Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: April 2006

Placebo Defect

I’ve been invited to design a very rough draft for a course on Science and Public Policy over the next couple of weeks. It would be an elective course and, since the course won’t have been offered previously at this university, it is uncertain which students would attend – it might attract students from the sciences who would like to learn more about communicating to policy makers, or students from the social sciences and humanities who would like to learn more about science, or some combination of the two.

I’m looking forward to designing the course, and would appreciate any suggestions for topics and/or readings appropriate to undergraduate students in their second year or higher.

While I’m thinking about popular perceptions of science, I wanted to pass along this anecdote, from an Australian morning TV show – Channel Ten’s 9 a.m. with David and Kim.

The show was discussing the recent British clinical trial of TGN1412, an immunomodulator developed by TeGenero. The trial, organised by PAREXEL, recruited eight volunteers, of whom six received TGN1412, while the remaining two received a placebo. Although the drug had appeared safe in animal trials, including primate trials, all who received TGN1412 during the human trial rapidly became critically ill. The incident has sparked an intensive review of this clinical trial, as well as questions about the protocols for human clinical trials more generally.

On 23 March, Dr. David Ritchie had been invited to explain the trial to the morning show audience. After hearing Dr. Ritchie’s breakdown of the trial, host David Reyne was apparently confused why, given the life-threatening reactions experienced by six trial participants, the two participants who had received the placebo fared so well. As ABC’s MediaWatch reports:

David Reyne: Some of these guys were given a placebo.

Dr. David Ritchie: Correct

David Reyne: I don’t really understand what a placebo is, but it seems to have, to have saved them! And wouldn’t it make sense that every time a trial like this takes place, that there’s a placebo on hand.

@” Channel 10, 9am with David and Kim, 23rd March, 2006, quoted by MediaWatch

Dr. Ritchie does eventually set things right – you can check the transcript or the video to see how.

Behave, Nietzsche!

My two-year-old son is fascinated with dogs, and tends to plunge toward them with reckless abandon. I try to scout the reaction of the owner and the dog, and intervene where necessary to prevent unpleasant experiences – whether for my son, or the dog…

Yesterday, we went for a long walk, and had had several pleasant interactions with a series of small dogs, when my son suddenly bolted toward a barrel-chested Rottweiler. Well before he reached it, my son realised this was a very large dog, and began to reconsider whether he really wanted to get so close. The dog’s owner, though, beamed encouragement: “He’s really very gentle!” she called out, and then scrambled to throw her full weight on top of the dog, who was straining to get at my son. “Really! You can pat him!” she insisted, as it became increasingly clear that even her full weight wasn’t going to keep the dog down for long. And then, as the dog bucked her off, she finally turned her full attention to him and shouted: “Nietzsche! Behave!”

The incident made me wonder whether there were such a thing as a found fable…

Jane Jacobs (4 May 1916 – 25 April 2006)

I just saw in the The New York Times that Jane Jacobs has passed away. I’m unfortunately in the middle of writing a conference piece, and can’t write an adequate retrospective reflection on her work now. The New York Times article is available here (free registration required).

Update: other retrospectives on Jacobs (including an excellent one from 2 blowhards written before her death) can be found at:

2 blowhards on Jane Jacobs

Globe and Mail

The Star

Bloggership Symposium

Orin Kerr, from the group legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy, has drawn attention to a symposium on the relationship of blogging to legal scholarship, at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. It may just be selection bias, since I regularly read a number of legal blogs, but it seems to me that blogging is closer to becoming “mainstream” in legal scholarship than it is in most other academic fields – perhaps because the medium suits discussion and debate over legal precedent and the pooling of “distributed intelligence”, and therefore offers a logical fit with the legal field. Regardless, legal scholars often seem more comfortable with the notion that blogging can represent a potential tool for their professional work, rather than simply a distraction from it – expressing an understanding of the relationship of blogging to academic work that I expect to become widespread through many academic fields over time.

I haven’t had time to read most of the papers, but I have read Eugene Volokh’s contribution, which is also mentioned in Volokh’s post at The Volokh Conspiracy. Titled “Scholarship, Blogging and Trade-offs: On Discovering, Disseminating, and Doing”, the paper discusses the conflict academic bloggers often feel between spending time writing a post for their blog, and spending time on other, more traditional, forms of academic work.

