Critique that doesn’t deoxygenate everything around it

Praxis. . .appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what is being criticized. Theodor Adorno, philosopher

–For the policy analyst, being relevant means offering an alternative to what is criticized. But there are other ways for criticism to be good-enough without that. Critique, for example, is pertinent when solutions are not on offer and “offering solutions” make bad messes worse.

There is also the honorable march of permanent critique, which resists anything like aiding and abetting sanctioned modes for “acting practically.” And then there’s bearing witness, which can make silent critique very loud indeed (e.g., the Black Sash in apartheid South Africa).

–It seems to me that that criticism is good enough when it provokes (even if discourages), disturbs (even when debatable), and sharpens attention even because it goes no further.

An example. Science and economics have been much chastised as: religion (e.g., each with metaphysics); imperialist (e.g., colonizing the traditional “why?” and “how?” of the humanities); and for being “only” socially-constructed. Also, critiques of science and economics as Big Business stress their producing sufficient Bad as to shadow the Good.

Yet when focusing on the downsides of science and economics, you needn’t be: denying the strengths each has; nor arguing that their blind-spots “cancel out” their strengths.

Good-enough criticism, I think, wants to admit that. It differs from the kind of critique that wants to buttonhole people once and for all. It’s good enough when the other side of a criticizing “no” is “yes, but.”

What if “the root cause” is more contingency?

Contingency is also a way to think about alternatives, and thus adopt a skeptical approach to deterministic discourses. Éric Monnet, French economist

When it comes to simplifying, we mustn’t forget those who go for “the root cause” in all these policy messes.

But which root cause? Hegelian estrangement, Marxian false consciousness, Weberian disenchantment, Freudian defense mechanisms, Sartrean bad faith, Orwellian doublethink, Gramscian hegemony, or Goebbels’s Big Lie? Or is the root cause, in that famous “last instance,” Kuhnian paradigms, Foucauldian discipline, or God’s plan or that sure bet, money—or have I stopped short of the Truly-Rooted Root Cause?

Root-cause explanations are exaggerations, each pretending an outsized clarity that isn’t there. (Geoffrey Hill, the poet, put it, “the very idea of a ‘transparent’ verbal medium is itself an inherited and inherent opacity.”)

Root causes wash out the differentiation. It is one thing to say the present advances to the future it renders for itself; it is quite another thing to say the future advances to the contingencies the present affords. It’s like finding out the best hamburger in town is at the Vietnamese diner.

Three design principles that matter for risk managers and policymakers–and the condition under which the Precautionary Principle doesn’t

–Only within macro-design can you argue from first principles to fixed conclusions. So, when I’m told that macro-principle also governs really-existing micro-operations (think: universal human rights applying equally to each and every individual across the planet), I’m left wondering just how does this work. It puts me in mind of those Renaissance paintings that leave viewers guessing about just how close to the Virgin Mary did that dove have to get in order to inseminate her.

Did the earlier cave-people share the basic human right to healthcare? Will those smarter-than-human robots also have the basic right to refuse forced labor? Whatever. Nothing, though, stops some principles being grounded explicitly in and around how things work. In my field, policy analysis and management, I can think of three.

–First—as a matter of principle—every design proposal must pass the ‘‘reliability matters’’ test. Would the proposal, when implemented, reduce the task volatility that managers face? Does it increase their options to respond to volatility? Does it increase their maneuverability in responding to different, often unpredictable or uncontrollable, performance conditions?

The test of efficacy here is not ‘‘Have we designed a system that can be controlled?,’’ but rather ‘‘Is this a system we can manage to redesign when needed?’’

Second—as a matter of principle—any macro-design that compels its professionals to work for an extended or indefinite period of time in a task environment outside their domain of competence cannot be expected to produce reliable services. A crisis of course can push real-time professionals to work beyond the limits of the known, and even of the knowable—but management professionalism can’t make the coping professional.

Third, as a matter of principle, management alternatives exist because society and economy are complex, i.e., because problems are complex, they can be recast differently.

