Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: March 2006

A Breath Sufficed to Topple

I’m preparing a lecture for the History and Theory of Planning course on “foundational” figures in the early planning movement, and ran across this passage, which Ebenezer Howard quotes from The Times, 27 November, 1891:

Change is consummated in many cases after much argument and agitation, and men do not observe that almost everything has been silently effected by causes to which few people paid any heed. In one generation an institution is unassailable, in the next bold men may assail it, and in the third bold men defend it. At one time the most conclusive arguments are advanced against it in vain, if indeed they are allowed utterance at all. At another time the most childish sophistry is enough to secure its condemnation. In the first place, the institution, though probably indefensible by pure reason, was congruous with the conscious habits and modes of thought of the community. In the second, these had changed from influences which the acutest analysis would probably fail to explain, and a breath sufficed to topple over the sapped structure.

Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow, ed. F.J. Osborn, intro. L. Mumford, 1974, p. 41

I’ve always liked this quotation. Aside from the generational emphasis, with which I don’t particularly agree, it’s actually not a bad synopsis of how I think about historical change – and the complex and usually unremarked interaction between historical change and the ease with which we feel that we have proven or disproven particular ideas.

Bedtime Rorties

I don’t normally post personal things on this blog, but I can’t resist mentioning this example of the strange effect that PhDs have on families.

My two-year-old son has recently decided that children’s books are not for him – he now wants to “read” my books, and has learned to recognise common authors. So now, when he gets tired and is ready for a bedtime story, he’ll wander up and indicate his evening’s reading preference. Lately, it’s been: “Hek?” (Hayek) or “Rorties?” (Rorty). And then we’ll take the book he’s chosen, and I’ll read out loud from it for a bit. Then it’s time to hand it over, and he’ll “read” out loud for a bit, and then it’s off to sleep (and yes, I recognise that much older people are also put to sleep by much of what I read…).

Departing the Text

My research team presented today to the management group of the local Council whose strategic and sustainability planning staff were a major force in putting together the grant application that funds our research, wrote the actual parameters for the individual PhD projects, and continue to provide ongoing funding and practical support for our work. The other Council staff have been less closely involved with the project, and have become increasingly curious about these mysterious researchers who periodically pop out of their archives, only to skuttle away when they have collected a bit more data. Today’s presentation was intended to bring some of these other key staff members up to date on our project.

I actually wrote a presentation for the event. I don’t usually do this, because I don’t like looking away from an audience while I’m speaking to them, and I do like making judgments on the fly about what’s working and what isn’t, and changing the content of what I’m presenting so that I minimise the number of blank or sleepy faces looking back at me. As it turns out, having a written talk didn’t change this much – I think I might have read the first sentence before I… departed the text.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d post the written version of the talk here (I can’t post the version I actually presented, because I have no precise memory of what I said…). This talk is obviously written for a non-academic audience and, since I wrote it, I’ve been trying to decide whether I agree with it, or whether the process of trying to translate what I do into a very different language has sufficiently alterred the meaning that I can’t properly defend the work.

Ironically, the part that I can defend least is the factual description of my PhD project as set out in the grant. Now, this description isn’t wrong: the grant does perceive that planning theory should be seen as a kind of structure-agency standoff. But I personally don’t find this to be the best way to describe the state of the literature and, if I weren’t providing background on the grant to one of our funders, I would probably use a different theoretical frame.

The discussion of the relation of philosophy to practice I do believe – but only if you understand “practice” in a very specific (and somewhat counter-intuitive) way. This problem is magnified by the actual examples of “practical things” I discuss during the talk, which are not, by themselves, the sorts of evidence I would use for the sorts of conclusions I draw during the talk… I also feel a bit of a twinge for not nodding to figures like Hacking and Rorty, to whom I owe a substantial debt for this way of speaking about the relationship between practice and the emergence of new philosophical categories. But I’m also not sure that they would appreciate this level of bastardisation of their ideas…

In any event, the (undelivered) talk is pasted below: Read more of this post

Speaking of Slips…

I just received a very polite email in relation to a late assignment, in which the student explained (sic):

“Sorry for the delay – I had an intensive curse all day Fri and Sat which didn’t help…”

I think this may be my favourite late assignment communication ever. To be honest, I’ve been in the mood for an intensive curse myself, although I’m not sure I’d have the stamina for a 48-hour one. I was very disappointed, though, to hear that it didn’t help…

Did (I D)o That?

