“In each part of the poem, the goddess of cancer orders the evolving entities to compete, but the goddess of everything else recasts it as a two-layer competition where cooperation of the internal layer helps win the competition on the external layer.”
— A Sextant Colder
Honor culture isn’t dead, just mutated.
- The Public-Private Information Gap Rules Everything Around Me
- Towards a formalization of “Having your cake and eating it too”
- Precarity in Prestige Economies
- 49 Theses on the Tragedy of Appearances
- On Truth & Lies in a Nonmoral Sense
- Social Science Revisits The Simulacra
Section 1: The Dark Miracle of Optics
It’s common to look back, in our readings of Homer, on the dysfunctions of the honor culture it presents. Reputation takes precedence over strategy; legacy preoccupies; Achilles’ glory hunt is his psyche’s heel. And it is common — whether the writer seeks to redeem that honor culture, as in Tamler’s writing, or to condemn it as barbarous, as in Jonathan Haidt’s work — to contrast this behavior with that of our modern civilization: against dignity, against liberty, against victim paradigms. But future civilizations, where we perceive breakage and rupture, may perceive a continuous dysfunction of status and achievement, the same system of reputation management, incentive, and punishment that has permeated even the most utopian, even the most “primitive-naïve” societies. The differences in how honor or victim cultures handle reputational disputes, or the specific instantiated values they publicly prize, pale next to the general practice of reputation management, or to the constant striving-toward and assignment of prestige. Because the pragmatism of our solutions, like the pragmatism of the Greeks, will fade in the light of retroactive comparison to a better, as-of-yet undiscovered solution, this future civilization will see primarily the most barbarous elements of these reputational economies: their shortcuts and half-measures, inefficiencies and irrationalities; the exploitations and cheaters and the constant looming over all of human life.
…men dwelt separately in the beginning, and cities there were none; so that they were being destroyed by the wild beasts, since these were in all ways stronger than they; and although their skill in handiwork was a sufficient aid in respect of food, in their warfare with the beasts it was defective; for as yet they had no civic art, which includes the art of war. So they sought to band themselves together and secure their lives by founding cities. Now as often as they were banded together they did wrong to one another through the lack of civic art, and thus they began to be scattered again and to perish. So Zeus, fearing that our race was in danger of utter destruction, sent Hermes to bring respect and right among men, to the end that there should be regulation of cities and friendly ties to draw them together.
Protagoras, Great Speech
In the beginning, there was defection.
The prisoner’s dilemma is an elegant stand-in for coordination problems generally. A one-off dilemma has as its ideal solution defection. Bellum omnium contra omnes: the war of all against all, or hyperindividualism.
At the same time, it’s clear that many of the “benefits sought by living things” — that which assists survival, improves chances of reproduction — are more readily reached through group effort.
Crucially, an iterated prisoner’s dilemma has an opposite optimal equilibrium: tit-for-tat, not defection, beats all known solutions. In its many variations and guises — cooperation, contingent on continued cooperation — there is the underlying principle of reciprocity. And so the evolutionary trick becomes how to switch individuals from one-offs and into iterated dilemmas. Names and facial recognition become crucial technologies in helping reputational ledgers form; a history of cooperative or defectionary behavior is attached to a stable social identity, allowing selective, reciprocal behavior in turn. Individuals sharing an ecosystem continually run into one another, and given a reputation ledger, cannot defect and “get away with it.” Attempts to freeride — to reap the benefits of group coordination, while failing to contribute to the shared effort — are thwarted by the threat of being “cut off,” of exile from the group with its protections and securities.
Tit-for-tat is a simple logic with powerful effects. It enables mutualism (in symbiosis) and its behavioral logic is observed in species as diverse as stickleback fish, tree swallows, bats, and primates. All it requires is a sense of continuous identity and the capacity to track an identity’s (recent-)historical actions. We can take bats as an example: mothers’ hunting returns are unequally distributed night-over-night, but bat babies are better off when consistently fed, leading their mothers to communally share food and provide nutritional stability. But should a researcher intervene — should one pump a mother’s gullet full of air, so it appears she had a strong hunting return but refuses to share, suddenly her fellow mothers will refuse, in turn, to feed her own children, will allow them even to starve. A cruel primordial emotion, justice.
We can read human social progress — our increasing ability to coexist in physical and institutional proximity — as a history of game-theoretic interventions into the structure of organization. The Stele of Hammurabi’s famous eye for an eye; and many of its other decrees are variations thereof, such as, if a building collapses and kills its occupant, its builder shall be put to death in turn. The Old Testament introduces the Commandments, the laws of Exodus, and almost every major religion has its in-house variant of the Gold and Silver Rules. Ask: what better regulator of private behavior is there than the concept of an omniscient, always watching God, with the powers of eternal damnation? There is no escaping or evading, no talking one’s way out of Abrahamic reciprocity or the karmic circles of Hinduism. Certainly our modern substitute, the concept of “integrity,” is not nearly as intimidating.
The contemporary justice system’s idealist raison d’être is two-fold: first, the game-theoretic disincentivization of violence, tracking past defections to gauge future antisocial behavior, and second, the prevention of the prolonged retributive violence historically characterized by family feuds or the endless French Revolution. These are efforts at securing internal coordination of the group: a superorganism in harmony with itself, in the spirit of Zvi Mowshowitz’s “slack,” will outcompete other groups once instituted.
But vanilla tit-for-tat reputational ledgers, like a barter system, are difficult and costly to continuously verify. They require small, local communities of recognition, and prevents civilizations from scaling up. And so there was a need for currency, for credit, for the accumulation, transportation, and commensurability of capital, all of which together say: this individual can or cannot be trusted. He will default on his loan, or steal from the company. This is coupled with a general appraisal of social and domain value, the packaged regard of others. Mimesis, all the way down.
This “currency,” or capital, needs to be legible and exchangeable across markets, across subcommunities. For these and a thousand other reasons we invented proxies, heuristics, measurements; instituted titles of achievement and markers of nobility, royal colors and CVs, signet rings and letters of recommendation — and more generally, fashion. But currency is easily counterfeited.
Clothing arises to serve object-level purposes: warmth from cold, shade from sun. But quickly it gives rise, in turn, to fashion: equally tactical, but suited for the social instead of literal landscape. (To a pack hunter, both are essential to survival.)
Because the garments, the choices of paint pigment, the geometric patterns and metal hanging from the ears, reflect both the wealth of the individual and his affiliation to a group — because the specificity of the decorations are associated with real features of the territory, such as resource scarcity, and thus can be read as a map of it — they became sources of information for recipients, on-lookers: ways of deducing a complex whole from a simpler part — of grokking a person. And as social reality devours the physical — much like fashion devours its mater, pragmatism — so the symbol devours the substance.
In the Upper-Middle Paleolithic Transition, human societies and economies grow increasingly complex. Trade deals and diplomacy are performed among credible spokesmen, and social hierarchies need preservation across interactions between strangers. Fashion enters as a technology for maintaining and navigating the social graph. “By the production of symbolic artefacts that signified different social groups and kinds of relationships, Aurignacian people were able to maintain wider networks that could exist even between people who had never set eyes on each other,” giving them a competitive advantage. The practice spreads through the law of cultural evolution: “The surface of the body… becomes the symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialisation is enacted, and body adornment… becomes the language through which it was expressed.” We have entered the second stage of simulacra. The territory has a map; its correspondences are known; and there exist parties interested in manipulating it.
Consider, by way of a metaphor that is not so much metaphor as a distant cousin or a relation in a superset, Batesian mimicry. A species with evolved but invisible protections from predators, such as a dart frog’s toxins, gains a survival advantage by honestly signaling this protection. The toxicity is indiscernible unless one has already eaten the frog, and yet predators know perfectly to avoid it.
An honest signal is a Pareto improvement for all organisms in the signaling environment — rational creatures uniformly benefit from reliable information. The dartfrog does not wish to be eaten, and the predator does not wish to consume toxins. But how does the frog evolve its protection?
Brute association. The outward phenotypic expression of the protected organism — its public information, in econ-speak — becomes, over many generations of Pavlovian response, associated with some interior, private information such as toxicity. Let us say that the distinctive public expression is bright red skin. The predator cannot tell an organism’s toxicity from sight, but it can tell through sight of the proxy. In other words, the dart frog develops a reputation.
