Information Cycles & Erisology


Roberto Bolano I detecti e slevaggi

John Nerst of Everything Studies, whose essays include "Partial Derivatives and Partial Narratives,""What is Erisology?" and a statistical analysis of Black Mirror, has contributed to this essay in Section II. His contribution here is especially authoritative, as the governing theme of Everything Studies is the self-coined "erisology" — the study of disagreement.*     *     *

Misinformation is in the news.

I mean this in both readings of the phrase: today's news is apparently full of misinformation, and the news or media is also obsessed with covering phenomena of misinforming. There are the fake news fears surrounding Facebook; there are those films like Hypernormalisation which argue we are living in a state of manufactured normalcy[1]; and at the heart of almost all political disagreements are crises of poor interpretation, of communication breakdown, of misunderstandings and of differing cultures looking entirely past each another. If this were only a short-term problem, then I would submit that the subject has been treated to death of late. But it is not; it is inherent in language and in human tribalism; and moreover recent treatment has been always journalistic, in other words having high generic fitness and being of middling quality.

I am not of a prescriptive enough mind to outline solutions myself. I have, however, included a few anecdotes, including one by John Nerst, which maybe shed light on this eternal (that is, by by no means isolated to the contemporary) issue: to establish mutual understanding between opposing groups despite all the shortcomings of language and man.


My first year of undergraduate study, I was adamantly opposed to the ideas of Judith Butler. I had not read Butler, but the university I attended sat directly across the street from the most prominent women's college in America. I overlapped with social circles of radically feminist thinkers (I use the term radicalism here non-pejoratively; it is simply the observation that their thinking was multiple standard deviations outside of mainstream liberal-leftist belief). From them I learned, or rather, was informed, constantly of Butler's ideas. These included the interpretation that a given gender was akin to a garment of clothing in an almost infinite closet. Upon waking each morning, a person merely picked out that garment which they felt most like wearing on that given day, "performing" said outfit as if a costume. I found the idea — rightfully — too absurd to take seriously, and ignored Butler's writing for years.

It was only one morning in Maine, while reading (at a friend's impassioned recommendation) Maggie Nelson's memoir The Argonauts that I re-encountered Judith Butler's ideas. In the memoir, I stumbled upon a passage, quoted at length, from an interview with Butler:

The bad reading [of Gender Trouble] goes something like this: I can get up in the morning, look in my closet, and decide which gender I want to be today. I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender: stylize it, and then that evening I can change it again and be something radically other, so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender, and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism … When my whole point was that the very formation of subjects, the very formation of persons, presupposes gender in a certain way—that gender is not to be chosen and that “performativity” is not radical choice and it’s not voluntarism… Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify. This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.

When presented this way, Butler's argument read as an almost irrefutable position (given that one accepts the linguistic prior sequestering gender as a concept separate from biological sex). Butler's concept of performativity had not been strawmanned by some opponent; it had been misrepresented, and egregiously so, by her self-proclaimed advocates. We could, I suppose, use this as an opportunity to argue at length about signaling, or else how intellectual affiliation operates as a means of identity creation (the latter topic is one of Nelson's more interesting inquiries in The Argonauts). But I'm more curious about the breakdown in the dissemination of an idea; how it happens not just maliciously or ungenerously by opponents but also organically by supporters. There is an entropy, not unlike the game of Telephone, which results from a complex concept's dissemination which can prove its very undoing. This entropy operates somewhat as follows: the idea is either misinterpreted, overly simplified, or passes through a chain of witnesses who encounter the original text only indirectly; each link mutates the text's idea telephonically so that soon, it resembles the original only superficially or thematically.

I was in the process of writing an ethnographic piece on 4Chan's literature board,  /lit/, when I stumbled upon the following posts. As with the community at large, there are gender issues at play in these posts, issues which can appear less-than-progressive to some sensibilities. Let us bracket these issue for the sake of focus.

Anonymous 12/29/16 (Thu) 19:00:43 No.8902258
I don't think Lacan, or most thinkers of the French Theory are hacks, but that one college girl that cites Derrida 8 times in her essay on one of Tarantino's film to talk about ''space'' and ''gender'' is absolutely a fucking hack.

