Updated announcements and short table of contents

I. If you are revisiting or new to this blog, “Four Big Reads” are the best place to (re)start:

1/4: When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene (updated September 2022)

2/4: Policy optics as prompts and probes to recasting: 15 brief examples (updated September 2022)

3/4: Some policy optics best serve to soften up intractable issues for a second look (seven examples from the humanities)

4/4: Novel policy palimpsests for recasting: total control, AI ethics and national politics (new September 2022)

These consolidate and update entries on the multiple uses of policy optics–fresh concepts, methods, counternarratives, analogies and thought experiments–for identifying better policy and management. The three best illustrate the title and theme of this blog and I will add new material to each from time to time.

II. One topic that has long interested me is that of herders, livestock and rangelands in Africa. For those interested as well, please see the following four updated entries with new material:

Pastoralism as a global infrastructure” (updated September 2022)

Additional points for ‘A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism‘”

An altogether different view of pastoralists and pastoralisms

It makes a difference for policy and management when describing pastoralism in terms of capitalism and not as a global infrastructure

Additional blog entries include: “Interconnected granularity as a key methodological challenge in representing pastoralists and pastoralism” and “Environmental livestock-tarring.”

III. New blog entries for this week: “Novel policy palimpsests for recasting control, AI ethics and national politics,” “Politics and emergency response,” and “Cuckoo catallactics

–You can use the blog’s keyword search function to find the above, along with related entries and others on altogether different topics grouped under the subject headings below:

  • More recastings in policy and management
  • Not-knowing and its proxies
  • Ignorance and uncertainty
  • Distraction and sensibility
  • Risk, resilience and root causes
  • Emergency management and improvisation
  • Regulation
  • Infrastructures
  • Environment
  • Rural development
  • Pastoralist development
  • Catastrophe and crisis
  • Policy and management mess, good and bad
  • Betterment and good-enough
  • Policy palimpsests and composite arguments
  • Economism
  • More on methods
  • Longer Reads, including some of my favorites: “Ammons and regulation,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms,” and “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management”

Novel policy palimpsests for recasting: total control, AI ethics and national politics (updated)


The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 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 the point about policy palimpsest. 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. The spaces signify all that has been left out, effaced or erased from prior texts used to assemble this composite sentence. Not to see what’s missing 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 sentence but fail to understand the three-dimensionality of the palimpsest–its weight and heft–from which the composite has been patched together.

In actuality, each composite sentence is a rearrangement of the palimpsest’s elements-with-effacements from different contexts into, literally, the straight lines we call sentences. These linear, sequential expressions are, in effect, meshes of interrupted time and space tethered in multiple places to the entire policy palimpsest.

  1. Short example. The policy palimpsest of total control

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

In actuality, 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 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 total control didn’t exist in the first place as commonly portrayed.

–So what? 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 in current composite readings of cascades.

2. Second example. Reframing AI ethics in terms of obsolescence and the Anthropocene

–A good friend of mine wasn’t being provocative when he told me that a field was most innovative at its boundaries with other fields and that a sure sign a field had lost that energy was when its discussions were dominated by ethics. As his example of the first was Herbert Simon’s move into artificial intelligence, let’s look at today’s discussions on “AI ethics” through the lens of the latter.

No matter how sacrosanct one takes ethics, it’s hardly original to point out that one consequence of the hotly contested debates over AI transparency and fairness has been to continue with business as usual until the ethicists, to put it crudely, get their shit together and agree.

Since that is not going to happen (and even if it did?), the search instead becomes one of identifying really-existing practices to ensure the creativity and innovation going on are not as harmful. That this is a huge challenge should go without saying, if only because creativity is so privileged and valorized. It’s tested practices we need that highlight the why, when and how in taking the “no” in innovation seriously.

–But, as a thought experiment, let’s take my friend at his word: Is it that AI is now a moribund field in ways not commonly supposed?

Has the innovative energy–again, far from a priori benign–been at the boundaries of fields that don’t get the same kind of scrutiny as ethicists are giving to their versions of “AI”? As the ethicists are also talking about sub-fields like machine learning (ML) and algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM), are these also moribund in ways we–that is, those of us who become instant experts in AI by reading the secondary literature–do not comprehend?

For example, rapid obsolescence of software and equipment used in ML and ADM is a topic that, at least to this point (and I stand to be corrected), hasn’t been given as much attention as readers might expect. To my mind, this topic is more important that transparency or fairness, since obsolescence changes the “with-respect-to-what’s” of the latter.

Yet doesn’t a focus on obsolescence immediately throw me into the realm of “sustainability” and its science and ethics debates?

–I think we shouldn’t be too quick to name where we look for more appropriate forms of creativity and ethics.

Indeed, a few moments of added thought suggest a more suitable context is not “sustainability,” but the Anthropocene in which we find ourselves–and especially as the Anthropocene will make obsolete so many things that matter to us and future generations.

A better question, then, to ask is: What’s the (continuing? changing?) role of a “AI” obsolescence in the Anthropocene?

–One answer can be found in treating the Anthropocene’s drive to render so much obsolete as its own policy palimpsest.

If a policy palimpsest is most notable because of its erasures and effacements of past policy and management narratives when assembling current arguments for or against a very major issue, then the palimpsest about “obsolescence” can be taken as a form of reflectivity on erasures and effacements in and for the Anthropocene.

How would this work?

–Practically, the businesses and enterprises of ML and ADM–and those in the less visible or more granular sub-fields collapsed unhelpfully under the rubric AI–are a reflection more of the-out-of-date than what’s-ahead. In the Anthropocene, everything existing is already an anachronism. In the Anthropocene, each new innovation–bad or good–isn’t an innovation unless it can be superseded as conditions change–and change they will because this is the Anthropocene.

Every thing in the Anthropocene has, if you will, a temporary work permit. So what? It means that the statements in the preceding paragraph are, if not now then later, also obsolete. Otherwise, surprise itself would become obsolete and not worth the hard work, right?

— But that’s too little too late, we hear some say. For them, surprises are bad ones. Indeed, the post-apocalyptic novel–and doomer lit generally—nail home that we don’t need to provoke widespread fear and dread of Global Collapse so as to push harder for remedy or some progress, because, well, their versions of “we” no longer believe in either.

The challenge is to recognize that the latter position–“it’s no better than clay hardpan below and parched hardscrabble on top”–has a hallucinatory precision no way evident everywhere in the Anthropocene. Even where critique has run out of steam, difference and particularity haven’t–of that I am more confident.

In fact, I end with a confession. The delicious part of an otherwise dispiriting meeting on another crisis comes when I get to add “. . .and of course there are the other things to worry about” and leave it that. You can almost hear people thinking, Should we ask him? If someone does—“What other things?”—I offer nothing so explicit as to be actionable. The real worry, I say, is we, well, can’t quite put our finger on what’s going wrong. . . If only we had a flashlight to reveal but not make the shadows.

3. Extended example. Recalibrating Politics: Kennedy White House Dinner for André Malraux

The White House dinner on May 11 1962 for French Cultural Affairs Minister, André Malraux, is most often treated as a footnote to the Kennedy Administration and the Camelot White House. If mentioned at all, it places behind the Kennedy White House dinners for Nobel Laureates and another where celloist, Pablo Casals, who had refused to perform in the U.S. to the point, did play at the White House.

When mentioned, the Malraux dinner is seen as a key step in Mrs. Kennedy’s campaign to get the Mona Lisa to the United States (which did happen in January 1963):

Perhaps no other White House dinner had more personal meaning for Jacqueline Kennedy than the evening honoring French Minister of Culture [sic] André Malraux at the White House on May 11, 1962. Both President and Mrs. Kennedy shared an admiration of Malraux’s multi-faceted career as a novelist, art historian, explorer, Spanish Civil war fighter pilot, World War II resistance leader and advocate of the arts. The first lady and Malraux had developed a friendship following a tour of Paris art museums during the Kennedy’s state visit to Paris in June 1961. By according him all the courtesies normally reserved for a head of state, the Kennedys hoped to focus national attention on the role of the arts in America and encourage the development of Washington as a cultural center. . .At the end of the evening, Monsieur Malraux whispered a promise to Jacqueline Kennedy that he would send to her France’s most famous cultural treasure, the Mona Lisa , to be displayed at the National Gallery in Washington.

What I do here is dig deeper into the palimpsest we’ve been left for this dinner. Those attending were among America’s greatest living authors, playwrights, actors and artists—in other words, those whose profession was to speak or write well and who, fortunately for my purposes, wrote about being at the dinner. I want to see this event with fresh eyes, as if state dinner just happened. Why? Because all Americans are a party to White House events, high and low.

We find the President Kennedy using the dinner as a way to get Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh to attend. Kennedy also jawbones John Rockefeller, art patron and wealthy banker, about the U.S. economy. What would be the very scary Viet Nam War also makes an appearance that evening. And there in one place was the high and low gossip that is the molecular structure of American politics.

I’ll come back to the lessons for politics I take away form from the Malraux dinner at the end, but first read for the stories.


“They let us in, darlings! We’re here! We’re inside!” Thornton Wilder effuses, as he moves from table to table, embracing friends. The “new insiders” are America’s high-art grandees. The occasion is a White House dinner for André Malraux, French Minister of Cultural Affairs. Time: 8 p.m., black tie. Today: May 11 1962.

J.D. Salinger sends his regrets. So do Alexander Calder, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, Jacques Barzun, Aldous Huxley, Martha Graham, and Marianne Moore. Those attending include Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Robert Lowell, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Agnes de Mille, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Leonard Bernstein, Mark Rothko, Paddy Chayefsky, and Irwin Shaw.

In August 1961 Gore Vidal writes that Jackie Kennedy really “did look forward to getting Malraux to the White House. She had found him impressive. At De Gaulle’s reception for the Kennedys in Paris, Malraux had appeared with his wife, whose face was bloated from weeping…[T]heir son had just been killed in an auto crash. But he had taken Jackie around museums and theaters and completely captured her imagination.” Nicole Alphand, whose husband was France’s ambassador to the U.S., picks up the story:

Anxious to give heightened brilliance to the reign of the ‘New Frontier’, the President had decided to give a dinner at the White House for everyone who mattered in American culture—writers, novelists, musicians and men of the theatre. He asked us whether André Malraux would agree to lend his presence to this event, and it was at once arranged for the month of May 1962. We had long discussions about it with Mrs. Kennedy during a weekend spent with her in Florida at the beginning of the year. “We mustn’t allow André Malraux to be bored,” she said, “and since he speaks English badly, we should first of all invite people who speak French.” We replied that what principally mattered was to gather round her table the greatest artists in America, French speaking or not.

My husband was in Paris during April, and he discussed with Malraux the details of the journey. The Minister found it a fascinating prospect. Not only would he speak about culture, he would also talk to President Kennedy about politics in general, for this was at a time when our points of view were at variance in many ways. The General [Charles de Gaulle] was not prepared, in the immediate future, to return the visit which Kennedy had paid him in the previous year, “but”, added Malraux, “he is quite glad to send on his tanks—in other words myself—and to have them set on fire to light his path.”

As the event approached, Jacqueline Kennedy “scattered seating charts across the floor of her sitting room [and] knelt among them to work out an arrangement,” in the words of TIME. “Of all the social events held at the White House, the one that mattered the most personally to Jackie was the dinner honoring André Malraux,” writes Mrs. Kennedy’s social secretary, Letitia Baldrige.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh gives a flavor of the day and hours leading to that evening:

CAL [Charles A. Lindbergh] and I took a taxi to the White House after taking the shuttle down from New York, and after picking up CAL’s newly made “black tie” outfit on Pennsylvania Ave. It was about five p.m. and the downstairs rooms of the White House were full of people arranging flowers and moving chairs about. We waited in a small reception room (it had two Cézannes in it) next to the big cleared ballroom where the Isaac Stern Trio was practicing in their shirtsleeves for the concert they were to give after dinner. Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary then came and greeted us—a gay, informal, pretty woman with quite a line—and took us in the elevator up to our rooms: “The Queen’s room for Mrs. L. and the Lincoln room for Mr. L.”

