More on policy palimpsests: how time is sinuous and space is interstitial in the example of total control

A portrayal of this sort involves the identification of a sequence of concatenated ideas and propositions whose final outcome is necessarily hidden from the proponents of the individual links, at least in the early stages of the process; for they would have shuddered—and revised their thinking—had they realized where their ideas would ultimately lead.

A.O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests

–In the social sciences, “policy palimpsest” is the notion that longstanding controversial policies are themselves the overwritten arguments and narratives accreted through time. A composite argument read off or from an issue’s policy palimpsest reads as if it were sequential—sentences have nouns and verbs so that sense is made. But the arguments assembled from the palimpsest have been blurred, intertwined and re-rendered for current (often controverted) purposes. None of the previous inscriptions shine clear through the palimpsest’s layer of effacements and erasures.

The challenge is to read any composite argument with its blur visible in order to acknowledge and probe what has been rendered missing. Once you identify what is missing from the composite argument but was in the palimpsest being read off (no guarantees here), you have identified possible means to recast complex the issue in new (renewed) ways.

How does this work and with what consequence?

–Before we get to our example, consider the assembling strategy of the early 18th century French painter, Antoine Watteau. His was to compose a painting from separate sketches in his albums. Art historian, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, records how Watteau was an inveterate drawer of people—soldiers, women, children, their hands—in different poses and positions. A single sheet of paper may have many such figures complied over time by Watteau, where his

drawings constituted a vast visual repertory from which he was known to have pulled figures and motifs at random, often transferring them mechanically…onto the canvas. Figures drawn on different sheets at different moments in time and without the intention of ever being linked together would find themselves paired in paintings, often in such intimate interactions that it is difficult to imagine they had not been sketched in such configurations in the first place.

Let me repeat that last part: “…often in such intimate interactions that it is difficult to imagine they had not been sketched in such configurations in the first place.”

Such is why we need to rethink time and space in a composite argument. While the sentences in a composite argument look to be linear and specific, time and space are actually the result of adjacent sequencing of discrete texts from elsewhere in the policy palimpsest, with temporal and spatial interactions arising out of that specific sequencing together.

This is to say, time and space emerge from the composite argument. A more familiar example is tagging onto today’s major policy arguments variants of that single phrase, “…in a world threatened by the menace of catastrophic climate change.” Any such adjacency rejiggers everything before and after it. (The tagged-on menace could be global species extinction, late capitalism, planetary pandemics, post-pandemic apocalypse–you choose, but with the similar effect.)

–The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, helps us see more clearly what is going on. He writes in The Big Transcript:

In a story it says: “After he said that he left her, as he had done the day before.” If I am asked whether I understand this sentence, there’s no easy answer. It’s an English sentence and in that respect I understand it. I would know, for instance, how one could use this sentence. I could come up with a context of my own for it. And yet I don’t understand it in the same way I would understand it if I had read the story up to that point. (Cf language-games.)” [7e]

Replace “if I had read the story” with “if I had read the palimpsest,” and you get to the crux. The palimpsest can be read in two forms: effaced and filled in (neither of which assumes the palimpsest’s complete surveyability). In the first sense, the spaces in between the words, “After he said that he left her, as he had done the day before,” are just as important, if not more so, than the actual words read in the sense that the spaces signify all that has been left out. Not to see this is a failure of understanding what you are reading.

How so? Immediately after the above quote, Wittgenstein asks us to think of the sentence as if it were a painting:

What does it mean to understand a painted picture? Here too there is understanding and a failure to understand! And here too ‘understanding’ and ‘failure to understand’ can mean different things. –The picture represents an arrangement of objects in space, but I am incapable of seeing a part of the picture three-dimensionally; rather, in that part I see only patches of the picture. . .[M]aybe I know all of the objects, but – in another sense – don’t understand how they’re arranged.” [7e]

So too we understand the words in a composite argument but fail to understand the three-dimensionality of the palimpsest from which the composite has been patched together and arranged.

