Rhizo15 – Measure and Mirowski

Dave Cormier’s prompt this week was “Learning Is not a counting noun … so what should we count?”  I believe in the value of numeracy, but my academic training has been in English literature. I am much more comfortable dealing with metaphors than with measures. My initial impulse is to kick over the abacus and write a self-defeating, sesquipedalian defense of my action. In the present age of global warming and elite-driven neoliberalism, that would not be very constructive.

I feel that radicals and progressives have painted ourselves into a kind of rhetorical corner by having simultaneously too high and low a standard for what we do. We can see through the lingustic constructions of the right as a pack of lies or self-serving half-truths.  But we often shy at putting forth our own explanations because the less demagogic among us see the gaps in our constructions. Full of self-consciousness, we characterize them as narratives, as  stories we can pick and choose.

In such an environment, it is helpful to have models of what counts as cogent explanation. Thus I picked up a book I’d read some years back, Philip Mirowski’s More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge: 1991). Although I lack the math to understand Mirowski’s references to Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms, fortunately relegated to an appendix,  I find Mirowski more useful than the Foucault of The Order of Things.

For the purpose of Rhizo15, I reread chapter three, “Body, motion, and value,” which deconstructs the concept of energy, not to proclaim that facts do not exist or constrain, but to elucidate how knowledge-making is a socially embedded practice. “Explanation is deemed to be cogent when a primal metaphor of our culture is tamed to conform to the format of a conservation principle and a variational principle.” (p.116)

What follows are some transcriptions from Mirowski.  I feel a bit like John Milton, entering what he reads into his copy book. (Some of the statements about conservation of energy may seem rather bald, but chapter three functions as a precis of a book length exposition.)

Energy can be construed as a three cornered pyramid, “constructed from metaphors: of motion (physics), of the body (anthropomorphics), and of value (economics)… [T]hese constituent metaphors are misconstrued if they are regarded as independent and self-sufficient intellectual influences. In their historical manifestations, each was an inseparable part of the energy metaphor and of each other, with boundaries shading off imperceptibly one into another.” (p. 107)

Over time, the vertexes grow father apart, “the metaphorical distance  between physics and economics also widens, until it becomes common place to assert that they are indeed separate and distinct systems of explanation… Nevertheless … they remain a pyramid.”

“Physicists have in the past displayed a dynamism and flexibility with regard to the meaning of their metaphors for which they can rightfully be proud. But with economics it is another story. Economists have consistently lagged behind physicists in developing and elaborating their metaphors… In effect, the pyramid has one weak strut, particularly in the twentieth century.” (p. 108)

Mirowski finds that the groundwork for a “genetic account of the development of energy concept” — expanded to encompass social and economic history — had already been laid by Witold Kula in his Measures and Man (1986).  Kula’s “metrology” turns out to be “nothing other than an archaeology of the metaphors that preceeded our own seemingly timeless systems of measurement.” (p. 109)

The first stage is the “anthropometric.” Man is the measure of all things. Length is defined by the pace. The “unit” of measure for area is the amount of land a man can plough in a day. There are no fixed conversion factors that relate one measure to another. The medieval “just price” is “intended to be embedded in and a reflection of local social relations, not the reverse.” (p. 110) “The conceptualization of motion is reduced to the sheer animal experience of muscular exertion.” (p. 111)  (I feel the exploration of rhizomatic learning may be mostly at the anthropometric stage at the moment. This does not mean we cannot pursue number further.  But we should be reflective about how the act of measuring can change or even constitute what we measure.)

