are people who are attracted by the durability of a stone. They wish to be massive and impenetrable; they wish not to change. Where, indeed, would change take them? We have here a basic fear of oneself and of truth. What frightens them is not the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation. It is as if their own existence were in continual suspension. But they wish to exist all at once and right away. They do not want any acquired opinions; they want them to be innate. Since they are afraid of reasoning, they wish to lead the kind of life wherein reasoning and research play only a subordinate role, wherein one seeks only what he has already found, wherein one becomes only what he already was. This is nothing but passion. Only a strong emotional bias can give a lightning-like certainty; it alone can hold reason in leash; it alone can remain impervious to experience and last for a whole lifetime.

The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons. How entirely at ease he feels as a result. How futile and frivolous discussions about the rights of the Jew appear to him. He has placed himself on other ground from the beginning. If out of courtesy he consents for a moment to defend his point of view, he lends himself but does not give himself. He tries simply to project his intuitive certainty onto the plane of discourse. I mentioned awhile back some remarks by anti‐Semites, all of them absurd: “I hate Jews because they make servants insubordinate, because a Jewish furrier robbed me, etc.” Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.

Those wishing to read more can download a PDF of Sartre’s text — in the translation by George J. Becker, with an introduction by Michael Walzer — here.

Hope of a Livable Human Future – Some Context

Hope keeps open a space for agency between the impossible and the fantastical; without it, the small window in time remaining for us to tackle climate change is already closed.

Catriona McKinnon’s 2014 paper “Climate Change: Against Despair” offers some philosophical framing for the totally unscientific liveable human future survey I conducted a while back. Recognizing “the instrumental value of hope in securing effective agency,” McKinnon argues that personal despair about tackling climate change through personal emissions is not justified, whether we take the position that our efforts will not be efficacious (“whatever I do will make no difference”) or the view that “I am unable to make a difference.”

The first of these positions creates a sorites paradox: if climate change is anthropogenic, then some individual acts must have contributed to it; so saying that whatever I do will make no difference commits me to a contradiction, which I ought to abandon. It’s enough for me to be uncertain what contribution my emissions make to climate change, as “uncertainty provides the context for hope rather than despair.”

To then say, as people often do, that whatever I do will not make anthropogenic climate change any worse than it already is, or that my personal emissions contribute imperceptibly to climate change, is only to rehearse the specious argument that “a large number of acts make a morally relevant difference, but each individual act makes no difference at all.”

This line of argument also suggests a way out of the despairing point of view that I am unable to make a difference. If we concede that personal emissions make some difference, or that it’s false that no personal emissions make any difference, “then if a person were to try to reduce her carbon footprint, and not give up, then she could succeed with respect to making a difference on climate change.”

Again, it may be impossible to tell whether my activity will tend to make a difference, or much of a difference, but the important point is that I would be unjustified in saying I am unable to make any difference. So in this case, “what despair amounts to…is the judgement that I can make no difference because I am unwilling to make a difference.” If I am unwilling to do what I can do about climate change, if I am ready to give up, then I should be prepared to argue — I am not sure how — that I am not obliged to do what I can and that personal despair should in my everyday life override moral considerations.

Marius Commanded Armies, Ambition Marius

Seneca, Epistle XCIV.64-7

It was not virtue or reason which persuaded Gnaeus Pompeius to take part in foreign and civil warfare; it was his mad craving for unusual glory. Now he attacked Spain and the faction of Sertorius; now he fared forth to enchain the pirates and subdue the seas. These were merely excuses and pretexts for extending his power…. And what impelled Gaius Caesar to the combined ruin of himself and the state? Renown, self-seeking, and the setting no limit to pre-eminence over all other men…. Do you think that Gaius Marius, who was once consul (he received this office on one occasion, and stole it on all the others) courted all his perils by the inspiration of virtue when he was slaughtering the Teutons and the Cimbri, and pursuing Jugurtha through the wilds of Africa? Marius commanded armies, ambition Marius.

When men such as these were disturbing the world, they were themselves disturbed — like cyclones that whirl together what they have seized, but which are first whirled themselves and can for this reason rush on with all the greater force, having no control over themselves; hence, after causing such destruction to others, they feel in their own body the ruinous force which has enabled them to cause havoc to many. You need never believe that a man can become happy through the unhappiness of another.