“So far away!” I cried out in dismay, so we were both put together in the Queen’s room.

We then had tea, brought us by a nice Negro maid who took my dress to press it, and I sewed some brilliant buckles on my new evening shoes (bought in Stamford that morning). I was handed the list of guests to look over and decided there was no use trying to read any more Malraux—I would never get to speak to him!. . .We dressed and were ushered (“Call Usher’s Office”) to a small private upstairs salon where the house guests and French Embassy were having cocktails. M. and Mme. Malraux, the French Ambassador and his umpteenth wife (he urban, intelligent and very smooth; she blond, beautiful and hard as nails), Vice President and Mrs. Johnson, and various members of the French Embassy, the Kennedys, etc.

…The French ladies were all dressed up and made up like mannequins—rather terrifying. M. Malraux, a nervous and interesting white mask. Mme. Malraux less mask-like than the others, quite sympathetic. Mrs. Kennedy swept in like a queen, looking extremely beautiful in a long pink stiff gown, hair high and stiff—rather Japanese—with a diamond star set in it! I talked in English to Mrs. Johnson, who was kind and quite natural and American, and in French to the French women (not too well—but they were surprised to have me speak at all).

Then we went downstairs to the main reception hall—where all the other guests were…

Edmund Wilson calls the Malraux dinner a “big cultural blowout,” Saul Bellow “a sort of crazy fantasy evening,” S.N. Behrman “a mass dinner,” and Arthur Miller, “manifestly a show of American intellectual pride.” Gawping was palpable. “It was such a celebrity roster that I wished I had brought an autograph book and swallowed enough pride to use it,” writes Baldrige. “It was a little like ‘heaven’ in that you kept seeing people who looked rather familiar and you had never met: Is that Tennessee Williams? Or Arthur Miller? Or Edmund Wilson? (I would like to have met E.W.),” Anne Morrow Lindbergh tells a close friend two days later.

Tennessee Williams remembers Wilder, “bustling about like a self-appointed field marshal” (Wilder had been in the two world wars). Lining everyone up in alphabetical order for the reception line, “Mr. Wilder rushed up to me with the radiant smile of a mortician and shrieked, ‘Mr. Williams, you’re a bit out of place, you come behind me.'” “If I am behind you it’s the first and last time in my life,” assayed Williams. (Williams remembers Shelley Winters in the reception line. Her assistant tells me she didn’t attend.) A “nice little contingent in ‘W’s’: Penn Warrens, Wilder, Tennessee Williams,” writes Wilder to a friend. A week or so later, Wilder is on the road in search of a desert town far from Washington where he could stay “without neckties, without shoelaces and without cultivated conversation.”

Behind Williams in the reception line comes Edmund Wilson and his wife. “Elena feels such physical revulsion [toward Williams] that she says she cannot stand to be near him,” records Wilson. “She said something of this kind to me in Russian. Williams turned: ‘What language is that?’ ‘Russian.’ ‘Fine.'” Behind the Wilsons stands another loner, Andrew Wyeth, “who has become the official American painter” in Edmund Wilson’s estimation. “When the long alphabetical line had nearly all shuffled past the President and First Lady and had been presented to M. Malraux, it came my turn to meet him and I had actually never heard of him before,” insists Tennessee Williams. “I said to him, ‘Enchanté, Monsieur Maurois’—and this made Jackie smile, but did not seem to amuse M. Malraux.” “‘Good evening’ and that was all—and not even in French,” is how Thornton Wilder describes his interchange with Malraux. During handshakes, President Kennedy tells Wilder, “I want to thank you, Mr. Wilder, for what you said last week,” when the playwright gave a reading at the State Department.

That other American playwright, Arthur Miller, isn’t in alphabetical order. “I found myself at the very end of the line, as had been my fate since grammar school due to my height,” writes Miller,

and as I slowly moved forward, I saw one lone man remaining outside. Of towering height, wearing a ruffled pale blue shirt, he was almost demonstrably disdaining the occasion, standing with one knee raised and a shoe pressed against the immaculate wainscoting, studiously cleaning his fingernails with a file like an idler in front of a country store. He looked friendless, if not peeved. I only gradually recognized his face. He was Lyndon B. Johnson, the vice-president of the United States, and clearly not in his element tonight. It was the only time I ever felt sorry for a vice-president.

Other theater people cast the consummate insider, Lyndon Johnson, also in the stock role of outsider. “There was this tall guy standing off there in a doorway all alone with no guards, no Marine Corps adjutants, no secretary, aides, nothing,” remembers Lee Strasberg. “I walked right by him…[I]t was Johnson over there on the side by himself waiting to get his hand shook. I literally stiffed the Vice President of the United States!” “It was terribly embarrassing,” remembers Susan Strasberg, who accompanies her father.

“All these people,” Tennessee Williams says at the dinner, “were absolutely overwhelmed by being invited. If our mothers could see us now.” Arthur Miller tells the Washington Post, “All these people are used to earning their living by pushing a pencil or a fiddle…They are absolutely overwhelmed by being invited.” “I wish my mother could be here,” actress Geraldine Page tells Williams. “I wish all our mothers could be,” he returns. Saul Bellow remembers Mark Rothko whisper that “all of this was a lot of crap, and meant nothing to [Rothko].” “But my sister!,” Rothko says to him: “It’s a great day for my sister.” “What he meant,” Bellow said, “was ‘If Mama could only see me now.'” “In this crowd, [I] saw several novelists and poets at one time strongly alienated, ex-intransigent’s, former enemies of society, old grumblers and life-long manger-dogs,” writes Bellow, “all having a hell of a good time, their faces beaming, their wives in evening gowns (could they afford them?).”

“I’d like to dine at the White House every night!” Elena Wilson confesses. Allen Tate tells her that the dinner is the first time “a man of my [Southern] blood” has been to the White House since President Buchanan. George Balanchine arrives depressed over a forthcoming trip to Russia (Wilder tells Balanchine that evening, “plump, in his face all that I owed him”). Gail Jones, daughter of singer Lena Horne, is introduced to Sargent Shriver, the President’s brother-in-law and director of the new Peace Corps. He asks if she wants to join the Corps; she declines. (“Miss Gail Jones colored” says a handwritten note in one of the White House’s files on the dinner.) “There was not a single social occasion at the White House, whether it was for Pablo Casals, André Malraux, or a host of others, to which I was not invited,” Adam Clayton Powell writes.

Archibald MacLeish tells Robert Lowell that the White House’s “trumpets made his heart beat.” “Red Warren [and] I had a frantic search for the men’s room,” Lowell remembers about Penn Warren. “[W]e drank a great deal at the White House, and had to sort of be told not to take our champagne into the concert, and to put our cigarettes out like children—though nicely, it wasn’t peremptory.” By the end of the evening, Lowell was insulting playwright, Paddy Chayefsky. “Chayefsky does provide a temptation,” notes Edmund Wilson, who considered Chayefsky “cheap, conceited, and corny”. Chayefsky tells Wilson earlier “that he [Chayefsky] wanted to talk to me about the Russian Revolution—I could see what he was going to do with it: he had some stupid conception of Lenin that he thought would make him a dramatic character, and it was evident that Stalin was going to be rather a noble fellow, too. There were people at that White House dinner—Chayefsky, for example—who would certainly never have been there if they hadn’t been friends of Arthur’s [Arthur Schlesinger].”

Some 170 guests sit at 17 tables in the State Dining Room and the adjoining Blue Room. (“Gracious sakes, there were 162 guests,” Thornton Wilder puffed to a friend.) The table decorations include lilies-of-the-valley, baby’s breath, red and white tulips and blue iris, while the “food at dinner was delicious: soup with double crème in the middle and on top of that a dab of caviar,” recalls Edmund Wilson. “Since it was Friday with a Catholic President in the White House, this was followed by lobster and fish.” “Vendredi, maigre,” Wilder parenthesizes to a friend, meaning no meat served that day.

“Paddy was a deeply if erratically cultivated man, endlessly curious, widely read in literature, history, science,” writes Schlesinger. “My wife and I introduced him to the Kennedys…” For Wilson, “Arthur’s hand was everywhere visible” at the dinner, “and these parties are really vast expansions of the parties they gave in Cambridge.” (It is Schlesinger who requests Behrman be invited as well.) During the evening, Wilson consults Schlesinger on his (Wilson’s) tax problems. “It was only through President Kennedy’s intervention that the matter was settled as favorably as it turned out to be,” Wilson admits.

The President’s table includes Irwin Shaw, Agnes de Mille, Charles Lindbergh, Edmund Wilson, Andrew Wyeth, Geraldine Page, and Mme Malraux. Wilder sits at the Vice-President’s table along with Robert Lowell and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. At the First Lady’s table sit André Malraux, Julie Harris, Arthur Miller, and Elspeth Rostow (wife of W.W. Rostow). According to Shaw’s biographer: “So anxious was Marian [Shaw] about her appearance the night of the dinner that the Shaws arrived notably late to the White House; Shaw would rail about the embarrassment for years…President Kennedy professed to have read Shaw’s work; the two men had mutual friends…” Edmund Wilson spins it another way. Shaw “has been living in Switzerland to avoid taxes, and had flown over especially for the dinner. The New Yorker people, who don’t much like him, expressed surprise at his being there; but I found out from Alfred Kazin the probable reason: Kennedy has a friend who wants to make a play out of one of Shaw’s stories, and he must have been asked at the President’s [request].”

The President expresses interest in Wilson’s work. “Kennedy told me he had seen a review of Patriotic Gore and asked why I had called it that. He asked what conclusions I had come to about the Civil War. I answered that I couldn’t very well tell him then and there and referred him to the Introduction. He said something about its being unusual for an author not to want to talk about his book.” Kennedy doesn’t let the topic go, we see in a moment.

“I found myself at Kennedy’s Table between Agnes de Mille and Geraldine Page,” continues Wilson. “Kennedy had Mme Malraux, looking very beautiful, on his right, Mme Alphand on the other side, the wife of the French ambassador, a much less attractive lady. I didn’t know then who Geraldine Page was, but she took it very well. She is handsome and seems intelligent; is not at all like an actress, has no public personality for off the stage…Agnes de Mille explained to me that she [de Mille] was a granddaughter of Henry George, and we talked about [George’s] Progress and Poverty.” Wilson remembers Irwin Shaw “on Mme Malraux’s other side, talking vigorously to her in French.” As for Page, she had “such a good time,” according to Newsweek. She later enthuses in a thank-you letter to Jacqueline Kennedy,

I hope you are First Lady for the next three hundred years at least! I have been trying to write to you ever since I experienced the honor of my life – being present at your unforgettable dinner for Monsieur and Madame Malraux.

I may never recover.

I have tried to write a dignified expression of my gratitude but I invariably fall into uncontrollable gushing & have finally decided to gush and be damned. You see – it’s like a fairy-tale from my childhood come true. All the legends of sleeping princesses awakened – ugly ducklings turning into swans – beasts into princes – all the life renewing myths are brought to mind by the stirring and awakening and coming to life all over the country and all around the world that is taking place because you two are who you are.

You remind us all who we can be and the re-establishing of values is bringing us all to life again. I had the sensation at your party of being a single blossom in a huge field of flowers all basking in the sun so we could hold up our heads and be beautiful.

With profound and all-embracing gratitude. . . you make us believe in miracles.