Once this association between optics and essence, between appearance and reality, between signal and quality (the biological frame) or public and private information (the economic one), is formed, it can be freeridden. This is not entirely the fault of the freerider; it is a difficult situation he finds himself in. It becomes, in many cases, easier to pay “lip service” — to outwardly express the associated public characteristic — than it is to first develop the private characteristic and then develop a reputation of one’s own. To leap again between non-metaphors, and into marketing, even high-quality products can take decades to build up prestigious reputations; imitating existing aesthetic and linguistic connotations in an advertising campaign is a shortcut to the long associative process. The present is made legible through the presentations of the past — this is also why new technologies lean on past eras’ material metaphors — desktop, file folders, cut-copy-paste.
As consumers, we may initially disbelieve an advertiser’s claims, and for good reason, since there is incentive to deceive. And thus it is with the sun-basking lizard, deciding which butterfly to eat. Far easier for a precarious insect to ride coattails, to imitate and pretend toward what it is not — and so, quite simply, it does.
The connection with fashion should come into view now. The “barberpole” metaphor of fashion, where lower classes continually imitate higher classes, who are themselves engaged in a continual quest for “distinction” from the chasing masses, is popular in rationalist circles for good reason. Its cyclical nature is the result of limited options and a continual evasion of freeriders who exploit an associative proxy: clothing for caste.
A quick inventory of where we are: Individuals profit from cooperation, but are always personally incentivized to defect. Reputation ledgers switch us from the one-off tit-for-tat, and its incentivized defection, into an iterated tit-for-tat, and its incentivized cooperation. As civilizations scale, and we wish to do more with what we have, achieve new complexities, we move to a credit system of heuristic and proxy. Thus an individual who wishes to enter the art world will work internships in which she collects a “title,” takes initiative on projects which may later testify for her leadership, and forges relationships of trust in the hope she will be recommended. The employer who takes the recommendation will do so on account of having built up trust with the recommender; this trust is built by history, and its credits are transferable. (Each transference comes with a diminishment.) Across many recommendations and positions, across many cities and offices, the accumulating recommendations become virtualized: not only can one fabricate a CV, but one can embellish it, and the latter behavior is so ubiquitous it is hard to call it “cheating,” even though this is what a dishonest signal is. And, at the same time, this intern will find herself competing in a much larger implicit landscape of associations, in which the clothes she wears, the way she speaks, and a hundred other variables come together to — by proxy — provide further evidence of value.
Tamsen Greene of the Jack Shainman Gallery; each aspect related to reputational credit is here italicized:
I saw a New York Foundation for the Arts classifieds listing for a gallery assistant position at Andrea Rosen and got excited: It was the gold standard, one of Chelsea’s coolest galleries. I brought my cover letter and resumé to the gallery and shyly handed them to the woman at the front desk. Both she and the other gallery assistant [had also gone] to Barnard, and I think school pride made them look more closely. Or maybe they just loved my $1 red skirt from the 96th street SalVal, the second-chicest thing I owned. My chicest outfit I saved for the interview, a cream pleated skirt with $250 Etro boots I’d bought at a consignment store.»
Imagine that a bat mother, instead of having her gullets pumped full of air by researchers, developed a technology to achieve the opposite: to appear as if she had not caught insects, when in reality she had. In other words, to appear as if — as if she were cooperating, when in fact she defects. To present public information at odds with private information. This bat’s offspring would be most fit, would pass on its genes at higher rates. This bat would have discovered the miracle of optics. But it is a dark, and short-term miracle: the population as a whole would lose its fitness, as its ability to cooperate diminished.
It is better to cooperate than defect. But it is better still to defect while others around you cooperate: to reap the advantages of coordinated effort while contributing none of the work (freeriding). This behavior is blocked insofar as it is noticed. Social systems are not two-player, but N-player games, and resemble public goods games more than prisoner dilemmas, and thus even in the presence of parasites, it can be optimal for other players to invest in the pool. But freeriders remain a burden on the system that rational players will wish to eliminate.
While an honest signal is beneficial to all parties involved — it adds true information to the informational ecosystem which agents can base actions on — a dishonest signal is definitionally exploitative. It causes another self-interested agent to behave against its interest, because its premises are malformed. It causes the sun-basking lizard to pass up on the butterfly, believing it to be protected, when in reality, it is only masquerading.
This is the tragedy of appearances. Signal strength is frequency dependent, and freeriding dilutes the signal, harming “honest” organisms. The cheater is punished if caught cheating; a society which punishes cheaters (or “parasites”) outperforms that which does not; and thus optimal behavior will always be to cheat and pretend otherwise, to evade enforcers. This is done by means of appearance, and the more that appearance is selected for, the more easily one can simply pretend, all the while embodying none of the internal, proxied-for qualities. Free-rider situations don’t work when the supporting agent can recognize free-riding, thus the trick, if one wishes to continue freeriding, is to prevent such a recognition. Costly signaling describes signals which, over the long-term, are stable because they can only be honest: the cost of producing them is significantly higher for those lacking the signaled trait. But many signals that are leveraged and received in the social landscape are not costly; they may eventually be free-ridden into oblivion, but they form part of the social reality field until then.
This is the superset of Goodhart-Campbell. The solution is the superset of costly signaling. The greater the divergence in the incentive structure between proxy and proxied, the greater the incentives to optimize for appearance. Thus we can understand politics, where everything “real” is hidden behind a great veil, and public image carefully manipulated. Thus we can understand Baudrillard’s simulacra, at least in its steelmanned form: the first level is honest signaling, a one-to-one relationship between public and private. Levels 2-4 are self-aware manipulations, “complex patterns of strategic interactions,” and if you believe Baudrillard, we are long past naïveté, past simple one-to-oneness. An unsophisticated relationship to maps is a departure point, not a finish.
The tragedy of appearances, and our incessant optimization thereof, is a problem society does not yet seem to have stable solutions to. Taleb might admonish us, in Skin In The Game, to never trust a surgeon who looks the part, to never employ a straight-A student — but while wise as manipulations of the current fashion field, these are inherently unstable and contingent solutions. As soon as we would widely follow his advice we would see surgeons signaling slovenliness, students strategically achieving B-grades in Bio for the sake of seeming interesting. Those familiar with Goodhart-Campbell know the pattern well, and the main solution is the same: diminish the gap between incentivized appearance and desired behavior. Easier said than done.
Or perhaps we might move away from proxy, heuristic, appearance; we might ditch the resume and credential. But would we move ahead or backwards? Would we become more or less encumbered, more or less handicapped? Currency can be more easily counterfeited, a silver finish over a nickel core, a nice embossing. “If it looks the part…” But look at currency’s advantages.
I wrote in a recent response to Zvi’s post on simulacra:
But the actually toxic butterflies — the original honest signalers — they can’t go anywhere. They’re just stuck. One might happen to evolve a new phenotype, but that phenotype isn’t protected by reputational association, and it’s going to take a very long time for the new signal-association to take hold in predators. Once other insects have learned how to replicate the proxy-association or symbol that protected them, they can only wait it out until it’s no longer protective.
Thus there is an arms race toward manufacturing and recognizing what can be called “bullshit,” following Harry Frankfurt. It is speech and action designed to improve one’s image. As our world becomes more mediated by representation, it in turn becomes more exploitable.
Section 2: Beyond bullshit
From Frankfurt, our starting definition: intentional deception or pretense; statements that show a laissez faire attitude to accurately portraying the world. “Massaged maps,” in other words, following Korzybski’s map and territory metaphor: massaged in the service of bringing about a more desirable reality, either directly, by altering outcomes, or indirectly, by altering other’s perceptions — perceptions which become premises, convert downstream into action.
The map, we know, is by definition a lossy compression, a representation, a part which metonymically stands in for some whole. The old Borges that echoes Carroll that echoes an old truth: In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The world is unzipped from its compression: inferences are made, ambiguities settled, gaps projected onto.
