Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion

–Eudora Welty wrote a short story where “bluejays lighted on the rail,” which prompted one reader to write: “Dear Madam, I enjoyed your stories, but bluejays do not sit on railroad tracks.” Welty conceded, on further reflection, that this too had been her own experience. Yet there the bluejays still sit in the Library of America’s definitive edition of Welty’s work. From the other direction, we know through photographs that when Picasso was painting Guernica, he had a powerful image of a clenched fist raised high. That image, however, was painted away under what we see today.

To bring to sight all these present-but-absent bluejays and absent-but-present clenched fists is the challenge of determining what is missing in dominant policy arguments. For what is absent becomes a present for rethinking any fixed picture of things. Clenched fists matter now more than ever, here; rail tracks forever without bluejays is precisely what matters, there.

–To answer “What’s missing?” means seeing any major policy argument, no matter how coherent it reads, as a composite of different phrases and images from different parts of the policy palimpsest for that major issue. Today’s composite argument has been sutured together, asyndetically or paratactically, from the mess that remains once each iteration of policy statement and policy (in)action has overwritten preceding ones.

–In all of this, you cannot assume that the maker and reader of a composite argument know what they are doing. Revealing the underlying pastiche of the seemingly coherent argument and the fact that what has been obscured may well be as important as what has not is a difficult dilemma for which we are all inexperienced and which is a matter open to surprise and opportunity, good and bad.

–So what then do we do? It seems to me there is a next step if we reveal from the get-go the great difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing even in familiar policy matters: We start in the dark and from there ask, What’s to be seen?

“Things shine more brightly to an observer who is in the dark,” Denis Diderot, the French Enlightener, put it in an epigraph. Psychoanalyst, W.R. Bion, offered this metaphor:

Instead of trying to bring a brilliant, intelligent, knowledgeable light to bear on obscure problems, I suggest we bring to bear a diminution of the “light”—a penetrating beam of darkness: a reciprocal of the searchlight. The peculiarity of this penetrating ray is that it could be directed towards the object of our curiosity, and this object would absorb whatever light already existed, leaving the area of examination exhausted of any light it possessed. The darkness would be so absolute that it would achieve a luminous, absolute vacuum. So that, if any object existed, however faint, it would show up very clearly. Thus, a very faint light would become visible in maximum conditions of darkness.

How might this work?

In order to say something new about a major policy issue or see it afresh, I sometimes change the genre within which I think and write about it. The academic article, a short blog, the format of a play, an “I-believe” manifesto–all and more have their own conventions, partial they may be in both meanings of the word.

To take a major “intractable” policy issue that is almost always the subject of policy memos and longer policy briefs, and then focus the dense dark beam of an altogether unfamiliar genre over it, is to see what is left to glimmer there.

If something does glimmer, I think it’s because of the unavoidable ambiguities any major issue brings with it–namely, those elements present in the palimpsest but missing (effaced) in the dominant arguments of the day. Create a vacuum and it gets filled; ambiguity, like any metaphor, calls out to be evaluated. The next step ahead in the dark is open to new (renewed) interpretation.

Principal sources

Bion, W.R. (1990/1973). Brazilian Lectures: 1973, Sao Paulo; 1974, Rio de Janeiro/Sao Paulo. Karnak Books: London

Furbank, P.N. (1992). Diderot: A Critical Biography. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY

Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter

The playhouse manuscript, Sir Thomas More, has been called “an immensely complex palimpsest of composition, scribal transcription, rewriting, censorship and further additions that features multiple hands” (Van Es 2019). One of those hands was Shakespeare–and that has contemporary relevance.

The authoritative Arden Shakespeare text (edited by John Jowett 2011) renders a passage from Shakespeare’s Scene 6 as follows (this being Thomas More speaking to a crowd of insurrectionists in opposition to Henry VIII):

What do you, then,

Rising ’gainst him that God Himself installs,

But rise ’gainst God? What do you to your souls

In doing this? O, desperate as you are,

Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,

That you, like rebels, lift against the peace,

Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,

Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven.

Tell me but this: what rebel captain…

But the last two lines had been edited by another of the play’s writers (“Hand C”), deleting the bolded lines Shakespeare had originally written,

Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven

Is safer wars than ever you can make

Whose discipline is riot.

In, in to your obedience. While even your hurly

Cannot proceed but by obedience.

What rebel captain….

What has been effaced away by the deletion is, first, the notion that contrition is itself a kind of war and a safer war, at that.

According to the Arden Shakespeare, “The act of contrition might be described as wars because the former rebels would enlist themselves in the struggle of good and evil, and would fight against their own sin of rebellion.” However, in either case—contrition or rebellion—obedience is required. In fact, nothing was less safe than rebellion whose “discipline is riot”. What has also been effaced, in other words, from Shakespeare’s original passage is a clear accent on contrition and peace over continued upheaval.

But lack of contrition by those involved in the formulation and implementation of highly criticized policies is precisely what we have seen and are seeing today.

No global leader is contrite about their woeful handling of the pandemic (speaking of “Wash…those same hands”). No US president has been contrite about the 2002 Bush Doctrine and its entailed Iraqi War. For to prioritize contrition in these matters would mean refocusing obedience from battle to a very different struggle in securing peace and security, a mission in which our ministries of interior and defence are notably inferior.

Principal sources

Sir Thomas More (2011), ed. John Jowett (Arden Shakespeare, third series. Bloomsbury, London)

Van Es, B. (2019). Troubles of a glorious breath. TLS (March 22)

A different take on The Great Confinement (longer read)

Jim:     …the presentation was an eye-opener, Professor. . .

Prof:    Call me Peter. And thanks for the intro and help in setting up…

Jim:     Sure thing. . . Dick, are you coming. . .

Dick:   I’ll stay behind.

Jim:     Professor…

Peter:  Peter.

Jim:     Peter, ah, this is Dick. . .

Dick:   Jim, I’ll handle my own introductions. Thanks.

Jim:     [Turns to Peter] Maybe catch you the next time you’re in the area. . .

Peter:   Right. [Jim leaves.]