The second stage is the “lineamentric.” Now, quantitative indices exist. But the unit of measure varies with the scale of what is measured. A piece of cloth has a different unit of measure than a stretch of road.  ‘[S]ystems of grouping and division are of overwhelming concern, while considerations of absolute magnitude are of secondary importance.”  (p. 111)  “In this stage, human qualties are metricized according to the sensuous capacities of the body, but in the process, the body as an entity is threatened with fragmentation and dissolution. Because the reified qualities were perceived as incommensurate, the body could now be at war with itself, as in the mind-body problem or in the realm of sexuality…” (p. 112, a passing reference to Foucault here)  In the economic sphere  there was “a profound suspicion of the commodity as being able to express its value in its own metric, followed by a skepticism over the fitness of money to adequately signify the value metric.” (p. 113)

The third stage is the “syndetic”, the “unification of the metaphors at each vertex of the base of the pyramid … by means of a fourth metaphor rising up above the foundations.”  The French Revolution sweeps away the previous stages by fashioning the cornerstore of the new system, the meter,  “a supposedly supranational and suprasomatic criterion.”  All the various units of measure are now consolidated “under one fixed invariant set of transformations.” (p. 114)

“In the syndetic stage, may [sic] becomes the measure of all things by subterfuge. After the metaphors of body, motion, and value have become dissociated during the era of the quantification of qualities, the ideal of unification is restored by means of a purely abstract, conventional standard.”  (p. 115)  In physics, this would be the invention of the metaphor of energy; in biology, the metaphor of the gene. “With respect to the metaphor of value, this was practically accomplished by the economic actors when the institution of money was cut adrift from any specific ties to any particular commodity, and was instead left to merely serve as the eidolon of pure abstract value. Nevertheless, this does not imply that the syndetic stage has been attained within the discipline of economics.” (p. 115)

Moving closer to the present, Mirowski concludes the plot of the chapter. “[T]he entire structure of physical theory would be unified and consistent if the conservation of energy could be demonstrated to hold identically in each theoretical subfield, but we have seen that it does not. Nevertheless the researchers situated at each vertex of the pyramid persist undaunted. How can that be?

“One answer is to notice that the metaphor that synthesizes the research program at each vertex is essentially the same metaphor. Here is the sense in which we are no longer dealing with prosaic notions of intellectual cross-disciplinary influences, Zeitgeist, or epistemes. The research program situated at each vertex derives legitimacy for its radically unjustifiable conservation principles from the homeomorphisms with the structures of explanation at the other vertexes. This legitimation function is central to the success of each research program, because the central syndetic principle at the heart of each is purely conventional, and thus, from a disinterested and detached point of view, simply false.”

Louise Gluck on Vocation and Selecting a Teacher

I have been rereading Louiae Gluck recently.  What follows is my manual transcription of passages from Louise Gluck’s essay,  “On Stanley Kunitz” in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press). This collection of essays appeared in 1994. Some context. Having previously studied with Leonie Adams, the young poet Louise Gluck first met the poet Stanley Kunitz when she was 19.

About a year ago, in a classroom, I was asked to comment on my training as a writer … I was being drawn out to confirm a theory, a parable meant to connect the person presented, the fierce poet in the display case, with the obliging, malleable girl I once must have been, the diligent student who, after cautious apprenticeship, boldly casts off authority in order to write the true poems, the poems of experience, not meant to please…

I don’t know if, at nineteen, I seemed malleable. Like all people with a powerful sense of vocation, I was concerned with what I could use; by some absolute rule I recognized those minds I needed. I was less concerned, being self-absorbed, with the degree to which, by exposing myself to other wills, I might myself be changed. That is, I felt it necessary that I change; I wanted to be more than I was. At what point is the self, the voice, so wholly realized as to make its every project sacred? Obsession with authority as a principle of annihilation preserves the individual at the expense of growth. Even twenty-five years ago, it seemed clear to me that if my talent was so fragile, so precarious, as to require insulation from the world, it would never produce what I dreamed of anyway. So I made a sort of contract: I was prepared to be changed, but only by the instruments of my own choosing. In that choice, I was meticulous.

Kunitz was my teacher for five years. But teacher seems the wrong noun, or maybe teach is the wrong verb. it seems simultaneously limited and coercive, as though its ends product were to be a treaty of perpetual accord. For five years I overheard a splendid mind engaged with words, with what was the most crucial involvement in my life. I saw a kind of rigor in practice, and thought the sacrifice of contentment (which I didn’t have anyway) was well worth such serious joy.