Anyone who’s hung around humans long enough knows that they’re constantly massaging their appearance: their physical features, their social reputation, their moral and political standing. Arguably, building a respected appearance is one of the fundamental tasks of being human: it is what makes us social animals, and allows us to form superorganisms, securing evolutionary rewards far greater than we might on our own. The man who goes without food for pride, who would rather hang than lose face, who would stay and fight on a battlefield rather than flee, demonstrate the life-or-death importance of our reputations. The honor culture of soldiers, the legacy culture of poets and politicians — these pseudo-institutions are cultural but they build on long duree evolution; they are the specific cultural content (manifestation) of a more nameless, faceless system we call the prestige economy. It is this economy of accumulated credit, generated and given on the basis of demonstrated honesty, demonstrated cooperation, demonstrated value, that allows us to run distributed organizations, field a military, flit between careers or cities, filter the worthwhile from the worthless in coffee rendezvous and late-night bar pickups, and to carry with us the recommendations of friends and be welcomed in by strangers in travel. There are two fundamental currencies: human capital, compressed into reputation, and material capital, compressed into cash. It should be unsurprising that accumulating reputational value is as much a preoccupation in our lives as accumulating literal currency.
I don’t want to import the psychoanalytic frame too reverently — psychoanalysts are always sticklers about terminology, and the terminology is always slippery and inconsistently defined (Lacan using a Freudian term differently than Freud; Horney using Freudian concepts attached to new handles). But to illustrate that these patterns have been recognized previously in fields and folk discourse — and lacking another, better handle to describe this image-honing behavior — I’ll draw on the concepts of object- and ego-libido. The former is directed outward, toward an object outside the self; it is the real of dopaminergic pleasure: food, sex, touch. The ego-libido is focused inward, driving the individual to build and perfect an image of himself, to get high off the identity he has created — its associations with prestige, its status in a local hierarchy. And yet the “outward-directed” object-libido manifests healthily outside of society, it is ironically autotelic whereas the ego-libido is allo- or exo-telic; it exists for an audience; that audience becomes virtualized as a constant projection for the ego-libidinal subject to intoxicate himself on.
Coarsely speaking, the ego-libido accumulates, and the object-libido spends. Among high-achievers, ego-libido is the motivating energy, and while it is true that some millionaires err by spending their lives accumulating, never able to “slow down” or “enjoy life” (that folk parlance again) this failure to balance revenue and spending doesn’t negate the fact that the products of ego libido — status and wealth — are what provide the capital to secure and fulfill object libido desires, not just sexual but almost all consumptive desires, which makes them doubly motivating. Since ego-libido is significantly a matter of building for others, we should expect, in social life, all the bullshit of a commissioned structure designed to please shareholders: grand justifications, optimizations of showy but empty metrics, elaborate facades hiding a low-quality construction. Standing is currency, and currency can be forged.
The evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers, approaching from a very different theoretical backdrop, characterizes humans as bad liars but excellent bullshitters; we constantly, unconsciously, and automatically self-deceive, primarily in order to deceive others. By crafting internal narratives that are self-favorable, and running a perpetual simulation of this alternate identity and life-history, individuals are prepared to naturally and seamlessly present an image of themselves that is misleading but not outright false, that is self-serving in its extension — its territorial claim in the reputational and prestige landscape — but which can retreat without too much damage if called out.
(This larger strategic way of being I’ll call an extend-and-retreat style, pervasive in linguistic and social exchange, and it will be of importance later in this letter: to keep it short, we are always pushing to see what we can “get away with,” and kept in check by others’ noticing. There is the motte-and-bailey, Dennett’s “deepities,” the process of insinuation — as described by Liz Camp 2018 the process of an implicature designed for plausible deniability — etc. etc.)
In the extend-and-retreat style of deniability and qualitative massage, this self-presentation is never an outright misrepresentation, frequently no actual “facts” are wrong, but the scales are weighted, soft qualitative words massaged, innuendos advanced. There is nothing available to “grind out” a legal conviction of a good bullshitter, and indeed, our most pernicious bullshit is of the advanced kind. Sloppy extension, the kind of hungry self-inflation that fools no one, is a common sight but represents only the most visible failings, the tip of the optics iceberg that defines human behavior.
So — let us not speak of agents but of actors.
Still, all this self-deception has a psychic cost, which plays out in the befogging of kayfab; the displacement of spontaneous for social desire; the experience of imposter syndrome. James Carse, describing finite games (of which conversations are a member): “Because the seriousness of finite play derives from the players’ need to correct another’s putative assessment of themselves… finite players become their own hostile observers in the very act of competing.” For the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, a lack of honesty with the self is a foundation of many human neuroses. Radical self-honesty, meanwhile, is a principle in many enlightenment and/or self-help programs. The “hyperstition” discourse in accelerationist circles, which echoes William James’s “will to believe,” can be meaningfully conceptualized as arguing for practicing selective self-deception in a strategic/productive way — the actor acting for himself, praxis preceding — and giving way to — genuine belief.
Self-honesty involves looking closely. Most folks are inclined to not look or to look away. As anxiety is a response to informational uncertainty, looking away can be understood as an autotelic self-perpetuation of this anxiety, whereas to look closely — while it might discover one’s deepest fear — is also, at the very least, capable of resolving anxious uncertainty into terrified surety — and, more commonly, to dissolve it, into scoped knowledge that one’s fears are not, in fact the case. The problem for the anxious actor is that change is also a source of anxiety, and to enter a non-anxious state is itself a worrying proposition.
One way to understand our moral intuitions is as an evolved set of inclinations towards prosocial cooperation, towards norm policing, towards acknowledging the laws of tit-for-tat reciprocity—tools that allow us to form and exist inside superorganisms. Similarly, we feel attraction toward people and qualities which are useful to us, and we accord resources in part to forge alliances with such people, giving praise, recognition, and status to those with certain qualities.
As emotions play a mediating role in these moral systems—as in honor cultures, or rights cultures, or dignity cultures—we can freely call them “genuine,” not thin veneers but dynamics of real substance and authentic feelings. This lives very compatibly with the idea that many of the emotions are evolved for their fitness enhancements, are at some crucial core level “selfish.”
Jon Haidt in conversation with Tamler Sommers at The Believer:
There are a couple of watersheds in human evolution. Most people are comfortable thinking about tool use and language use as watersheds. But the ability to play non-zero-sum games was another watershed. What set us apart from most or all of the other hominid species was our ultrasociality, our ability to be highly cooperative, even with strangers, people who are not at all related to us. Something about our minds enabled us to play this game. Individuals who could play it well succeeded and left more offspring. Individuals who could not form cooperative alliances, on average, died sooner and left fewer children. And so we are the descendants of the successful cooperators.
[O]ur minds come equipped to feel pleasure and displeasure at patterns in the social world. When we see someone cheat someone else, we feel displeasure, dislike. And this dislike is a signal to us to avoid that person, to avoid trusting that person, cooperating with him. When we see a heroic act, or an act of self-sacrifice, or charity, we feel an emotion that I call moral elevation. We feel a warm, very pleasurable feeling that includes elements of love. We’re much more likely to help such people, to trust them, and to want relationships with them. So just as our tongues guide us to good foods and away from bad foods, our minds guide us to good people, away from bad people.
To cheat: to “act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.” Just as our tongues can be tricked, our alcohol masked by mixers, noxious mushrooms smothered in butter…
As we have globalized and entered a modern world; as lifestyles shift to switching jobs, apartments, cities, and partners on regular bases; we move past long-term qualitative reputational ledgers, such as are in place in Dunbar-sized ancestral communities (everyone knows each other; relationships develop over decades; members have a holistic sense of one another’s qualities). We substitute — or surrogate — the holism for formal credit metrics of vouching and achievement. Surrogate metrics means surrogate targets for behavior: optimizers veer off-course; institutions crumble from self-interest poorly captured, from perverse incentive structures. This is the world of fluffed metrics, Goodhart’s Law, CVs and job interviews, SATs and GPAs, advanced sports metrics, formal dress and fashion “signals,” of merits and badges and honors and awards and achievements and promotions, which can be linguistically or numerically compressed and crunched. All of these are ways of tracking, through a record of external appearances, hard-to-gauge internal qualities like “work ethic,” competence, intelligence, “potential,” the ability to work with a team and cooperate, rather than defect and cause problems. Note the connection to signaling present in surrogation: public information standing place for — representing — private qualities.