Scott Eric Kaufman’s Acephalous blog has been hosting an interesting discussion about intentionality and the unconscious. The immediate provocation for the thread was a particularly unfortunate slip of the tongue by talk show host David Lenihan, who, apparently inadvertantly, used a racial epithet in an on-air discussion of Condoleeza Rice.

The discussion at Acephalous revolves, among other things, around the issue of to what degree a mistake like this should be considered a “Freudian slip” – that is, a slip of the tongue that signifies something meaningful about the speaker – in this case, latent racism.

Several complex issues range through this kind of debate for me. The first is the empirical status of Freudian theory – the question of how difficult it is for any interpretive theory (not just psychoanalysis) to extricate itself from problems of confirmation bias – of examining only those slips of the tongue, for example, that produce meaningful words that are potentially subject to interpretation, while overlooking the various stutterings and mis-steps that don’t appear to produce meaning. The second is the contested issue of whether psychoanalytic approaches have taken seriously the question of what evidence would be required to falsify or force a rethink of core concepts within the theory.

Yet these sorts of empirical questions, which have entered into other discussions of psychoanalytic theory at Acephalous in the past, were not really the core issue at stake in this particular debate. Rather, the major issue seemed to be the way in which the folk appropriation of psychoanalytic theory so often leads to something like a notion of “unconscious intentionality” – so that, once you believe, for example, that this slip of the tongue must be meaningful, and then conclude that the slip must signify a transgressive desire like unconscious racism, you then also judge the person for these unconscious impulses, as if the conscious mind must somehow have been complicit all along, for such unsavoury unconscious impulses to exist.

I tend to think of this issue by analogy with work I do on social structuration. I am interested in broad, pervasive patterns of historical change – in forms of perception, thought and practice that tend to span geographical regions, disciplinary boundaries, and fields of practical activity.

One common way of explaining the existence of patterns of historical change is to invoke a kind of conspiracy theory: to say, in effect, that “natural” or “unconscious” change ought to be random in character, so the existence of a meaningful pattern implies intentionality. Meaningful historical patterns then come to be taken as evidence that, somewhere in the background, some group of persons must be making conscious, deliberate choices to cause the world to become as it is. This mode of reasoning in the social sciences is of course analogous to the concept of Intelligent Design in the natural sciences – both approaches assume that complex patterns cannot arise in the absence of intention. Where Intelligent Design is marginalised in the natural sciences, however, variants of conspiracy theory can often be quite central to some social scientific traditions, in explicit or tacit forms.

I favour an alternative, which focusses on historical patterns as the unintentional consequences of actions that, even if they are consciously undertaken, are intended to produce very different results than what they actually effect. The interesting historical problem then becomes understanding why it should be the case that a non-random pattern should arise, if no one consciously intends to bring that pattern into being.

When examining the social realm, once we conclude that patterns are likely generated without conscious intent, it is fairly clear that there is no “place” where these unconscious social processes reside, other than in the myriad actions of the individuals who inadvertantly reproduce such patterns. When we look at nonconscious patterns that arise from the human mind, we are less sure – and, perhaps as a result, retroject notions of intentionality that could only ever be appropriately applied to conscious behaviour, into a nonconscious realm to which it doesn’t apply.

Ironically, I don’t see Freud as having this particular problem – I think he was quite clear, in his descriptions of the unruly, contradictory, fragmented id, that the logic of the conscious realm should not be applied to nonconscious actions – and, in fact, extrapolated that much suffering resulted precisely from guilt inappropriately experienced in relation to unconscious impulses. It is an interesting question whether, in still maintaining that unconscious impulses could be interpreted – that unconscious behaviours have meaning – Freud might inadvertantly have slipped a bit of the logic of the conscious world back into his analysis of the unconscious. But I won’t make any strong claims on this issue without thinking it through far more thoroughly than I have here…

Regardless, in percolating through popular culture, psychoanalytic concepts have retained the Freudian notion that unconscious desires are meaningful – but taken the unconscious as the cipher for the “true” person, such that inadvertant and unintentional acts are taken to be more fundamental, in some ways, than acts that are consciously chosen. In this respect, folk psychoanalytic categories join up with a phenomenon I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: the tendency, within the liberal economic and political tradition, to regard order that arises spontaneously as more “natural” than order that arises from conscious planning. This suspicion of consciousness is apparently an interesting red thread uniting many otherwise contradictory philosophies…

I’m not sure where this leaves me in terms of the issues discussed in the Acephalous thread. It does, though, sound a precautionary note on the need for theory (social and psychological) to take seriously both the reality of conscious intentions and the potential for non-conscious patterns, rather than reducing one of these phenomena to the level of appearance, in some sort of essence-appearance dichotomy.