[Dick and Peter are about the same age, though both older than Jim. They look at each other, almost say something, but Peter returns to packing his briefcase. The room quiets and the audience senses things are about to begin.]

Dick:   Well. . .Peter [as if testing the word], you don’t really believe that drivel of a presentation, do you?

Peter:   You came in late, didn’t you. . .Dick?

Dick:   Early enough to catch the guff about rapid population growth exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity. You’re scaring the shit out of …well, almost everyone.

Peter:   It’s pretty obvious that population growth is doing just that.

Dick:   Obvious to everybody but me, you mean.

Peter:   Obvious to everyone. [Closes the briefcase and looks about to leave]

Dick:   You know what I think is going on? The real problem is experts like you generalize too soon too much.

Peter:   “Generalize“?

What, you don’t believe the evidence? You don’t believe greenhouse gases are increasing and climate change disruptions are here to stay and worsen? You don’t believe loss of biodiversity and species extinctions are racing ahead, urban sprawl is metastasizing, waste and pollution out of control?

[More agitated]

. . .That there are just too many people consuming too many things? That global population growth is too fast, that violence and environmental conflict are on the rise everywhere? That what we need more than anything else is to reduce population growth in developing countries and per capita consumption levels in this, our so-called developed world. We went through The Great Confinement and people died all over the place. Did you miss that? You don’t believe the rest? None of it?

Dick:   The Gloomy Scenario. You do it so well:

Quote. Population is bounding forward and without limits; the most rapid growth rates are in the poorest countries; natural resources are exploited and destroyed at ever expanding rates; the gap between rich and poor is wide and widening without stop; technology has fueled overconsumption and environmental degradation; and degradation everywhere continues to accelerate, be it congestion, poor sanitation, or the destruction of ecosystems, fields, forests or fisheries; humans have irreversibly changed conditions for the worse; and, last but certainly not least—right?—disease, conflict, nationalism and worse are burgeoning. Unquote

Peter:   Read my lips: Quality-of-life-is-declining. What do you call the travesty of being confined, all over the world?

But you already know all this. . .

[It’s obvious by this point that there’s much more going on in this exchange, given its intensity.]

Dick:   There it is again: generalizing. For you it’s snap-easy to leap to the global. You guys [Peter looks at him sharply] talk about “global population,” “global CO2,” “global greenhouse gas emissions” “global markets,” and “global pandemics”. Once at the global, it’s the easiest thing for you to homogenize human beings into equalities like per capita statistics and death rates…

Peter:   And your point?

Dick:   If the global has any meaning, it’s exactly the level of analysis where you cannot generalize. The global must–right? by definition?–include all the differences that make up the world and because of that, things have to be too complex to be known with any kind of certainty at such an overarching scale.

Peter:   Repeat: Your answer?

Dick:   If you want answers, start with those really-existing cases where more people mean a better environment, where more people mean less disease, less poverty, less inequality, where more people mean. . .

Peter:   You can’t generalize from a few site-specifics!

Dick:   That is my point: Nor can you generalize either. The global is too full of difference to generalize.

Peter:   So your “answer” is that every time reduced population growth and per capita consumption and globalized disease control are advocated, you find a ready opposite with which to counter? Every example of ours is matched by one of yours?

Dick:   I have no Answers, or at least the big-A ones you lot keep talking about.

My guess is that if you started with all the differences out there before you did anything like abstracting, you’d find many more cases where reduced population growth and per capita consumption and globalized disease control can’t be the solution—and it is precisely these counter examples you and yours don’t talk about.

Peter:   That’s no help, and here too you know that. Start with differences? Which ones?

At this rate, you’ll end up telling us it’s impossible to identify the ones that matter. That way, you don’t need to tell us what will happen if rapid population growth isn’t halted or per capita consumption reduced or what to do to avoid the next Great Confinement. When do we get really worried, as you keep adding to your list of differences? When the earth is suffocating under the weight of 10 billion people? 15 billion? When?

Dick:   There’s no such thing as the earth’s carrying capacity [makes quotation marks in the air with his fingers]. Which one of the hundred so expert estimates are you going to choose as the carrying capacity of the entire earth? And even if you did, there is the techno-managerial elite to regulate to that number?

Worse yet, look what’s happened since the Great Confinement! Supposedly reputable ecologists and experts who wished for an estimate of 7 billion or less now saying, see I told you so, the earth is purging itself of the excess! Just like 19th century veterinarians wishing more rinderpest to reduce Africa’s “overstocking”…

Peter:   We’re million miles apart. What exactly is your point?

Dick:   That things are not what they seem to you. That there are no answers. [Pause]

There’s just. . .right here right now… [at a loss for words, he looks away from Peter]

Peter:   Don’t patronize me. Anyone listening today knows I’m not locked into totalizing answers. What do you want from me? Continually repeating myself…

Dick:   You don’t want to see it, do you?

Peter:   Spare me the condescension. . .

Dick:   No, I mean, Peter, why are you always in a future? Why aren’t you here, with that view [points to the window], in this instant?

Peter:   I am here. I am the one living in the present. We may see the same view, but I’m the only one who wants to ensure it’s there to see. At any time. Your navel-gazing means before we know it it’ll all be gone, not just over, but gone.

Dick:   Who’s “we”, bwana?

Peter:   We—you, me, every—

Dick:   You and me?

Peter:   . . .everyone.  Almost everyone knows we can’t continue using up Nature’s capital. Everywhere cries out for setting limits, for stewarding our resources. . .

Dick:   Stewardship! God, nothing is safe from that gaze. Stop a rocket from leaving earth, and it means you’re stewarding outer space!

There’s nothing you guys say you can’t manage, or at least try to, because there’s nothing that you guys aren’t responsible for stewarding, nothing, anywhere, no matter how far away. “We have no alternative!” you say.

Talk about delusional. Talk about confinement! Just another garden-variety imperialism…

Peter:   Excuse me, but where were you during the Great Confinement? Haven’t you learned by this point? Repeat, we can’t continue on as we have been doing—and if you want to call that imperialism, capitalism, colonialism, bullshit, be my guest! We can’t go on abusing the planet this way. We have to love it and that means setting limits. . .