Fashion and vibe help facilitate sexual-romantic and purely platonic social connections (“follow the vibe to find your tribe” — folk parlance again!). Performance metrics and CV-padding for jobs. (The Wire, for instance, is very good at depicting the ways that the incentive structures of large bureaucracies naturally select, for their leadership, corrupt, stat-padding, optimizing-for-optics individuals, who will inevitably outcompete police who “do it right” but are less interested in the job and thus less interested in jumping through arbitrary hoops, or putting on “a show” at the cost of real efficacy. In other words, those doing real police work are selected out.)
As we move away from slowly developed, close proximity, holistic reputations such as might have existed in ancestral social environments, we move to compressions and symbols and “looks good from afar” optics, and thus the incentive structures of our society naturally and inherently select for individuals who are good at massaging their appearances over individuals of real quality. Our society becomes optikratic.
Section 3: Institutions, optikratics, and the tragedy of appearances
Despite all our management science, our understandings of control theory and incentive structures, our extensive social psychology wings — despite our wealth, our education, our liberty — despite competitive markets an a relative absence of corruption as traditionally figured — we find ourselves surrounded by dysfunctional institutions in both private and public sector.
In the private sector, there is a way many of these dysfunctions can be written off as functional, insofar as the actual purpose of the institution is solely to reap profit. In the public sector the dysfunction is clearer: there are explicit public-facing missions that cast in relief the institutions’ inability to fulfill said missions — and, as in the excesses of overhaulist high modernism, their frequent accomplishment of results directly contrary to their intended mission. There are strange selection loops which leads many of the most competent members of a field to take the longest to rise (or to end up ostracized, banished, or voluntarily exiting).
Alas, the social sciences are of no help in large part because the same dysfunction permeates them, too — has led the field to recommend counterproductive policy, to reify constructs, to change human behavior for the worse (on the word of authority… an authority misguided).
Looking to the most sclerotic and dysfunctional arenas of our society — politics, policing, psychology, institutionalized art, among others — suggests that our problems are of a much softer type than the traditional corruption. Our society is not meritocratic but optikratic: to be seen is to have power, just as being seen to have power is also to have it. Power is awarded not on the basis of “actual” (in the ideal sense) merit or value, but on the basis of sporting their appearance. This is at once utterly obvious—one’s impression of an object is all one can, finally, operate off; there is “no other way” it could be—and at the same time seriously non-trivial: the translation of holistic quality to public appearance is lossier than usually assumed or acted-upon.
Any situation of asymmetric information—in which one party’s claims cannot be verified, or are hugely costly to verify—is a situation in which it is to the other party’s benefit to bullshit, to present the best public-facing image rather than the reality. Bureaucracies are characterized by distant management, that is, the management by non-experts, often from afar, of those below them, in a series of hierarchical layers heading up, such that, once the information passed up has been many-times massaged by each successive image-honing official, it is unreliable, defeating the purpose of information transfer (which is the dynamic response to changing situations on the ground and to evidence of the efficacy of past initiatives). But if initiatives are not working properly, and bureaucrats are disincentivized from passing this information up (say, poor performance affects their reviews and hence their future at the institution) — well then dynamic response is quickly thrown out the window.
What does this say? That the our institutions are gilded not with gold but bronze alloy and surface leaf? That their desks and podiums are not oak and mahogany but stained and treated pine (or worst, pressed and vinyled sawdust)?
If we were living in an optikratic society—a way of being not imposed top-down by a regime, but participatory and largely intractable (i.e. timeless)—we would expect a rich vocabulary for describing features of it. This is especially true given that a linguistic concept is a memetic cultural technology for recognizing deception and thus avoiding its consequences. And indeed we do see that vocabulary.
The meretricious is what which appears to have value but does not in actuality. It is closely related to the specious and the spurious—that which appears valid but is not in reality. Gold bricks refer to items metaphorically coated in gold but composed of adobe; snake oil is a purported cure-all with a mystical marketing campaign and an over-the-counter chemical composition. Things are “tinsel” if they shine but are cheap, i.e., from a metal that is not rare but common; similar showiness without underlying quality is called tawdry and ostentatious. To be virtually identical but somehow lack the “essence” or identity is to be a forgery; to attempt an imitation and fall short is to be a knock-off.
The pretentious is the false claim to—and advertisement of—cultural capital, taste, or status; in England, those who pretense to the nobility are toffee-noses. In language, this behavior is grandiloquence; in style, it is chi chi. Those who claim to have a skillset, or realm of knowledge, which they in reality lack are called charlatans, much similar to mountebanks. Those who in general gain the trust of another, and lead them to false premises for self-interested purposes, are con men and imposters; they are involved in shams. “Actions speak louder than words,” an idiom found across cultures, is a warning against lip service, as well as the less malicious, less conscious way our promises can untether from our real goals, wishful thinking strategically aired in public.
In general, those who present a person they are not “present a second set of books,” are phoney, inauthentic, or fakes. In the right, rarified circles and messageboards, such individuals may be called pseuds or poseurs. They feign, contrive, trump-up, masquerade, fabricate, and counterfeit.
And of course at last there is bullshit, humbug, claptrap, and somewhat lesser in degree, the exaggeration (literary: hyperbole). Individuals bluff, front, and are full of shit; we tell them to “give it to us straight” — i.e. without distortion, without spin.
We will start on the really stand-out examples of the tyranny of optics. (The historian Jerry Muller’s called it the “tyranny of metrics,” but this is just a subset; the metric is the simplifying measuring of the complex whole and the basis on which success is gauged, in the way of all appearances.) What are some of the key mechanisms that lead to bullshit, to “optics-mizing,” to the tragedy of appearances? First, a significant distance between the selecting parties (“selecting” in the evolutionary sense), on the one hand, and the selected parties on the other. Geographic distance is merely a mediator; it’s distance of knowledge or domain expertise that’s most relevant. Second and relatedly, an inability to verify the statements, claims, or self-presentation of the opticsmizing party. Third, the qualitative complexity of the target domain, which affects not just the domain distance and verifiability, but also the ability to converge on meaningful oversight and evaluation.
All these traits lead us squarely to politics.
Our public is not especially well-informed or rigorous in its decision-making and oversight. Our media, and by extension its public, is easily fooled by spin-doctoring, well-timed “wins,” exploitative hijinks and attention mongering. Those who do their duty quietly, and do it well, go largely unrewarded for it, as we have no established system, for monitoring in any kind of rigorous and neutral way, the efficacy and quality of a politician as thinker, designer, and manager. We have only the changes in a city, state, or country which occur under them; these changes are first of all only loosely correlated with leadership, and secondly, can easily be gamed for the public through stats-play.
Thus we rely on surrogates: proxies, symbols, associations. Rhetoric proxies for quality of thought; impassioned speech proxies for dedication, civic duty, and personal integrity; ambitious proclamations proxy for vision. Nothing new is being said here; we are merely recapitulating the old in a new frame. “Politics is just like show business,” Reagan quipped to Start Spencer in ‘66, echoing a national treasure of an aphorism.
Show business is not entirely without an idea of excellence, but its main business is to please the crowd, and its principal instrument is artifice. If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which another matter altogether.
Politics is of course not an exceptional human practice, but a purer, more saturated form of a dynamic that permeates social, psychological, and institutional life: the political in everyday living. “It’s complicated”; “it’s all so political” are the first words heard upon asking someone about the youth athletic board they sit on, about the local PTA meetings they attend or the suburban safety counsel that fliers neighborhood doors. In other words: it is run by coalition and appearances: posturing gives way to alliance, alliance gives way to the exercising of political will. Science is politics; politics is war. Why would we expect otherwise of the social sciences? No, the social sciences, with their verification problems, their statistics-as-rhetoric, their erection of a surrogate idol of the universal inferential method, are only more prone than the others.
Crucially, politics is not like sports: the opinion of observers has very little to do with a hitter’s batting average, or whether a half-court buzzer-beater goes in. In sports, there is typically a ledger of rules that is enforced by a referee, i.e. a technocrat. It more closely resembles a court system in that the vague-qualitative (the “spirit”) has been extensively replaced (surrogated by) unambiguous letter. In politics, like history, the rules are written by the victors, and victory is determined by human opinion—and with its endless proxies, its biases and vulnerabilities to surface impressions, its narrow informational bandwidth and lack of skin in the game. Is it fair to say human opinion is the most gameable evaluator of all?