Anonymous 12/29/16 (Thu) 19:02:38 No.8902264
A guy would never do that

Anonymous 12/29/16 (Thu) 19:06:19 No.8902276
I ranted about this in another thread today actually. The main problem with these thinkers is how badly their ideas are communicated to humanities students.

It's important to keep in mind that — regardless of what one thinks of them in their current iterations — many of the contemporary causes championed by activists today (including but not limited to: safe spaces, trigger warnings, consent guidelines, the subjectivity of gender, and self-definitional qualities of identity) are simplified, watered down, or in some way corrupted versions of what started as nuanced scholarship. This process of simplification and translation is arguably necessary for ideas to spread; the failure of the Democratic presidential candidate this past election cycle to adequately simplify her message is blamed in part for her defeat. But like any process of compression or translation, it's crucial that an idea's inevitable corruption is minimized. Otherwise, the platforms we occupy are merely rotted-out shells of what we actually mean to say and believe.


by John Nerst

We engineers are expected to have certain opinions on the quality of humanities scholarship. Humanities scholars are similarly expected to have certain opinions on the quality of engineering personalities. I kid, but there is a thick soup of intellectual, social, and temperamental hostilities between the stereotypical STEM- and humanities-types, and the gulf between the two cultures identified decades ago remains deep. My rather unusual engineering education program was set up as an attempt to bridge it, complementing math and technology with social science and humanities in the hope of outputting well-rounded engineers capable of wielding a multitude of perspectives on technology.

One series of courses given by the History of Science department was particularly illustrative of the tension. We were introduced to a few schools of thought, such as STS ("science and technology studies"), SSK ("the sociology of scientific knowledge") and SCOT ("the social construction of technology"). These are all distinct but share a common outlook, which I’ll sloppily call social constructionism.

I was (or at least thought I was) familiar with the concept from before. And I didn’t like it one bit. I’m the type who grew up reading science books, and my exposure to ideas of this kind came from authors with a scientific background and disposition, people like Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Daniel Dennett. I agreed with them, naturally: constructionists and postmodernists were the enemy, relativists who insisted that nothing was true and claims of truth or correctness were nothing but power plays.

I read the assigned texts with suspicion, interpreting what they said against the background I had acquired. It was tough. Reading the thoughts of someone with radically different underlying assumptions, preoccupations, and goals from your own is exasperating. Every other sentence you want clarification; you want to know what a word is supposed to mean, you want your objections acknowledged and addressed; and you want to know why their train of thought is going where it's going instead of where your own train of thought would be if you were them. Thus it appears as if the author says crazy, unsubstantiated things, makes wild (il)logical leaps, and misses the point while focusing obsessively on weird, unimportant concerns.

It took a while for me to fully comprehend what these writers meant. Our professor wasn't as helpful as he could have been, I assume because he was used to teaching humanities students who probably needed less translation. I’m also open to the possibility that my own instinctive hostility is partly to blame.

This section is set up as if there is a second half where I realize that I’ve been wrong all along, and with the fervor of the newly converted embrace constructionism and denounce the misrepresentations my former intellectual heroes fed me. It's not that kind of story. I am no convert. But I have come to understand their ideas better and now "disagree" (if that’s the right word) with them in a more nuanced way. This is progress. Most of all I've come to have a much greater appreciation for the subtleties of topography in the gulf between science and the humanities.

I'll use a single phrase to stand in for all breakdowns of understanding of a particular kind. "Reality is socially constructed" will do nicely. What does it mean? Let’s pick it apart.

I said I grew up on science books, and for a scientist "reality" means the physical universe, which is made of physical things: molecules, atoms, elementary particles. Humans are not central features of the universe, and understanding reality is not about understanding humans or their activities. The story of science is not mainly about people or their ideas and behaviors.

This makes it a common criticism from scientists and scientific realists that constructionists don’t separate reality itself from our beliefs and theories about it, and instead claim (quoted from the Wikipedia entry on social constructionism) that "language does not mirror reality; rather, it constitutes [creates] it."