Dick:   . . .limits on love?

Peter:   [As if he can’t believe what Dick just said]

. . .when everything cries out for setting limits, safe limits, critical thresholds, establishing carrying capacities, accepting the very real risks that have to be balanced against the so-called benefits of new technologies etcetera. Rangelands, forests, wetlands, that sea over there. Every indicator of sustainability and health is a flashing red light, and here you’re BABBLING as if none of this matters in your version of here and now.

Dick:   You see complete disaster where I see unfinished business.

Peter:   Whatever has this to do with saving the planet?

Dick:   Everything. We can’t save it, because there’s no such planet to save at the level you’re talking about.

Peter:   Christ, what a recipe for despair…

Dick:   Not despair. If we can’t find meaning in what remains, are you telling me you and the others’ll do a better job of finding meaning in the future. . .

Peter:   Just postmodern scholasticism.

Dick:   Not really. “Saving the planet” has meaning only because it’s never possible to finish the task.

Peter:   This is getting nowhere. . .

Dick:   Sure this is getting us somewhere. It means it’s up to us to decide which unfinished business we want to give meaning to.

[Pause] Like any relationship.

Peter:  Everything has always had to be personal for you, on your terms. We can’t generalize, you say. We have to stay specific, you say. When all you’re saying is, I like tea. You like coffee. And there’s the end of it.

Dick:   So you’d still like me to believe.

Peter:   [Long pause, as if finally deciding something] OK, Dick.

What are you really trying to say?

Go on, what is all this to-and-fro about?

Dick:   You know. You knew from the minute we started talking, the minute I showed up in this room…

Peter:   I don’t.

Dick:   You do.

Peter:   No.

Dick:   It has to be your way, like always?

Peter:   You have no solutions, no answers, only opinions, personal views.

Dick:   “Only”?

Peter:   [Pause] What’s the upshot, Dick?

Dick:   Hah! “up-shot-dick”.

Peter:   [Avoiding the obvious] What are you trying to say?

Dick:   Oh, Peter.

Peter:   What.Are.You.Saying—-

Dick:  [Says nothing, and then]

So. . .let’s talk about the anger.

Peter:   Will you PUHLEESSE keep to the point!

Dick:   QED: Anger.

Peter:   Anger?

Dick:   . . .and its flip side, hurt.

Peter:   And you’re not angry. No anger behind all this of your “here and now”?

Dick:   So, we’re both angry and not talking about it.

Peter:   What’s left to say?

Dick:   Ok, Peter, ok.

But try to meet me half way this time round.

Peter:   Your stakes and mine in all this aren’t the same. If they ever were.

Dick:   Try to meet me halfway.

Peter:   Which means?

Dick:   [Realizing Peter is not going to budge]. Ok, your way, Peter.

But enough of the ABSTRACTIONS!

Peter:   [The longest pause of both yet.]

Half way? OK.

When I walked in today, I half hoped you’d be in the room. And when I didn’t see you, I thought, What a fool I’d been to think I could try this. I must have been crazy.

[Another long pause]

…and while we’ve been arguing just now, I wondered for a moment, What would we be saying to each other instead?

Dick:   Me?

…I wanted to come up and cup your face in my hands and say, “When do we kiss? Now, later. . .never?”

Peter:  Hah!

Dick:   I won’t give up my fantasies.

Peter:   You’ve always been crazy for happy endings.

Dick:   That’s bad?

Peter:   Where’s the reality?

Dick:   Love protects reality.

Peter:   Even when the reality then was “Good-bye, Peter”?

Dick:   [Smiling for the first time in the play] That was then!

[Pauses] You know, Peter, no one can put his arm around you [Dick puts his arm around Peter’s shoulder, moves closer] and say [taps Peter’s chest], “You know, Professor, you really are right and have been all along!”

You know that.

[They face each other and Dick slides his other arm onto Peter’s shoulder, moving closer]

Peter:   Your addiction to happy endings. . .

Dick:   Happiness? That too is confined to the mess.

Speaking of crazy, [Dick places his forefinger on Peter’s lips] you always said my mouth was your perfect fit. . .

Peter: Hmmm. So, all the rest we’ve talked all about is left to “Until then if not later”?

Dick: Until then if not before.


A grammar of policy analysis

Graduate students in public policy analysis and management will have come across an idealized sequence for undertaking individual policy analyses: first we define the problem, then we assemble the evidence, then we analyze it, then we specify and evaluate options, then we select a preferred one and make our recommendation. This idealized sequence, or something like it, is cast in the present tense.

My experience is that practicing analysts prefer their idealized sequence to be markedly not in the present tense:

Having completed the analysis, I wrote the memo to recommend changes.

The past gerund indicates a completed analysis, a hope that stands in sharp contrast to real-world policies that seem to be in persisting incompletion—also a very different kind of “present tense” than the one in policy schools. The practicing analyst’s sequence functions to situate analysis within a context that has existed and continues to do so outside the present tense of “we-do-this-and-then-do-that.” It makes explicit—it insists—that “having done the analysis and written our memos” assumes an ongoing outside authority without which there wouldn’t be analysis.

More, the infinitive, “to recommend,” introduces the promise that our memo will be dealt with, albeit outside our control but within a context of which we analysts are part. Indeed, the point of the past gerund/past tense/infinitive formulation is to make clear that, “objectively speaking”, analysts in the present are not to blame for anything like the real-world incompletion all around us.

The point? The gap between the two idealized sequences looks a lot like the gap between the beliefs we say we hold versus the ways we say we practice those beliefs. In neither case need the professed beliefs or practices be the ones we actually hold and undertake. The idealized grammar of policy analysis is like the sundial that marks the sunny hours outside, while we make and take time very much otherwise the second we leave the garden and enter the vestibule.

Principal source

Moretti, F. (2013). The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature. Verso: London and New York

A colossal inheritance

Under what conditions is it a good thing that one’s beliefs, attitudes and values are not realized as believed, expressed or held? The immediate answer is when those beliefs, attitudes and values are wrong, and this indeed is the charge sheet against the authoritarian personality and totalitarian mind.