We can settle into humbler domains of the everyday. In politics, what drives the optimization of appearances is the instrumental desire to be liked, instrumental that is to re-election or to playing politics on a larger stage, instrumental even to one’s efficacy in pushing policy through (a candidate may receive a “mandate,” or carry popular “leverage”). This is the basis for his desire to be perceived as highly as possible. The distance of evaluation is what leads this desire to instantiate as bullshit.
It is, I think, indisputable that the same desire is present in all social, professional, and institutional life, because to a great extent, its instrumental function is always everywhere the same: securing alliances, creating opportunities, advancing in the world. Accumulated prestige is a form of semi-liquid capital (this being one of the great arguments of Bourdieu, in his analysis of social, cultural, and economic capital). To the theorist Girard and the evolutionary scientist Joe Henrich alike, it is social imitation and acquisitive mimesis that drives the prestige loop. And all this in a society where power-based dominance hierarchies are increasingly subbed out for reputation-based prestige hierarchy. (This is no time for Achilles.)
We’ll start with the very basics: the structure of incentivized possibles. Social desire and expectation, and our place within it, are as constant in shaping our actions, in limiting the possible and desirable within a culture, as the laws of physics are in limiting the space of possible bodily movement. As Bourdieu has extensively chronicled, our actions in the world are shaped by our positions and dispositions: the intersection of our own desires and the desires of others. We observe and orient toward payoffs, and these payoffs form an incentives matrix: the work we can do to earn a living, the work we can do to earn a reputation. We do not decide what is a prestigious career path; it is only our decision whether or not to pursue it. We are organized; we are not the authors of our organization (Noë).
These form the space of possibles (what is acceptable) and the space of productivities (what is rewarded and how). From these we chart our path.
This interaction between desires—our own and of those around us—is made explicit in a process like grant funding. We can take the visual arts as an example, as I perhaps know it better than the social sciences. Such a grant is an interaction between the desires of a government or nonprofit funding agency, on the one hand, and a supplicating party such as a gallery, museum, or artist on the other. The funding agency provides grant listings with linguistic premises: an explicit description of the fund’s telos (spirit) and criteria (letter). The supplicating party makes a case for how its work, whether a specific project or general organizational mission, synchronizes, furthers, or fulfills a grant’s premise. Sometimes, this supplicating party will significantly modify its project’s dimensions to more closely accord with the premise; more often, they will “throw a bone” in its direction: a symbolic or surface adjustment to programming is made which moves the supplicator closer to the premise, and any remaining discrepancy is made up through marketing (massaged language). There are still, of course, strong filter effects — many organizations pass on certain grants because their criteria are objectively unfulfillable short of falsifiable lying (e.g. about demographic statistics at the org). But granted a “general ballpark” of fulfillment, most grant writing is about massaging an institution’s profile and mission to match a premise’s criteria and telos.
Similar mechanisms occur in publications’ open calls for writing submissions, and for “themed issues” at a journal. Slightly less explicitly, but with the same dynamics at heart, the existing proclivities and habits of published, recognized, and legitimated work are internalized by those who aspirationally wish to publish on similar platforms. Editors are understood to have a style and focus, which limit what they will select, and therefore guide production. The same mechanism is found in music and the arts: the competitive grappling for space, and the mere fact that there certain patterns of behavior and production are rewarded at higher rates than other patterns, is enough to enable strategy. Whatever is, at a given moment, appearing publicly as a successful strategy of legitimization is quickly imitated; Henrich’s work on social learning in prestige cultures (similar to Girard’s work on acquisitive mimesis) enumerates the dynamic well. Attention is attracted toward success; respect is given largely on the basis of respect given, in other words, it is reflexive in the economic sense, where rising prices drive rising prices. In a field where economic reflexivity is innate and dominant, bubbles and crashes represent normal functioning.
In a short blog post, a recent medical school graduate describes his time volunteering for a clinic in impoverished Haiti:
[Haitians have the mindset that] getting more medicine of any type is always a good thing and will make them healthier, and doctors are these strange heartless people who will prevent them from taking a stomach medication just because maybe they don’t have a stomach problem at this exact moment. As a result, they lie like heck. I didn’t realize exactly how much they were lying until I heard the story, now a legend at our clinic, of the man who came in complaining of vaginal discharge. He had heard some woman come in complaining of vaginal discharge and get lots of medication for it, so he figured he should try his luck with the same. And this wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Complaints will go in “fads,” so that if a guy comes in complaining of ear pain and gets lots of medicine, on his way out he’ll mention it to the other patients in line and they’ll all mention ear pain too—or so the translators and veteran staff have told me.
What can we say except that today’s payoffs determine tomorrow’s strategy of appearance?
But what beyond the structure of possibles? Our actions are constrained, limited, incentivized by the regard they are accorded in society. But in what way do we more closely represent the politician as previously described, in other words, what of the marketing we perform even after we have selected a course of action, even after the action has been performed?
As we are “in charge of representing ourselves” (D. Pizarro) to others, both in action and in word, we are always interested parties in a social exchange of asymmetrical information. Many of our claims are phenomenological or personal-historical — unverifiable. We are constantly choosing between an array of self-presentations; and we will almost always choose the most instrumentally efficacious, that is, the more flattering dress (or, in another problem-context, the more professionally credible one, etc) over the less flattering one. We save our best appearances for those occasions when we are most visible, or around the company we wish to impress most (“Sunday best”). A desire to dress up or show off for a romantic partner is considered a healthy sign for the relationship as it implies the demonstrative party still believes it’s worth putting in effort to put the best “impression”—the thoughts about the demonstrative party in the observing party’s eyes, the content of his head. What surface creatures, we!
Imagine now a conversation with a friend (or stranger, manager, performance evaluator, hiring board, first date, new business partner, or serious romantic partner… this permeates.) Conscious (i.e. discernible to the self) and legible (i.e. discernible to others) efforts in the direction of self-promotion may occur — occasional shots at the basket, seized point-scoring opportunities with bounds on indulgence of claim. But our self-protective efforts — mentally projecting down decision trees, simulating possibilities, avoiding self-bruisings — are unending. To not optimize appearances in this way would present to us as horror. Social interactions that do not have this character are the exception; in the arenas which do break this pattern — such as therapy, where the explicit goal is ostensibly self-honest — many report an on-going struggle between honest and self-promoting self-representation; it is so not the norm that it takes on-going work, often months or years, to begin communicating in such a way.
It is institutional life where the most horrifying mutilations of substance into symbol are seen. Again, the bureaucrat is faced with managing many below him; he himself is managed and answerable to a superior who has even less knowledge of the goings-on below, and so on. All the puzzle pieces are in place here: Those in control of dispensing power and recognition, top-down — the selecting force; the role that unions and special interest groups and to some extent the public play in democratic politics — have an exceptionally partial window on the full being-in-the-world of their subject of scrutiny. How much time does a hiring board have to give their applicant? They are pressed on time and cannot jump out of their subjectivity; they are innately lazy because they are human.
What are they to do? Systems of heuristics and proxies are established, and the divergence between proxy measure and proxied value is relentlessly exploited. Claims cannot be verified; information is incomplete; motives are unknown. Metrics are set up to objectify the process, which serves several goals at once. It legibilizes decision-making, allowing both transparency and critical deniability to those the individual or institution in question, be it a company to the public, an executive to a board, or an employee to a boss. It limits the possible damage of individual bias, or the pettiness of managers, or the too-hastily promoted, all of which is good for bureaucratic expansion and by extension, for the colonization of territory (a timeless end present in all fields and contests). Those turned away on the basis of metrics are more compliant, less combative—there has been a performance of science, and moreover, it increases the feeling of fairness through the obfuscation or flat-denial of human subjectivity. So many advantages can only beget an equal number of drawbacks.
