In praise of new bottles for old wine

–At some point in their careers, people are struck by the same-old same-old. New problems turn out to be the old ones for which new terms—jargon? fads?—have been (re)invented.

The point I make below is that even if new bottles for old wine, that bottling is necessary for those pushing complex policy, management and politics further. What is jargon, after all, but terms that prematurely cease to go far enough, at least for you?

–My perspective on being a policy analyst and researcher is, I believe, unexceptional in three ways that hold for other careers as well:

  • I work from within pre-existing structures (language, organizations, networks, the hardwired brain, my profession. . .) that I did not create;
  • My perspective on these structures, however, is not wholly determined by them, since I and others are also products of contingencies (accidents, luck, happenstance, conjunctures, chance); and
  • Our perspectives do matter, but differently. Some bear witness to that which they cannot change; some criticize and critique conditions that must be changed; some provide longer-term alternatives to work toward, even if shorter-term interventions prove infeasible.

That no one avoids his or her times and contingencies would be a banal observation, were it not each generation having to discover the fact as its own.

–What bothers me, though, is the dismissiveness typically attached to that term, “new bottles.” In contrast, my experience has been that new terminology and concepts are essential when it comes to some of the unidentified perspectives in the third bullet. Unlike those listed there, my field aims for far more effective short-term interventions to what looks intractable now.

New bottles for the old wine are essential in at least two ways. First, common terms are useful when taking on new or more nuanced meaning(s): When I use “risk,” I am not subscribing to the ISO 31000 definition; when I use “contingency,” I do not mean the way, say, Louis Althusser positioned it; when I call for “humility,” I mean to include a vigilance others do not single out; by “ignorance” I mean not just an engineer’s unstudied conditions, but also a philosopher’s unstudiable ones.

Second and far more significant, new or more nuanced terms specify a greater level of detail with respect to what matters, now. I use “policy palimpsest” instead of its seeming synonyms—“language games,” “discourse systems,” or “dispositif”—because a policy palimpsest is always with respect to a specific policy or management issue or complex of issues, e.g., failed states, and at a level of granularity and detail that matter for changing the issue(s) now, and not just later.

Of course, the other strategies of bearing witness, permanent critique, and long-term planning remain valid. (Like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, we wheedle Those-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed: “How was the Assembly today, dear? Anything/in the minutes about Peace?”) The point is that such are not the only ways. Even when classic theories—Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, more—get us a good distance along, they fall short of where policymakers and practitioners are to go: case by case, pros ton kairon (“as the occasion merits”), Aristotle would have it.

Principal source
Aristophanes (1969). Lysistrata. Trans. Douglass Parker in Aristophanes’ Four Comedies, edited by William Arrowsmith. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

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