–The social and legal critic Roberto Mangabeira Unger wrote that the dilemma people face is ‘‘the dictatorship of no alternatives’’: ‘‘All over the world, people complain that their national politics fail to deliver real alternatives’’. But if we actually looked all over the world, we’d find much by way of alternative practices useful for our own management.

You cannot complain that, on one hand the planet is overpopulated with 7.5+ billion people, while in the same breadth, complain that too few really-existing practices are available for improving matters.

–The three principles together insist that system designers learn about contingencies that cannot be planned for, but which must be managed in real time, and then often case by case. This means that the responsibility and duty of real-time veto over design and technology moves from the designers/planners to the operators/managers–when high reliability is the mandate.

–An example that runs against the three principles? For one, there is the Precautionary Principle as often applied to risk management. It insists on avoiding positions that may have extreme consequences in favor of a more cautious approach.

The question immediately arises: Where does the control come from to achieve the avoidance necessitated by the Precautionary Principle? You can legislate the Principle, but you can’t control its execution. More to the point, aren’t critical infrastructures the only real-time large-scale mechanism we have to manage for avoidance of extreme events we know that matter?

–Are there other avoidance strategies better than the Precautionary Principle? Obviously! They’ve emerged and been modified as different practices for different situations–again, what else can you expect from manifold billions on this planet?

Guess who?

Even dystopians have their utopian distractions.

Here’s one of the 20th century’s great writers of anti-utopias: from his entry known as Commune of Workers Without Private Property:

OBLIGATIONS: to possess no money, no valuables, and not to accept any. Only the following possessions are permitted: the most simple dress (to be defined in detail), whatever is necessary for work, books, food for one’s own consumption. Everything else belongs to the poor.

      To get one’s living only by working for it. Not to shrink from any work that one’s strength suffices to perform without damaging one’s health. Either to choose the work oneself or, in the event of this not being possible, to fall in with the arrangements made by the Labor Council, which is responsible to the Government.

      To work for no wages other than what is necessary to support life (to be defined in detail according to various districts) for two days.

      Life to be of the utmost moderation. To eat only what is absolutely necessary, for instance as a minimum wage, which is in a certain sense also a maximum wage: bread, water, dates. Food as eaten by the poorest of the poor, shelter like that of the poorest of the poor.

      The relationship to the employer to be treated as a relation of mutual trust. The intervention of the courts never to be invoked. Each job taken on to be completed, in all circumstances, except for grave reasons of health.

Author? Franz Kafka

Table of key entries by topic area

This week’s blogs: “Guess who?,” “Three design principles that matter for risk managers and policymakers–and the condition under which the Precautionary Principle doesn’t

–The Big Read:When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene

Worth another look: “Market Contagion, Financial Crises and a Girardian Economics” (updated substantially)

(Use keyword search function to find others listed below)

Table of key entries

Most Important: “What am I missing?,” “‘What’s missing?’ in this catastrophic earthquake scenario,” “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Power,” “Interconnected?,” “I believe,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “Overlap and difference between keeping it complex and keeping it simple,” ““Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism in the Anthropocene,” “Information overload and cognitive under-comprehension are not the same,” “Playing it safe, utopia,” “Case-by-case analysis: realism, criteria, virtues,” “Not ‘Why don’t they listen to us?’ but rather: ‘What should we listen for from them. . .’,” “Humanism, by default,” “Mess and reliability: five propositions, one conclusion,” “Control, surpris’d,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “Heuristics as clues,” “Seven differences that matter for reliable policy and management,” “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management (longer read),” “Begin, not end, with the radical agenda,” “Policy palimpsest: concept, examples, and the violence

Recasting big policy issues: “Poverty and war,” “It’s war or peace?,”“Second thoughts on income inequality,” “Unbracketing [Inequality],” “Surprising climate change,” “COVID-19,” “Missing racism,” “Healthcare,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene, ” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Culling sustainability,” “In a failed state,” “Revolts,” “How to act when the opposite of good is good intention,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination’,” “Government regulation,” “Economic consequences of having no must-never-happen events in the financial sector,” “What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t,” “Recasting Roosevelt’s New Deal,” “Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change,” “Other alternatives,” “Apocalypse and tax havens,” “COP26 and intermittence,” “Ukraine right now,” and Longer Reads (below)