These metrics are surrogates for the holistic claim they purport to represent or stand proxy for. as such they have can lay plausible claim to justified purpose: increasing transparency, reducing the role of personal feeling in a superorganism’s decisions, logging a quick-to-view-and-process institutional history (“year-over-year returns”). But each of these benefits can equally be framed as a drawback: increasing surveillance, dehumanizing superorganisms, overwriting the past.
C. Thi Nguyen, in his recent book Games and the Art of Agency, describes the “gamification” of modern life, where our underspecified, qualitative, and holistic values are replaced — surrogated — by “simple and quantitative” game-like indicators:
A university administrator steps into the job for the sake of promoting student learning, but comes, over time, to instead be primarily motivated by increasing the school’s standing in the US News and World Report college ranking. Students goes [sic] to school for the sake of gaining knowledge, and come out focused on maximizing their GPA. Politicians go into politics for the sake of helping the people of their nations, and come to be focused on their standing in the various UN indices.
Nguyen is extending Goodhart’s Law — When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure, i.e. “gamification perverts” — with his hypothesis that institutional “surrogation” leads to “value capture.” Not only are institutional actions perverted, he is arguing, but the values of the individuals populating them are themselves overwritten — “captured.” Good intentions are fundamentally corrupted by the institutional pressures, the incentives regimes, they are placed under.
Because observed desire breeds desire, from the New York Times, 2012:
Any love-hate relationship must have its share of pain, so the academic world, in its obsession with college rankings, is suitably dismayed by news that an elite college, Claremont McKenna, fudged its numbers in an apparent bid to climb the charts. Dismayed, but not quite surprised. In fact, several colleges in recent years have been caught gaming the system — in particular, the avidly watched U.S. News & World Report rankings — by twisting the meanings of rules, cherry-picking data or just lying.
In addition to enriching our deceptive vocabulary—fudging, twisting, cherry-picking—we see Goodhart’s Law in action: once a measure has been established as a proxy for a quality, it is optimized for specifically and thus decreases in usefulness as a measure. We can also trust that schools which have been caught have been caught precisely for manipulating verifiable, falsifiable information, a practice which, to other cons, no doubt appears sloppy. The egregious few are an indicator of a more pervasive practice. The ethical out, for those fudging, is likely the justification that as the existence of the rankings are themselves already misleading or unjust, either insofar as they simplify the situation unjustly or else are permeated by soft corruption such that corruption is the only way to keep up, that such interventions are “righting” corrections to a scale already askew. If you can’t beat ‘em, join em — OR, Everybody else is doing it, ma! “Yield games” refer to strategies by universities to attract less-than-qualified applicants to apply, thus driving down their admission rate and appearing more selective (and thus, via proxy, higher quality and more prestigious). To be seen as powerful is to have power; to be seen as desired is to be desired (Girard); to seem elite is to be elite. To encourage additional applicants is, on one hand, very different from statistically fudging numbers to appear higher than reality—and on the other hand, it accomplishes the same end, with the additional charming waste of human time and labor on the part of those who fruitlessly apply.
Bruce J. Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona until 2010, said of the rankings, “They’re not benign instruments,” but conceded that they are easy for a college to fall back on as evidence of its status. “The pressure is real,” he said. “God forbid you go down in those numbers.”
No doubt these effects are real, but it strikes me that Nguyen, and those who generally bemoan quantification, are missing the larger picture. For one, the general “game” of these systems and positions has remained the same even as we have added quantification. The values of politicians and administrators were not previously “rich” and “subtle,” as Nguyen describes them, and only now, post-quantification, corroded. Rather, the tyranny of, and optimization for, appearances has always ruled human social life, and only recently has it become quantified. It’s plausible this quantification has worsened the situation, but we can’t overstate the fall as if from some edenic holism of times past.
Second and more important is the dynamic of selection which takes place in our society on the basis of appearance. This preferential, optikratic selection, after all, is the underlying reason for actors’ optimization of appearances; if it were not the basis for selection, it would not motivate. All else equal, and indeed in practice, despite much else unequal, it will be the agent who pursues the advancement of his appearance at the cost of all else who will end up systemically rewarded, since winning the game of appearances is definitional to such reward. A police organization in which corrupt players rise to the top more easily, by stat-padding or neglecting real ethical duties for the sake of reputation, is an organization which will disproportionately raise soft corruption to the top of the ladder. From the top it will be perpetuated: those who are corrupt can play ball with other corrupt staffers, but have their careers actively jeopardized by honesty; thus, once corruption is entrenched at the top, in positions of selecting replacements and filling out ranks, it is very hard to overwrite.
An individual psychologist who leaves the field, or ceases to advise public policy, or ceases to make grand claims on-stage, will inevitably be replaced by those willing to. Those who replace will on average have less integrity, less interest in rigorous skepticism, and less knowledge as to the limitations of their practice than those whom they replace (since the basis of self-selection out of the field is an understanding of its problems). They will then train PhD students in their techniques. In other words, as knowledgeable insiders slowly leave the field (or choose never to join it in the first place), psychology will become increasingly dangerous and destructive until its public credibility collapses. This mode of vicious cycle (“brain drain”) is endemic to disciplines that over-surrogate, creating (1) elaborate credential requirements that distract from real work— “hoops” to jump through, in other words, and (2) specializing in the production of models of models in the Baudrillardean simulacra sense, such that work increasingly diverges from contact with ground—what is known as bullshit work. Institutional dysfunction is part of the famous “way things are,” the result of boringly intractable problems like basic self-interested, limited resources, and the complexity of human affairs.
An example of selection effects: Yoel and Micky report multiple occasions of “bright undergraduates” voicing complaints similar to Yarkoni’s, and we can only imagine that psychology’s inability to convincingly answer such concerns discourages participation those with the foresight to see it from entering. So who is entering the field?
The word “massaged” has surfaced again and again in this letter. It reflects the way that stat-padding is usually grounded, instead of fantastic; that appearances are never fully decoupled from the truth. Whether a given police raid was “really,” holistically, the best decision is hard to gauge, but the statistics presented in its favor by a self-interested sergeant are never fabricated. They are massaged. This allows plausible deniability from all parties, and indeed, when leadership has been corrupted by optics, they may find appearance-massaging from their lower officers desirable: it may help the sergeant to pass a good report up, but it also helps his major. Their reputations are bound up; a bad report would actively hurt the major. They are all complicit in massaging the qualitative “impression” or take-away, the high-level “rounding up” of many low-level facts into a gestalt assessment of “efficacy” or “merit,” because it is in all their interests, and because calling bullshit on high-level, qualitative rounding jobs requires domain expertise, close oversight, and good instincts.
In this way, the bureaucracy somewhat resembles Trivers’s picture of the self: the unconscious “passes up” opticsmized data; the conscious assists by not scrutinze too closely. My friend Natural Hazard for this reason prefers “motivated lack of introspection” to the Trivers “self-deception” frame, but they are sides of the same coin.
In one scene of The Wire, early in season three, the mayor’s office is putting pressure on the commissioner to lower crime stats for an upcoming election. When the gods are uncooperative, landing a slew of drug-related murders in the departmental lap, the commissioner — answering to the mayor, and playing side-politics with a councilman — puts pressure on his department to massage or fake statistics in order to hit a target number, 275 murders. It is a classic case of surrogation: rather than preventing crime, the functioning of the department shifts to minimizing the appearance of crime. The actual state of the city is irrelevant.
One Major, Colvin, is fed up with the “bullshit,” as he calls it; with only five months left on his thirty (i.e. years until retirement), pushes back, insisting to his reporting officers that they “do it clean”:
“We give them the fucking truth. Don’t massage anything, don’t sex anything down.”
“What about COMSTAT, boss? They’ll rip you.”
“There’s five months to my 30, right?”
Later, when Colvin presents the real (rather than massaged) crime stats, his superior tries to intimidate him — through plausibly deniable language (innuendo) — into faking his statistics. “Someone’s just outside the door with [the real statistics], right? [Statistics showing] the reduction that matches just what we promised the Mayor.” We have everything here: one player can afford to play honesty because he is not up for re-election or promotion, but is in fact exiting the game, and thus has no stakes in its future. Other players in the game are deeply invested and attempting to manipulate this future, and make demands about crime stats in order to present a good image (opticsmizing) to whomever they answer to. Each level is involved and culpable: in the officer’s case, his superior; in the commissioner’s case, the mayor; in the mayor’s case, the voting public. In the world, everything is inverted: the fake statistics are “the real statistics”; crime, Rawls insists, is not up but down; he knows this “for a fact.”