That's nonsense on the face of it. Unless people are honest-to-God mystics who really believe in a Borgesian unreality, we’re not talking about the same thing here. It turns out the reason I viewed constructionism as absurd was that I had encountered it as applied to science first, which is a highly non-central use of this conceptual apparatus on something it wasn't originally developed for. Looking up the original source ("The Social Construction of Reality," published in 1966 by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman) things got clearer. Despite the title, it isn’t about (physical) reality at all, it’s about society and the social order. I gather that’s what a humanities scholar means by reality — "the conceptual system which people live their lives embedded in." That is, social roles, institutions, customs, practices, and structures.

From this perspective it makes perfect sense to not separate reality from our mental models of it. Social practices and customs are defined by our collective mental models, change them and you do change reality. The scientific view is inverted and here it is scientific knowledge about physical matter that’s highly atypical examples of the beliefs humans have and the reality they live in. They're talking about different things, and when they do talk about the same things they approach them from opposite directions. Had Berger and Luckman only said "society" rather than "reality" we might have avoided a lot of trouble.

The choice of the word "constructed" isn't great either. This is sometimes recognized: one of the books our professor assigned us was an anthology edited by Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman titled "The Social Shaping of Technology." They substituted "shaping" for "construction" exactly because "construction" is misleading:

In producing the first edition of this book, we chose the metaphor of 'shaping,' rather than the more popular 'social construction,' in part because the latter is too prone to the misconception that there was nothing real and obdurate about what was constructed.

The connotation of "shaping" is entirely different. It gives the impression of an outside force giving shape to something already there, a give-and-take between the inherent properties of a material and what's acting on it. The end product is not the result of some ex-nihilo creative act by an agent but of the material's behavior in response to outside influence. Contrast this with "construction," which paints a picture of a planned process where something is brought into existence for a purpose. Like "conjured."

Thusly, translating "reality is socially constructed" into what it sounds like to scientists and what humanist scholars appear to mean gets us two quite different phrases:

"The physical universe is socially conjured" vs. "The social order is socially shaped."

The first is false but sounds exciting and radical. The second is true but sounds trite and tautological; it is nonetheless close to what the field seems to want to say. To call it trite is unfair, as it should be understood as a counter to the alternative viewpoint: that the nature of society is directly determined by forces external to human minds, like biology, geography or a strictly internal logic of scientific, technological development. It was specifically stated by one of my teachers that the STS school of thought was first and foremost a reaction against a (I'd say strawmanned, and did say so at the time, repeatedly) view that the structure of scientific knowledge and technological systems are independent of sociopolitical factors (and therefore exists outside the jurisdiction of humanist scholars).

So the phrase "reality is socially constructed" isn’t a metaphysical or ontological statement at all; it's a statement about what kind of explanatory stories we should tell (and by who gets to tell them) about why our societies are the way they are.

The tensions around the social study of science in general and constructionism in particular could have been mitigated by a better understanding of the assumptions, interests and interpretative habits on the other side of the fence. My professor wasn't entirely wrong in his one-sentence dismissal of the "Science Wars," describing it as scientists simply misunderstanding what constructionists said. They were quick to judge, mistook their own interpretation for the intended meaning and exhibited an ungenerous defensiveness. If they are anything like me, they also misunderstood that humanist scholars are often more concerned about power and politics than rigorous metaphysics.

But in my experience, constructionists and the postmodernism-aligned have often seemed less than interested in avoiding these misunderstandings. Double entendres of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too variety, where a statement has both "radical but false" and "trite but true" interpretations, are common, and if I'm allowed to psychologize I've gotten the distinct impression that this is done at least half-deliberately in order to fashion a rhetorical weapon against perceived scientific arrogance from a mild, inoffensive truth (a practice philosopher Nicholas Shackel criticizes in a somewhat ranty essay).

Is it possible to stop this phrase from causing confusion? Probably not. The humanities gets its concepts corrupted, misused, and misunderstood just like science does (examples include quantum mechanics and evolutionary psychology, not to mention "energy"). I do think that academics teaching students about these things could act more responsibly. Disseminating ideas that serve to undermine the notions of truth, science, and objectivity without adding some serious safety precautions is not unlike handing out free bottles of sulphuric acid on the street.