More recastings: “Policy narratives,” “America’s,” “Recastings #1,” “When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel,” “Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?,” “Sound familiar? Here’s why,” “Simple sentences? Not for public policy,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Policy as magical thinking,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “The good mess in supply and demand analysis,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Global Climate Sprawl,” “Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,” “It’s war or peace?,” “It’s more top-down and outside-in than bottom-up or inside-out,” “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies,” “Worth repeating I/II (from earlier blogs),” “Worth repeating II/II (from earlier blogs),” “What the Thai BL series, ‘Bad Buddy,’ has to tell us about societal reset,” “Sovereign territories,” “The mutability of intractable”

Not-knowing and its proxies: “Seeing unknowns,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal,” “By way of distraction…,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Humanism, by default,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “On population increase,”“It’s war or peace?,” “Budgets and fingernails”

Ignorance and uncertainty: “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Uncertain superlatives,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Why aren’t they all running away!,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “A real emergency: suicide for fear of death,” “What they don’t tell you in Safety Culture: when error is not a mistake,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Mercator’s projection,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “It’s war or peace?,” “Prediction when complex is as simple as it gets”

Risk, resilience and root causes: “A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Central role of the track record in risk analysis,” “Resilience isn’t what you think,” “Root causes,” “Frau Hitler, again,” “With respect to what?,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “What they don’t tell you in Safety Culture: when error is not a mistake,” “Four macro-design principles that matter—and one that can’t—for risk managers and policymakers,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “Safety, like much in democracy and intelligence, is not a noun but an adverb,” “Seven differences that matter for reliable policy and management,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “Changing risk and changing safety are different!,” “Existential threats,” “The chop-logic in risks, tradeoffs and priorities, with examples from emergency management (expanded)”

Regulation: “A few things I’ve learned from the Financial Times on regulation,” “Government regulation,” “Critical infrastructures regulate differently than government,” “An infrastructure’s regulator of record is in real-time recovery from setbacks, always,” “Regulation, deconstructed and reconstructed”

Infrastructures: “The real infrastructure crisis,” “Innovation,” “Take-home messages,” “Who pays?,” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Catastrophized cascades,” “Healthcare,” “Interconnected,” “Critical infrastructures regulate differently than government,” “The weak link in highly reliable infrastructures,” “Where distrust and dread are positive social values,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Government regulation,” A real emergency: suicide for fear of death,” “What they don’t tell you in Safety Culture: when error is not a mistake,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “Warnings of Big System Collapse you should be on the look-out for,” “Mercator’s projection,” “Impact-sheds are not managed systems, except when…,” “Changing risk and changing safety are different!,” “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies,” “The chop-logic in risks, tradeoffs and priorities, with examples from emergency management (expanded)”

Environment: “New environmental narratives for these times (longer read, consolidated from following entries),” “Nature,” “Tansley’s ecosystem,” “Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Culling sustainability,” “Lifecycle modeling of species,” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,”“What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t,” “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies, “What radical actions are missing in the climate emergency?,” “Environmental livestock-tarring”

Rural development: “Disaster averted is core to pastoralist development,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Culling sustainability,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Misadventures by design,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Next-ism”

Pastoralist development: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform pastoralism’ (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde,” “On population increase,” “Environmental livestock-tarring,” “What the Thai BL series, ‘Bad Buddy,’ has to tell us about societal reset,” “Pastoralisms as a global infrastructure,” “Another take on livestock pastoralists,” “Authoritative website for real-time decisionmaking with respect to pastoralists and pastoralisms”

