“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 25, 2015

competition three

Sorry, I am under the gun on other projects. Writing this in fragments

If I take a turn and throw a dart at a dartboard and then someone else takes a turn and throws a dart at the dartboard, we don’t say that the darts competed – we say that the players competed. Competition, here, is rooted in games played by humans – its old, situated meaning. It is not projected onto nature, or that part of nature which is constituted by an artifact of  a plastc stick  with a metal point at one end and little fins on the other end. Nor would we say that the dartboard competed with the darts.
Yet competition, as we all know, has long overflowed the agone. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the game has long been recognized as a prototype for other, “serious” kinds of social activity.
We automatically associate competition in nature with Darwinian evolution. That model of competition, as Marx saw, owes a lot to the classical economists. Marx meant this as a criticism of the whole theory of Darwinism, as though a model taken from a temporary form of social practice was inherently falsifying when applied to natural science.  Engels, more sympathetic to Darwin, tried the same trick by applying dialectical materialism to natural history, although without really delivering himself of some serious, systematic book. Marx of course forgot his own huge debt to the  classical economists as wel, which showed, at the very least, that a systematic reference is not an act of allegiance or an unconscious surrender to ideology. In any case, Marx’s notion has been taken up by intellectual historians to the point where it has become a truism – as Stephen Jay Gould put it, “Darwin grafted Adam Smith onto nature”. However, as Trevor Pearce has tried to show, the idea of competition in nature between “species” is backgrounded by more than the Scots philosophers. He points out that the idea of competition relies on the larger notion implied in Darwin’s famous phrase in the  Origins: “all organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature.”  It is within this framework that we speak of the “competition” of, say, the quagga mussel  which has “invaded” the Great Lakes econsystem and outcompeted another invasive, the tiger mussel.  
Pearce, while acknowledging the influence of Malthus on Darwin, claims that not enough is made of the influence of other natural philosophers, and in particular, Linnaeus. When Linnaeus wrote of the oeconomy of nature, he did not have in mind incipient capitalism. He had in mind a notion that was connected to the great chain of being and the metaphor of the household – and ultimately, of the court. 

Friday, April 24, 2015


The sleep of reason isn’t the only thing that gives birth to monsters. Language does, too.
Last week, Adam and I were walking to the store when we passed by a big office building on Wiltshire. The building presented a big window to the street, through which one could see a very empty atrium. I’ve passed by this building hundreds of times without thinking much about it. Adam posed his standard question to me – what’s that, Daddy? I said it was an office building. He seemed a little disturbed that it looked empty, so I assured him that somebody worked there. He repeated my words. It amused me that he said somebody like it was somebody’s name.
The next day he mentioned somebody again, telling me that somebody is in his office. We were walking home. I said that somebody is in the car and somebody is in the house we passed too. Daddy. Funny daddy.
Little did I know that somebody seemed ominous to Adam. And his multiplication was a bit terrifying. Gradually,  I understood, but not before somebody had assumed terrible proportions. Now when it gets dark, Adam talks about somebody being in his office. This morning, as we walked out the door and went to the left – our standard route to Adam’s school – Adam broke into a run, and kept looking backwards.  I caught up with him, gave him the standard adult rap about don’t ever do that, and he told me that he’d seen somebody.

Somebody haunts us. So, actually, does Mr. Nobody, from the Goodnight Moon book. These monsters come straight out of our language, which has dreamt them up. I’m going to have to figure out how to ratchet down the fear of somebody.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

the island of laputa - competition 2

It is said that Chryssipus the Stoic held that there were, for all problems, true solutions. But he also held that at times, we can’t see them – and those times called for a morally disciplined silence. It is in this spirit he approached the paradox of the heap – the sorites. The paradox is as follows: if we construct a heap from seeds, say, we can, by adding seeds successively, reach a point where we might say that we have a heap, and identify that with the number of seeds we have used – say, 200. And yet, when we subtract one seed, we are disinclined to say that we no longer have a heap. Given that fact, we might play the game by claiming that we haven’t reached a heap no matter how many seeds we use in order to avoid identifying the heap with a certain number of seeds – but then, paradoxically, we will never achieve a heap. In fact, we don’t really seem to be able to quantify a thing like a heap; neither do we want to say that the heap is a quality when clearly it can be analyzed into its separate parts. To borrow a term from contemporary logic,  there is no “heapmaker” – so how can there be a heap? Chryssipus, according to Sextus Empiricus, recommended that “when the Sorites is being propounded one should, while the argument is proceeding, stop and suspend judgement to avoid falling into absurdity.”  Analytic philosophers, such as Mario Magnucci, who wrote a seminal paper on the stoic response to the sorites, have attempted to incorporate Chryssipus’s response into standard Western logic. To me, the stoic response is closer to the notion of Mu in Rinzai Zen. The famous Mu Koan goes like this: a disciple of Zhaozhou, a Chinese zen master, asked him if a dog has the Buddha nature. Zhaouzhou answered Wu – Mu in Japanese – which means no, empty, vacant, and – it is said – applies in different ways to the question: that there is no dog, that there is no Buddha nature, that the dog does not have Buddha nature, and so on. In other words, the answer is meant to break the mental habit of thinking that the way of assembly – where distinct parts are put together – and the way of disassembly, where distinct parts are separated, are grounded in the real. Indetermination is neither a fact of the real nor not a fact of the real.
Too often, disputes among historians about the rise or decline of some historical property fail to acknowledge that rise and fall are sorites. Hence, arguments become very vicious about what the risemakers or the fall-makers are, and when they occur. Accepting that historical narratives have a sorites paradox at their center helps us clarify the half-fictitious natur e of the business. Even if one doesn’t stop and fall silent, like Chryssipus, one has to accept the possibility that finally, withdrawal is the correct response.
Which is an elaborate detour on the way to approaching the vexed question of the “rise of capitalism” in Western Europe, which basically means England and France, in the eighteenth century.  Of course,Great Britain and France were mainly agricultural –as was the US until 1900. But the question is not just about the rise of industrialism, but the monetarization of agriculture and the emergence of a market system – and the emergence of a “spirit” of capitalism.
That spirit has been poked and probed since, well, the eighteenth century itself. One aspect of it seems to me to be a little less sore from the prodding: the re-evaluation of competition.
 In James Steaurt’s  Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), there’s an interesting footnote that briefly outlines a counterfactual history stemming from the hypothesis that the Fall neveer took place.
Hence I conclude, that had the fall never taken place,the pursuits of man would have been totally different from
what they are at present. Mayl be allowed to suppose, that in such a happy state, he might  have been endowed with a faculty of transmitting his most complex ideas with the same  perspicuity  with which we now transmit those relating to geometry, numbers, colors, &c. From this I infer, there would have been no difference of sentiment, no dispute, no competition between man and man. The progress in acquiring  useful knowledge, the pleasure of communicating discoveries , would alone have provided a fond of happiness, as  inexhaustible as knowledge itself.”
The joke in making paradise into  the Isle of Laputa was no longer funny fifty years after Swift to the moral philosophers of the Scottish school – nor, in fact,  to the whole tribe of improving theoreticians who Burke attacks in the Reflections.
More on this later.