Strategic Conceptualization

When consequences are the result of categorization, people will perform categories to attain their desired consequences.

Categories carry with them a mix of connotations (social reputations) and decision rules (conventions for associated practice). Decision rules, that is, are domain-specific actions conditionally undertaken on the basis of whether a object or event under consideration is ruled to be a member of the relevant category.

In communicating and coordinating with other agents, we must do extensive representational work—that is, convert some observed or believed reality into categories which, by definition, obliterate the detailed specificity of that reality by reducing it to some generic pattern. Which representation we choose becomes the basis for the actions other agents take in response. Often, the reality we are attempting to categorize is so complex, and so removed from (or emergent out of) material reality, that we have only highly abstract representations available to us—for instance, when determining whether an individual is being “indignant,” “angry,” “stern,” “passionate,” or “curt.” As a result, the choice of appropriate category can be highly subjective, and require enormous amounts of contextual interpretation, varying greatly depending on categorizers’ cultural understandings, personal histories, emotional dispositions, etc. I’ll call such classifications “conceptualizations,” because even within a pragmatic account of truth (where truth reflects a statement’s usefulness, given set of cultural conventions for associated action) there is no “truth” to the matter, as to what sort of situation is at hand.

And yet significant decisions are still made on the basis of these conceptualizations. Actors enter into sustained conflicts over the appropriate conceptualization of such realities, since these conceptualizations have consequences. Conceptualization work is often highly motivated toward securing certain consequences, and it is difficult to discern good-faith from bad-faith conceptualizing. A prototypal example is the Western courts system, where lawyers are engage in protracted battles over not just lower-level “facts,” but higher level interpretations and classifications. There may not be dispute whether a given individual is dead, nor whether the defendant was causally involved in his death—instead, the dispute centers on whether the involvement “was” manslaughter or homicide; in other words, on what level of punishment is appropriate. Another prototypal example is politics, where we debate whether a fetus “is” or “isn’t” a baby, whether someone “is” or “isn’t” a fascist, whether an action “is” or “isn’t” racist.

Put another way: Holding a value system stable among decision-makers, one’s control over normative outcomes depends on the ontological status (conceptual framing) of the situation under inspection.

Conceptualizations (and categorizations broadly) are defended by reference to salient public features, or metonyms, which are understood to be typical or indicative of one category or another. Uncontroversial “facts” (such as whether a defendant sent a text message to the slain party) are curated, organized, and presented so as to advance one categorization or another.

That is, there are two sides to the coin that is gaming a ruling: signaling, in which one strategically performs metonyms which together imply a category, and strategic conceptualization, in which one carefully manages agreed-upon metonyms in such a way as to secure a desired classification.

As Storytelling

Strategic conceptualization can be compared usefully to storytelling and narrative, which background material “facts” for higher-level, quasi-mythical abstractions and relationships.

In the wake of emotionally trying events, we may attempt to re-conceptualize or re-narrativize happenings to derive a version of the story which is satisfying or final and allows us to productively move on. Tanya Corrin, after her relationship with Internet pioneer Josh Harris fell apart during the DotCom bust, goes on a roadtrip with her girlfriends, who console her:

You were dating someone in a tight-knit community where everyone was obsessed with their work. We breathed and dreamed the Internet. If we didn’t date our peers, we wouldn’t have had sex for six years! But after the market crashed and the lights came on, you found yourself with some flabby guy who’s basically a jerk and who cared more about losing his money than he did about you. Get over it. Move on.

Harris, meanwhile, retreats to an apple farm, where he tells the press that Corrin was a “pseudo-girlfriend”—part of a conceptual art project, and not someone he ever cared deeply about. Each has re-written the love story to a loveless story. Few of the “facts” have been altered—Harris was always flabby, and Corrin was always involved in his art projects—but more abstract determinations, like the motivation and character of their relationship, are re-narrativized.

