Short and not sweet

–Have you attended those presentations where engineers propose all-benefit-and-no-cost innovations in design and technology of such fantastification as would bring a failing grade to any student in public policy and management? The slides on their own are like a tableau vivant of Revelation pulling the “thing” out of Nothing, with thingamajiggery then sacralized as Invention. (As a Renaissance ceiling fresco, the fabled risk-seeking innovators would be little putti wheeling around St Market, upwards into a cerulean sky.)

–When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. (In other words, the counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)

–Consider those business schools that provide modern-day equivalents to Mirrors for Princes, the early Islamic and European guides for leaders in the Land-Where-Leaders-Reign-Better? Their curricula: More like the “instructions for travelers” used by 16th century returning travelers to write up their journeys. Their outputs: Little better than travelogues to dynasties legendary. The scariest are the students who think they shine in the reflected glory of the exoticism. Not for nothing are the exceptions called arcana imperii, the secrets of holding power hidden from the view of these platitudinarians.

–What would we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were early readers of Machiavelli’s Prince, the French classes delving into the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, or Beccaria’s On Crime and Punishment, or those stirred by Michael Harrington’s The Other America?

Or is the point quite the other way round? The “we” is expanding, every day, by agitations of other media?

–Author, James Baldwin, wrote that the “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” In policy and management where the Big Question is “What’s missing that’s right there to be seen?,” the challenge is to uncover answers that have been obscured by all the other questions.

–Go look for one of those early 20th century American landscape paintings by, e.g., Redmond Granville, of wildflowers spreading across fields or Edgar Payne of a remote lake in the snowy Sierras. Then look at virtually the same painting, but this time with a young woman in her calico dress or cowboy on a horse. In an instant, this painting dates the preceding one. What had been an idealized-now flips to a historicized-then. Public policy is full of such flips: reforms that work on paper but date immediately when real people with real problems in real time enter the picture—both as subject and as frame.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued “matter” was treated like a pincushion whose surface was hidden by all the sensations, thoughts and properties stuck into it.

You ask today’s version of, “What’s the matter?,” and you get a pincushion of sentences affixed with an “etc.” Each implies the unnamed factors are only critical to the point we needn’t clutter the analysis any further by naming them. “Hail, Muse! Et Cetera,” as Byron sarcastically put it in the third canto of Don Juan. Yet, really why are we reading if not to find out what the writers think are critical enough to name? (Writes Wittgenstein: “Again and again, my ‘etc’ has a limit.”)

–Our experiences “lie jumbled up inside us, and we find we have an inner world like a rubbish bin,” wrote the sociologist and psychotherapist, Ian Craib:

This is a different sort of mess…the flux of the inner life and our emotions, about which we maintain the illusion that it can be made orderly and predictable. We might think that the rubbish bin can be sorted out, but it seems to me what the push is towards emptying it and starting afresh.

But we don’t know how to start all over again, and as such two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety of having to sort things out: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know (or can know) and the centrifugal pressures of opening up recasting what has been taken as unknowable or for granted by the person involved.

The pressures and anxiety drove Victorian eclecticism, they are to be found in the complexities of mid-20th century modernists, and so too they drive policy messes. The anxiety, in case it needs saying, is over the instability that comes with the entailment of the “really know” and the changing “I.

This is Proust in translation: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown”. We only know that which we create—and with this, the anxiety both at the knowing and at the recasting.

The first words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are, “Whose there?” Indeed. And at its end, what life isn’t unfinished? In both cases, arithmetic averages wobble.

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