Some of Them Are Right

One of my friends from college spent a frustrated semester constantly arguing with a classmate. Each time my friend seemed on the cusp of argumentative success, his opponent would pull out the same relativist conversation stopper: “Well, you know, there are millions of different ways of viewing every problem”. And so would end the debate.

My friend’s frustration grew and grew, until finally one day he burst out: “Yes! There are millions of different ways of viewing every problem – and some of them are WRONG!”

I was reminded of this story when the students in my Research Strategies course were discussing the ethics and politics of their research this evening. The concept of “bias” seemed to function as some sort of conversational attractor – no matter which direction we set out, we always seemed to end up circling around it.

The concept of bias often smuggles in its wake a tacit concept that the ideal researcher would be a fully disengaged and impassive observer. I don’t believe such a researcher exists – and neither do my students, of course. The question is whether the ideal of a disengaged observer is still a useful sort of ideal type – a sort of Habermasian ideal that no one will ever reach, but that is still useful, because it provides a standard against which we can criticise existing practices – or whether there is some alternative critical standard that does not require us to resort to a concept of disengaged research that will never correspond to social science practice.

My impulse is that we need critical standards that – while high and demanding – do suggest a form of social science that someone might actually practice, at least when functioning at their best. Social scientists in practice cannot be disengaged because, among other reasons, they are their own primary research tool – their ability to empathise and recreate within themselves a sense of the motives and the reasoning and the emotions of fellow human beings, their social acumen and insight, is an intrinsic dimension of social scientific research. Using the concept of the disengaged researcher as a critical ideal therefore stands in deep and fundamental tension with the practical requirements of social scientific research.

Using the concept of a more fully and completely engaged researcher, however, does not – and I suspect this is the direction we need to be reaching, to develop a clearer and more useful understanding of ideal social science practice. More fully engaged research would reflect on the potentials and insights that are historically available to us in a given moment, and would explore whether the research process reflects the highest ideals available to us at the time. It would therefore make use of the types of empathy and social insight required in social science research, rather than sitting in tension with social science practice.

This leaves open the question of how, in this embedded and historicised view of the world, you validly decide among the “millions of different ways of viewing every problem” to pick the ways that are “right” – that represent the highest potentials of your historical moment, and therefore provide you with the ability to justify claims that other views or practices should be considered “wrong”. I’m currently finishing an (overlong) piece on Adorno that explores this issue – once I’ve cut that piece down to manageable size, I may post some fragments on the blog.

Libelling Liberalism

I’ve just written “the liberalism lecture” for the History and Theory of Planning class. Since planning is not, by and large, a trade that holds exceptional attractions for those who lean libertarian, I don’t expect most students to have more than a passing familiarity with liberal political and economic thought – even though their profession has now been strongly shaped by a couple of decades of neo-liberal reform. Based on my experience last year with the Australian Politics class, it’s not only the planning students who lack this background: several of my politics students expressed indignation that politicians like Thatcher and Howard should claim to be liberals when, the students believed, it was obvious these people were just conservatives… Read more of this post

Guerrilla Marketing

Books are ridiculously expensive in Australia – and academic texts, bought locally, are often three to five times more expensive than the cost of importing the same text new from the US via Amazon. So I tend to purchase “urgent” texts from overseas, and I have standing searches on Ebay Australia for authors and subjects related to my research interests. Today’s search brought up the
following ad, apparently for a text by C. Wright Mills (although multiple texts are included in the photo).

Check out the sales pitch (formatting in original):




kind of sounds familiar ???

Check out my other items!

460 pages , good solid paper, not glossy , could have many uses .

table mats for the avant garde irritating non-conformists , napkins to serve finger food on after shareholder meetings ; serviettes for ambitious nouveau

poor , the obvious ……… long drops in the outback etc. etc.

good value here considering the price of toilet paper at COLES these days …460 PAGES

Vampire Immunity AdOther entries by the same seller are also worth checking out – this is a personal favourite: why does the photo include a novel (?) on vampires, together with the advertised title “Boost Your Child’s Immune System”?

And then you have the rousing call to action at the conclusion of the ad:

with another Asian airborne epidemic en route , the least you can do NOW is to work toward’s making your children will at the least remain alive , even if you become orphaned . Good luck exciting times are on the way !!!