The matter is complicated when the opposite of good is good intentions. We probably have just as many cases of good ideas going disastrously wrong as we have of wrong leading to more wrong. Think here of the charge sheet against an utopianism of the perfectibility of humans. (But “Is that so wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong?” insists the singer, RHODES. in his “What if love”.)

But to believe the latter means explaining how good-in-thought leads to bad-in-practice. In an important sense, it doesn’t matter if you have an utopian or authoritarian mentality. When the world in which action takes place is full of inadvertence (“not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning”) and contingency (“subject to chance”), it is hardly surprising that difficulty and inexperience come to the fore and work against fulfilling your wishes and dreams.

It’s hard work to implement, operate and manage above and beyond the wants you have. No wonder that the present’s future and the origins of the future’s actual present differ so markedly. Yes, one’s intentions give meaning to one’s actions, but there’s all manner of inadvertent, contingent meanings in the balance.

I am not saying that what happens is in spite of our intentions. Rather, just as war, pandemic and economic precarity create their own contingencies, so too the monumental wreckage of intention—good and bad—creates its own difficulties and inexperience. This mess is constantly unmaking a stable present, or if you want, making a complex one where unrealized wishes and unfulfilled dreams criticize everything that happens instead.

To leave it at that, though, is too negative. The actual challenge remains, in the words of David Alff (2017, 8), one of “demonstrat[ing] how to think with the past’s inadvertent posterity in the moment it tried to build an unknowable here-to-come that we used to viewing [only] through hindsight.” That is: Yes, of course, there is a gap between the past’s future and the present actually realized, but that tells us little about what to do at the rock-face of present difficulty, inexperience and hardship for the here-to-come. (It’s important to recognize just how much a prejudice this “reliance on hindsight” is in a world of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty.)

Which would be a banal observation were it not for its first-order implication: We improvise with what’s at hand, or accept failure as an avant-garde in order to reinvent ourselves later on, or we do both. The latter is always an option.

Principal sources

Alff, D. (2017). The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660 – 1730. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, PA.

Philippe Parreno, artist, on the ontology of the avant-garde in: DADA: One Hundred Years On. The Art Newspaper (accessed online on February 24 2020 at

Sound familiar? Here’s why.

His ghastly lack of proper education, his imperfect mastery of the German language, especially of written German, and his complete disregard of logic, were patent. No well thought-out document ever came from his pen, merely vague directions. He fought shy of committing himself. By his order, minutes of conversations were as a rule withheld from the other party. Conferences were bound to break down over his monologues. It was exceedingly difficult to obtain decisions … If made, they were mostly unclear, leaving scope for arbitrary interpretations … and there was no appeal. The “Führer” has decided; to resort to him once more would be blasphemy … No adviser could gain permanent influence. Hitler’s reactions could be skilfully manipulated by “news,” but the explosive effect could not be gauged beforehand. A fairly good memory for facts and figures enabled him to bluff even experts … His violent diction and the tone of his voice intimidated … A smatterer in everything, he was an expert in bluffing. “This last half-hour, while I was resting, I invented a new machine-gun and a contrivance for bridge-building, and composed a piece of music in my head,” he once intimated to a late companion from Landsberg prison, who was duly impressed … He had not the patience to read a lengthy document, but claimed to know Clausewitz by heart. And he often got away with it.

(Erich Kordt, a key foreign affairs official in the Third Reich, quoted in full from an edited 1948 review of Lewis Namier, historian, of Kordt’s Wahn und Wirklichkeit, reprinted in the TLS, November 29, 2019: 38.)

–We’d do better, poet Seamus Heaney said, approaching contemporary politics “at an angle,” as Heaney did through some of his own translations.

Resilience isn’t what you think

The opposite of the coping herder, who can only react to external shocks, is the resilient herder, who bounces back from the same. But how true is that? Both occur at the individual level, and the opposite of the individual is the collective (think “team situational awareness”), not a different individual with different behavior.

We observed reliability professionals in critical infrastructures undertaking four types of resilience at their system level, each varying by stage of operations in the system:

Table 1. Different Types of System Resilience

  • Reliability professionals adjusting back to within de jure or defacto bandwidths to continue normal operations (precursor resilience);
  • Restoration from disrupted operations (temporary loss of service) back to normal operations by reliability professionals (restoration resilience);
  • Immediate emergency response (its own kind of resilience) after system failure but often involving others different from system’s reliability professionals; and
  • Recovery of the system to a new normal by reliability professionals along with others (recovery resilience)

Resilience this way is a set of options, processes and strategies deployed by the system’s real-time managers and tied to the state of system operations in which they find themselves. Resilience differs depending on whether or not the large sociotechnical system is in normal operations versus disrupted operations versus failed operations versus recovered operations. (Think of pastoralist systems here as critical infrastructure.)

Resilience, as such, is not a single property of the system to be turned on or off as and when needed. Nor is it, as a system feature, reducible to anything like a “resilient” herder, though such herders exist.

Why does it matter that resilience is a systemwide set of options, processes and strategies? What you take to be the loss of the herd, a failure in pastoralist operations that you say comes inevitably with drought, may actually be perceived and treated by pastoralists themselves as a temporary disruption after which operations are to be restored. While you, the outsider, can say their “temporary” really isn’t temporary in this day and age, it is their definition of “temporary” that matters when it comes to their real-time reliability.

To return to Table 1, herder systems that maintain normal operations are apt to demonstrate what we call precursor resilience. Normal doesn’t mean what happens when there are no shocks to the system. Shocks happen all the time, and normal operations are all about responding to them in such a way as to ensure they don’t lead to temporary system disruption or outright system failure. Formally, the precursors of disruption and failure are managed for, and reliably so. Shifting from one watering point, when an interfering problem arises there, to another just as good or within a range of good-enough is one such strategy. Labelling this, “coping,” seriously misrepresents the active system management going on.

