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Puff Pieces

Yours truly is currently mulling about the spreading fascination with information, data, semantic content rendered calculable and quantifiable. The research project that attempts to make this so, to proceed as if if individual facts could be taken as a given: as if Ralph enjoys lemonade could be treated as an isolable unit of sense and cut off from becoming, turned into a quantifiable unit and operated on formally, or as if one could proceed from the factlet men are better at mathematics. This worldview is at base unintelligible, for reasons that Husserl laid out 75 years ago, but I’m not immediately concerned with its conceptual flaws; I first need to get a grasp on its movement through culture, how it is that something that is so utterly ridiculous become taken as the gawdshonest truth. It is a world view that is sold, quite literally, in magazines, during radiobroadcasts, on websites and teevee, by cheap rhetoric and dumb repitiation. It’s enough for it to be made so, almost.

The effort to make this worldview credible relies on broad cultural tropes, which it turns back to in order to render its statements, generalizations, and tenets meaningful — these analogies, nods, and winks, are amusing, actually, since the position’s ontological commitments would render such references not only unnecessary but impossible. Or, they would be amusing if they were not insidious. We can watch this at play in the puff pieces that reporters write — probably on assignment, everyone’s got to eat! — about intellectuals who are made to signify this startling, efficient, and novel, approach to the world and its problems.

In a recent piece in The New Republic, we’re presented with Richard Thaler. He’s painted as something of a renegade economist, someone who was dogged by the inconsistencies in classical economic theories. People, it seems to Thaler, are not cold rational agents. They are inconsistent in their behavior. A man might mow his own lawn to save $10, but he won’t mow his neighbor’s to make $10. Something is off! Hence,

Behaviorists like Thaler believed that the perfectly rational, utterly selfinterested maximizers of economists’ imaginations had little in common with actual human beings, who frequently err when making simple calculations, who have trouble with self-control, who often act out of altruism or spite.

So far so good.

But what’s really interesting is how Thaler and his fellow behaviorists responded to this fairly critical insight. Though rational self-interest was the central tenet of neoclassical (i.e., modern) economics, they didn’t take a wrecking ball to the field and replace it with some equally sweeping theory of human behavior. Instead, they labored to bring economics closer in line with how the world actually works, one small adjustment at a time.

We don’t really know why it is really interesting that Thaler didn’t take a wrecking ball to the edifice — I guess field is a mixed metaphor! — of economics. It simply is — stated as such. Rather, he proceeds by ever finer approximation: the classic myth of approach to total knowledge, to the limit point, in making the facts work with the model. It might significant that TNR is a culturally conservative magazine, too; its editorial staff might find the development of new “sweeping” models implicitly undesirable. So, the article promotes a climate of intellectual retrenchment and pragmatism, which is really a passive acceptance of the status quo parading as critical puzzlement. But in order to sell these things, the article’s got to go further, make them not only implicit, but explicit.

Thaler and his fellow ‘behaviorists’ apparently have become influential in Obama’s campaign. His advisors, or, as the article calls them, cutely, “Obamanauts” are presented as realistic, capable, pragmatists and are juxtaposed to the policymen of the Clinton-era.

Bill Clinton favored what you might call a “deductive” approach — an all- encompassing, almost revolutionary idea, out of which fell lots of smaller proposals. In a series of speeches in 1991, he unveiled… “The New Covenant.” The old model held that government had certain unconditional obligations to its citizens. Under Clinton’s reimagining, many of these obligations would disappear. The government would help only those who fulfilled their responsibilities as parents, workers, and taxpayers. For instance, the government would no longer provide unlimited welfare benefits. It would instead require recipients to work after two years of assistance…

For their part, the Obama wonks tend to be inductive — working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. One typical Goolsbee [ — “Obama’s top economic adviser” — ] brainchild is something called an automatic tax return. The idea is that, if you had no tax deductions or freelance income the previous year, the IRS would send you a tax return that was already filled out. As long as you accepted the government’s accounting, you could just sign it and mail it back…

Think of the contrast here as the difference between science-fiction writers and engineers. [Clinton’s advisors] are the kinds of people who’d sketch out the idea for time travel in a moment of inspiration. Goolsbee et al. could rig up the DeLorean that would actually get you back to 1955.

Many signifying forces work through these paragraphs. I’ll draw out a couple: On one hand you get the juxtaposition of the putatively “revolutionary” policies of the Clinton era, which are “all-encompassing,” to the “piecemeal” efforts based in the “real-world observations” of the Obama people. Then there is the contrast between science-fiction and engineers: Clinton’s advisors are fanciful dreamers while Obama’s are efficient designers. Then there’s the image used to demonstrate this: not only are they cut and dry, grounded engineers, they are so adept at working on real world issues that they could actually make a fictive time machine “actually get you back to 1955.” As long as they aren’t taking any revolutionary risks, it’s perfectly alright for our engineers to tarry in fantasy! There is no argument here, only nods and winks at popular myths and ideologies. It is ludicrous, disengaging, contentless: spectacle. Yet, the matter of the article itself is not as important as the cognitive context it demands of its readers in order to become sensible.