Newsweek captioned Charles Lindbergh “ill at ease” at the President’s table. According to TIME, the Kennedys “scored a real social coup by the presence of reclusive Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.” At one point in the evening, Mrs. Kennedy took Colonel Lindbergh over to André Malraux, who had been in an animated conversation with Anne Lindbergh about French literature. Malraux was later asked what Charles Lindbergh had said to him. “He said, ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak French,’” Malraux reported. When reviewing the original invitation list for the dinner, President Kennedy had asked, “Where are the great Americans on this list? I mean really great Americans, like Charles Lindbergh.” Mrs. Kennedy, in turn, admired Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her writing. When she finally tracked the Lindberghs down, Letitia Baldrige remembers,

Anne Morrow Lindbergh answered the phone. That surprised me, but she was equally surprised to find Washington on the line. “My dear Miss Baldrige,” she exclaimed, “how did you reach us? No one knows our number. Oh, dear!”…I heard Mrs. Lindbergh whisper to her husband, “It’s the White House.” The next thing I knew, he was on the telephone…I managed to tell him that President Kennedy had said, “Of all the people who would do us the honor by coming to dinner, the Lindberghs would be number one.” “Did the President really say that?” asked Mr. Lindbergh skeptically. “He really did. I am telling you the truth.” There was a hushed conversation between husband and wife, then the general [sic] spoke into the telephone again. “We will come.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reminisced:

The person that President Kennedy was most anxious to have attend the dinner was Charles Lindbergh, because of his life-long admiration for him and for Mrs. Lindbergh. We knew that Colonel and Mrs. Lindbergh did not like to attend public functions and for that reason we invited them to stay in the White House where they might be spared some press attention. I will never forget how sweet the Lindberghs were to the children. Mrs. Lindbergh gave an inscribed copy of North to the Orient to Caroline and Colonel Lindbergh gave The Spirit of St. Louis inscribed to John. They treasure these books now, and that occasion will always remain one of my happiest memories.

Impressions were mutual. Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes: “The next morning [after the dinner]…Mrs. K. came up with the children and we talked informally in the hall—without a mask and quite real and simple…The children were refreshingly children and she was quite real and still beautiful…We also saw the President in his office as we left. You have a sense of great integrity and naturalness—no pose. We were both impressed.” For his part, however, Saul Bellow “was deeply amused at the White House by the presence of [Edmund] Wilson who had had a tax problem, by Charles Lindbergh who had been a Nazi sympathizer and by Irwin Shaw who had established residence abroad in order to avoid taxes.” Bellow later recalls Lindbergh that evening “would look at everybody with his furious blue eyes, and knock them down mentally and pass on.”

At Mrs. Kennedy’s table, “Malraux spoke in passionate outbursts of French at a speed that defied comprehension by the president’s wife much of the time and by me at any time,” according to Arthur Miller. “He was a star fencer flicking his foil before you had a chance to get set. He smoked almost violently and had a fascinating and disconcerting tic that made you wonder how he ever relaxed enough to sleep.” Elspeth Rostow remembers Miller as “almost apoplectic,” when he was unable to talk to Malraux directly, using Rostow as a translator.

“In the Blue Room, Jacqueline Kennedy, brilliant in a pink strapless Dior, chatted in confidential murmurs with Malraux,” reports TIME. “At the table, Mrs. Kennedy in ‘hot-pink’ silk by Dior, talked French with Malraux” is Newsweek‘s version. (Part of Marian Shaw’s anxiety was she had been warned by her Paris couturier that Jackie might wear the same dress Shaw had chosen for the dinner. Wilder described the First Lady as “glorious in a white and pale raspberry Dior.”) “Whenever a wife says anything in this town,” President Kennedy comments later, “everyone assumes she is saying what her husband really thinks. Imagine how I felt last night when I thought I heard Jackie telling Malraux that Adenauer was ‘un peu gaga‘!” Mrs. Kennedy had just taken Malraux on a tour of the National Art Gallery in Washington. When asked what were her favorite pieces, she replies: “Mine are whatever his are.”

One or two confidential murmurs seem to stick. “What’s so great about Malraux?” Jackie is asked a few weeks before the dinner. “He isn’t even attractive looking.” She shot back: “He happens to be a war hero, a brilliant, sensitive writer, and he happens to have a great mind.” In 1964, Mrs. Kennedy speaks about Malraux and that evening with Arthur Schlesinger in a taped interview,

[Malraux] is the most fascinating man I’ve ever talked to. But again, he’s rather disillusioning because he sort of admires the simplest things. I mean, that dinner at the White House, he—well, his most impressive moment was when they took the color—you know the color flags—the Honor Guard downstairs. And, then, who was it? Oh, Irwin Shaw told me his greatest moment in life was when he was the head of a brigade or something, in the Maquis [guerrillas in the French Resistance]

When asked if she understood Malraux’s French, Mrs. Kennedy says, “Well, he talks so fast, but I can. Or else he repeats—it’s like being taken over this incredible obstacle course at ninety miles an hour.” Malraux dedicates the American edition of his next book, Anti-Memoirs, to “Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” “We all thought she would marry someone like André Malraux,” a Polish writer is reported to have said after Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, “and here she goes off with a gangster.” But that disappointment comes later. The evening was still fresh and better captured by the then-editor of Art News, who also sat at Mrs. Kennedy’s table. He telegrams the White House beforehand: “PLEASE TELL [Mrs. Kennedy] THAT HER TV PROGRAM WAS IN SUCH EXCELLENT TASTE AND SCHOLARLY STANDING THAT I EXPECT SHE WILL HAVE AN OFFER FROM THE LOUVRE AS CHIEF CURATOR AFTER THE SECOND TERM. BEST REGARDS  ALFRED FRANKFURTER”.

Little is recorded of conversations at other tables. “I was at the table with Thornton Wilder, Robert Lowell and Alexis Léger,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “I loved talking to Alexis—and Vice President Johnson was sympathetic and very, very tired! (He had just flown in from Seattle where he had opened the [World’s] Fair!)”. Letitia Baldrige recalls “that, in contrast to the merrymakers at the [earlier] Nobel Prize winners’ dinner, this was a subdued group of people”. Mark Rothko, according to one of his biographers, “feigned aloofness” at his table with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. “I sat next to Mrs. Auchincloss, the mother of our hostess,” S.N. Behrman writes. “I had a play then on tour with Charles Boyer. Mrs. Auchincloss inquired about it. She was, she said, greatly interested in the theatre; she had, in fact, once written a play herself.”  Elena Wilson sits next to Chip Bohlen and complains later that Bohlen “didn’t have the right reaction to Russia.”

What gets considerable press is President Kennedy’s dinner toast, as well as Malraux’s. Each causes its own stir. Edmund Wilson remembers: “The President, who had had paper and pencil brought to him and who had either been writing a message or making notes, now got up and introduced Malraux.” “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Kennedy begins,

I want to express a very warm welcome to all of you, and particularly to our distinguished guests Mr. and Madame Malraux.

This will be the first speech about relations between France and the United States that does not include a tribute to General Lafayette. It seems that almost every Frenchman who comes to the United States feels that Lafayette was a rather confused sort of ineffectual, elderly figure, hovering over French politics, and is astonished to find that we regard him as a golden, young, romantic figure, next to George Washington our most distinguished citizen. Therefore he will not be mentioned, but instead I will mention a predecessor of mine, John Adams, who was our first President to live in the White House and whose prayer on occupancy is written here. John Adams asked that on his gravestone be written, “He kept the peace with France.”

I am very glad to welcome here some of our most distinguished artists. This is becoming a sort of eating place for artists. But they never ask us out.

Earlier at the table, “I said to Kennedy,” writes Edmund Wilson, “that he had certainly done a thorough job of entertaining the literary world: ‘Maybe they ought to entertain me,'” Kennedy replies. But back to the President’s toast:

I want to tell you how very pleased we are to have so many distinguished writers and artists and actresses and creative thinkers.

You know, one of the great myths of American life is that nothing is pleasanter or easier than lying around all day and painting a picture or writing a book and leading a rather easy life. In my opinion, the ultimate in self-discipline is a creative work. Those of us who work in an office every day are actually the real gentle livers of American society.

We do not manage our cultural life in this country, nor does any free society, but it is an important part. It is one of the great purposes. And I would hope that this tremendous energy obtained in the intellectual life of America could be communicated not only to the people in this country but all around the world.

There are so many more people playing a musical instrument now, going to symphonies, going to the theatre, to art galleries, painting, than anyone realizes. And it is our hope that Americans will begin to look about them and realize that here in these years we are building a life, which, as I say, develops the maximum in each individual.

Now we have the best model that we could have this evening in welcoming Mr. and Madame Malraux. I suppose all of us wish to participate in all the experiences of life, but he has left us all behind. We are the descendants of early founders who were themselves men of great variety and vitality. But he has led an archeological expedition to Cambodia, been connected with Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung—and has been active in the civil war—participated in the defense of his country—been  involved with General de Gaulle—and has been at the same time a great creative figure in his own right. He has left, I think, most of us way behind.

So we regard him as an honored guest in this country, as participants in the cultural stream, and also as admirers of those who travel the far horizons of human destiny. So we are very proud to have him—and we are particularly proud to have him because of his association with a distinguished leader of the West—a good deal of which has been written by some of our distinguished correspondents about the difficulties that have occasionally come up between the President of the United States and General de Gaulle. But I want to say that there is a tradition in that regard, with Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General de Gaulle continues on his way, and has built for his country and his friends in Europe a strength which is the most valuable source of comfort to us all.

I know that there are sometimes difficulties in life but I hope that those who live in both our countries realize how fortunate we are in the last two decades to be associated in the great effort with him. And we are glad to have Mr. Malraux and Madame Malraux here because we believe that they will go back to France and say a kind word for the United States—and its President.

So I hope you will drink to all of us, in the sense that you are leaders in our free society—and particularly to our distinguished leader whom we are very glad to have with us tonight—and most especially to drink to the President of France, General de Gaulle.

Malraux’s toast was calculated in a different way (the next day he concedes to Edmund Wilson that “Mon discours d´hier soir—c´était de la courtoisie” [“My speech last night—it was a matter of courtesy”]). For Robert Lowell, Malraux “refrained from saying anything objectionable.” Because Kennedy and Malraux are in separate rooms, a two-mike public address system is rigged for their toasts. At one point, the system fails, and Malraux begins his toast with

Mr. President, I believe [I am] to be the first guest you have received here who will have to reply to your speech without knowing what you have said. This may be difficult. It does not, however, make it difficult for me to thank you and to thank the United States for the hospitality with which I was greeted here, the hospitality with which you have greeted an artist and also a humble Minister of Cultural Affairs. You have greeted me here with the masterpieces of the world—and you have greeted me even better by having your masterpieces shown to me by Mrs. Kennedy.

I will say that I am greatly moved by it. And I will say that not only as something which is polite, I will say it because at one time I was in another country, in a country named Russia, and there in the enormous expanse of sorrow I felt something great—a great hope.

Here the situation is different. Here I feel also something great—we feel the very spirit of the Free World—we feel brotherhood, we feel the brotherhood of man, in this country. This is the brotherhood which so many people for so long had thought they would find elsewhere, in that other country, but which really exists and lives here.

And I believe that this shows to us a duty, a right, at the same time the right to give to every child, to every poor child, the riches of the mind and of the spirit in this country than can be hoped for by any poor child of Russia. This perhaps is a simple statement, but it is a statement of the very essence of our freedom.

I also wish to say that here in the United States of America is the only country which has become the leader of the world without having sought to become that leader, the country to which is entrusted the future—the destiny of mankind—and is the country, once again, to achieve this position without having sought it, without even having wished it.

History is full of great empires, history knows so many countries which have reached the first place in the world in their time, but they all did it through strenuous work, through strenuous attempts, through bloodshed—through thousands and millions of deaths. There was the Syrian empire, there was the Babylonian empire, the Roman empire. There is no American empire. There is the United States. There is the United States which has been the leader of the Free World without having conquered the word, without having conquered the world, without having sought to conquer it.

And it is really strange that in some many millennia there is for the first time today—that we find a country which has become the leader not through conquest but by seeking justice…

TIME quotes the last sentence approvingly. By this point in the toast, Edmund Wilson—described in the White House background notes as “responsible for Malraux’s early fame here”—has had enough of the “diplomatic absurdities.” He turns to Mme Malraux, “Dites à Malraux que je n´en crois rien” [“Tell Malraux I don’t believe anything he says”]. Kennedy, who had been taking French lessons, overhears. “You don’t tell us what you think,” the President says. Malraux continues,

…And so, ladies and gentlemen, I will raise my glass to the United States, to this country so great. And I would like also to reverse, perhaps, the order of precedence to thank you once again for having greeted me with your masterpieces…

“I couldn’t imagine at first what masterpieces he meant,” writes Wilson, “then realized he was referring to the pictures in the National Gallery,”

…and for having those masterpieces shown to me by Mrs. Kennedy. I will raise my glass to you, Mr. President, and to the first people in history, let me say, which has acquired a position of leadership without having conquered, without having sought it—without even having willed it.  Thank you.