‏@aspasia_project: 90% of what people argue about online will be as bizarre + impenetrable to future as, like, 4th century Christology wars (link)

In the fifth century, two Christian bishops — Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople — exchanged a set of letters debating the nature of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Nestorius, arguing against the conventional Greek term theotokos ("mother of God"), defended the reference by an Antiochine priest to Mary as christotokos ("mother of Christ"). Mary, he asserted, could be neither mother to a man nor God, since Christ’s dual nature was unique. Cyril, potentially driven by political motives, but as far as we know simultaneously sincere in his belief, began campaigning against this argument. The correspondence between the two men provig inadequate, it took an Ecumenical Council at Ephesus to formally resolve the issue in favor of Cyril and theotokos. Nestorius would be eventually exiled after bloodshed and power struggles of the highest level. Still today there is a split in orthodoxies; the Church of the East, including Syriac, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese dioceses, actively dissents from the 431 AD ruling.

Yet if one goes into the correspondence between Cyril and and Nestorius, one realizes that there is a fundamental misunderstanding between them. In hindsight, Nestorius’s claims are seen by many Christian scholars not as heretical but as a product of translative and communicative issues; Nestorius had taken the Greek prosopon to mean "person," while Cyril has taken it to mean "mask" or appearance.” Physis too, meaning both "essence" and "body," comes into play in early Christian debates. There is a corruption at play, a corruption whose effects ripple onward into modern times and whose presence we can only spot with over a millennium of hindsight and meticulous scholarship.

Imagine the following: A future civilization stumbles, two-thousand years from now, across an early 20th century satirical radio program. The show's host never breaks character, or admits he's making a joke. Everything is delivered in flat monotone, and there is no laugh track. Comedic cues are highly contextual and culturally specific. Comedic effect changes decade-to-decade. It seems inevitable, then, that over millennia, their subtleties will have become almost impossible to decode for future audiences and literary archaeologists. I am fairly certain, due to the amount of time I've spent around and studying the board, that the second anonymous /lit/ commenter in the first section of this essay ("A guy would never do that") is being facetious, is calling out, subtly, the gendered nature of his interlocutor's comment. But I'm far from positive about my reading of the poster's tone either, and many will certainly read it as sincere. That's because context is key to all communication; signification relies on established systems of meaning. As cultural context changes, the system of signification and meaning-making changes as well; what people actually meant (or currently mean, across subcultures) corrodes almost immediately. Add in a translative process and you are as good as done for.

See specifically the opening paragraph to the final section of "A Theory of Literary Compression,"

The critic, then, in the absence of cultural continuity, is perhaps the best chance of preserving the old, complicated, highly compressed idea-texts for contemporary relevance — and for ensuring that future texts, which will be similarly compressed for specific audiences and eras (perhaps even more compressed, as cultural fragmentation increases and cultural change accelerates as a result of technological advancement and cultural liberalism); since this compression is necessary to creating a stimulating work with “literary value” of economy, the only way texts will retain their accessibility in the future is through translation. This need not necessarily involve issues of interpretation since the critic need only provide the necessary context — the connotative judgments, the default assumptions, the average knowledge bases — of the work’s contemporaneous readers in order to simulate or reenact the conditions in which the work was written and published. Ulysses has, and should continue to, retain some (relative) accessibility through this process.

Ulysses is less than one-hundred years old and already we run into tremendous issues in analysis. Of relevance, moreover, is John Nerst's posted comment in below that essay, which mirror the issues addressed here:

It was interesting that you touched on a concern I’ve been having myself lately, namely that heavy compression and multilayered denseness requires so much shared vocabulary and common ideas between writer and reader that it’s becoming more difficult to pull off in a modern, fragmented cultural landscape. It’s become much harder to know what readers will or won’t understand, and any works of high density is almost necessarily confined to narrow subcultures because of this. But maybe it was always like that, and "high culture" has always been a subculture pretending to be something more.



[1] Venkatesh Rao's version of this term, in my reading at least, is the steelman to Curtis's conspiracy.

One response to “Information Cycles & Erisology”

  1. […] had the honor of co-authoring an article about language and interpretation with Graham Johnson of Suspended Reason (soon to be published on Ribbonfarm). My section was about how difficult it can be for scientists […]


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