Catastrophe and crisis: “Catastrophized cascades,” “Jorie Graham’s systemcide,” “The shame of it all,” “Next-ism,” “The future is the mess we’re in now,” A real emergency: suicide for fear of death,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Some good messes in their catastrophism,” “Warnings of Big System Collapse you should be on the look-out for,” “Apocalypse and tax havens,” “The chop-logic in risks, tradeoffs and priorities, with examples from emergency management (expanded),” “Catastrophe as unimaginably bad, or: predictably bad, less and more”

More mess, good and bad: “Mess and reliability: five propositions, one conclusion,” “A different take on the traffic mess,” “Happiness: The mess,” “Who pays?,” “Misadventures by design,” “. . .and raise my taxes!,” “Top-of-the-list thinking,” “Take-home messages,” “The good mess in supply and demand analysis,” “New Normal means managing not just negative but positive setbacks,” “Some good messes in their catastrophism,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “The good mess in no single, right reading and in the many (more or less) wrong ones,” “Predicting the future,” “Planning, with a difference”

Betterment and good-enough: “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “Betterment and the brothers, William and Henry James,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” “Professional, amateur, apprentice; Or, As good as the fingernails of Manet,” “‘at sea,’ ‘from on high’,” “Betterment (continued),” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” “Humanism, by default,” “Good-enough criticism,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “What to do when policy articles keep ending where they should’ve started,” “Heuristics as clues,” “For the sake of betterment: Positive functions of social dread, blind-spots and complication,” “Reliably good enough?”

Policy palimpsests and composite arguments: “Take home messages,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Reflection and sensibility,” “Recasting the policy narrative of labor-substituting technological change,” “Policy palimpsest: concept, examples, and the violence,” “The mailbox illusion in public policy,” and other Longer Reads (below)

Economism: “Economism,” “Keep it simple?,” “Loose ends, #1” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “An eye-drop’s worth of realism,” “What dollars are actually saying,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “The good mess in supply and demand analysis,” “Makes the gorge rise.” “Other alternatives,” “‘We are not social scientists!’,” “Bolted-on economics has to be blasted-off”

Methods (for analyzing narrative, risk, triangulation, others): “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination,’” “Policy narratives,”“A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “The good mess in supply and demand analysis,” “An eye-drop’s worth of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty,” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,” “Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “On population increase,” “The policy analysis toolkit and complexity”

Longer Reads: “Ammons and regulation,” “The next Constitutional Convention,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “A consultant’s diary,” “A different take on The Great Confinement,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New environmental narratives for these times (consolidated from Environment entries),” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty (consolidated from entries for Risk, resilience and root causes),” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems (consolidated from earlier entries),” “Pastoralists and. Pastoralisms,” “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management,” “A guide to key concepts for policy analysis and public management in the Anthropocene”

Something less complex?: “Red in tooth and claw,” “What kdrama has taught me,” “Don’t you think?,” “The Florida Grapefruit Chair in Anti-Communist Economics @weCARE2.edu,” “Five questions everyone should want to answer,” “Distracted anti-utopians,” “Sallies out and sees,” “It’s really as if,” “Proof-positive that international irrationality is socially constructed. . .,” “‘Again and again, my “etc” has a limit.’,’ “Siding with the wall,Which of these old lists still makes sense?,” “Kids’ lit?,” “When the whole is less than the parts,” “A modest proposal to end refugee camps,” “If only the poor were digital currency. . .,” “Bringing the frame into the picture”

The “no” in innovate

“First off,” the project designer tells us, “I’m always working in unstudied conditions. Every major project, I’ve got to make assumptions.” I counter: The challenge of project designers is to find out what are the better practices for starting off complex project designs. I mean the really-existing practices that have emerged and been modified over a run of different cases and shown to be more effective for design implementation.

“But how can a field or discipline grow if it doesn’t do something the first time…” This response is often stated as if it were established fact. Here too better practices are to be first searched for. Or where they aren’t found, then, yes, systemwide innovation should not be undertaken if it reduces options, increases task volatility, and diminishes maneuverability in real-time complex system operations.

“But, there always has to be someone who does something for the very first first-time, right?” The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate this, indeed, is the very first time. This is a planet of 7 plus billion, after all.