(Malraux said at the National Gallery that some of the Gallery’s “masterpieces” belong to humanity, while others belong to the U.S. Referring to a new acquisition, he adds archly, “I am glad to see that this one is here for the second reason.”)

Bellow sums up the toasts. “Mr. Kennedy’s after-dinner speech was very witty, and a witty President is worth more to artists than a congressional porkbarrel. M. Malraux, an impressive-looking man, spoke in greater earnest, saying that America had not sought imperial power and domination. In private, Mr. Edmund Wilson exclaimed irascibly, in tones of Mr. Magoo, ‘Hooey!’ There was an American empire! I felt it would be a pity to waste Mr. Wilson’s fine old rumblings on a lousy republic and that his eccentricities deserved at least an imperial setting.” (Later that evening after leaving the White House, Bellow meets up with Wilson, Wilder, Balanchine, Lowell and others for late night drinks.)

Kennedy’s toast did not pass without criticism. Robert Lowell sends Edmund Wilson a worried letter at the end of that May,

I meant to write you a little fan note after Washington. Except for you, every one there seemed addled with adulation at having been invited. It was all good fun but next morning you read that the President had sent the 7th fleet to Laos [New York Times headline: “US, Shifting Laos Policy,…”]…I feel we intellectuals play a very pompous and frivolous role—we should be windows, not window-dressing. Then, now in our times, of all times, the sword hangs over us and our children, and not a voice is lifted. I thought of all the big names there, only you acted yourself.

Laos may have been on the mind of others during that evening. One guest, Michael Forrestal, summarizes in a memo from that day an earlier conversation with former President Eisenhower: “If [Eisenhower] were sending troops into Laos, he would follow them up with whatever support was necessary to achieve the objectives of their mission, including—if necessary—the use of tactical nuclear weapons.” Almost three years later to the day, a letter of Lowell’s appears in the New York Times—this time to President Johnson—turning down his invitation to another White House event for the arts, with Lowell again objecting to a president’s military policy and statecraft in Southeast Asia.

But back to May 11 and this White House dinner. For Bellow, “Only Mr. [Adlai] Stevenson preserved a shade of intellectual irony. Everybody else seemed absurdly and deeply tickled” at being in the White House for the Malraux dinner. A few days afterwards, Thomas Hart Benton, the American painter, says his art “has nothing to do with high society,” nor did “a bunch of artists playing up to a social game.” He goes on and suggests that it was the artists rather than their work that the White House was putting on show. Whatever, “John Kennedy leaned back, lit an Upmann cigar and smiled” once the eating had finished, in the words of TIME.

Some look twice at the President’s smile. “[Kennedy’s] hard glazed eyes I found mechanized and a little frightening,” writes Arthur Miller. “He might have a quick mind, but I had to wonder about his compassion. Still the excitement and happiness with the company he had attracted tonight swept everyone.” Eugene Istomin observes: “I had never met a President before and was practically paralyzed with awe, but he was so likable. He looked at everyone so inquiringly, as if he really wanted to know what you thought. Sometime during our conversation, [Leonard] Bernstein said, of some policy matter Kennedy was considering, ‘Your problem is you don’t see the forest from the trees,’ and I saw Kennedy’s eyelids come down like the slamming of a gate.”

George Herman, the broadcast correspondent, remembers Kennedy “abandoned Mme Malraux once dinner was over, absolutely refusing to speak French to her,” presumably because he knew so little. “After dinner, there was a concert,” writes Edmund Wilson. “Schubert’s Trio in B Flat Major. The violinist was Isaac Stern. I had never heard it before—it was lovely, but I did not feel much like listening to music. Malraux, it seems, went to sleep. Marian Schlesinger said afterwards that he had had a little too much to drink; but I don’t think this was necessarily true.” Thornton Wilder remembers: “Stern-Rose-Istomin played the Schubert E-flat [sic] superbly but the audience, excited by all that glamour and a little tight, did not behave as it should…I sat next to Mrs. Sam Behrman—a lovely person she is—who is Jascha Heifetz’s sister. We listened.” “Three wines, champagne, Stern and Istomin playing a long Schubert trio,” remembers Robert Lowell.

From Saul Bellow’s vantage, “Even the drunks were well behaved, though at the end of the evening the Schubert trio seemed to be getting them and some were tapping the time on their neighbors’ knees.” Others were uncomfortable. Anne Lindbergh writes: “After supper…we went into the ballroom to listen to the concert. I found CAL, who was much disturbed by the numbers of press around and would not sit in the front rows as we were intended. We sat in the back rows and the music was heavenly, but I was concerned about C. and not entirely at ease.”

No encore followed. The President stands and thanks Isaac Stern and “those who accompanied them.” When George Herman asks Eugene Istomin if he felt slighted, Istomin says it was so wonderful just being there that the details didn’t matter. Stern remembers: “At the conclusion of the performance, when people were applauding, Kennedy rose, as was his custom, and said, ‘I want to thank Isaac Stern and his two accompanists.’ That didn’t go over too well with Lennie [Rose] and Eugene, and I wanted to sink through the floor.”

President Kennedy didn’t enjoy after-dinner concerts and he was apt to mistake the pause between movements as the end of the concert, when he “dashed up on the stage to congratulate the musician. Each time, the artist whispered—although the entire room heard it—‘But Mr President, the concert isn’t over.'” Letitia Baldrige continues:

We worked out an elaborate code system for the Malraux dinner concert: One of our military social aides, on loan from the Pentagon, was a music expert. I asked him to stand next to me, and when the concert was over, he cued me, I waggled my finger at the President through a slightly open French door close to him, and he jumped up to congratulate the artists, with Mrs. Kennedy trailing behind….The concert ended at about eleven-thirty and…[t]he Kennedys walked out of the East Room, expecting their guests to follow, but found themselves halfway down the hall with nary a guest in sight. White House aides urged the shy party forward, but no one wanted to make the first move. Finally a few brave souls ventured out and the rest followed.

This evening is not without the business of managing the economy. David Rockefeller, as president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, remembers: “During the reception the President took me aside for a brief conversation on the state of the U.S. economy. As we parted, he asked me to set down my ideas in writing, which I proceeded to do. The President then responded with a letter to me. Although there were obvious points of disagreement, both of us agreed a tax cut would help get the sluggish economy moving again. Henry Luce asked to see the letters and found them so intriguing that he published them side by side in Life magazine in July 1962.” (This interchange follows hard on the heels of the April 1962 steel crisis where Kennedy jawboned industry executives to rescind their price increases.) “So far as I know there have been no letters about the state of American culture,” gripes Saul Bellow.

American politics is nothing if not the personal on the public stage, and Rockefeller’s opening remarks in the Life interchange are little different. “Two weeks ago you were kind enough to suggest that I write you a personal and confidential letter concerning my views on the balance of payments problem confronting our country,” David Rockefeller begins. He then moves to the point: “Certainly one of the most critical tasks confronting you, as chief executive of our nation, is to cut down the persistent drain through military expenditures abroad, without doing damage to our essential military posture.” Even on an evening like this, the problem is defense.

Kennedy’s reply strikes a theme that he has worked out in discussions with Malraux and others—namely, the nation as a state can manage its way through economic difficulties. “I have said many times that we must meet this [balance of payments] problem with positive solutions,” the President writes to Rockefeller. Earlier, the President invites Malraux to luncheon, and

as Kennedy later described it [records Arthur Schlesinger], they fell into a discussion of the persistence of mythology in the contemporary world. “In the nineteenth century,” Malraux said, “the ostensible issue within the European states was the monarchy vs. the republic. But the real issue was capitalism vs. the proletariat. But the world has moved on. What is the real issue now?” The real issue today, Kennedy replied, was the management of industrial society—a problem, he said, not of ideology but of administration.

“This conversation, held through interpreters (Kennedy spoke little French), was quite vague,” in the view of Chip Bohlen, who also was at the luncheon. Schlesinger continues,

This conversation remained in [Kennedy’s] mind. A few days later, when he spoke to the White House conference on national economic issues, the “difference between myth and reality” provided the theme for his remarks. The old debates of FDR and [Woodrow] Wilson and [William Jennings] Bryan, the President observed, were increasingly irrelevant to the complex technical decisions of modern society…”[T]he fact of the matter is that most of the problems, or at least many of them, that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of “passionate movements” which have stirred the country so often in the past…”

The President spells out these themes in more detail a little later in his 1962 commencement address at Yale:

[The central issues of our time] relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals….What is at stake is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of modern economy. What we need is not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical issues involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

Bohlen remembers the President in his discussion with Malraux “maintaining that in twenty or thirty years political problems would begin to fade away as economic prosperity grew.” Other discussions seem less weighty. Mrs. Kennedy remembered one private discussion involving Malraux and President Kennedy in these terms: “Malraux would talk brilliantly, and so would Jack, and [McGeorge] Bundy would always be there. So, you know, it was a wonderful exchange, but Malraux sort of off in a marvelous fog or—It was very interesting and they never you know, really got into policy or all that…”

Policy writ large worries others at the dinner. “If Mr. Wilson is right about the American empire,” writes Saul Bellow of that evening, “we must think the whole thing through clearly….A better understanding between writers and the imperial state has its dangers. I can foresee a bureaucratic situation, partly created by men of letters, in which the very call girls (who owe so many of their privileges to the Federal tax structure) may be required to pass Civil Service examinations administered by poets!”

The day after the dinner, Edmund Wilson and André Malraux meet for lunch. During their conversation, Malraux

expounded the difference between being an intellectual and being un homme politique. He had thought once that society would run all right if Marxists could be in control (I doubt whether he had really thought this); but to be actually in practical politics was something completely different, the problems and means of dealing with them were something altogether different. The intellectuals sometimes did a lot of harm through not understanding this.

Yet Wilson feels compelled to conclude that Malraux “sounded impressive without making much sense. He has, in fact, become a master of double-talk.”

At a French embassy party several nights later, Mme Malraux sits next to Arthur Schlesinger and tells him her husband was a great admirer of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. As for Ethel Kennedy’s get-together for Malraux, it turns into farce:

Ethel’s party, later in the week, also a black-tie, long-dress affair, was outdoors. Ethel’s guests always faced the same hurdles in the hall—a variety of animals. Malraux was no exception. He stumbled over two dogs, one a huge Newfoundland that was easily mistaken for a rug.

It began raining in the middle of the dinner, a heavy rain difficult to ignore. Astronaut John Glenn found the back legs of his chair sinking into the lawn and Ethel assigned someone to stand behind his chair to keep it upright. The more it rained, the more Ethel laughed about it. Malraux insisted he had “a perfectly grand time,” and told the story for years afterwards.

Back again to the White House dinner, August Heckscher, who was the Kennedy’s consultant on the arts, remembers the President engaging Heckscher’s wife in a short conversation as they are leaving that evening. She mentions to Kennedy that she had a chance to talk to Malraux. Kennedy then points his finger at her and says mock seriously that he wanted all the details. The Kennedys are such “magnificent people, very friendly, very warm,” recalls another guest. “When we said good-bye to the Kennedys,” Edmund Wilson notes, “[Kennedy] said something again about my not wanting to tell him about my [Patriotic Gore]: ‘I suppose I’ll have to buy it.’ ‘I’m afraid so.'” The Wilsons and others leave, though some, like Stern, Istomin and Bernstein, stay on talking to Kennedy in his private quarters. “We joined him for a last drink,” remembers Stern,” and he was charming. By that time, he realized he had made a gaffe [over treating Istomin and Rose as accompanists], and he was especially gracious to Eugene and Lennie.”

