Bla bla bla, 2020 was a big year for me. I started off doing philosophy of language and ended up at “strategic interaction.” For the uninitiated, think game theory meets microsociology, or check out a slide deck. Add a side plate of institutional theory, debt, and philosophy of science.
Though our press, Not Nothing, was conceived in 2018, it took two years to get the first batch of books edited and printed. One book was edited and regrettably fell through. 80% of this work was done in four or five months between late 2019 and early 2020, but life events and acedia led to the remaining 20% taking the rest of the year.
In terms of personal research and writing, I covered a fair amount of ground this year, and may have written more words than any year previous. I spent fall 2019 writing a lot of book reviews, from Elvia Wilk’s Oval and PKD’s Scanner Darkly to Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest & Relaxation and Karen Horney’s psychoanalytic Neurosis and Human Growth. I thought much more than I ever had about human psychology, including schizophrenia, mothering, non-interventionism, and “depressive” vs. “teenage” ontologies (a frame from Mark Fisher).
Come spring 2020, I started shifting gears—first, a blog-length synopsis of my much longer paper with Tom Rutten, “Predictive Hermeneutics”, in which I finally put together a satisfying description of John Dewey’s role in changing the course of visual art in the 20th C, through his connections to Black Mountain College and Allan Kaprow’s Sixties “happenings.” “Predictive Hermeneutics” was in some ways an attempt to steel-man the avant-garde art project; afterward, I pivoted and started wondering about detrimental institutional effects in the visual arts. I also decided to revisit, for various book projects, subject matter I hadn’t thought about since college—the so-called “meaning wars” in literary theory, and the question of identity and flux raised by Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts. Both of these are fundamentally problems of language, and as I worked through them again, looking for progress from where I left off several years prior, I realized that the approach to linguistic meaning favored on outsider-theory sites like LessWrong actually addressed many of the frustration I’d had with academic factorings encountered in undergrad. But I’d also seen a lot of animosity between rationalists and academic philosophy tribes, which I wrote about on this blog, in “Mutual Hostilities”. I started work on a sequence to investigate whether, after a proper deep dive into philosophy of language, LessWrong’s ideas still felt like they held up as novel and insightful. I spent four months full-time reading everything I could find about philosophy of language, and interviewing academic philosophers, until I had a model of of how the discipline had evolved. While I did not cleanly finish my sequence, I ended up at a satisfying account of how LessWrong’s theories of language repeat and differ from various mainstream-philosophical models—while also better understanding my own attitudes towards questions like textual meaning and identity. Those findings are best summed in the long but aggressively edited “Conceptual engineering: the revolution in philosophy you’ve never heard of”. The tl;dr is that (1) concepts are fuzzy, and polysemous, and in almost every case cannot be adequately described by a concise set of “sufficient and necessary” criteria; (2) this theory is known of, and to some extent paid lip service to in academic philosophy, but is known and internalized and acted-upon unevenly. Only a small number of academic philosophers have altered flawed practices like conceptual analysis. Since finding similar patterns in psychology—that is, of methodological flaws largely ignored by the main population of researchers, while acknowledged by a small set of especially talented insiders (who can transcend their field’s ideology) or uninitiated outsiders (who have no incentive nor naturalization to transcend in the first place). This matched observations I’d made previously about art institutions and the field of visual arts—that is, that a combination of Bourdieusean illusio, combined with selection and self-selection feedback loops (true believers remain in the field, while doubters are removed or self-elect out) lead to institutions and subcultures undergoing a slow half-life decay.
(The rationalist theory of language, then, was mostly right, but not especially novel, except in some of its specific algorithmic analogies—I have, however, come to agree with my friend Crisps that novelty is overrated in the field of production, and that a kind conceptual logistics is equally valuable in keeping stock of—and actively synthesizing—the unwieldy amount of discourse in our archive.)
Most of my research into phil. of language at this point had focused on analytic, and not continental, philosophy. As I began getting more interested in Wittgenstein and ethnomethodology, Sarah Perry started her incredible series on Carcinisation about indexicality. I blogged a summary, analysis, and response, and got interested in the intersection between Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital, biology’s signaling theory, and Baudrillard’s simulacra. Suddenly, a lot of concepts like reciprocity, Goodhart’s Law, prestige, game theory, optics, and reputation just clicked—and helped me make sense of previous interests like fashion, proxies, and bullshit. I wrote a short piece called the “The Dark Miracle of Optics” that attempted to connect these throughlines, then expanded it into a monograph, A Letter to Tamler Sommers and David Pizarro. It was supposed to be a paperback-sized letter to the philosopher Tamler Sommers and psychologist David Pizarro—who co-host Very Bad Wizards—which told a story about human nature (or the nature of agency) that would lead us, a priori, to presume many of the aforementioned institutional effects would occur—as they themselves had argued on their show—within the hosts’ own disciplines. It put the understanding I had of strategic interaction—those everyday self-promoting strategies of appearance we can and do choose to wield—in discourse with Sommers’ work on honor culture in ancient Greece, arguing for a narrative of continuity over disjunction in considering our reputation-obsessed society against theirs. Unfortunately, the pair were busy or offput; they didn’t answer email inquiries into where I ought to ship the book, and so that project remains officially unpublished. (Edit: It is here.)