“But still,” our friends, the economists, press: “What about the pivotal role of innovation in the economy!” Well, yes, but so too are the infrastructures upon which the innovation economy depend. To treat innovation as more important than the infrastructures (without whose reliability there wouldn’t be most innovations) risks Mercator’s projection: It over-enlarges the already large.

So what’s wrong with innovation at its limits? Innovation evangelicals would have us believe that everything existing is already an anachronism. The form in the stone is out-of-date because there’s surely something better than stone. But why is it better to innovate as the next step ahead than improve the step just taken?

Everything connected to everything else? Not in the way you think!

And though one says that one is part of everything,

There is a conflict, there is a resistance involved;
And being part is an exertion that declines:
One feels the life of that which gives life as it is.

Wallace Stevens, “The Course of a Particular”

–If there were ever a term in need of greater differentiation, granularity and detail, it is “interconnected” (as in interconnected critical infrastructures). Why?

Economists, engineers and system modelers often conceptualize interconnected critical infrastructure systems along the lines that Garret Hardin did 50 years ago for the Tragedy of the Commons: Imagine an interconnected critical infrastructure open to all manner of vulnerability and complex interconnectivity. That is precisely what you cannot assume on the ground. Empirically, there are different types of interconnectivity and these differences matter, something Hardin got terribly wrong when it came to livestock rangelands.

–By way of example, our research on a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) of the US Coast Guard (USCG) found at least five major kinds of “interconnected” at work having sharp differences in the VTS’s real-time operations:

  • Interoperability: Like the textbook interoperable energy utility (where electricity is crucial for the natural gas operations and vice versa), the VTS manages both vessel traffic and the regulated waterways that the vessels use (where managing the water ways affects management of the vessels and vice versa);
  • Shared control variables: Water flows are a major control variable not just for VTS navigation purposes, but also for other infrastructures (most notably large water supplies and hydropower systems). This means that unexpected changes in how one infrastructure manages water flows can affect the management of the water flows by the other infrastructures (indeed, inter-infrastructural coordination around shared control variables was reported to us);
  • Combined cycle of infrastructure operations: The USCG has a range of missions and operations, two of which are the VTS and the SAR (Search and Rescue) units. VTS combines with SAR to represent stages of this infrastructure’s operational cycle—normal operations and disrupted operations (VTS) along with failure and recovery (SAR). Not only are normal operations of the VTS already inter-infrastructural (by virtue of the shared control variables), but also the USCG’s Command and Control mission, including that for SAR, has an incident command facility and function for inter-infrastructural coordination during system failure and recovery;
  • Variety of real-time configurations of interconnectivity: The VTS manages by virtue of resorting to a variety of interconnections with the vessels concerned. When VTS management of a common pool resource (the waterways) on behalf of inter-related users is disrupted or fails (e.g., because of defect in VTS communications), the interconnection configuration defaults over to the reciprocal one of vessel-to-vessel communication; and
  • Inter-organizational linkages: USCG operations, including a VTS, are not only linked with other infrastructures through reliance on the Global Positioning System (GPS), but the Coast Guard’s position within the Department of Homeland Security makes it strategically located with respect to focusing on GPS vulnerabilities and strengths when it comes to the nation’s cyber-infrastructure.

Why do such differences matter? One answer: Once different interconnectivities are taken as the serious, really-existing starting point—”the life of that which gives life as it is”—we understand better how major approaches to risk management of critical infrastructures can be mis-specified and misleading.

–One case in point will have to suffice. What could seem more reasonable than a focus on system chokepoints and the most obvious way to do that is by focusing on where major infrastructures intersect or lie adjacent to each other on the ground, right? Wrong.

It’s wiser is to focus on how spatially adjacent or collocated structures and facilities are actually managed within their respective infrastructure systems. It is possible that a system’s chokepoint may be elsewhere than at the site of collocated facilities, and that the element collocated could be lost without its respective system flipping into failure.