The Kennedys also had a long talk alone with the Lindberghs. Anne Morrow Lindbergh recalls: “After the concert, people began to leave and we found ourselves being ushered upstairs to the same private salon, where about the same group were gathered as before supper—chiefly the French set. C. and I talked to the French Ambassador but nothing very real was said. And rather quickly, goodbyes were being said again. We said goodbye tactfully and went to our rooms though apparently Isaac Stern went on playing the violin until late at night. I wished we had stayed up.” After saying good-night to the Lindberghs, Mrs. Kennedy whispered to her social secretary, “You know, these are the moments of history I will really remember the rest of my life.”

The “guests drifted into Washington’s midnight while around them the great White House fountains shot prisms of lighted water into the darkness,” wrote TIME. “For the New Society, it had been another marvelous evening.”


Should it need saying, the above sequence of recollections is my composite among many possible combinations. But what images does my mosaic leave? What might we now know that we didn’t before about state politics, or for that matter, “managing the economy”?

A few days after the dinner, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote a thank-you letter to Mrs. Kennedy,

It was an extraordinarily beautiful and stimulating occasion, which is not surprising. All parties—even big parties—I believe in some measure reflect the spirit of the people at their center. From this core radiates the beauty, vividness and good feeling which spread to the guests. That such an atmosphere was created, at such a party at the highest point of our government and in a formal and dignified setting, is a great tribute to you both and an inspiration to the people who were privileged to be witnesses.

As with so much in U.S. political culture, what is fresh astonishment, including the Malraux dinner, has a short half-life. Disappointment with the Kennedys was never far away, thanks in part to the likes of those at the dinner. Before long, the only thing unique about the Malraux dinner was its date.

Yet that falls very short of a point to be made here. I tried to find all the first-hand reports and personal recollections I could on the Malraux dinner (over several decades I also contacted a few living attendees left). That was to be my policy palimpsest—those scraps of conversation, over-heard remarks, and contemporary news reports—most if not all unfamiliar to the reader. My aim, as said at the outset, was to see this event—and in turn something of politics (also culture politics)—afresh in their complexity. I found I could only do that by seeing the evening in the present tense.

So what?

“Managing the economy” sounds so 20th century, but isn’t. What sociologist, Daniel Bell termed long ago, “the end of ideology,” is promised all the time, if not by administration and management, then through markets and technology. Yet a self-organizing economy is about as realistic as a self-organizing reception line of public intellectuals at the White House. Management depends on who has been let in and what those around the table are being distracted by, in a real time experienced then.

To see things afresh and in the present tense isn’t a faux innocence. It is to walk toward understanding that that some of the best parts of high politics is when it is distracted by low politics, that keeping the high and low contingencies together is the itinerant work of real time and about as far from trivializing the present as we can get.

Such is why the most significant episode of that evening, the one that I ask you to take as the exemplar for what this blog is all about, is the interchange between the country’s leading politician, John F. Kennedy, and the country’s leading literary critic, Edmund Wilson, over Patriotic Gore. It is perfectly legitimate for a policymaker to want a precis of the issue and what it offers; it is perfectly understandable for any type of advisor to say it’s more complex than a precis can indicate.

Principal sources: compiled and rewritten from previous blog entries where references can be found as well.

It makes a difference for policy and management when describing pastoralism in terms of capitalism and not as a global infrastructure


Please take the time to read the following excerpts from a very fine study by Marty et al (2022) on Maasai pastoralists in contemporary southern Kenya:

As an adaptation process, diversification brings new opportunities for some people, but can also displace risks and bring new exposures for others, acting as ‘a socially stratifying capitalist fix providing new avenues for accumulation and market penetration’, benefiting a small elite (Mikulewicz 2021, 424)’. . . .

Our results also align with recent research evidencing the increased importance of capital relations for grazing access in the context of changing land use across Kajiado (Jeppesen and Hassan 2022), which is likely to further accentuate processes of social differentiation and associated class formation dynamics. . . .

Our findings suggest that diversification tends to promote more individualized and market-based adaptation strategies, but that the drivers and ramifications of increased integration into capitalist production systems and renegotiation of production relations are complex and dynamic. Differentiated engagements with diversification in pastoral areas are not only related to changing material conditions, but also linked to ‘intangible’ dimensions, such as changing norms and values. New social differentiations emerge through the increased emphasis placed on formal education and how knowledge influences one’s position within the community and beyond (e.g. the relation to state or non-governmental actors). At the same time, other entrenched markers of differentiation persist and are crystalized through exclusionary decision-making processes and established roles, perhaps most notably gendered discriminations. The research findings thus underscore the need for climate change adaptation planning in agrarian environments to extend beyond the dominant technical focus (Eriksen, Nightingale, and Eakin 2015), by showing how adaptation processes in pastoral environments are closely intertwined within rapidly evolving socio-political and economic transformations.

Edwige Marty, Renee Bullock, Matthew Cashmore, Todd Crane & Siri Eriksen (2022): Adapting to climate change among transitioning Maasai pastoralists in southern Kenya:an intersectional analysis of differentiated abilities to benefit from diversification processes., The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2022.2121918

I’ve left the original references in to indicate that the authors are not alone in their views–which to be clear from the outset I believe to be true as far as they go.

I want however to go further and take up the authors’ own suggestion that the adaptation processes be studied in terms of how they are now “closely intertwined within rapidly evolving socio-political and economic transformations”.


Let’s look at the history behind those “socio-political and economic transformations.”

Since there are many historians to choose from, allow me to take the most recent one I’ve read: Capitalism: The story behind the word, by historian of ideas, Michael Sonenscher (2022, Princeton University Press).

I believe he is well-regarded, but that doesn’t matter for what follows: There are plenty of histories of capitalist relations, any number of which usefully complicate the above quotes and indeed compel us to go further.

–Sonenscher starts by underscoring that the development of commercial societies preceded the development of capitalism. More, when the two histories, which do get intertwined later on, are distinguished from the get-go, it becomes altogether clear that commercial societies and capitalist societies were characterized by different features and path dependencies.

Most notably, commercial societies had markets induced by divisions of labor that preceded capitalist class formation. Indeed, terminology introduce after that of “commercial societies”, like “primitive accumulation,” have served to misdirect analysts away from the high degree of economic differentiation on and specialization in those societies–again prior to very introduction of capitalist relations for financing war and debt.

–Hopefully, some readers recognize that this emphasis on trade and markets, along with a division of labor that was differentiated and specialized in terms of trade routes and transactions, also characterized significant pastoralist societies well prior to the commonly narrated version of 18th – 19th century introduction of (Western) capitalism.


–So what? So what if these earlier commercial societies had markets and transactions for goods and services?

After all, the point underscored in the above quotes and many like them is that those earlier formations have long been superseded by capitalist relations and their accentuation/extension into what are no longer and must now be considered “former pastoralist societies.”

Really? Are we sure about that?

I can well believe processes the authors describe are going on in Kajiado, elsewhere in East Africa, and elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

What I can’t believe is that pastoralists are colonized everywhere by capitalism. You mean all (or even most?) of these people Wikipedia record are integrated in capitalist relations: “As of 2019, between 200 million and 500 million people globally practised pastoralism, and 75% of all countries had pastoral communities.”

–There are too many different types of livestock production systems, too many regional differences in the impacts of the climate emergency, too many different path dependencies historically and now into the Anthrocpocene to deny the following:

Just as researchers now talk about the varieties of capitalism, there all along were varieties of commercial societies, and among that latter were and still are pastoralist systems with their evolving–that is, with less ruptured than many think–divisions of labor, differentiations and specializations.

–But, again, so what? I have argued that pastoralisms are a global critical infrastructure. I now argue they have been one for a very, very long time in terms of their differentiation and specialization of services and opportunities to advance and change.

Related source

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at https://steps-centre.org/publication/a-new-policy-narrative-for-pastoralism/)

A different twist on revolutions and the status quo


I’m first asking you to look and listen to one of my favorites, a short video clip of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Andreas Scholl singing the duet, “I embrace you,” from a Handel opera (the English translation can be found at the end of the clip’s Comments):

Antonacci’s performance will resonate for some with the final scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson, as the actress Norma Desmond walks down the staircase toward the camera. But intertextuality–that two-way semi-permeability between genres–is also at work. Antonacci brings the opera diva into Swanson’s actress as much as the reverse, and to hell with anachronism and over-the-top.


Let’s now bring semi-permeable intertextuality closer to public policy and management. Zakia Salime (2022) provides a rich case study of refusal and resistance by Moroccan villagers to nearby silver mining–in her case, parsed through the lens of what she calls a counter-archive:

My purpose is to show how this embodied refusal. . .was productive of a lived counter-archive that documented, recorded and narrated the story of silver mining through the lens of lived experience. . . .Oral poetry (timnadin), short films, petitions, letters and photographs of detainees disrupted the official story of mining ‘as development’ in state officials’ accounts, with a collection of rebellious activities that exposed the devastation of chemical waste, the diversion of underground water, and the resulting dry collective landholdings. Audio-visual material and documents are still available on the movement’s Moroccan Facebook page, on YouTube and circulating on social media platforms. The [village] water protectors performed refusal and produced it as a living record that assembled bodies, poetic testimonials, objects and documents


What, though, when the status quo is itself a counter-archive? Think of the dyspeptic comments on articles about traitor Trump in the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. Think of all the negative tweets, billions and billions and billions of them. That is, think of these status quo repositories as a counter-archive of–for lack of a better phrase–“status-quo critique and dissent.”


Now go one step further toward the intertextuality of genres.

It isn’t just that these status quo’s are criticisms about modernity and contemporary politics. A genre notion of the status quo as counter-archive means that today’s dissent also stands in contrast and opposition to cases from other genres, say, Genghis Khan from history and cli-fi novels from speculative fiction. (This is no more arbitrary than comparing opera’s Antonacci and film’s Swanson.) Intertextually, today’s status quo not only looks pretty good, it is pretty good compared to both the times of Genghis Khan and the post-apocalypse. And again: over-the-top anachronism be damned.


So what?

It made sense once to ask: What should we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were readers of Michael Harrington’s The Other America (think: the War on Poverty)? What should we viewing now as collectively agitating as was the Vietnam TV footage (think: the anti-war movement)? But the “we’s” and “agitations” have changed, haven’t they?

Isn’t it better to say that today the “we’s” are expanding and differentiating because of agitations across now multiple different media and genres?

It’s not just difficult to choose which medium to best stir things up. It’s that intermedial-we’s are more difficult having been stirred up–not just by reading, writing and viewing, but sonically, aurally, tactually, sensually, and the hybrids, all now clearly relevant to “policy and management.”

For example, if the climate emergency is violence and the Big Polluters are culprits, then violent resistance against them is a form of violence reduction if the resistance succeeds. This means the “violence” and the “resistance” are difficult to assess, evaluate and predict because our cross-media selves open up new ways of going forward. As in: “the varieties of revolution do not know the secrets of the futures, but proceed as the varieties of capitalism do, exploiting every opening that presents itself”–to render into the plural a quote of political philosopher, Georges Sorel.


Repeat: “every opening”–every medium, genre and intertext is to be taken advantage of–which is why “the end of capitalism,” like the “beginning of revolution,” is not only difficult to realize but also difficult even to visualize or theorize. How then to proceed? In the words of Harry Mulisch, the Dutch writer: “The best thing to do is make the puzzle bigger.”

Why it matters that information overload and cognitive under-comprehension are not the same

Two drivers of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty are often conflated—information overload and cognitive under-comprehension—and the conflation increases the sense of more complexity in policy and management.

–Think of information overload as the “right” information is actually there but hidden in the info glut before us. Cognitive under-comprehension, in contrast, is our evolved cognitive limitations to recognize anything like “the right information” for the matter at hand.

Overload means we would be high-performing analysts and managers if only we were to tease out the right information from all the noise obscuring it. Under-comprehension means we are held to such high-performing standards we couldn’t possibly know the right information, even if it were right there before our very eyes. “I could do my job if only I had the right information” is not “No one could do the job I’m tasked with, whatever the info available.”

–Two upshots deserve quick emphasis.

First, at or beyond the limits of cognition, not only are prediction and forecasting difficult, so too is identifying the counterfactual conditions, not least of which is what would happen if overload and under-comprehension were absent or otherwise ameliorated.