Philosophical Rorts

Around bursts of technical support for students trying to familiarise themselves with the class wiki, I’ve been reading through Richard Rorty’s work. I haven’t read Rorty for some time, and have never read him systematically. I’m not in general a fan of pragmatism – something that I may have reason to post about on another occasion – but I am finding myself thoroughly enjoying Rorty’s writings. Some of this is simply related to how well Rorty writes – whether I agree or disagree with the points he is trying to make, I often find myself admiring the way he frames an issue, and the analogies through which he clarifies an otherwise complex topic.

The other thing I’m enjoying, however, is watching Rorty wrestle with what it implies, if you take seriously the claim that our knowledge and beliefs are historical at some fundamental level. Rorty tackles this issue by describing our commitment to key values and beliefs – in universal human rights, for example – as “ethnocentric”.

By itself, of course, this is nothing new – many social critics have levelled this kind of accusation, as a means of debunking purportedly universal values, by demonstrating that those values actually express and serve the quite particular interests of a particular segment of society, in a particular historical period. Labelling values “ethnocentric” is a common theoretical move, when you intend to debunk and dismiss the values in question.

The interesting thing about Rorty is that he does not label values “ethnocentric” in order to debunk them but, rather, as a step toward validating those values, while frankly acknowledging their contingent social and historical origins.

In this respect, I regard Rorty as a fellow-traveller – one who does not believe that transhistorical justifications are required for us to make meaningful value judgments about the just and unjust dimensions of our social environment. At the same time, I think Rorty sells short the historical potentials of our present moment, by accepting too readily the validity of a strong distinction between “Western” and “non-Western” societies in the contemporary historical period.

I won’t have time or space to do justice to this point here, but I wanted at least to suggest that – for all the multitude of meaningful differences between parts of the world in the current era – nevertheless, one of the things that we have unintentionally created in the past several hundred years is the – dare I say “pragmatic”? – basis for certain concepts, including pivotal moral concepts such as those underlying the notion of universal human rights, to be conceptually available to persons living throughout the world.

What I have in mind when I make this claim is something like a fully historicised version of Habermas’ project: as I’ve written in other contexts, Habermas’ primary goal is to explain why certain core values of liberal democracy are conceptually available to everyone in contemporary society – such that everyone currently has the ability to “grok” the concepts, to understand what they mean and to deploy them in critiques of existing social practices and institutions – even though Habermas believes, from the historical record, that many people in previous historical periods would not have had this same ability. Habermas does not require that everyone agree on how the values should be applied, on how far these values should be extended, on what social practices and institutions ideally express these values – pace the critics who claim that Habermas is seeking a utopia of soporific consensus, Habermas leaves room for enormous disagreement and contestation on all aspects of social experience. What is universal, he claims, is only the capacity to understand what is going on, when someone criticises a social practice in the name of a liberal democratic ideal.

Habermas’ weakness is that, even though he poses a fundamentally historical problem, he can’t quite bring himself to offer a fully historical solution – he can’t quite surrender an appeal to a “true” universal. Liberal democratic ideals are therefore, in his framework, something like the historical emergence of a “natural” human trait, one that has always been embedded in human communication, but that has only burst into consciousness in very recent history.

Rorty offers a healthy corrective to Habermas, in that he relishes the historical contingency of even the most cherished democratic values. Yet Rorty doesn’t seem to consider whether Habermas might also have the right idea, when it comes to the level of abstraction on which these values operate: perhaps the important issue, in defining where one “society” ends and another begins, is not where human communities draw the line in their application of rights talk, but rather whether the members of the contemporary global human community have a reasonable idea what is being discussed, when we use rights talk at all.

Seen in this way, we can begin to analyse whether – and how – we may have practiced our way into something like a meaningful historical universal in the past few hundred years – to analyse whether we might have so transformed our global social environment that people throughout the world now share at least some pivotal common experiences, in addition to the many unique experiences that also shape diverse individuals and communities. If these common experiences can then be tied in a meaningful way to the gestalt that enables someone to “grok” liberal democratic discourse – as I’ve suggested gesturally in some of my writing on Lakoff – we can move toward a fully historical understanding of key critical values. This approach would allow us to acknowledge, in Rorty’s terms, our own “ethnocentrism”, while still grounding Habermas’ insight that there is something distinctive and important about the emergence of “universal” values as a “real abstraction” in the modern era.