As the title suggests, Volokh breaks academic work down into the categories of discovering new information, disseminating ideas discovered by oneself and others, and doing tasks that aim to transform your discpline or broader society. He then analyses the ways in which blogging can contribute to each of these traditional academic roles, and evaluates the ways in which blogging can provide a more or less effective strategy than more conventional forms of academic work. The article offers particularly interesting discussions of the communal aspect of blogging – the value of receiving feedback from a group of people who gather around your blog – and of what Volokh calls “micro-discoveries” (what I would refer to as the “distributed intelligence” dimension of blogging), in which blogs can become mediums for many people to draw attention to easily-overlooked, but widely-distributed, phenomena that might otherwise escape notice and reflection.

Blog Software Update

Just a quick note that, at some point over the weekend, I’ll be changing over to the latest version of WordPress. In theory, the testing of the new version will occur in the background, and there should be only a brief disruption to the blog at the moment the new version goes live. In practice, well, we all know there’s a gap between theory and practice…

If you happen to notice that something breaks, please let me know.

Waiting for Adorno

I’m having a perversely difficult time getting a copy of Theodor Adorno’s “Sociology and Psychology” article, published in the New Left Review in two parts, in Nov-Dec, 1967, and Jan-Feb 1968. My library doesn’t happen to carry the journal from this period, but has a normally very efficient service for procuring articles from other university libraries, so I hadn’t expected that I would still be waiting, one month on from my request… So I’m still holding on to a draft piece on Adorno’s attempt to weave psychological and sociological theory, waiting to see whether this article (which I have read with some attention previously) adds any wrinkles to the sorts of claims Adorno makes in Dialectic of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics.

I have an ambivalent relationship with Adorno’s work. On the one hand, Adorno recognises and problematises the difficulties in researching “human nature”, when such research is often not self-reflexive – not sufficiently cognisant of the ways in which both the observing subject and the observed object have been heavily shaped by determinate historical circumstances. Adorno, like Benjamin, is keenly aware of the need to be open to the potential that humanity might be very different from what it has been, or is. As Adorno writes (in a very Benjaminian passage):

We cannot say what man is. Man today is a function, unfree, regressing behind whatever is ascribed to him as invariant… He drags along with him as his social heritage the mutilations inflicted upon him over thousands of years. To decipher the human essense by the way it is now would sabotage its possibility. Negative Dialectics p. 124

On the other hand (and again like Benjamin), Adorno remains committed, at base, to the notion that class domination is the primary factor distorting the realisation of humanity’s potential. This commitment, I believe, significantly weakens his own ability to be self-reflexive – to grasp the specific ways in which human subjects and objects have been shaped in this particular historical moment. Thus Adorno will alternate between insights into specifically contemporary society that could potentially be quite incisive – only to be dragged back into transhistorical generalisations by his underlying critique of class domination since, of course, class domination characterises all organised human societies, and therefore cannot easily grasp what is unique about our own.

It requires, of course, no keen insight to point out that the Frankfurt School theorists fail to live up to their own standard of producing self-reflexive critique: they acknowledge this themselves. The famous opening passage to Negative Dialectics paints a stark picture of Adorno’s analysis of why this is so:

Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it has merely interpreted the world, that resignation in in the face of reality has crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried… Theory cannot prolong the moment its critique depended on. p. 3

In the framework underlying Adorno’s quotation, self-reflexivity requires linking theoretical critique to the existence of a determinate potential for society to become other than what it currently is. Early Marxist critiques, in which the Frankfurt School theorists also originally placed their hopes, understood the “forces of production” – the working class and increasingly socialised large-scale organisation of production – to be dynamic and progressive forces in society, forces that were constrained by the “relations of production” – class relations mediated by private property and the market.

In this early Marxist framework, emancipation was expected to result from the overthrow of capitalist “relations of production”, a social transformation that was expected to enable the forces of production to come into their own, through conscious planning. This transformation was expected to unleash productive potentials and vastly increase material wealth; importantly, it was also expected to inaugurate political emancipation. Marxist critique sought to be self-reflexive by aligning itself with the forces of production – by pointing to the potential represented by those forces when arguing that private property and the market were socially unnecessary forms of domination.