But because they are bullshitting, they stay “grounded” in a way that allows plausible deniability, just as they cloak their utterances’ subtexts. A home invasion downgraded to a burglary; a felony to a misdemeanor. How do you tell a good lie? Change only very minimum amount of information necessary; everything else is liability. The pressuring of Colvin is one of the more explicit surfacings of this soft corruption — under heavy pressure themselves, Rawls and the commissioner burst out in disbelief and anger. These are the visible tips; the invisible is far more pernicious precisely because it evades our notice; precisely because we are incentivized not to see.
Section 4: Extend, retreat, extend again
We finally reach the much-promised extend-and-retreat style of being. I’ll try to explain now what I mean by this. One steps out, to claim extra territory for oneself. and when that territory is contested, one steps back. In debate settings, the intentional and conscious use of this strategy in making discursive claims is called a motte and bailey. The “Austin shuffle” has been proposed, in honor of J.L.’s “There’s the bit where you say it, and the bit where you take it back.” It’s a cousin of equivocation, that produces the same epistemological fog but with a two-step maneuver: into the controversial, back into the trivial.
We see something similar in Daniel Dennett’s “deepities”:
A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true — and profound — but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.
Love is just a word. Oh wow! Cosmic. Mind-blowing, right? Wrong. On one reading, it is manifestly false. I’m not sure what love is – maybe an emotion or emotional attachment, maybe an interpersonal relationship, maybe the highest state a human mind can achieve – but we all know it isn’t a word. You can’t find love in the dictionary!
Indeed, this is the charge that has been brought, in philosophy, against idealists. Rorty recounts:
When dialectical philosophers are accused of idealism, they usually reply as Berkeley replied to his critics—by explaining that they are only protesting against the errors of a certain philosophical school and that they are really not saying anything at which the plain man would demur.
What Dennett doesn’t add is that these phrases can be justified insofar as they are a sort of rhetorical correction on a perceived-as-dominant signal, the hegemonic narrative of the subculture the correcting party perceives as enveloping them. Love is just a word, where the overstatement leans heavy on the assumed, contextual belief — that it is something more, impossible to describe, evading capture! This context — the signal being corrected — of course gets quickly lost; the corrective ushers in a new signal regime.
Since a work is always to someone, or an impression of aggregate someones, it can exist only in relation to the world before it existed. The Bourdieu thing about Marx not being a Marxist—This explains why writers’ efforts to control the reception of their own works are always partially doomed to failure (one thinks of Marx’s “I am not a Marxist”); if only because the very effect of their work may transform the condition of its reception and because they would not have had to write many things they did write and write them as they did— eg. resorting to rhetorical strategies intended to “twist the stick in the other direction”— if they’d been granted from the outset what they are granted retrospectively. But the distortion of this (inherent) structure of thought is not just rhetorical. It shapes beliefs as they are felt and understood; it leads to a perception of exaggerated, intractable polarism.
By which I just mean, there are natural incentives to make this rhetorical lean. You justify it: I’m just trying to pull down the price, haggling style! He says $10, she says $5, and $7.50’s fair. Sometimes that’s a real reason. Sometimes it’s not.
But the possible good intentions of the lean are never separate from the self-interested outcomes: to say that one side of a discourse has seized too much territory for themselves is continuous with being the individual who takes that territory back, seizes it for his own side and claims glory as a battlefield commander.
Nor, from a distance, is the rhetorical lean easy to distinguish from bad cartography.
Latour, in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” compares French philosophers to battlefield commanders: victory comes with great personal glory; the greater the victory, the more territory conquered, the more credit to one’s reputation, especially when one is fighting for a “side”—a community of similar-minded folk. This is true just as equally of, say, those who advocate the contemporary “decolonizing discourse” position: they are unwittingly and ironically engaged in a territorial skirmish, attempting to seize more land.
And in “The Enlightenment Without the Critique,” Latour presents a further distorting incentive of the field:
The French, it is well known, love revolutions, political, scientific or philosophical. There is nothing they like more than a radical upheaval of the past, an upheaval so complete that a new tabula rasa is levelled, on which a new history can be built. None of our Prime Ministers starts his mandate without promising to write on a new blank page or to furnish a complete change in values and even, for some, in life. Each researcher would think of him or herself as a failure, if he or she did not make such a complete change in the discipline that nothing will hereafter be the same. As to the philosophers they feed, from Descartes up to Foucault’s days, on radical cuts, on ‘coupure épistémologique’, on complete subversion of everything which has been thought in the past bv everybody. No French thinker, indeed no student of philosophy, would seriously contemplate doing anything short of a complete revolution in theories. To hesitate, to respect the past, would be to compromise, to be a funk, or worse, to be eclectic like a vulgar Anglo-Saxon.
By now, we know exactly how such an incentive is gamed — and the surrogate idols of novelty’s appearance which such a fetish erects.
In philosophy, most theories boast “strong” and “weak” versions, referring to the territory claimed by that theory — in strong theories, one is making a bolder, more aggressive claim for epistemic turf. On thing histories of philosophy make clear is that what are constantly argued against are the strong versions. If we were to look at it from the relative strength or frailty of the argument itself, these “strong” arguments are of course in actuality the “weak,” the most easily knocked-over. It’s also clear these “weakman” arguments arguments — not fully strawmen, since they have real defenders and advocates — are typically not what most proponents of theory would defend if pressed on it — theirs, instead, is the weakman, which is difficult to rebut. The targets of attacks on a theory, such as JDM’s attack on the rational man theory, or criticisms of Butler’s gender performativity, are attacks on positions weakly held. They skirt the substance, and merely enforce against the over-extension. Now, in the pushback against JDM, we see accusations that their picture of man as “wildly irrational” is unfounded. But of course, that was never the position of JDM, just as the position of JDM’s predecessor ideology was never a perfectly rational man.
In many cases, both weakmen are partially true, which is why they split the support of informed advocates down the middle, and evade off-hand dismissal. What is missing is a synthesis. Tamler:
To deny that there is a tension, that there are positives on both sides, I think is to fail to diagnose the problem in its complexity.
Is this not true of almost all discourses where intelligent, educated actors have prolonged disagreements (years, decades, centuries…). Their lack of reconciliation — is it a failure of imagination or a testimony to the blocking power of language? Both, I’d hazard.
Now, we can go one level up from “extend and retreat”: what is the more general principle we’re working with? We can call it strategic language, or really “political” language, since it is socially strategically most of all. Two other entries in this category are the closely related noncommittal vagueness, a general underspecification of position to defend criticisms, and argument through connotation or implication, which is another subset of extend-and-retreat: a subtext is advanced but in a way that allows plausible deniability. (Bribes, sexual advances, and threats all proceed through this plausibly deniable “indirect speech.”) A third type of political language, in the form of “having one’s cake and eating it too,” comes as a way of insulating fields from criticism. Most conflicts over high-level theses regarding high-level domains (as are constantly under study in the inexact sciences: psychology’s interaction with language use; the applicability of social scientific findings; etc) are, in a meaningful way, vague battles over the scope of a claim’s applicability rather than true/false verificationist conflicts; both sides acknowledge that, in some cases, it “goes the other way,” or doesn’t evenly apply; but whether these exceptions are insignificant noise or substantial counter-evidence dominates dispute.
That same holds true for the behavior of fields in response to criticisms such as those being laid out presently, or in Yarkoni’s The Generalizability Crisis, or similar objections. That is, the discipline acknowledges that it is aware of a problem (X) in the field, and that the leveraged criticisms are therefore not fair. These arguments frequently suffice for most insiders involved, who have stakes in the public reputation of their field that outmatch their stakes in its real efficacy. Of course, mere awareness by the field is not and almost never sufficient to consider the problem nonexistent, and moreover, typically the argument being advanced is that the field’s findings are significantly undermined by the problem, in a way that, if the field was to indeed agree and take seriously such an idea, their current praxis and pedagogy would be geared radically different in order to solve it.
What is a reputation, in the social sciences, other than territory touched? What is a legacy other than as influence — others’s mimetic gazes trained on you?