As the myth contends, I wrote to please him. In this, he was one in a series of projections, beginning with my mother. But the advantage in trying to please Kunitz was immense: what he wanted was to be surprised. This meant that the lines he admired in January would not interest him in March. His voice became that part of my own mind that has been, since childhood, the tireless drill sergeant saying “more, more”, but in his voice concrete criticism substituted for mortification: where my own mind said “you are a fool to have hoped”, which produced anguish and justified laziness, Kunitz’s voice would comment on the weak line, the dull word, the specific opacity. Where I damned and abandoned, he exhorted and compelled in the way only an outside voice can, because it can be excused praise. I felt, much of the time, doomed and exhilarated, or, in practical terms, always very tired, like a salmon swimming against the current. I had in Kunitz, not only a persuasive argument for stamina, but a companion spirit, someone my poems could talk to. Because what was clear from the first was that nothing in them was lost on him. I owe a great deal to Leonie Adams, but in the most profound sense Kunitz was the first human being by whom I felt entirely heard and this fact was a source of endless happiness. It couldn’t have been, the sensation couldn’t have lasted, if it translated into blanket approval. I wanted approval, but more than that I wanted to be heard, which is, I think, a more convincing proof of existence…

Rhizo 15 Subjectives as Opposed to Objectives

In the second week, our prompt is to write about course subjectives, rather than course objectives.  Since rhizomatic learning involves a process without set beginning or end, I take this as an invitation to be somewhat loose about temporal scope, beginning with the near team and proceeding to the far, far away.

“To make a wary peace with the new century.” To come to terms with social media. To learn to blog. Occasionally to tweet.

To detonate my writer’s block.  To still my inner critic long enough to write. Then let the hot pressed blog entry chill a while before posting, but not so long it stales. To check the expiration date on canned ingredients. Before clicking “publish”, to ask myself again: who will I be serving?

To overcome my fears of becoming a student again and feeling stupid. To find relief from workplace isolation. To experience once more the light and warmth of different, but somewhat kindred hearts and minds.

To find ways to change the world and change myself without losing my self.

To create personal learning networks that will illuminate the constellations of what I want or need to know: ecology, poetry, philosophy, statistics, political economy, drama, story telling, game creation, chaos theory, dinosaurs.

To make sure my son will have also this skill. For he will need it more.

To pass on to my son, who seems to want to play games all day, what it’s like to have an idea and take responsibility for it.




My first experience with Rhizo15

Someone near and dear to me thought I might be interested in Dave Cormier’s Rhizo15 MOOC.  Not being a professional educator, I have some trepidation about plunging in. The first assignment, to discuss course “subjectives”, will await a second post. (The WordPress image of Walter Benjamin hints where I am headed.)

By way of procrastination, I will introduce myself. Back in the glory days of deconstruction, I had been a perpetual graduate student, studying Shakespeare, but also reading Gregory Bateson,  Anthony Wilden, Stanley Cavell and Karl Marx. Life happened. Way too late, I had a kid and found myself re-experiencing a wide-ranging desire to understand, accompanied by a new willingness to recognize how much I did not know. There was this whole realm of science, which did not care about meaning, but measured significance, and had its own passion for elegance and beauty.

I took my son to the zoo and watched the bear clubs rough-house with each other. I thought: this is how they learn what they need to know when they are grown.  What would this be like for humans?  Who now have the whole planet hugged between our claws, foolishly thinking this gives us some kind of control. How will we learn what we need to know?  Not just to make our way as individuals, but to effect deep, radical change as thoughtful members of a larger, struggling whole?  (I have read some Deleuze and Spinoza, but have spent more time with Hegel, and it shows.)

I live in Berkeley. Just across the Oakland border, an old house calls itself a Marxist library.  Deeper into Oakland, younger folks transform a dilapidated heavy metal ballroom into a collective social space that plays host to many groups and groupuscules, including the mischievously named Bay Area Public School.

The red/black study group I am in has just started Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.  For my “professional” life, I  am sampling an online data science course.  And I  try to coax my thirteen year old son to write the occasional bit of expository prose.  How is Magic the Gathering like and unlike life? http://youtu.be/WZ32BZT9pnk Pilot episode of Lucky Louie