Second, arguments presented to us as policy relevant because of their diamond-sharp clarity rarely get beyond the joke or magic stage. They’re a form of misdirection from seeking out any overload and under-comprehension already present, were we only to look for them.

Either way, you don’t see the shadows because you are using a flashlight to find them.

Politics and emergency response

“In my experience, I’ve seen plenty of high-ranking officials who were so concerned about the political backlash or the budget that they couldn’t take a decision,” said a senior state emergency management official to us recently.

The clarity, logic and urgency of immediate response after a major disaster are seen as “tough political trade-offs” by some, e.g., when bigger cities get more immediate attention. A major city’s road transportation system was “underprepared for a longer-duration” weather event, which led to gridlock across the city and to the department being under “political duress” at the time, said a water construction and maintenance manager. It isn’t only the logic, clarity and urgency of immediate response and initial service restoration that lead to on-the-spot improvisations; political pressures can impose their own forms of guidance to improvisational behavior.

Also, notwithstanding the logic, clarity and urgency of emergency response immediately after the disaster (i.e. prioritizing search and rescue), “it’s almost impossible” to reconstruct after-the-fact the welter of timelines and organizational scrambling during immediate response, underscored an experienced wastewater coordinator and planner. In fact, it’s by no means clear how some response actually happened. “How did that work? Great question,” said a state emergency preparedness official to us before trying to explain.

It also must be recognized how unlikely it will be in the US setting that senior government politicians and officials–committed as they are to immediate restoration of services–will stay out of the way of infrastructure operators and emergency managers doing the needful, including on-the-ground damage assessments.

Cuckoo catallactics

Def., catallectics: a theory of how prices and related factors are derived in competitive markets

Economics exemplifies what literary critic and poet, William Empson, called Jam Theory. All you need to know about economic behavior is under the lid of that wee jam jar of economic theory.

For those spreading its paste, there are never enough markets until observed reality matches the macro-principle of market competition. So what if actually existing markets are one of the most hybridized of social institutions? Not to worry, we make cuckoo clocks without the bird-shit, so too can we make functioning markets.

Has economics lost its place, you might ask, like the actor playing Hamlet who finishes the scene with Gertrude but forgot to kill Polonius? Or is this one more confirmation, in case we needed it, that economics differs little from other disciplines knee-deep in uncertainty? Far too many economist sell a political economy of individuals without the politics of groups.

Which then is more bloviating? The economist’s “the opportunities are attractive, if technological and regulatory challenges are overcome” or the engineer’s “the opportunities are attractive, if economic and regulatory challenges are overcome”? The scapegoating of regulation in both cases, of course, is essential to their hard sell.

Complex is. . .

Jesus Christ having a lot to say, but wise enough not to write it down

Everyone having the right not to be killed by people they don’t know

Carl Andre, the artist: “A thing is a hole in the thing it is not”

Decorum demanding that Medea kill her children offstage and that Macbeth do the same for King Duncan

Each person on earth being allocated a randomly unique number: “This one is yours. It’s irreplaceable.”

Social media being today’s 17th century taverns, congregations and street traffic

Asking what underworld markets might come about to offer–on the cheap–human augmentations and bio-technical enhancements

Recognizing that debt speeds inequality by advancing high-interest consumer credit to the most vulnerable and accelerating debt-based accumulation for the more advantaged

Understanding that carbon pricing and cap-and-trade are easy to talk about precisely because they’re hard to implement. How else to buy time to avoid all the other approaches that are quicker by being context specific?

Complex is not. . .

Declaring: All economic policy is climate policy; all tax policy is human rights policy; all policy is a floating signifier. . .

Insisting in 1960 that a two-percent growth rate and global population of three billion people meant starvation, overcrowding and collapse were unavoidable

Seeing that in Trump, Boris Johnson, Putin, Pope Francis, and the Nobel Peace Prize we are weaponizing a late-version of collapse with its very own celebrity brands

Principal sources available on request.

Magical thinking about China

This is what passes as US expert policy and opinion with respect to mainline China:

China should abolish the hukou system, expand its social safety net, enable workers’ organizations to fight for higher wages, distribute dividends from state-owned enterprises to the people, invest much more in environmental protection, tax the rich, reign in imaginaries like tianxia, and. . .

No, say the realists. Instead we should pray that China: doesn’t support a strong yuan, imports high inflation from Russia, suffers an even worse demographic crisis than currently inevitable, and witnesses the world’s largest real-estate collapse and the uprising of the planet’s biggest proletariat.

And, oh yes, before it’s too late: liberate Taiwan from China just like we liberated Kuwait after Saddam reunified it with Iraq.

Perhaps time has come to recalibrate this kind of transcendental thinking?

Are we missing, slight as the chances may be, a reset with China just as the warriors on all sides ensured 9/11 was not the opportunity for rapprochement with (parts of) the Muslim world?

Policy optics as prompts and probes to recasting: now 15 brief examples

Policy optics are concepts, analogies, methods and counternarratives used to recast issues currently defined as intractable. Recastings, if they work, remake (redescribe, recalibrate, reframe, revise) an issue more tractably. I seek to explain and describe how this is done in When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene.

But policy optics also function as prompts when they pose new but important questions and as probes when they reach for answers, even if both redefined questions and answers fall short of full-blown recasting. Below are 13 short examples of prompts and probes, in no order of priority, culled from the blog. Though some touch on topics in the Draft Guide, all are new material and considerably shortened from the original entries (where references can be found).

1. Unions and unionized

Assume evidence can be generalized as follows: Unionized firms as compared to nonunionized firms have lower rates of productivity, employment creation, and investment, other things equal. Even putting aside all the contrary evidence, we still ask: So what?

The preceding are generalizations only. Localized scenarios in which the opposite holds are possible and counter-cases available. Considerable evidence suggests that the ‘‘union/nonunion’’ dichotomy masks great variability in collective bargaining laws and wage arrangements across countries and regions.

That variability suggests we take a deeper look at the macro-design standpoints with respect to unions or not. What human rights, for instance, are at issue when one talks about unionization? One quickly realizes that the rights concerned relate less to any ‘‘right to unionization’’ and more to established rights of collective bargaining and freedom of association.

The latter as the point of departure surfaces an issue missed by some observers: Focusing on different rights illustrates just how narrow is the earlier focus on empirical generalizations about unionization. We should also be looking at the evidence related to economic growth and collective bargaining arrangements, generally and specifically. We would then better understand why local conditions are so variable with respect to ‘‘unions,’’ now variously defined and found.

2. Complex: other concepts and methods

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized so as to analyze and manage case-by-granular case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, I and others do not mean a trial-and-error learning where the next systemwide error proves to be the last trial destroying systemwide survival.

Where others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, I and others point to different systemwide reliability standards and only after to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from the different standards.

3. First: differentiate equality

Much of the debate over equality has been and remains at the macro-principle node. We all have equal rights; we all should have equal opportunities. Yet from the very beginning, exceptions have been in the form of specific contingency scenarios read off the macro, e.g., people are in principle equal but people are not born with the same and equal potentials. Contingency scenarios qualifying the reading of macro-principles litter debates over equality.

As the genetics we are born with are of course not everything, we also find vast differences in human-by-human particularities. Equal at the macro level, the most obvious fact at the micro-level is how unequal each person is in so many ways. Macro-principle, principle-based contingency scenarios and micro-experience are, however, not the only nodes around which equality debates organize.

The gap between macro-principle on paper and system behavior in practice is also everywhere evident. Systemwide pattern recognition, our fourth node, is populated by all manner of trends and statistics that show, e.g., just how unequal income, wealth and consumption distributions are within and across countries. Indeed, the difference between equality as professed and equality as realized is benchmarked by this gap between macro-principle and the recognition of systemwide patterns.

So what?

Put plainly, the macro-node in equality debates formalizes as principle what others cannot help but seek to informalize more through exceptions and contingency scenarios. The micro-node informalizes what others cannot help but seek to more formalize when they talk about systemwide patterns emerging across different cases. Equality, in this way, can’t help but be a messy project.

Nothing stops privileging one over another, or some over others, even though all four nodes are interconnected. Doing so, however, exaggerates. There is a world of difference between privileging one node from the get-go versus answering the question, “What do we do here and now with respect to this case of (in)equality”—after, however, first assessing the four nodes with their conflicts and examples.

4. Recasting 9/11 and its impacts through a Gerhard Richter painting

In a 2002 interview, painter Gerhard Richter was asked if he would paint the 9/11 aircraft terrorists (as he’d done earlier with Baader-Meinhof members): “Definitely not. This horrific form of global terror is something I cannot fathom”.

“September 11 bothered me more than I expected,” Richter admitted later. By 2005, when an interviewer asked about a small painting appearing to show the World Trade Center’s towers, Richter said: “These here are only failed attempts. I couldn’t get this stereotypical image of the two towers, with the some billowing out of them across the deep blue sky, out of my mind.” He went on to say that the painting in question “couldn’t work; only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen”.

–Below is his September, a 2005 photo-painting of the event and relatively small at approximately 28” x 20”:

The image you are seeing was rendered from a photograph showing the south tower of the World Trade Center as it was hit. The specific photo was, in Richter’s words, “very typical…Colorful—red, yellow, fire” “I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. . . ”
“I failed,” he told a friend; the painting “shows my helplessness. In German, my scheitern, failure.”

–A failure? Really? What do you think? Is the painting in a failed state?

Look at September again. Do you see the active, living absence of the deep red and yellow that initially tripped Richter up? By extension, do you see the active, living absence of the new democracies to come into being this century from presently failing states, including—dare we say—parts of the US?

None of that, by way of comparison and conclusion, can be read from Joanne Bartlett’s first-person witness painting of that day, Goodbye Bill,

5. A major policy issue is clearcut only until the next counternarrative

The removal of rescue boats and the increase of the utilization of drones is used by Frontex to detect and prevent migratory flows at an early stage, as migrant vessels are recognized in pre-frontier areas. In fact, the Frontex Situation Centre is a unit in charge of monitoring the external borders and the pre-frontier areas of the EU. . .The investment in drones has increased considerably in parallel with the deterrence of external rescue operations and the withdrawal of some naval missions in the Mediterranean. . .Therefore, vessels that are capable of helping migrants and asylum seekers are replaced by drones that can only observe. In consequence, the agency has not the obligation to intervene neither rescue them.

from a report accessed online on July 6 2022 at http://centredelas.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/WP_DronesFrontex_ENG.pdf

. . .beyond reasonable doubt they want to make sure no one can be rescued by them (positively formulated, they don’t want to become part of the business model of human traffickers)

from a friend’s email in response to the above quote

6. Apocalypse and tax havens

Novels and scenarios about post-apocalypse are dystopian when it comes to the climate emergency: Nothing will be as it was before. Even so, it’s that “nothing will be as it was” that bothers me.

–An example, and one the reader can relate to: tax havens. Once you have an inkling of what to look for, the numbers loom massive.

In one year alone (2016), multinational corporations (MNCs) were estimated to have shifted USD 1 trillion of profits to tax havens, with an estimated USD 200-300 billion in lost tax revenue worldwide. (The Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Hong Kong and the Netherlands are among the most important tax havens.) Another study estimates multinational enterprises shift close to 40% of their profits to tax havens globally. As for regions, the main European banks are reckoned to have booked EUR 20 billion (close to 15% of their total profits) in tax havens. In Germany, by way of one country, MNCs there are said to have shifted corporate profits of some EUR 19 billion to tax havens, with an estimated tax revenue loss of roughly EUR 5.7 billion.

Now, post-apocalypse. The Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Hong Kong and the Netherlands? Under water. MNCs? They should be so lucky! Tax havens and forgone tax revenues? After the apocalypse, what taxes?

In other words, the bad of tax havens, pre-apocalypse, is corrected post-apocalypse.

–Why ever then are we spending time and resources on reducing the use of tax havens when all our energies—all our political will—should be directed to averting the climate-induced apocalypse? From this perspective, today’s tax havens are visibly part of opportunity costs of deadly climate inaction. Reducing tax havens is worse than meaningless unless the generated revenues are directed to mitigating the impacts of climate change—and even then the prospect of “too little too late” looms.