Unsurprisingly, fiction writers offer some of the best representations of strategic conceptualization available. Baumbach’s Marriage Story is arguably a film about strategic conceptualization, particularly as it plays out between couples and within the courtroom. (Although I may be engaging, here, in some strategic conceptualization of my own: What Marriage Story is “about” is not simply or objectively answered.) Here its central couple are shown bickering over a question as seemingly simple and “objective” as their primary residence—a classification which will ultimately determine which city their son Henry is sent to school in:

NORA [Nicole’s lawyer, attempting to secure an LA ruling]: Nicole and Charlie’s son, Henry, was born here in Los Angeles and currently attends Laurel Elementary in Laurel Canyon, and Nicole works in Hollywood on her show while also maintaining a full schedule as a mother with classes of swim, art, gym and music as well as play groups. Nicole is Henry’s primary custodial parent and to the extent that Charlie would like to exercise his custodial time, he should be making efforts to visit Henry here in California.

BERT [Representing Charlie, attempting to secure an NY ruling]: Nora, you seem to be ignoring the fact that they lived in New York for ten years.

NORA: My client worked in New York, for several years–that’s true. But Nicole was born and bred right here in LA. She and Charlie would come here most holidays and summers to spend time with her family who all live here. She and Charlie were married here, would you like to see the photos?

BERT: It’s my client’s expectation that after this TV show is completed, the parties will move back to New York where they currently keep an apartment.

NORA: And it’s my understanding that Charlie promised Nicole that they would spend more time in LA during the marriage but because of Charlie’s insistence that his work keep them in New York, Nicole ended up staying much longer than she ever anticipated. In fact, a few years ago, Charlie was offered a residency at the Geffen Playhouse that would have taken his work and family to LA for a year and he turned it down knowing full well that this was Nicole’s desire.

BERT: He wanted to maintain consistency for his family and his child.

NORA: Was this the same consistency he wanted to maintain when they went to Copenhagen for six months so he could direct a play?

And Alexander Dumas, in The Count of Monte Cristo, provides the following account:

“I will confess to you, Albert,” replied Franz, “the count is a very singular person, and the appointment you have made to meet him in Paris fills me with a thousand apprehensions.”

“My dear fellow,” exclaimed Albert, “what can there possibly be in that to excite uneasiness? Why, you must have lost your senses.”

…Franz then related to his friend the history of his excursion to the Island of Monte Cristo and of his finding a party of smugglers there, and the two Corsican bandits with them. He dwelt with considerable force and energy on the almost magical hospitality he had received from the count, and the magnificence of his entertainment in the grotto of the Thousand and One Nights.

He recounted, with circumstantial exactitude, all the particulars of the supper, the hashish, the statues, the dream, and how, at his awakening, there remained no proof or trace of all these events, save the small yacht, seen in the distant horizon driving under full sail toward Porto-Vecchio.

Then he detailed the conversation overheard by him at the Colosseum, between the count and Vampa, in which the count had promised to obtain the release of the bandit Peppino,—an engagement which, as our readers are aware, he most faithfully fulfilled.

At last he arrived at the adventure of the preceding night, and the embarrassment in which he found himself placed by not having sufficient cash by six or seven hundred piastres to make up the sum required, and finally of his application to the count and the picturesque and satisfactory result that followed. Albert listened with the most profound attention.

“Well,” said he, when Franz had concluded, “what do you find to object to in all you have related? The count is fond of travelling, and, being rich, possesses a vessel of his own. Go but to Portsmouth or Southampton, and you will find the harbors crowded with the yachts belonging to such of the English as can afford the expense, and have the same liking for this amusement. Now, by way of having a resting-place during his excursions, avoiding the wretched cookery—which has been trying its best to poison me during the last four months, while you have manfully resisted its effects for as many years,—and obtaining a bed on which it is possible to slumber, Monte Cristo has furnished for himself a temporary abode where you first found him; but, to prevent the possibility of the Tuscan government taking a fancy to his enchanted palace, and thereby depriving him of the advantages naturally expected from so large an outlay of capital, he has wisely enough purchased the island, and taken its name. Just ask yourself, my good fellow, whether there are not many persons of our acquaintance who assume the names of lands and properties they never in their lives were masters of?”