Pastoralist systems, nevertheless, can and do experience temporary stoppages in their service provision—raiders seize livestock, remittances don’t arrive, offtake of livestock products is interrupted, random lightning triggers veldt fires—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to other grazing areas (or alternative feed stocks or alternative sources of livelihood) may be required in the absence of fallbacks normally available.

So too resilience as a response to shocks looks very different by way of management strategies when the shocks lead to system failure and onward recovery from that failure. In this case, an array of outside, inter-organizational resources and personnel—public, private, NGO, humanitarian—are required in addition to the resources of the pastoralist herders. These recovery arrangements and resources are unlike anything marshaled by way of precursor or restoration resiliencies within the herder communities themselves.

There is nothing predetermined in the Table 1 sequence. Nothing says it is inevitable that the failed system recovers to a new normal (indeed the probability of system failure in recovery can be higher than in normal operations in large sociotechnical systems). It is crucial, nevertheless, to distinguish recovery from the new normal. To outsiders, it make look like some of today’s pastoralist systems are in unending recovery, constantly trying to catch up with one disaster after another.

The reality may be that the system is already at a new normal, operating to a standard of reliability quite different than you might think. (Imagine that wet season grazing areas were magically restored to pastoralists who already adapted to their disappearance. Real-time herder options would increase, but would the collective response be altogether positive now? That question can only be answered if you are first clear about what is the actual system being managed now and the operating standard of reliability to which it is being managed before the restoration.)

If you think of resilience in a pastoralist system as “the system’s capability in the face of its high reliability mandates to withstand the downsides of uncertainty and complexity as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time,” then they are able to do so because of being capable to undertake the different types of resiliencies listed here, contingent on the stage of operations herders as a collectivity find themselves.

Or to put the key point from the other direction, a system demonstrating precursor resilience, restoration resilience, emergency response coordination and recovery resilience is the kind of system better able to withstand the downsides of shocks and uncertainty and exploit their upsides. Here too, nothing predetermines that every pastoralist system will exhibit all four resiliencies, if and when their states of operation change.

The above raises a methodological point. If I and my colleagues can come up with four different types of system resilience—forget about the empirically different articulations of resilience at the micro and meso levels—we might pause over how useful any catchall term “resilience” is. More positively, when using the term resilience the burden of proof is on each of us to empirically differentiate the term for the case at hand.

To summarize, any notion that resilience is a single property or has a dominant definition or is there/not there or is best exemplified at the individual level is incorrect and misleading when system reliability is at stake.

Principal sources

E. Roe and P.R. Schulman (2016). Reliability and Risk: The Challenge of Managing Interconnected Infrastructures. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

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

I believe

. . .in a politics of complexity. One which you can’t homogenize or leave undifferentiated. A politics that reminds us what works is often at the smaller scale, where gatherers of information are its users. A politics that starts with cases to be analyzed in their own right. A politics that resists getting lost if scaled up. A politics where no matter how tightly-coupled the world, people’s personal stories are not as connected. A politics that insists if you believe everything is connected to everything else, then nothing is reducible to anything else, and if you believe both, then the starting point is not interdependence or irreducibility, but the kaleidoscopic granularity and particularity in between. Everything is connected but nothing needs to add up.

A consultant’s diary (longer read)

Out of the blue, got a call from Ray R. Haven’t heard from him since he took my class—when? He’s Director of Planning, County Welfare Agency, and wants me to help write the Agency’s five-year action plan. Haven’t dealt with issues since I fled the social work track and Kenya’s five-year district development plans.


Ray briefed me today. Got a briefcase of material.

Now for the cast of characters in this melodrama.

  • David M., Agency Director, on probation by Board of Trustees with its broth of politicos and micro-managers.
  • Agency has four departments:
    • Welfare to Work (Doris P, head),
    • Child Youth & Family Services (Rachel F),
    • Adult & Aging Services (Betty W), and
    • Workforce & Resource Development (Pedro X)
  • Amanda T. is Deputy Director, to whom Ray–remember the Director of Planning–reports. You’ll meet Tomas Y, Family Services’ chief consultant, in a moment.

David forced by Board of Trustees to have a long-term action plan. Who can be against action planning? No one is for it, except Ray and Amanda. Agency is one of largest in the region: Half a billion dollar annual budget, over 2000 employees.


Agency waiting room looks like a bus depot in the bad part of town. Private security guard opens doors around 8:30 am. Mostly blacks, Hispanics and Asians hang around in front. “Smokers and down-&-outers,” susses the ready-reckoner. Building is next to probation and courts, all Stalinist construction.

Walls look like they’ve been eaten off and then pissed on. We queue, eventually get up to functionaries behind bullet-proof windows who muffle what passes for service. Mine decides to buzz the outer door open. I sign in. I’ve interrupted the security guy chatting up at one of the females. He buzzes the inside door open, and I’m free.


Ray introduces me at today’s Executive Committee meeting. Rachel and Betty are burned out. Fleshy, pasty, pissy. David says not a word. Amanda waits until the others have had their say, and then wades in. Ray’s the only one who smiles. Most of the time I don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s all acronyms, but this part of the learning curve I’ve always liked. Ray and I arrange interviews with each department head, plus David and Amanda.


Went to my first meeting with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup charged to work with Ray on the Action Plan. (I have to start thinking in CAPS.) The members are regulation manuals that talk. We’re all grim. Ray tells me later of another meeting, when they were trying to figure out what to call welfare recipients. Clients? Customers? Consumers? Hell, they’re all suspects, said the guy from Welfare Fraud.


I’ve just interviewed a guard at a death camp. You can’t imagine how cruel this system is to children, says Rachel about her Child Youth & Family Services department. 20,000 calls to the child abuse hotline a year, only 1200-1500 leading to children being removed from the home. We’re missing lots of kids. We don’t know what bottom is.

Her department’s to reunite children with their families. Reality is the family is the problem. She tells me the single best predictor of a foster kid ending up in the juvenile justice system is being reunited with the family. Some kids have been moved 40 or more times before they “graduate” from the system at 16 years old. Most families trained as foster care parents drop out early. Every foster kid in the county should get life-long psychiatric therapy, she says. Oh, and don’t forget they have more medical and dental problems than do average kids. Most violence done to kids is kid-on-kid violence. An 8-year old kid sexually abuses a younger one. What do you think happened to the 9-year old who committed an armed robbery, she asks? He was sent home. You can’t imagine how cruel this system is, she repeats.