Just because elements from two or more infrastructures are spatially adjacent does not mean automatically mean those infrastructures have “to coordinate” unless, say, shared control variables are involved or interoperability challenged.

The baseline of improvisers and dreamers

–When the self comes as a version of the carver, Michelangelo famously put the task as liberating form from stone. The real self is the revealed form that already exists, when you chip away the surplusage.

Adrian Stokes, art critic, took the distinction and extended it. For Stokes and in contrast to the carver, the modeler fashions the self. The modeler of clay has the more labile enterprise of molding, where the form is “not uncovered but created.” “The modeler realizes his design with clay. Unlike the carver, he does not envisage that the conception is enclosed in his raw material.” In comparison to stone, “the plastic material has no ‘rights’ of its own. . .Modeling is a much more ‘free’ activity than carving”. (Think of “modeling” not as computer simulation but as Stokes did, molding).

–Adam Phillips, the essayist and therapist, returns to Stokes’s distinction as two distinct approaches to an individual’s selfhood and experience: “It is as though there are things that are always already there which we may or may not find; and there are things which we make, which we put there and by so doing add something to the world that wasn’t there previously”.

What interests Phillips is that “[e]ach of these two versions involves us in telling a different kind of story about the self”. The modeler “uses his art to expose, to extend, to fashion himself”, while the carver abstains from promoting the self in favor of responding to the otherness of the object. Yet in both, a version of the self is operating—“the carver forgets himself…the modeler endorses himself”.

–The difficulty with the carver is that, in seeing herself as deferring to what is already there, she renders herself oddly immune to criticism by a world that responds nevertheless; it is as if she submerges her own egotism in the name of making what is revealed wholly visible as its own, regardless.

The difficulty with the molder (our modeler) is the reverse. It is her hubris, her own truth that is imposed upon a seemingly labile reality. She acts as if reality knows it’s worse off for not having this truth.

–What works better, carving or modeling?

It’s not one or the other; rather it is, “yes, but” or “yes, and.” It is premature to choose between the two versions of self when other selves exist from which to (s)elect. To carving stone and modeling clay, we must at least add improvising the self from what is at hand, which involves something different—good enough but in ways that matter better still than stone, clay and such, if you will.

What Phillips calls “the contingent self” is one who makes use of luck, accident, and coincidence that befall him or her. S/he improvises a life within a network of others that improvises him/her. (This, of course, is also a weak-spot of the contingent self who is always, if you will, being prepped for more surgery.)

–The carving, modeling, and now, improvising self: What other self/selves are we missing?

I can think of several candidates, but here focus on the “dreaming self.” This self, as I see it, differs from carver, modeler and improviser. It is not about having strong internal control, while external factors do or do not control either. When one dreams, one’s selfhood “holds fast” without really seeming to try or having “control” at all.

–So what? I suggest carvers or modelers are seeking something better-than-just good enough when it comes to their selves–at least compared to improvisers and dreamers. An analogy helps with understanding what just good enough is instead when it comes to the self.

Think of the self as that magic animal skin, which in the process of realizing each new wish, shrinks smaller and smaller—until nothing is left to realize what is wished for.

Each enacted wish—each dream-in-action—could turn against you, waylay and maroon you on the shoals of simplification or the overly complex, requiring all kinds of subsequent corrective wishes—and before you know it, you’ve run out of options.

But that’s the point. To mindlessly lose options is: Just. Not. Good. Enough.

Principal sources

Phillips, A. (1994). On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

————– (2004). On not making it up, Or the varieties of creative experience. Salmagundi, no. 143 (Summer): 56-75.

Stokes, A.  (1978). The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, Volume I: 1930-1937, Thames and Hudson: GB.

The upside of system distrust and social dread

Although not first thought of as such, critical infrastructures are a key institutional mechanism for the distinguishing and dispersing social values.

Critical infrastructures instantiate social values not abstractly but as differences taken into account when societal reliability and safety matter now. These differences—more properly, differentiated knowledge bases about and orientations to reliability and safety at the event and system levels—are reconciled by infrastructure control rooms (where they exist) in real time and in the name of ensuring high reliability (including safety), then and there.