…“Well,” said Franz with a sigh, “do as you please my dear viscount, for your arguments are beyond my powers of refutation. Still, in spite of all, you must admit that this Count of Monte Cristo is a most singular personage.”

Ontological Camouflage

Strategic conceptualization is functionally analogous to what I have previously called “ontological camouflage,” but with an emphasis on the linguistic and abstract over the non-linguistic and concrete. The basic structure of the ontological camouflage idea is this:

  1. Ontologies allow us to choose, and choose in a coordinated way, best-fitting action. By “best-fitting,” I mean, “interacting with the environmental context in such a way as to bring about desired ends in a desired way.” An ontology, then, is a set of heuristics.
  2. These heuristics are structured as concepts within an action-schema of perceptual cues, types, and best responses. A metonym or surrogate (or more often, a gestalt of metonyms and surrogate, which add up to feeling or “vibe”) indicates type, which in turn (contextually) indicates ideal response; for instance, evidence is weighed in a courtroom to determine whether the state ought to charge a defendant with manslaughter or murder; these classifications alter the kinds of punishment which are available to a judge.
  3. To camouflage oneself is to appear as some other plausible option; for instance, a stick bug cannot only not look like a bug, he must also look like a stick. To camouflage oneself is to change the ontological category which an evaluating agent places the camouflaged party in, and thus to change the action which the evaluator believes ought to follow such an identification.
  4. I might say that all deception, all strategic appearance, is about subverting the classification of ourselves by others. We are not this, we are that. And we do not care about classification for its own sake, but because classification has consequences.
  5. We put in strategic work to be classified advantageously. But questions of deceit, correctness, and truth are difficult to answer. I might say that to camouflage ourselves is to alter our classification from what it otherwise would be (would be by “default,” or “normally”). But this begs the question, What is a “default” interpretation and why is it privileged?
  6. Because agents systematically alter and manage their appearances to achieve better outcomes in strategy games, it makes sense that we would distrust the appearances and classifications desired by self-representing agents. And selectors (or “evaluators”), on average, have more interest in ascertaining the pragmatic, project-relevant truth of the situation. But there is no denying that evaluators can err in their evaluations, that objects, agents, and situations are regularly classified in a way which is an “error” insofar as it hurts the classifier’s best interest.
  7. What’s more, evaluated parties are not automatically legible or transparent; they must do the work of dramatic realization, acquiring a set of signals which reliably communicate what kind of thing they are to evaluators. In other words, strategic work must be done in order that we are classified “correctly.” (That is, to the benefit of the classifier.) So it cannot be as simple as saying that strategic appearances are deceptive.
  8. To deceive I might say, I know he would behave a certain way if he classified me as this, and even though I think I am a this, that treatment is undesirable, so I will convince him I am a that. Or it might be to say, he thinks I am this but I think I am that, and I will fabricate compositional parts in order that he infers that whole instead of this whole. And sometimes I will think I am being very cooperative when I fabricate or bend appearances so that I can get you to classify me as that instead of this. Sometimes I will do a great deal of good in the world by getting this classification. Sometimes all parties privy—all parties with an interest—could all agree that the effects of labeling this that would be quite positive and desirable, and might even conspire together to fabricate or alter appearances, to emphasize some aspects and de-emphasize others, to secure that-status.
  9. And sometimes, resignedly, they admit that this can only ever be a this, that it would be grossly inappropriate to label this a that. But if the grounds of their judgment is non-pragmatic, is about the “truth” of definitions rather than the action outcomes of defining, then what has their “reality-based” (i.e. fantastical) resignation accomplished? Have they not erred through deontology? Can they not be flexible with their categories, with their heuristic schemes for action?

One response to “Strategic Conceptualization”

  1. From a biological standpoint, we lived in cult-like groups for many thousands of years. This circumstance has influenced how we think more than we are aware.


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