Foster care graduates should be guaranteed county jobs, she feels, since they’re the creation of the county and have no other employment possibilities. Number of kids exiting foster care who are prepared to take care of themselves is negligible. She’s really worried about what’s going to happen once parents are time-limited off of welfare assistance. The Action Plan goal is: “Promote healthy development of children and families and healthy aging of elders that emphasize home and community-based services.” Well, I’ll be long retired before the end of that Plan period! For one second, she’s young.


Had trouble getting past security. Another meeting with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. One thing is clear from the meetings so far: Agency staff know what needs to be done, but they don’t know their clients. Contradictory?

If you have 20,000 calls to a hotline, but respond to 1 out 20, you know what needs to be done—more calls have to be taken seriously—even if you know nothing about who is being abused or doing the abuse. Plus who needs to know the clients, when all trends are getting worse. Next year there’ll be even more calls. The gap between implementation and results is so big, you can’t worry about results (i.e., the impact on the client), until you do something to address implementation (i.e., answer those hotlines).


Overheard in one of the offices: “There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t thank God I wasn’t born black!”


Interviewed Tomas Y today. He’s Rachel’s hired gun to inject new energy into Child Youth & Family Services. He said a good deal about walking the talk. Interview neatly summarizes the Agency’s problems and proposed solutions:

In brief, the Agency is too

´           fragmented and departmental

´           centralized and headquarters-oriented

´           specialized and narrowly focused

´           focused on needs and immediate crisis response

´           client-centered

´           rooted to desks and offices far from the real problems

´           constrained by categorical funding; and

´           hamstrung by the employee’s union.

Therefore, the Agency should

´           provide integrated services

´           be decentralized and located in the neighborhoods

´           be more generalist and multidisciplinary

´           focused on people’s strengths and longer term prevention and recovery strategies

´           be centered around the whole family

´           have mobile units that go to where the problems are

´           have much more flexible funding; and

´           be working with community-based organizations under performance based contracts.

Tomas has no—repeat: no—examples of where integrated, decentralized, multidisciplinary, preventative, strengths-oriented, whole-family, mobile, flexibly funded place-based organizations have worked. There must be examples somewhere—right?—but no one here can point to them. In sum: All the problems, but not any of the solutions, are found in the Agency, while the solutions, all outside the Agency, haven’t yet been found by those who responsible for finding them. This they call walking the talk.

In the last decade, the Agency has injected into the county economy nearly $2.5 billion in cash assistance alone (excluding staff salaries). For all its hand-wringing about intractable problems, the Agency is a major player here.


The Executive Committee loved my first draft of the roadmap! Convinced them that the Action Plan should have two parts—a roadmap for the future and then the Plan itself. That way, even if the Board of Trustees or the Agency’s critics don’t like specifics of the Plan—what’s this on page 57, line 3?—they still can sign off on the Plan as a whole because they bought into to the short roadmap earlier.

BTW, remember the security guard? He’s been fired. Caught being sucked off. Ray and I speculate about this.


We met with Doris, head of the Agency’s largest department, Welfare to Work. Is upset with Rachel’s concern re: What happens to kids of parent who are time-limited off welfare. What are we doing worrying about a problem that hasn’t come up yet and may not even be a problem? We haven’t seen any evidence this is a problem. The whole point of Welfare Reform is that those on the rolls can’t depend indefinitely on the Agency. They have to fall back on their “families” and “communities” at some point. The safety net is gone. The last resort is the safe haven (no scare quotes needed) of community organizations. We no longer provide cash, but match people to jobs. How are the job groups working? I ask. Some 35% of those on the rolls don’t even show up for them. Maybe they’re already employed, she hazards. Or maybe she hopes I start a rumor to that effect.


Executive Committee had meeting to discuss Chapters 1 – 3 (includes “Goals, Strategies and Policies”). I’m always struck by how meetings rehearse all over again who the departments are, what are their problems, and why they can’t do what needs to be done. It’s Agency auto-suggestion enabling it to reconstitute itself daily. Result: There’s always twice as much ground to cover.


I’m told to reduce the Plan to a sentence that the Broad of Trustees can understand. A sentence. Okey-dokey:

The Action Plan’s eight goals promote, increase or improve the stability, health and well-being, security and learning, capacity building and access, independence and self-sufficiency, and, equally important, the participation and accountability of County families, neighborhoods, and individuals (including children, elders and persons with disabilities) in the planning, delivery and evaluation of services offered by the Agency and its providers.



Interviewed Betty, head of Adult & Aging. Department seems to have its act together, i.e., relies on community-based organizations (CBOs), contractors, encourages local capacity building, has new ideas about public/private partnerships. Feels its approach could be extended Agency-wide to the other departments. Two trends strike her: fastest growing segment of the population is the old-old, the over 85’s. Second, dramatic increase in services required for veterans, with younger veterans than in recent past. And here I was stuck in the Vietnam era. . .


Met again with the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. Went through the draft Plan, goal by goal, focusing on the new policies and strategies for implementing the eight goals. They blew me out of the water with comments. From top to bottom and with apologies to Gregory Corso’s “Bomb”:


Ray presented the revised proposals to the Executive Committee. Decided not to submit the full text of each, but to introduce ideas for initial buy-in and formulate the way they wanted. The next meeting we’d submit the full text, with their changes incorporated.

The proposals weren’t savaged as much as I thought by the department heads. This worries me. Key proposal is the cross-departmental Family Intervention Team (FIT). Rachel felt that the FIT members would have to be new hires. We just don’t have enough staff. Doris dittoed the same for welfare-for-work. I’ll have to change the reference to “Job Group Leader.” A lot of these people aren’t Agency staff, but from CBOs. I tell her I got the info from her people in the Interdepartmental Planning Workgroup. Sometimes I wonder if my staff know anything, she said.