Or is it too little too late in quite another sense? For surely part of being in the apocalypse means we have to manage global climate change far better everywhere than we (can) manage tax havens here or there, and now. If so, we are on the losing end either way: managing (or not) tax havens won’t get us to the climate change mitigation needed. . .

Unless of course, we imagine that getting rid of these tax sinkholes for the rich and already-undeserving—the enemy of both populist and cosmopolitan citizenshipare among the few things that are truly urgent, like the climate emergency.

7. What the Thai BL series, “Bad Buddy,” tells us about “societal reset”

“Reset” is a popular term for our “starting over” (as if from clean slate) or “starting again” (as if restarting from where we are). But there are other ways to think about “reset” as it applies to wider society.

One such way will be unfamiliar to readers: the current response to a Thai BL (Boys’ Love), “Bad Buddy.” It’s a twelve episode series, now moving to the 11th “cursed” episode: According to the trope, things must get worse in the next to the last episode (just) in order to get better at last.

–I’m not going to describe the history of BL tv series (they’re not Greek boy’s love or pedophilia), nor how Thai series differ from BLs in, say, Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea, which themselves differ. For those interested, a sinkhole of web-links awaits you (by the time you get to the history of China’s censorship of BLs and its current wink-wink “bromances,” you’ll have learned a great deal).

What I want to focus on here is one major response of YouTube viewers to “Bad Buddy” (with its millions and millions of episode views and tens and tens of thousands episode comments): This series represents, right now, a “reset” of Thai BLs.

I want to argue that the “reset” talked about in YouTube comments (at least those in English) is an optic through which to think about calls to reset specific contemporary politics and society.

One of the first things “Bad Buddy” viewers comment about is the great acting and chemistry of the two male leads, Ohm and Nanon. Just say it’s astrophysical. The higher-quality of storyline, filming and direction, original sound track, and pacing are also singled out for note. All and more are clear in Episode 5’s lead-up to roof-top scene, where in the language of many Asian dramas Ohm confesses his feelings and they kiss.

That last sentence in no way conveys the intensity of what we viewers actually saw and what that embrace conveyed. There is something very fitting in the reset being triggered the moment Ohm utters a mai (“no”) unlike any before.

One BL convention has been that these be straight actors kissing according to a storyline written by a female author for a largely female audience–where the kiss would more often than not be two sets of closed lips compressed momentarily on to each other. Not so in “Bad Buddy.”

Other BL conventions have also been bumped out of the way by “Bad Buddy.” Most invidious to international viewers has been the question of “who’s the top, who’s the bottom?” or husband/wifey in the relationship. “Bad Buddy” makes it clear the protagonists see themselves as boyfriends. Nor is there’s the usual, “He’s the only guy I’d ever love.” Nor are the females cyphers for “funny” or “incidental,” as has often been the case.

I could go on about why I’m such a fan, but suffice it here: At the time of writing, many of the YouTube viewers agree they are witnessing what they take to be a bigger reset of cultural conventions at least in the BL industry.

It seems to me that this type of “reset” is not one of resetting Thai society views of LGBTQ+ communities there or elsewhere. Nor is the reset one of setting a gold standard or benchmark for future BL tv series.

The reset I take away from the comments–that is, the reset I believe I’ve been witnessing through to Episode 10—is more akin to shaking the kaleidoscope of BL conventions and then making a new twist. The different colored shards—those conventions and tropes—don’t disappear but are being reconfigure anew. YouTube viewers of “Bad Buddy” are recording, participating in and energizing just such a reset. In conventional terms, expectations are notably changing and viewers are managing the changes and those expectations.

So what?

For someone living in the United States now, the economy is narrativized almost always into top and bottom. The top shafts the bottom; rich and poor are all having to take it up the ass. “A lifelong Democrat/Republican, this is the first time ever voting for my man, Trump/Obama.” This drama of ours is cursed to end early.

The notion that top and bottom could be “friends,” that the other half aren’t to be dismissed, that even when we’re fucked up and down, it’s more complicated, and that even if society can’t be remade from newer or altogether different shards, our current representations and conventions can be twisted to make them work differently—well, that’s one imaginary too far in the US!

If so, then I take the positive upshot to be: Focus on kaleidoscopes that can be twisted. (This is what “Bad Buddy” does for me.) Two examples as far away from BLs but ready, I believe, for a “Bad Buddy” reset will have to be illustrative.

Once you refocus, philanthropy needn’t be viewed as the city’s rich helping the city’s poor; urban-generated remittances needn’t be seen as one set of family members helping other family members elsewhere. Both philanthropy and remittances twist into something else when it’s “urban citizenship”—its duties and responsibilities—that come into better view through these very transactions.

Another example. A conventional configuration of dryland herds as assets is being twisted into a newer configuration of herds as global environmental liabilities. One consequence of the latest twist is to exclude pastoralists from being considered part of the near-global asset boom in rising prices of stock, bonds and real-estate.

Yet, at some point in the further twisting ahead of what patently is a kaleidoscope of very different configurations of herd assets and liabilities, it will be clear that a big question was missed in the earlier twist: Who benefited when public attention was distracted by reclassifying cattle as global environmental liabilities from recognizing instead that their owners/managers were (continue to be) entrapped in capitalist asset bubbles, and on a global scale?

8. One recasting not to favor: Anthropocene as wartime

. . .[T]he concept of wartime itself suggests a processual and extendable temporality, rather than a straightforward binary. This is the case since the division between wartime and peacetime is never as clear cut as any formal cessation of hostilities or signing of a treaty would suggest. World War I clearly did not end with the Armistice, and neither did it cease with the signing of the Versailles Treaty. For some, the World War has never really ended at all given that its promises of meaningful forms of (particularly racial and gender) equality as recompense for serving one’s country have still failed to materialize. The war had an enormous impact both upon the fabric of the earth and natural resources, while its legacy for the ways such categories as state, democracy, representation and capitalism, have become fixed parts of Euro-American political thinking, has been equally profound. It might therefore be productive to think about the Anthropocene as a form of ‘deep-war time’, both practically and intellectually. This means considering the Anthropocene as an ongoing battle over what it means to think across both planetary and global perspectives, and across the arc spanning World War I and into the present. D. Kelly (2022). Wartime for the Planet? Journal of Modern European History (DOI: 10.1177/16118944221113281)

Emergencies are one thing, like that for the climate. But not all emergencies are wars.

If the Anthropocene is recast as its own wartime, then how is this war different than all the other wars, namely, as massive engines of unpredictable, unimaginable and ungovernable contingencies? Why ever would we say wartime better captures there being no real boundary between war and peace, when the Anthropocene is also about neither human war nor human peace only?

If the “planetary” is as much a human construction as “local” and “global” are—or if you prefer, planetary and global and local are not thorough-going human constructions (remember “the irreducible particularity of being”?)—then we’re well advised not to dismiss policy and management as if they were the low and mean cunning of local and global alone.

In fact, cunning looks much the viable option when compared to: This war has to be different! Failure is not an option! We just have to have the political will to make it happen! These claims to exceptions deny that we can better prepare for other unavoidably broad patterns we see and other unavoidably local scenarios we face, when both clearly contradict “There is no alternative but to do it this way and no other way. . .”

9. Redescribing “alert distraction”

–It is said attention implies an economy of attention: As you can’t attend to everything, you must focus. It’s better, I think, to say attention implies a reliability in attending: Attention is more a sweeping searchlight that is continuous and secure even when distracted. Having to focus misses the importance of distraction’s role in refocusing to elsewhere.

Jean Dubuffet, the painter, talked about distraction as an occasion for “attentive inattentiveness:” “[I]n this distracted state. . . it is a matter of paying great attention to inattention, of being very attentive to transcribing as skillfully and faithfully as possible what happens when an object is viewed without great attentiveness”. To put the point my way, a reliable searchlight is one that is alert to sweeping more than fixed circuits.

–There are of course the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. But what if it is about distracting you from your own dead-end focus? That would be a positive distraction, an alertness to other things that end up mattering more.

Boris Pasternak, the poet, is reported to have said that life creates events to distract our current attention away from it, so that we can get on with work that cannot be accomplished any other way.

–A classic example of positive distractions are those unplanned but productive blots and blurs of composition. Max Ernst, the painter, put it: “Leonardo observed that all such mysterious effects that we find in nature—such as the stains of humidity on an old wall—can suggest to us a landscape, a face or any other such subject…To two different artists, the same chance stain can suggest two entirely different works. . .”

So too for Rossini, the composer: “When I was writing the chorus in G Minor, I suddenly dipped my pen into the medicine bottle instead of the ink; I made a blot, and when I dried it…it took the form of a natural, which instantly gave me the idea of the effect which the change from G minor to G major would make, and to this blot all the effect—if any—is due”. Here too a kind of alertness is working here.

–So what?

Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct.

I’m asking you to recast conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse, where we are more likely to revert to the latter when responding to unknown unknowns, inexperience and great difficulties. In this way, thinking is being more alert and attentive.

10. Missing racism

It’s difficult to believe anything important has been missed about race and racism in the United States. What hasn’t been said? Yet we’re missing a great deal that is important when it comes to recasting them.

To see how, I focus on a past period about which we now know more than we did by way of what we missed then.

–Go back to the late 1990s to the mid-2000’s. As an optic, it’s not so far past that some readers won’t remember it, but far enough away for added perspective. Start with some statistics reported then about African-Americans:

Black Americans, a mere 13 percent of the population, constitute half of this country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 35 are in jail or prison… (cited 2007)

Something like one third of our young African American men between 18 and 25 are now connected to the juvenile justice system or the federal justice system. They’re on probation, they’re in jail, they’re under indictment or they’re incarcerated. (cited 2002)

…the most striking thing is the high portion of black men with zero reported income: about 18 percent of black men, compared to about 7 percent for whites and Hispanics. (cited 2007)

After declining throughout the 1980s, employment rates of young, less-educated white and Latino men remained flat during the 1990s. Among black men aged 16 through 24, employment rates actually dropped. In fact, this group’s employment declined more during the 1990s (which fell from 59 percent to 52 percent) than during the preceding decade [of lower economic growth]… (cited 2004)

The most dramatic, the most unfortunate of the several disastrous outcomes is the high rate of paternal abandonment of children: 60% of Afro-American children are being brought up without the emotional, economic or social support of their fathers. (cited 2002)

Even then, though, you’d have had to ask: Why ever were we not interviewing those nine-tenths of young black men who were not in prison, those two-thirds who were not enmeshed in the criminal justice system, those four-fifths who did not have zero income, that half who were employed, and those four out of ten who had not “abandoned” their children—all in order to find out what they are doing right?

–One well-meaning observer said that, if he had a magic wand, he’d wave it so that every black would have a master’s degree, as degree holders were more likely to have higher incomes, better health and more positive outcomes. Before I waved any such wand, I’d want to know what kinds of educations were to be made missing.

11. Doing more in the climate emergency

Anyone who studies emergency management in large disasters and catastrophes, at least in the US setting, knows recovery is the second part of emergency management. The first, very formidable phase is immediate response. This matters because: Just what is immediate response in the climate emergency?

One article starts with: “The climate crisis calls for a massive and rapid retooling of our economy and society.” Yes, surely that and more; but what do we do immediately?

In answer, I don’t think I’m doing an injustice to those who insist what we should do now, and in a very big way is: stop using fossil fuels, stop cutting down trees, stop polluting the seas, stop using these befouling planes, vessels and vehicles.

We could respond, “Just how immediate is immediately?” Here though, let’s take these “Stop’s!” as sufficient calls for now-action.

Which means in the US setting, activating a city or county emergency operations center and/or incident management teams at the department level to coordinate immediate response efforts. States also do the same with respect to their own EOCs, IMTs or equivalent.

This activation is done all the time, when high winds, ice storms, wildfires, heat dome effects, flooding and their combinations take down essential services, particularly backbone infrastructures of water, electricity, roads and telecoms.

