Professional, amateur, apprentice; or, As good as Manet’s fingernails

–The more you aim for good enough reliability, the more specific and narrow are the criteria of “just how good is good-enough” (“you must respond within x minutes of a call. . .”). As such, goal displacement is risked where the meeting the criteria equates to the assurance of reliability. Good enough reliability in this way ends up recognizing that the preclusion of must-never-happen events no longer has an institutional niche of social dread. Here, for example, the critical service is good enough when the system operators are fast enough with just enough, knowing full well this is never enough all the time.

The absence of the niche drains any special prescriptive role for reliability professionals (e.g., those control room operators and support staff) and their unique knowledge of large socio-technical systems. Instead, we—the public—now must understand that good enough depends on one’s ingenuity. If we want anything more by way of reliability and safety, then that is left to us, not so much as consumers or citizens, but as amateurs who must now be their own reliability managers.  Because: The only thing left between you and death is, well, you.

–Under the politics of higher task volatility but fewer options with which to respond, much of the management and regulation of large systems becomes after-the-fact governance. Something happens, and then do we react and try to deal with it, if that. More, what little remains of before-the-fact management is no longer “planning and design,” as much as performing just-in-time or just-for-now.

So much for the commonplace. After-the-fact governance, of course, has had a long history. Still it is disappointing to realize that the much-vaunted checks-and-balances system of U.S. governance so favored by the Federalists now looks as Utopian in its before-the-fact prevention of abuses as did the inhuman perfectionism of an Enlightenment Helvetius or Condorcet.

–If we’re all necessarily amateurs in this after-the-fact, we are also apprentices then. Apprenticeship is when the amateur starts in the expectation that “risks” or “tradeoffs” or “costs” are out there to be identified, only to realize in the field that each has to be specified in more detail (with respect to what failure scenario? under what conditions? just what is it a case of?), such that, over the course of a career, he or she recognizes the challenges arise because what is out there depends on how “it” is defined and managed in the first place by really existing human beings in the really-existing systems in which they find themselves.

In this way, the uprush of experience renders doubt a kind of knowingness—and knowingness, up-piled, is professionalism.

–If, as I believe, apprenticeship is crucial for managing in the midst of a politics of higher task volatility but fewer options, the key implication then is to look for really-existing cases of apprenticeship and see what can be learned by way of better practices across the wide range of these cases for managing under such complexity.

And here we must search widely. In an article, “The French Insurgency: Political Economy of the Gilets Jaunes,” Stathis Kouvelakis writes of the Yellow Vests movement:

The ongoing practice of daily assemblies [at one site], combining a search for consensus with (frequent) recourse to votes, has bodied forth [new ideas and practices] in a literal sense. This process of apprenticeship has allowed a wide range of working-class people with no previous political experience to speak out and take part in planning collective actions. The testimonies gathered suggest a process of popular politicization, unfolding at the same pace as the evolution of the Gilets Jaunes at national level—in particular, the clash with the Macron government and the forces of repression. Setting out from a protest against fuel taxes, the Gilets Jaunes’ objectives, here as elsewhere, have progressively expanded: from political-institutional questions—resignation of Macron…—to demands for fiscal and social justice.

More broadly, I’m suggesting we reverse the research challenge said to face today’s management of policy and ask: Where are the policy and political units that actually do manage under different types of nonmeasured/nonmeasurable uncertainties? Where does apprenticeship and professional fit in, if at all? What are the power and political arrangements conducive for that kind of sensitivity to complexity and what do we learn from their politics for managing under conditions of high task volatility and fewer options? A planet of 7 billion plus people must have more to tell us about this.

–Where, though, does this leave us now?

Berthe Morisot, the painter, wrote: “On Thursday Degas said the study of nature was trivial; painting being an art of convention, it was better to learn to draw after Holbein—that Édouard himself [her brother-in-law, Édouard Manet], though he prided himself on slavishly copying nature, was the most mannered painter in the world, never executing a brushstroke without thinking of the Old Masters, not putting fingernails on hands, for instance, because F[rans] Hals didn’t draw them”.

What if our descriptions and evaluations of poverty and war (or of any so-called wicked policy problem) are mannered as Manet’s paintings were said to be? Namely: What’s missing is in an important sense systematically left out.

If systematically avoided (dismissed, ignored), then the descriptions/evaluations of complex issues are a search for “enough-to-quote,” that is: a search to redefine good enough out of what has already been written or painted, to lose one’s self by finding another better one in the already-existing words and works of others–a search, moreover, as deliberately reflective as Manet ensuring the missing fingernails.

If so, the better response to the above narrowing of good enough is to make the “style” in “stylized” your own. That is apprenticeship: It is for you to revise, redescribe, rescript, reframe, refashion, recalibrate. This too is why I go to an exhibit of Manet’s “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” for another look.

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