To round out the year, I got unnecessarily salty at Agnes Callard over what may, in retrospect, have been a Socratic troll. I still stand by the view that the line of argument she voiced is deeply flawed, deeply dangerous, and immensely popular. That piece also continued my thought on reciprocity, debt, and how people play at cooperating while actually defecting—one of my taglines from notebook entries at this point wrote that, rather than being meritocratic, human society was “opticratic”—ruled by the second-order appearance of things, the world of symbols and proxy. (In the past week, I’ve learned that this view was probably best articulated by Erving Goffman in his midcentury theories of expression games, front stage vs. back stage, strategic interaction, and impression management.)
I continued pulling at previous threads on Goodhart’s and Campbell’s Laws—as well as what I saw, from my work in aesthetics, as a proxy problem, whereby a surface symbol becomes associated (via convention, fashion, or history) with some deeper quality such that artists are rewarded or penalized, in superficial criticism, for using or neglecting to use said symbols. (I had called this “cargocult” criticism, and used the guiding metaphor of a horse’s “harness” vs. its “trappings.”) Much like opticratics, it turned out much theoretical work had been done on different variations of this problem already (though not, so far as I am aware, in cultural criticism or aesthetics). I spent much the second half of 2020, when I should have been editing books for the press, researching and writing a dense encyclopedic entry on what I called, as an umbrella term, “surrogation.” Despite the time and effort, I only managed to do a very superficial job of describing the full territory of this concept, leading to several more stabs at blog posts, and endless aborted revisions of the original entry. (Blog post 1, blog post 2.) As of early 2021 this project is still well underway, and may last the year. Early 2021 has seen me with the revelation that a good factoring of spirit vs. letter, and of how games operate generally, will be crucial to this project; I’m reading Lyotard, Goffman, Garfinkel, Schelling, and Wittgenstein in response.
Incidentally, both the surrogation and opticratics inquiries resulted from a new knowledge base system/software that I coded in spring 2020—it’s a simple Markdown codebase with backlinks, more or less—which constituted the vast majority of typed words in 2020. It grew much quicker than expected, and has become unwieldy as a result; it’ll need some serious taming going forward. It’s helped me write much more quickly, since I’ll often have half an argument ready to go in a given topic entry, and I can traverse various links around the knowledge base to find interesting tangents & connections.
My last really transformative read was Schelling’s Strategies of Conflict. The understanding of mixed games he advances reignited my interest in Erving Goffman (leading to my discovery of his “strategic interaction”), and tied in with thoughts I’d had about predictive processing and the way we pro-socially self-legibilize. Near year’s end I wrote a quick sketch of my thinking there in “Mutual Modeling of Futures,” arguing that a lot of human interaction was just bargaining, and “a lot of the work that human beings are up to is basically about self-representing future states.” Perhaps my biggest accomplishment, I came up with my first and only catchy saying, “All communication is manipulation. Some manipulation is mutually advantageous.”
I launched a small community of friends, which has this year, 2021, evolved into an online forum. Our mascot is the pfeilstorch. We’re interested in the inexact sciences, and moreover, in the rigorizing pipeline that got us from natural philosophy to biology, or alchemy to chemistry. This pipeline involves conceptual rigorizing, stamp collecting, taxonomizing, and engineering—but many fields, I feel, when faced with the natural incentives of science’s prestige, authority, and funding—have too hastily skipped the necessary steps, performing a cargocult of scientism. If I’m asked on an especially uncharitable day, I will answer that I believe these fields are best described as destructive and fraudulent, resembling the state and sophistication of premodern medicine, while profiting off the real predictive power and insight of the hard sciences through nominal and institutional association.
Some time was spent editing final drafts of Color Purple, an autotheory book written from 2018-2019 about power/sex/gender, as well as writing new chapters for its follow-up, a sort of weird alter-pedia I’m tentatively calling Maq III, or Maqamat. I made half a shortfilm with my partner Nico. I made some dance music on Logic Pro. I spent a month in the Southwest desert, then moved to Wisconsin. Oh, and I had some good correspondence with friends: