October 31, 2022

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, October 2022

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on public administration, political philosophy, social epistemology, or the aims and methods of sociology. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

T. Kingfisher, What Moves the Dead
Mind candy: a re-telling of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" as (is this really a spoiler?) parasite-porn horror. Amusing, and pleasingly creepy. §
Jeffrey L. Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky, Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland: Or, Why It's Amazing That Federal Programs Work at All, This Being a Saga of the Economic Development Administration as Told by Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Build Morals on a Foundation of Ruined Hopes
I realize this is some sort of classic of the public policy / administration literature, so I am very late to this party, but it's really good. One way to expound this --- not Pressman and Wildavsky's, except once in passing early on --- is by an analogy with computer programming. When legislators (or dictators or executives, whatever) proclaim a policy, they state objectives and resources, and provide a sort of sketch of how they think the resources should be used to achieve the objectives. This is like getting requirements for a program and maybe some vague pseudo-code. The job of the programmer is then to implement, to actually come up with a program that runs. In the course of doing so one may discover all sorts of things about the original specification which will often call for it to be revised. If multiple programmers need to implement different parts of the specification, they will have to coordinate somehow, and may find this hard. If the program has to rely on other programs, let alone on other systems, well, good luck coordinating. §
(Link is to the 3rd edition of 1984, which is in print, though I read the 2nd of 1979, and haven't had a chance to compare the two.)
Nathan Ballingrud, Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell
Horror mind candy; all six stories (the last two are really novellas) share a common mythology. Usually-reliable sources had praised Ballingrud's work, so when I ran across a cheap copy I picked this up. I understand the praise, because these are skillfully written (with an exception I will get to below), but I didn't love it, for some mostly-me reasons:
  1. While many of the props are Lovecraftian (ghouls, sanity-destroying artifacts, subterranean English cannibal cults), the underlying metaphysics is much more Christian-heretical --- "Hell" is meant very literally, and human laws and interests and emotions have great significance (if not necessarily validity) in Ballingrud's cosmos-at-large. As I have said before, I have standards for my cosmic horror, and the merely Satanic does not cut it.
  2. I think it's fair to say that basically every human emotion is depicted as a snare of Hell, love very much included. In some moods I could go along for such a ride, especially if it were presented with a lot more satirical humor, but as this went on I merely found it unpleasant.
  3. Ballingrud's endings here are generally abrupt and weak. ("Skullpocket" is a notable exception.)
So: some real merits, but I will not be seeking out more. §
Olúfémi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)
(Note: The e in "Olúfémi" should also have a dot accent underneath, but every way I've tried to generate this makes my antiquated blogging software produce gibberish...)
I picked this up because I'd liked one of the essays it was was based on, but wished Táíwò would elaborate on the argument. (I also had hopes of using it in the inequality class.) I was, however, disappointed. The book is no clearer than the essays about key concepts, such as "elite", "elite capture", "rooms", and what non-elite-captured institutions would look like. It's a short book, but there are many historical anecdotes, which are all overly-intricate. (Some of them are inspiring, but the details simply aren't relevant.) Abstruse philosophy-of-language ideas about conversational "common ground" are invoked to explain phenomena which a few pages later are also explained as mere fear-of-the-consequences, without any recognition of the tension. (There is a big difference between actually creating false consciousness, and merely intimidating people into saying things they don't believe.) It was a mistake to expand the essay to this length, at least in this way.
Now, there is a core idea here which I find persuasive, namely that those with existing advantages will tend to use those advantages to play a disproportionate, even dominating role in any situation, undertaking or movement and to steer it to their advantage, unless pretty severely checked by strong, and enforced, institutional constraints. That's Jo Freeman's "tyranny of structurelessness" (cited by Táíwò), as well as Robert Michel's "iron law of oligarchy" (not cited). So far, so convincing.
But let me push a little. Unless one imagines that everyone in a movement is equally influential, it's mathematically necessary that the most influential members, the elite, are disproportionately influential. (Just build the Lorenz curve of influence.) I admit this pretends that "influence" is a one-dimensional numerical variable, but that'll be true of all sorts of proxies for influence, like time other members of the movement spend attending to you. At what point does this disproportionate influence tip over into "elite capture"? If this is a matter of degrees rather than thresholds, how ought one trade off the bad of elite capture against other desiderata, like actually getting anything done? (Imagine every member of a movement of even 1,000 people speaking for just a minute on a decision, and being listened to.)
These are, of course, very old questions of democratic theory. Liberalism has at least evolved some answers, by now boringly familiar: leadership through formal representation, accountability of representatives to members through regular elections, competition between rival factions of would-be leaders, etc. --- in short, the threat of members throwing the bums out will keep the would-be bums in line. These have their own issues (throwing the bums out can be a collective action problem, which must be preceded by collective cognition), but, at least here, Táíwò doesn't seem to even dismiss the liberal-democratic stand-bys as inadequate, not suited to progressive movements, or what-have-you.
I realize this all amounts to wishing Táíwò had written a different book, but I do. §
(On the question of "identity politics", which actually gets comparatively little space in the book, I can't help boggling at a line Táíwò quotes from Barbara Smith, one of the founders of the Combahee River Collective, explaining why they needed to introduce a new kind of politics in the late 1970s: "We, as black women, we actually had a right to create political priorities and agendas and actions and solutions based in our experiences". The reason I boggle is that was a well-developed political theory in the 1970s which stood solidly behind groups organizing politically to articulate and advance agendas based on their common interests, values and ascriptive identities, including allying with other groups likewise pursuing their agendas. That theory was good old fashioned American interest-group pluralism. If the leading advocates of pluralism lacked the imagination to apply it to black women (or black lesbians, or...), that wasn't a fault in the theory. To be fair, leftist political theory at the time was coming from a place where the only legitimate group to advocate for itself was the organized working class...)
T. Kingfisher, The Twisted Ones
Arthur Machen, The House of Souls
Mind candy, seasonal. The Kingfisher novel begins with a middle-aged person traveling from Pittsburgh to North Carolina to clear out a relative's house and storage unit, a scenario I instantly identified with, and from there builds the strangeness and tension very satisfyingly. It's the first Kingfisher I've read, but it certainly won't be the last.
The Twisted Ones is avowedly based on Machen's short story "The White People", collected in House of Souls, so I finally read Machen. (I previously knew of him just as one of Lovecraft's influences, but, well, there were many, of varying quality.) There's a lot of genuinely good creepy stuff in here, but it's also often hard to tell whether, when Machen mentions nameless abominations, he's talking about genuinely indescribable cosmic horrors, or just being prudish about sex.
Spoiler-y inter-textual commentary for The Twisted Ones: I strongly suspect that some aspects of the visit of our hero to the city of the white people are homages to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness: both feature series of murals depicting the history of the city as its population dwindles over the ages, and the city is ultimately taken over by servitors of the original inhabitants, shoggoths for Lovecraft, and von Neumann-esque self-reproducing magical automata for Kingfisher. §
Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread
Popular social science. The hook here is explaining what the hell has gone wrong with our politics / culture / thoughts in general over the last decade or so. What O'Connor and Weatherall actually do is explain, clearly but carefully, a range of models of social learning and social influence, intended to model how the social organization of a scientific community helps, or hinders, that community's pursuit of truth. (They tend to be Bayesians, and so presume that the truth is always an available option, rather than something that needs to be actually discovered; but I have a thing about this.) In later chapters, they consider how these social processes can be manipulated or subverted by interested parties, especially industrial propagandists. (The last part draws on Oreskes and Conway's great Merchants of Doubt, which I will review Any Year Now). Because of the authors' institutional affiliations, this counts as philosophy of science, but you could equally well see it as theoretical sociology (*). This is all skillfully done.
The last chapter gestures at applying the models to explain why our contemporary information environment is so awful, especially online. I say "gestures" because they don't really try to establish any very serious results here. I don't think they ever even try to document that, in aggregate, people are more mis-informed now than in, say, 1980 or 1960. As I've said before, I have a strong suspicion that the difference isn't the quantity of craziness, but its condensation into blobs of shared insanity. (The proverbial "tin-foil hat brigade" has indeed become a brigade.) If that's true, models of network learning would be a natural candidate to explain the development...
While I have gone on at some length about the last chapter, I am inclined to cut it a lot of slack as mere marketing. Two philosophers writing a non-technical account of social learning in networks, even a very clear and engaging account, might lead to a few course adoptions. (I myself would be very happy to use those chapters in a class on social learning or collective cognition, following their verbal explanations with the technicalities.) Claiming to explain "the misinformation age" will move a lot more copies, which I can't begrudge them. And the phenomena they describe are probably part of the story... §
*: I'd say "sociological theory", but that name is pre-empted by a sort of hazing ritual, in which newcomers are initiated into the tribe by means of textual ancestor worship, and the relative strength of different tribal segments is reflected in exactly which ancestors get worshiped.
Daniel Rigney, The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage
This is mostly a rather pedestrian review of literature on sources of cumulative advantage in science, the economy, aspects of democratic politics, and education. There are places where the book is clearly trying to be popular social science, but it just doesn't have the spark, or the clear lines of argument. The one exception is actually the first chapter, on how Robert Merton introduced the term "Matthew Effect", and how it fitted into his larger programs in the sociology of science and general sociology.
I'll keep this around to mine for references, but even those will be increasingly antiquated... §
John H. Goldthorpe, Sociology as a Population Science
On the advice of readers, I have spun off my remarks into a separate review (and expanded them to 800-odd words). §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Progressive Forces; Teaching: Statistics of Inequality and Discrimination; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Commit a Social Science; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Networks; Philosophy; Cthulhiana; Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monsters' Creator

Posted at October 31, 2022 23:59 | permanent link

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