Oh, oh. She’s seen the proposal’s implications, i.e., more scrutiny of her staff and its outputs. DOES NOT LIKE IT. We need random assignment of referrals to the Team, she says abruptly. Tomas says Team should be working on referrals made in light of assessments, as proposed. I’d rather have the support of Doris than Tomas. Is his support the kiss of death? Doris clams up. This is dangerous. We’re changing the titles from Client-Initiated etc to Agency Services Integration and Innovation (ASII) and from Community-Initiated etc to Community Services Integration and Innovation (CSII). Beats my favored acronym, PISI (Pilot Initiative for Service Integration).

Too late, we see that our overheads backfired in one big way. Only after meeting did that become clear.  Doris probably thinks the Team will be her department’s responsibility, notwithstanding the Agency-wide scope. Clearly not so in the text, but not clear from the overheads. Bulleted by bullets. Should have caught this beforehand. So, she’s going to brood for the next day or two (FIT isn’t fit enough). Too bad Amanda and Doris don’t get along. Someone’s got to talk to her, and David’s out of town.


By the way, the Executive Committee went word-by-word—WORD-BY-WORD—through Chapter 3’s goals, strategies and policies. When they got to my proposal for developing an authoritative website around the Action Plan and the social service innovations, Doris had the field. “Authoritative”? Please, let’s stick with simple English! Rachel piped in, Improved communications? 20 years ago we said we would improve communications, and haven’t done it yet. She beams, she’s retiring.


Ray has given up on the benchmarks and indicators of Plan performance. First, he had them in Chapter 3, where the new policies and strategies are discussed. The Executive Committee didn’t like them there, and frankly they broke the flow of the text. Then Ray put them in an appendix, which really marginalized them. Then he tried inserting them in the Chapter 4’s Management Plan and that didn’t fit either. So a section on specific indicators has been dropped altogether.

More important than benchmarks, to my mind, is the need to ensure multiple criteria to evaluate the Plan’s performance. I can see it already: Outsiders coming in to evaluate Plan performance at the end of the five years, and what do they find? “Performance falls far short of the Plan’s goals.” The Agency lacks baseline data, management capacity, political will (actually the Agency is committed to do everything), etc. It’s critique that writes itself. So I want to put some obstacles in that path, and one way to do that is to be explicit in the Plan that the criteria for its evaluation are many and different. The greater the chance, then, the Plan performance will be evaluated in favorable terms on some than on others. The performance record will be mixed, not totally negative, which is like life anyway.


Had final meeting with David today. He’s back and jet-lagged. We go through the draft chapters, hitting the new recommendations concerning policies, strategies and the innovation units. He again pushes his idea about the Agency facilitating creation and operation of different (some regional) networks of providers that would vary in terms of subject area, e.g., one network for providers working on substance abuse, another for mental health, and so on. He’s articulate, and he’s comfortable talking about nuts and bolts as he is about more abstract policy questions relevant to Agency’s long-term vision. He’s much better in one-on-one private meetings than in bigger ones.

Doris has been maneuvering behind the scenes. David tells us she saw him in the morning and said, Yes, she supports FIT, but she can’t possibly agree to fund it until her own staffing problems are solved. David sees this as reasonable. Ray doesn’t say much. I say it’s blackmail. I tell David she’s holding ransom a fifteen-person unit by demanding that her 60+ vacancies be filled first. The punishment she’s exacting isn’t proportional to our crime. David equivocates, but says he supports the key proposals and “will make them happen.” I leave, feeling irrationally hopeful that David’s meeting tomorrow with the Executive Committee on the four chapters will end the right way. As for my involvement, it stops here.


Called Ray after I got back from my conference. How did the Executive Committee meeting go?

Terrible, he says. Worse meeting he ever had. In fact, told Amanda he was back on the job market. What happened? Seems Doris had made a side deal with the other department heads that would effectively nudge Ray out of monitoring implementation of the Action Plan, leaving it to the separate departments.

In the face of this pre-emptive strike, David said absolutely nothing. Nada, fuck-all. Ray asked what his role as Planning Director when it came to the Action Plan. Why, Kathy said sweetly, you’d be helping us! Amanda was seething. After the meeting, she laid it on the line to David. He had to support Ray on this over Doris and the others. David had the grace to appear moved. Of course, he supported Ray and the Planning Director’s role in independently monitoring progress. Wasn’t that clear? Blamed his jet-lag. Amanda drafted an email to that effect and he sent it as his own to the department heads.

Ray’s still in shock. The only thing solid is waste; the only thing complete is disaster.

European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II

So far this play has two scenes. The second shows why.


Many policies, laws and regulations are cases studies in the failure to macro-design micro-behavior. Since this does not appear to be a self-correcting problem, such cases continue to need calling out. Consider the travails of the EU’s CO2 cap-and-trade system, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Always bear in mind the theory upon which the ETS was based is that the higher the price of carbon, the fewer the emissions, all else equal.

–Over a decade ago in 2005, CO2 emission credits were issued under the ETS, credit prices did initially rise, but it was realized too many credits had been issued when prices declined. By 2007 it was conceded that not only had too many credits been issued, but that coal imports into the EU had been rising at the same time. Credits continued to be issued, and by the end of 2009 prices were said to be too low to encourage investment in lowering emissions.

Around 2010, computer hacking, cyber-theft and permit fraud occurred coupled with the obvious fact that the low carbon prices were in part due to declining carbon emissions because of increasing use of renewable energy (in other words, success by other means). The recession following the 2008 financial crisis had a depressive effect on credit prices as well. By the end of 2013, the European Parliament had approved a rescue plan for the ETS, including a provision to delay allocation of a third of the credits—even though the market would still likely be oversupplied by 2020 (such was found still in 2018). The thought now was that the ETS should promote green technological innovation, not just carbon reduction.

–It will not do for the cap-and-trade supporters to counter: Well, what else could we do other than the ETS! We needed some kind of market, or things would have only gotten worse. Well, I respond, what you could have done was to search for those better practices elsewhere that infrastructure control rooms use in real time to meet environmental standards. It may be the case that some EU energy control rooms did just that, but who would know that from existing reports?