I

Trust is a good example of how a social value is specified and differentiated by infrastructures. Broader discussions about “trust requires shared values” miss the fact that team situation awareness of systemwide reliability operators is much more about knowledge management, distributed cognition, and keeping a shared bubble of system understanding than it is about “trust” as a singularly important social value.

For that matter, distrust is as core as trust. One reason operators are reliable is that they actively distrust the future will be stable or reliable in the absence of the system’s vigilant real-time management. There has been much less discussion of the positive function of distrust as a social value. In contrast, “distrust” often takes the adjective, “polarizing.”

II

So too for “dread.” Widespread social dread–as in the societal dread that drives the reliability management of very hazardous infrastructures–is almost always taken to be negative. Here too, though, dread has a positive function.

Every day, nuclear plant explosions, airline crashes, financial meltdowns, massive water-supply collapse—and more—are avoided that would have happened had not operators and managers in these large systems prevented their occurrence.

Why? Because societal dread is so intense that these events must be precluded from happening on an active basis. (It might be better to say that we don’t know “societal dread” unless we observe how knowledgeable professionals operate and manage complex critical infrastructures.)

There is such fear of what would happen if large interconnected electricity, telecommunications, water, transportation, financial services and like did fail that it is better to manage them than not have them. We’ve structured our lives to depend on these systems, at least for right now.

III

All of us of course must wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, and distrust for that matter, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged?

For the answer to that question is altogether too evident: Most of the planet already lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask, precisely because the answer is that clear.

Bolted-on economics has to be blasted-off

–Open The Twentieth Century Fund’s 1945 publication, Financing American Prosperity: A Symposium of Economists and turn to the summary recommendations culled from its contributors. There you find: “Create budget surplus for debt repayment,” “Create budget surplus to reduce inflation,” “Avoid [public works] projects that compete with private investment,” “Raise interest rates when inflation threatens,” “Avoid wage increases beyond increases in productivity,” “Eliminate restrictive trade practices,” and such.

These are the same ones our economic elites and school economists have been talking about for ever since, and doubtless they will continue to do so in the decades ahead. Though, the most blisteringly obvious fact is that WE ARE NOT LIVING IN THE 1940s. We are, to put it mildly, in a different mess today.

–The earlier economic advice remains salient not because of a timeless inerrancy of economic theory, but only to the extent that the really-existing systemwide patterns we recognize today and the really-existing contingency scenarios we face now render the notion of “economic practices” intelligible to us in real time.

What, you don’t think the practices of economics has changed? Why then, by way of example, has economics altered so much since the advent of large datasets? Long gone are days when we felt comfortable with discussions that start, “Elementary economics demonstrates that. . .”

–Why does this matter? Consider a recent Wall Street Journal summary:

A record $9.7 trillion in bonds and other debt has been issued this year by companies and governments looking to weather the economic pain of the pandemic. That borrowing spree has put total global debt on pace to hit $277 trillion, or 365% of the world’s gross domestic product, by the end of 2020.

see https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-world-is-bingeing-on-debtand-smashing-records-11606732203t

May I ask, how are such sums like the “debt” we use to talk about and understand, even well after the 1940s?

–Let’s stay with the terminology a bit longer. If economics is about satisfaction, then the fact that people are basically satisfied in terms of happiness after reaching a certain level of income means that economics doesn’t apply in this way to those with the higher incomes. The extent to which they remain unsatisfied irrespective of income has more to do with psychology and political science, not economics (assuming we have to resort to disciplines in order to explain what is going on).

It seems to me almost anything but pure economics can explain these times when, e.g., saving Europe is reduced to saving the euro; when what were once broad economic stabilization policies are now this or that financial stabilization mechanism; when it makes perfect sense to use credit default swaps to determine entire countries are riskier than some corporations; and when economists defend “competitiveness” as cost-slashing, whatever timeless economic theory said about labor productivity setting wage rates.