Another puff piece, in a different magazine, Good, discusses the efforts of Bueno de Mesquita, who is to political science as Milton Friedman and Paul Sameulson are to economics. The article identifies him as such, as if the statement of account of Friedmanite policies has not come back deeply, so deeply, in the red. This is not important, however: we are meant to be enthralled by the phenomenon of this near mystical genius, who’s able to predict the future using math:

Sunlight streams through the tall windows, the melodic sound of a French horn echoing from somewhere upstairs; his daughter, a musician in a symphony orchestra, is practicing for an upcoming recital. It’s all so complacent and genteel, which is exactly what Bueno de Mesquita isn’t. As if on cue, a question sets him off. “I found it to be offensive,” he says about a colleague’s critique of his work. “This is absolutely, totally, and utterly false,” he says about the attack of another.

Ah, the trope of the irascible, misunderstood genius up in arms over the cool reception to his brilliant ideas! This is how we shall make sense of this! Bueno will be a sharp person whose controversial views are not accepted by the academic establishment — though private interests seem to think him just swell! And so progresses the article, which can seemingly miss no opportunity to bathe in the glory of de Mesquita’s presence and work:

Bueno de Mesquita has big ideas, and he’s more than happy to put his career on the line for them…

For the record, this man is not some lunatic soothsayer sequestered in a musty, forgotten basement office…

He is wildly controversial, though. As one of the foremost scholars of game theory—or “rational choice,” as its political-science practitioners prefer to call it—Bueno de Mesquita is at the center of a raging hullabaloo that has taken over some of the most prestigious halls of learning in this country. Exclusive, highly complex mathematically, and messianic in its certainty of universal truths, rational-choice theory is not only changing the way political science is taught, but the way it’s defined…

When analyzing a problem in international relations, Bueno de Mesquita doesn’t give a whit about the local culture, history, economy, or any of the other considerations that more traditional political scientists weigh. In fact, rational choicers like Bueno de Mesquita tend to view such traditional approaches with a condescension bordering on disdain. “One is the study of politics as an expression of personal opinion as opposed to political science,” he says dryly…

Etc. There is little hard data in the piece. Instead there are decontextualized statistics: “accurate 90 percent of the time” in one test, 97 in another. However they are presented with no concrete explanation of what accurate means in either. But concrete evaluation of de Mesquita’s methods are not the goal of this article. It is, after all, in a lay magazine that is read, if not for entertainment, then for its bastard fusion with education, edutainment. Your lay reader will not care — the article’s rhetoric and delivery seems to assume — whether or not de Mesquita’s methods actually stand up; they would be more interested in partaking in the spectacle of his person and effort. A side-effect of this, that is, in order for these things to be asimilated and become meaningful, is that the reader must adopt certain positions vis-a-vis the world, people’s motives, data, etc. The puff piece may be fluff, but its implications are steely and cold.

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5 Responses

  1. thanks for writing about this. maybe it’s something like: every utterance now has or is assumed to have its proper field of intelligibility, which makes reference and content unthinkable. you just have links between language games and images. without the ability to ‘see’ the images, language appears as a terrain of absolute equivalence where some games mysteriously ‘work’ better than others. because that’s the only content, is montage. it’s like a parody of habermas, where communication is regulated by the image instead of reason.

  2. Yes, I think it is something like this. I was reading a bit of something about the ‘hypnotic’ quality of these tropes, that I’ll have to type up (Marcuse, actually). I don’t know what to do with this image-logic though. Have to continue mulling.

  3. What’s funny (as in funny ha ha) and sad about this reductionism is that Quine was supposed to have killed it in the hard sciences—physics and even math—with the essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” and that came out, what in the 1950s? Haven’t the soft social scientists gotten the memo that the doctrine of isolated propositions is dead? I mean, WTF?

    Granted, Quine himself was a conservative and backed away from/disavowed some more radical readings of “Two Dogmas.” But you’d figure some of these social scientists laboring under the heavy hand of reductionism might have some misgivings, and aver that they might—just might—be building unworkable Rube Goldberg contraptions of theories, like those that tried to reconcile geocentric astronomy with an ever accumulating pile of evidence for heliocentric astronomy.

    Oh well.

    Mean Joe Spleen9 June, 2008 @ 5:56 pmReply
  4. Yea, it’s been a while since I read the Quine essay. This whole movement seems to be sort of mysticism, an naiveté regarding scientific investigation, what data is, how mathematical operations are even allowed to work, etc. I dunno. It confuses me slightly.

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