–Now the thought experiment: Activate the EOCs and IMTs, or at least the ones which know we are the climate emergency. And who are the distressed peoples and sites? Well, that’s not something you can answer a priori or universally. It’s up to the EOCs and IMTs, who recognize the climate emergency is leaving local people hungry, making local spaces uninhabitable, taking away local employment. . .

In thinking these things through, the stakes become clearer for both recovery and for immediate response.

First, much of what outsiders recommend for now-now clearly belongs more under “long-term recovery” than immediate response, e.g., those net-zero emissions promises or those altogether different, more resilient infrastructures. Note what many others have said about this longer-term: It is inevitably political with many stakeholders and in little or no way has the same logic, clarity and urgency that immediate response has, e.g., disaster declarations that trigger immediate release of government funds.

That said and second, those aforementioned “stop-this-and-that” immediately hit a major obstacle. In really-existing emergency response, fossil fuel is needed to evacuate people, ship goods and services to distressed areas, keep the generators running when electricity fails, and so on. Cutting down trees, distribution of water in plastic bottles, and wide use of readily available gas-guzzling vehicles, in case it needs saying, are not uncommon.

–Rather than focusing concern around the greater reliance on petrol or like, we might instead want to think more productively about two empirically prior issues.

First, where are those EOCs and IMTs activated in response to the climate emergency? The aforementioned activation for wildfires, flooding and abrupt seasonal events have been increasing and increasingly responded to by all manner of city, county, state and agency EOCs and IMTs. These are climate emergencies—lower-case speech matters in a polarized US—even for those would never say the phrase, “Climate Change,” out loud.

Second, where EOCs and IMTs have been or will be activated, are they responding in ways that are climate-friendly? Or to put the response challenge correctly: Where are the logic, clarity and urgency of the climate emergency requiring immediate eco-friendly response even before longer-term environmental recovery?

I ask the latter question, because it seems to me much more thought has been given by far many more people to the use of eco-friendly stoves, toilet facilities, renewable-energy generators, and like alternatives. Years and years of R&D have gone into studying, prototyping and distributing more sustainable options.

Shouldn’t we then expect and want their increased use in immediate emergency response as well, especially when (not: “even if”) expediting them to the distressed sites and peoples means, e.g., using petrol to get them there?

12. COP26 and intermittence

COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, was for many (myself included) a failure to do the needful in limiting temperature rise. Let’s say that is true (at least up to that point).

Even then, the crux is not: “Thus,” alternative voices were left out and alternative politics side-lined. You can no more essentialize those voices and politics than you can essentialize the conference. For it first has to be asked: Which COP26 failed?

Such a conference is never altogether there, if only because those attending in Glasgow are being themselves in one venue while being other selves in other venues there. COP26 is and was riddled with this intermittence and who’s to say the earlier or later versions between October 31 and November 13 2021 are not its upside?

This intermittence (like surprise) carries with it a great deal of information. (These shifts have in the parlance, “high-level informativity.”) Which is to say: I’m sure I’ve left far too much out in stopping short at COP26 as an overall failure.

13. There is no workaround for improvisation

–Consider the quip of a fund manager in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis: “The fact that the risk was diversified was a good thing. Now everyone is panicking because they don’t know where it is”.

But what kind of “it” was this risk? What kind of “diversified” is it if the risk includes unknown-unknowns?

–As the answers are not clear, what reformulation could produce more useful insights? One answer: a reformulation of the situation entailing different messes, differently good and bad than those posed by the fund manager. As in: one that did not revolve around “knowing where the diversified risks are.”

What could such a reformulation look like? To that end, undertake a thought experiment. Assume we are actively in the lead-up to another huge financial meltdown and fund managers are making the same or similar points as in the last one. Ask now: What would be success or effectiveness for these managers under the now-current conditions?

–There are many possible answers. The one I highlight is that of a senior emergency manager who recently told us: “Success in every disaster is that you didn’t have to get improvisational immediately. You can rely on prior relationships and set up a framework for improvisation and creativity.”

More formally and back to our thought experiment, management success in this lead-up to the next financial meltdown is no longer just one of preventing that meltdown from happening. It’s better to think that this lead-up is its own disaster and now ask: Where is effective emergency response gong on presently or should be going on?

Part of that answer is identifying where sets of working relationships (and allied resources) are in place for better matching now-and-here resource capabilities to the now-and-here task demands of financial management, today as you read these words. In other words, you’d expect to see a great deal of collective improvisation under these circumstances requiring real-time requisite variety.

Of course, there are their own messes that have to be managed in seeking to real-time requisite variety on the task demand and resource capability sides. (In fact, that’s the point!) But in this reformulation you’d be drawing from a cumulatively diverse and established body of literature on responding to socio-technical emergencies rather than relying on, say, “macro-prudential regulation of systemic financial risk.” (Is that even a field by way of comparison, let alone a craft?)

While the devil is in the details, what could this “immediate emergency response” look like on the ground? No detailed failure scenarios are possible here, but the thought experiment can be extended in illustrative ways. For example, assume all or several of 12 US Federal Reserve Districts and their respective Banks officially activate as Emergency Operations Center under the Incident Command System. Each Bank retains its mandates for price stability, maximum employment and interest rate regulation within its specific, widely varying regions. What then could/would/should each Bank-EOC do differently in the next two months?

–So what’s the bigger point?

In this reformulation, “knowing where the diversified risks are” is in no way dispositive for requisite variety or improvisational behavior. All that more knowledge on the risk management side brings you is greater recognition of just how transparently complex are the risks and uncertainties in the lead-up. But that is not the point from the perspective of this reformulation.

Which is: When it comes to immediate response to this disaster called the lead-up to the next financial meltdown, there is and can be no workaround for improvisation.

14. Rethinking emergency management through the shipwreck metaphor

–What has been called the “shipwreck metaphor” is actually several that have evolved from Roman times (if not earlier) to the present. To simplify, in crises we are like:

  • spectators safe on the shore looking out to the storm-tossed ship; or
  • survivors trying to keep afloat by clasping onto a plank or other debris, only later to be tossed up on the shore, if at all; or
  • those who keep rebuilding the ship while at sea, storm after storm, as returning to port is not possible nor is finding a nearby shore.

These, and their variants, are used here to rethink and extend in new ways some of the proposed responses by the key infrastructures (water, electricity, telecoms, and road transportation) to a magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone just off Oregon and Washington State.

–Five points about infrastructure operations come into rapid view via the shipwreck optic:

(1) Clearly, there are major occasions when infrastructure staff and emergency managers grab whatever is at hand and improvise a solution, just like they undertake workarounds during normal operations or temporary disruption of services. Staff also continue to build upon already patched up infrastructures (think of the Y2K fears at the turn of the century related to the millennium bug).

What hasn’t got as much attention is how new construction for pre-disaster mitigations, say retrofitting bridges and levees, are nevertheless still patchwork learned from prior failures and–really when you think about it–little or no different from workarounds generally.

(2) When it comes to retrofitting, our interviewees have two primary views. In one, it looks more like dry-docking the ship back at port and significantly upgrading a key part. In the other, retrofitting the bridge takes place while the road infrastructure as a whole is still in operation.

But acting as if you can dry-dock the ship back at port is by definition not an option nor is that retrofitting in the sea of operations seen as patchwork or standard-normal workarounds.

To say then that retrofitting is part and parcel of non-routine maintenance and repair, given a shipwreck is always possible, is very different from claiming that retrofitting is “building in resilience” for the shipwreck ahead (as many argue).

(3) That informed people still stay at sea (and in known earthquake zones) even if they can get away tells you something about their preferences for safety with respect to the known unknowns of where they live and work versus safety with respect to unknown-unknowns of doing otherwise.

It simply isn’t sufficient to counter: Even if people could move out (and, to reiterate, many can’t), they move to new risks and trade-offs. These aren’t risks; they are unknown unknowns. Hence the counterfactual, “what would have happened if you had moved to different seas,” looks to be based in very worrisome assumptions about any ability to pre-identify, let alone specify, that “would.”

(4) A two-week readiness program (i.e., you have two weeks of supplies on hand to survive the earthquake) is hopefully one plank to grasp once the earthquake happens. On the other hand, a raft or its analogue keeping a group afloat (after abandoning ship or, if you prefer: the ship abandoning them) would be better, e.g., a neighborhood generator to be used by households on the block.

(5) Note that this shift in the unit of analysis from ship-as-infrastructure to survivors-as-individuals is major. Efforts to restore critical infrastructure services, even if temporarily during immediate response (e.g., through placement of mobile telecommunication towers), becomes a key operational interconnection between the individual as unit of analysis and the infrastructure as a resurfaced unit of analysis.

15. Revolutions and the status quo recast


I’m asking you first to look and listen to one of my favorites, a short video clip of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Andreas Scholl singing the duet, “I embrace you,” from a Handel opera (the English translation can be found at the end of the clip’s Comments):

For some, Antonacci’s performance will resonate with the final scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson, as the actress Norma Desmond walks down the staircase toward the camera. But intertextuality–that two-way semi-permeability between genres–is also at work. Antonacci brings the opera diva into Swanson’s actress as much as the reverse, and to hell with anachronism and over-the-top.


Let’s bring semi-permeable intertextuality closer now to public policy and management. Zakia Salime (2022) provides a rich case study of refusal and resistance by Moroccan villagers to nearby silver mining–in her case, parsed through the lens of what she calls a counter-archive:

My purpose is to show how this embodied refusal. . .was productive of a lived counter-archive that documented, recorded and narrated the story of silver mining through the lens of lived experience. . . .Oral poetry (timnadin), short films, petitions, letters and photographs of detainees disrupted the official story of mining ‘as development’ in state officials’ accounts, with a collection of rebellious activities that exposed the devastation of chemical waste, the diversion of underground water, and the resulting dry collective landholdings. Audio-visual material and documents are still available on the movement’s Moroccan Facebook page, on YouTube and circulating on social media platforms. The [village] water protectors performed refusal and produced it as a living record that assembled bodies, poetic testimonials, objects and documents


What if, though, the status quo in another area is itself a counter-archive? Think of the dyspeptic comments on articles about traitor Trump in the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. Think of all the negative tweets, billions and billions and billions of them. That is, think of these status quo repositories as a counter-archive of–for lack of a better phrase–“status-quo critique and dissent.”


Now go one step further towards intertextuality involving a status quo as counter-archive.

It isn’t just that these status quo’s are criticisms about modernity and contemporary politics. A genre notion of the status quo as counter-archive means that today’s dissent also stands in contrast and opposition to cases from other genres, say, Genghis Khan from history and cli-fi novels from speculative fiction. (This is no more arbitrary than comparing Antonacci and Swanson.) Intertextually, today’s status quo not only looks pretty good, it is pretty good compared to both the times of Genghis Khan and the post-apocalypse–and over-the-top anachronism be damned.


So what?

It once made sense to ask questions like: What should we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were readers of Michael Harrington’s The Other America (think: the War on Poverty)? What should we viewing now as collectively agitating as was the Vietnam TV footage (think: the anti-war movement)? But the “we’s” and “agitations” have changed, haven’t they?

Today, isn’t it better to say that the “we’s” are expanding and differentiating because of agitations across now multiple different media and genres? It’s not just difficult to choose which medium to best stir things up. It’s that intermedial we’s are more difficult having been stirred up–not just by reading, writing and viewing, but sonically, aurally, tactually, sensually, and all the hybrids, all now clearly relevant to “policy and management.”

For example, if the climate emergency is violence and the Big Polluters are culprits, then violent resistance against them is a form of violence reduction if the resistance succeeds. This means the “violence” and the “resistance” are difficult to assess, evaluate and predict because our cross-media selves open up new ways of going forward. As in: “the varieties of revolution do not know the secrets of the futures, but proceed as the varieties of capitalism do, exploiting every opening that presents itself”–to render into the plural a quote of political philosopher, Georges Sorel.


Repeat: “every opening”–every medium, genre and intertext is to be taken advantage of–which is why “the end of capitalism,” like the “beginning of revolution,” is not only difficult to realize but also difficult even to visualize or theorize. There is no workaround for having to improvise.