In actuality, each composite reflects that three-dimensionality. It does so by having rearranged the palimpsest’s elements-with-effacements from different contexts into, literally, the straight lines we call sentences. These linear, sequential and continuous expressions are in fact the twisted and turning meshes of interrupted time and space. The challenge for better understanding is to read each composite argument as carrying the entire policy palimpsest with it.

–Now to an example. Consider what was a commonplace for years: “Nazi and communist totalitarianism has come to mean total control of politics, economics, society and citizenry.”

In reality, that statement was full of effacements from having been overwritten again and again through seriatim debates, vide: “……totalitarianism        has come to mean…….total control               of politics                  ,citizenry and economics………”

It’s that accented “total control” that drove the initial selection of the phrases around it. Today, after further blurring, it’s much more fashionable to rewrite the composite argument as: “Nazi and communist totalitarianism sought total control of politics, economics, society and citizenry.” The “sought” recognizes that, when it comes these forms of totalitarianism, seeking total control did not always mean total control was achieved. “Sought” unaccents “total control.”

Fair enough, but note that “sought” itself reflects its own effacements in totalitarianism’s palimpsest, with consequences for how time and space are re-rendered. Consider two quotes from the many in that policy palimpsest, which have been passed over when it comes to the use of a reduced-form “sought”:

I always thought there must be some more interesting way of interpreting the Soviet Union than simply reversing the value signs in its propaganda. And the thing that first struck me – that should have struck anybody working in the archives of the Soviet bureaucracy – was that the Soviet leaders didn’t know what was happening half the time, were good at throwing hammers at problems but not at solving them, and spent an enormous amount of time fighting about things that often had little to do with ideology and much to do with institutional interests.

The camp, then, was always in motion. This was true for people and goods, and also for the spaces they traversed. Because Auschwitz was one big construction site. It never looked the same, from one day to the next, as buildings were demolished, extended and newly built. As late as September 1944, just months before liberation in January 1945, the Camp SS held a grand ceremony to unveil its big new staff hospital. . .

Inadvertently, [construction] also created spaces for prisoner agency. The more civilian contractors worked on site, the more opportunities for barter and bribes. All the clutter and commotion also made it harder to exercise full control, as blocked sightlines opened the way for illicit activities, from rest to escape. . .

Some scholars see camps like Auschwitz as sites of total SS domination. This was certainly what the perpetrators wanted them to be. But their monumental designs often bore little resemblance to built reality. Priorities changed, again and again, and SS planners were thwarted by supply shortages, bad weather and (most critically) by mass deaths among their slave labour force. In the end, grand visions regularly gave way to quick fixes, resulting in what the historian Paul Jaskot, writing about the architecture of the Holocaust, called the “lack of a rationally planned and controlled space”. Clearly, the popular image of Auschwitz as a straight-line, single-track totalitarian machine is inaccurate.

I am not arguing that the quoted reservations are correct or generalizable or fully understandable (the quotes obviously come to us as already overwritten). I am saying that they fit uncomfortably with popular notions “local resistance,” when the latter is about “taking back control” in a policy and management world where time and space, if you look more closely, are (re-)rendered sinuous and interstitial.

–So what? So what if time and space are this way rather than that way? Well, the difference is a very big deal! It means that no single composite argument can galvanize the entire space-and-time of a palimpsest. It means matters of time and space have to be reconsidered with each argument we read off for a major policy.

Why? Because reconsiderations of how time and space play out offers up the prospect of different objectivities and realisms, the very stuff of space and time.

For instance, “catastrophic cascades” are almost always described as having virtually instantaneous transitions from the beginning of a cascade in one infrastructure to its awful conclusion across other infrastructures connected with it. But in the terminology presented here, a catastrophizing cascade isn’t so much a composite argument with a reduced-form middle as it is a highly etiolated palimpsest where infrastructure interactions taking more granular time and space have been blotted out or leached away altogether.

To see the palimpsest, right from first, is to defamiliarize any reading off it; to see that reading one must first see it not as a straightforward or coherent argument on its own but for what it is: different phrases and images from different parts of the palimpsest conjoined together, in formal terms, asyndetically or paratactically.

In stopping short by going no further than the “merits of the argument on its own” we once again end up in gross exaggeration of the complexities that free us. We get to probe what to make of the spaces between the words.

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