And so social psychologists perform a two-step, extending into territory, retreating only when forcibly pushed. Where they can get away with it, they generalize their myopic findings to grand narratives of emotionality, sociality, and human consciousness — lecture halls, TED stages, government policy, amicus curae briefings. This isn’t so much the fault of the researchers as it is the fault of the system, for failing to understand the motives and operating procedures of human beings writ large.
Yarkoni: “The appropriate response to a study like Schooler & Engstler-Schooler (1990) is to point out that the very narrow findings the authors reported did not—and indeed, could not, no matter how the data came out—actually support the authors’ sweeping claims.” In other words, to challenge and contest territorial over-extensions—to call out bullshit.
Indeed, the problem in psychology, as Yarkoni identifies in “The Generalizability Crisis,” is that its researchers have overextended their findings, written checks they cannot cash. The first piece of advice he gives researchers is to “draw more conservative inferences”—to “replace the hasty generalizations” with “more cautious conclusions.” “Papers should be given titles like ‘Transient manipulation of self-reported anger influences small hypothetical charitable donations,’ and not ones like ‘Hot head, warm heart: Anger increases economic charity.’” But of course, there is little prestige or power to be had in claiming so little knowledge: all the incentives of turf point toward bold ambitious and barefaced audacity over intellectual modesty.
I remember an undergrad course I had to sit through: a top 5 university, with 350 students enrolled, taught by a graduate student who pushed behavioral economics like it was the Theory of Gravity. There was no “attitude of skepticism or limitation.” Hot-hand was presented as fact; we were actively quizzed on it. I didn’t know anything about psychology, but I knew sports, and I knew that a priori it was laughable to suppose that athletic performance was like flipping a coin, that there was no effect of flow or focus or rested legs. It wasn’t surprising, digging apart the study, to find out that there’d been no real thought put into the theory. There was no acknowledgment that hot streaks would be met by double- and triple-teams, or that players took increasingly difficult shots to “heat check” themselves, or that player shooting performance decreases naturally as play goes on. These basics of the local domain were ignored by arrogant overhaulists, the worst very worst technocratic tendencies of high modernism, communist centralization, and colonial governance. Hubris of rationality; a disrespect for cultural evolution and discovered, iterated solutions. I digress.
Before this level concludes, I want to abstract one level up: what is the more general principle we’re working with? Strategic expression? Political expression, since it is socially strategically most of all?
Other entries in this category are the closely related equivocation, or ambivalent position-holding; noncommittal vagueness, or a general underspecification of position to defend criticisms; and argument through insinuation, which is a kind of extend-and-retreat: a subtext is advanced but in a way that allows plausible deniability. (Bribes, sexual advances, and threats all proceed through this plausibly deniable “indirect speech.”) A fourth type of political expression and language, the confusion of scope for presence, comes as a way of insulating fields from criticism. Most conflicts over high-level theses regarding high-level domains (as are constantly under study in the inexact sciences: psychology’s interaction with language use; the applicability of social scientific findings; etc) are, in a meaningful way, vague battles over the scope of a claim’s applicability rather than true/false verificationist conflicts: both sides acknowledge that, in some cases, it “goes the other way,” or doesn’t evenly apply. But whether these exceptions are conceptualized as insignificant noise or substantial counter-evidence dominates disputes invisibly: epistemology’s dark matter. I round up, you round down; who’s to say who’s right?
This describes, I think, the behavior of fields in response to criticisms such as those laid out presently, or in Yarkoni’s “Generalizability Crisis,” or similar objections. That is, the discipline acknowledges that it is aware of a problem (X) in the field — it is aware of the problems of inference, or the problems of p-values — and that, because of this self-awareness the leveraged criticisms are “known” and capable of dismissal (or even in some way “unfair”). These “presence” arguments frequently suffice for most insiders involved, who have stakes in the public reputation of their field that outmatch their stakes in its real efficacy. Of course, mere awareness by the field is not and almost never sufficient to consider the problem nonexistent; moreover, typically the argument being advanced is a scope argument: that the field’s findings are so significantly undermined by the problem that, if the field was to indeed agree and take seriously such an objection, its current praxis and pedagogy would have to be radically re-geared in order to solve it. This is the position social psychology has been in for some time: criticisms like Yarkoni’s have been forwarded since the midcentury. The British Empire took over 150 years, from the first discovery of scurvy’s cause, to institutionalize citrus aboard ships. The information was known. It just wasn’t acted upon; the problem’s scope was downplayed by interested parties.
It is so difficult to say whether anything is new, whether the present differs from the past. We are a culture filled with nostalgia, and yet every culture we are nostalgic for themselves felt nostalgia for a time before them. In Raymond Williams’s The City and the Country, one of the great books on its subject, Williams charts an “escalator” of incessant pastoral nostalgia, leaping back generation after generation, texts written from each arguing that the English countryside had been lost; that the loss had occurred in their lifetimes. If we trace back these nostalgias, we end in the Dark Ages or worse. Eras we now consider pinnacles of civilization: Classical Athens, Renaissance Italy, early Modernist Europe, were filled with a bitter feeling of loss. To their mind, they had uniquely inherited a fucked world; the real action had just preceded them. This illusion of loss is present in our time as well; it is not an illusion because it sees loss where there is none; there is always loss; rather, it is an illusion because it sees this loss as singular and overwhelming, instead of in perspective.
Likely we have always been optikratic. Whether it is as pronounced, whether institutionality and metrics and distributed networks and global communities united by the web have fundamentally altered the calculus, brought about a hyperoptikratic era or just a new instantiation of an eternal state, is hard to say. Certainly the quantitative forms of surrogation are exacerbated by the rise of statistics. Certainly in a more connected work, reputations spread like wildfire, the currency of appearances trickles down from top to bottom; capital is picked up merely by knowing someone who knows someone, by being in the presence of power.
Novels, perhaps, give us the best insight to this process; in Franzen’s Freedom, Walter Berglund talks bitterly about the culture of power in D.C.:
In Washington people literally talk about how many feet away from John Kerry’s house their own house is. The neighborhoods are all so blah, the only thing that turns people on is proximity to power. It’s a total fetish culture. People get this kind of orgasmic shiver when they tell you they sat next to Paul Wolfowitz at a conference or got invited to Grover Norquist’s breakfast. Everybody’s obsessing 24/7, trying to position themselves in relationship to power.
The joke, in Freedom, is that this dynamic permeates all human living; it is not unique to D.C., or power, but applies to any kind of capital. Young women vie for punk frontman Richard Katz, and the cachet of cultural capital he carries; “even worse was Walter’s suspicion… that he was at root no different from any of those girls: that he, too, was a kind of parasite on Richard” through his friendship. Guilt operates similarly, with tainting and trickling, syllogistic treatment and regard. The only way to enforce reputation’s punishments — isolation, expulsion, ostracization — is, after all, to threaten with punishment those who associate. (Those who do not enforce social decrees of reputation as called “second-order defectors” in game theory.) Reputations taint those in their network; this has historically been considered a part of honor culture, guilt ran in bloodlines, and yet here we are.
Zadie Smith’s 2018 short, “Now More Than Ever,” opens with the lines: “There is an urge to be good. To be seen to be good. To be seen. Also to be. Badness, invisibility, things as they are in reality as opposed to things as they seem, death itself — these are out of fashion.” It closes with the protagonist — a professor of philosophy, we gather — encountering an old friend, perhaps an ex-colleague who has been let go from the department for transgressive speech:
I bumped into someone on Bleecker who was beyond the pale. I felt like talking to him so I did. As we talked I kept thinking, But you’re beyond the pale, yet instead of that stopping us from talking we started to talk more and more frantically, babbling like a couple of maniacs about a whole load of things: shame, ruin, public humiliation, the destruction of reputation—that immortal part of oneself—the contempt of one’s wife, one’s children, one’s colleagues, personal pathology, exposure, suicidal ideation, and all that jazz. I thought, Maybe if I am one day totally and finally placed beyond the pale, I, too, might feel curiously free. Of expectation. Of the opinions of others. Of a lot of things. “It’s like prison,” he said, not uncheerfully. “You don’t see anybody and you get a lot of writing done.”