What other practices? Consider the example of “environmental dispatching” of generators in Austin, Texas to meet specific real-time emission standards (starting at around the time the ETS was under cyber theft). As described by David Allen and his colleagues, the municipal utility was able to maintain reliable electricity supplies while shifting its real-time generator usage in ways to better meet regulated ozone constraints. Why is such a practice important? Never once in seven years of observation did I see anyone come into the major transmission control room that my colleague, Paul R. Schulman, and I studied and ask: “Why don’t we use lower-emitting generator x rather than higher emitting generator y, given both meet market price conditions?”

The point is that opportunities for doing so exist, and not just in the U.S.


Most of the above, save for the 2018 update, was written several years ago. I agree with the analysis, but now see how to recast the story to push the implications further. (Any single recasting implies others are possible.)

This different storyline relies on (1) the notion of “policy palimpsest” discussed in the blog entry, “Blur, Gerhard Richter and failed states” and (2) a wonderful essay by Lydia Davis, the translator, which expands the notion of palimpsest for rethinking the ETS.

The upshot of a policy palimpsest is that any cur­rent policy statement—my above analysis of ETS—is the concatenation of prior policy arguments and narratives that have accumulated and partly overwritten each other. A composite argument read off today’s surface of a policy palimpsest reads sensibly—nouns and verbs appear in order and sense is made—but none of the previous policy texts shine clear and whole through the layers, efface­ments, and erasures elsewhere in the policy palimpsest.

The palimpsest in the case of the ETS is the massed narratives and controversies, past and present, over just what is better for the environment—a carbon tax, cap-and-trade systems, renewable energy technologies, a mix of these, some other hybrid, or something altogether different? The analyt­ic challenge is to read any composite argument, like the one I gave above, with the effaced elements made visible. Once you have identified what is missing from the composite but was in the palimpsest (no guarantees here), you have identified potential means to recast the complex issue along different lines.

I shamelessly appropriate from Davis’s essay to show how the palimpsest and composite argument works for the ETS. Start here. Since a composite argument is the concatenation of fragments of other earlier texts, the composite itself can be viewed as a larger fragment consisting of smaller ones. Viewing it so has two important implications.

First, the readers of the larger fragment must provide more of its sense-making. Yes, the composite above is assembled to be read as paragraphs with sentences that follow each other, each in turn with subject-verb-object sequences and such. But that meaning is not constructed sequentially and logically, but rather paratactically by myself and associatively by you, the readers.

That is, my above composite reads as if it were a chronological history of the ETS—”just the facts ma’am”—when in fact it is no such thing.  First, it is parataxis at work—that is, I have conjoined disparate statements together as if each statement were somehow equally important in the sequence I construct. Second, you the reader have to link these disparate statements together by associations that you provide, not me. At its extreme, such a construction is an instance of what writer, Mary McCarthy, said of Lillian Hellman, another writer, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

This juxtaposition of fragments that are read as if they were statements equally associated with each other means that the resulting composite argument is punctuated by interruptions the readers do not typically see. The analytic aim to make these interruptions visible to the reader: again to make evident what is missing in the current composite argument by virtue of all those earlier debates and points having been obscured or written out of the record  relevant to the ETS.[1]

In the above composite, I identified one of the missing elements and focussed on it, i.e., what infrastructure control centers were actually doing by way of mitigating emissions over the decade or more the ETS was floundering under the claim there was no alternative to it.

It strikes me that I also missed something bigger.

There are, conceptually, at least three types of fragments, small or large: that which awaits finishing or completed, that which survives what once had been finished or completed, and that which is (no longer) finishable or completable. You have a hole in the ground. In one version, it surrounds the foundation upon which a structure will be built. In the second version, it surrounds the remaining ruins of a previous structure. In the third version, it surrounds what is now nothing: What was there has rotted away entirely or disappeared irretrievably. Indeed, the third version could be cohabitating with the first or second versions.

I now think the wider missing element from the first scene of the ETS play is the open question about just what kind of fragment the ETS is. Is it primarily an institutional structure under continual or intermittent construction? Or is it the ruins left behind by techno-managerial elite and New Class of bureaucrats operating well beyond their capacities? Or is the ETS an hollow cypher for all types of environmental hopes that are still treated too unrealistic, evanescent or without substance? Maybe all? Maybe none?

What I did not see is that the question of just what kind of fragment my above composite is remains open. To cut to the quick, my Scene I analysis was to be a last word on the ETS, and that is a temptation policy analysts, including myself, must resist. The palimpsest is always being written over—consider the current EU proposal for carbon border taxes based on average prices in the ETS. There is no last word for the ETS. Instead, what needs to be done is to be prepared for the inevitable new interruptions and excavate what could now be better approaches that were effaced and rendered invisible in the past.

Principal sources

Davis, L. (2019). “Fragmentary or unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert” In: Essays One, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.

Blog entry, “Blur, Gerhard Richter and failed states”

Allen, D., M. Webber, R. Williams, R. Prinn and M. Webster (2011). EFRI RESIN. The Interface of Infrastructures, Markets, and Natural Cycles: Innovative Modeling and Control Mechanisms for Managing Electricity, Water and Air Quality in Texas. A powerpoint presentation at the University of Illinois, November 11 2011 (accessed online on December 31 2019 at–.pdf&ei=WelsT8eJGI_YiAKUoPy4BQ&usg=AFQjCNHmaNNgr9oADDodLIrxKI-vgTR45Q&sig2=owWXq_iDzcMnHf8gCEPpHA).

[1] More formally, a composite argument is blurred not only by the way it conveys any argument (as if straightforward when actually interrupted and fragmented), but also by what it doesn’t convey—those elements of argument that are there but illegible as well as those that appear now interstitially as lacunae, non-sequiturs, slippages, caesurae, and aporias (fault-lines all) via the overlaying that is partial in both senses of the word. As such, no palimpsest is inscipted with the last word; no composite argument from it is indisputable. Each composite argument is allographic in the sense of having no one authoritative rendering.