By the time Adorno writes the statement above, he and other Frankfurt School theorists have come to the conclusion that, in essence, the “forces of production” have come into their own – that the market and private property have been abolished in the East and severely curtailed in the West. As expected, this transformation has resulted in a vast increase in material wealth and productive power. It has not, however, resulted in anything even remotely resembling political emancipation.

What follows from this point is an extremely interesting re-evaluation of the potentials of laissez-faire capitalism – particularly of such factors as the contrast between private, intimate spheres and public spheres; the principle of delayed gratification associated so strongly with the economic necessities of the small business enterprise; the intense relationships of the bourgeois family; the prevalence of universal ideals (important as ideals, even if never realised in practice by the market), etc. If the re-evaluation had remained on this level – that is to say, had remained an analysis of a historically-definable moment – it might have led in some very interesting directions. As it happened, however, the centrality of the category of class domination kept drawing the analysis further afield, seeking psychological and cultural correspondences between human societies at the dawn of time, and contemporary capitalism.

The results are still often brilliant, but are also more devastating for the concept of social critique that the simple corrective realisation that central planning was not as intrinsically emancipatory as once believed. Adorno ends up fighting a strange, inspired, but also self-defeating battle against conceptual abstractions as such. He develops an elaborate theory of the way in which humanity originally sought to overcome its vulnerability before nature through magical means – a strategy that resulted in the first class division, as specialised priests assumed the role of mediating between human communities and the natural world and, in the process, drew around themselves the cloak of awe and fear that was once associated with the natural world itself. This early division of mental from manual labour ramifies through human history, and fundamentally scars theoretical reflection, whose conceptual abstractions are the echo in thought of the underlying recognition that class domination is unncessary, and the underlying fear of dominant intellectuals that it may someday be overthrown.

There is very little room for theory in such an approach – and yet Adorno doesn’t want to abandon theoretical reflection. To do so would be, within Adorno’s framework, a capitulation to what is. Yet he is left with only the exhortation to use what is against itself, and without the ability to explain the historical emergence of critical sensibilities like the ones he expresses in his work. This inability leaves him in the position often criticised as elitist, where he appears to believe that he can uniquely perceive aspects of contemporary reality not accessible to others. I don’t believe frank elitism was his intent – instead, it was a consequence of losing the ability to be self-reflexive about his work in the sociological sense (where being self-reflexive involves explaining why forms of critique might arise at a particular time), and instead being forced into a form of self-reflexivity in the more conventional sense of the term (where self-reflexivity involves individual reflection).

Finding Your Way Here

I’m always interested in the search terms that lead visitors to this site. Most people reach the site from other sites that link here, or following fairly conventional searches to titles of books, authors or issues I’ve discussed. I can also always count on a steady stream of folks misdirected here when trying to find out the meaning of the term “elephant in the room” – I suspect my discussion of Lakoff wasn’t what they were hoping to find. The regular traffic from folks searching for information on capitalism and the public/private sphere distinction is probably closer to the mark – unfortunately, I’ve only written an off-hand comment on the issue, and haven’t gotten around to developing the point sufficiently to be particularly useful, so I assume they generally also leave disappointed…

Occasionally, search terms suggest a… mild frustration with critical theory – like the one tonight from Google Australia, where someone searched: “Habermas, explain”.

There are also very ambitious searchers – like the one who reached the site after inquiring: “which theory of social change is used when times are rough”. I love the image of theory this search implies – that there might be fair weather theories that are fine when things are going well but, when the going gets rough – well, then you need rough theory… ;-P

And then you have the search terms where you can’t really imagine how the search engine came to direct the person to this specific site – I struggle to imagine, for example, why the person who went searching for “anthromorphic cow” was pointed here, or why I repeatedly get traffic from people searching for the “cultural dimension of swatch”. I imagine these people arriving here, going “Uck! What’s this have to do with my search?!”, and trudging back to Google…

Michael Wesch at Savage Minds

I just wanted to draw attention to the fantastic material being posted at Savage Minds by guest blogger Michael Wesch.

Michael has written several posts about a fantastic, semester-long World Simulation project that he uses to lead students to discover interesting and relevant questions about the interactions of material environment, culture, and historical contingencies in the historical development of the contemporary world.

For those who find the World Simulation concept daunting, he has also posted a very handy tip about replacing linear PowerPoint presentations with a more non-linear and adaptable lecture web created with DreamWeaver.

I’d personally love to adapt the World Simulation project for a future course, and the “lecture web” concept is also very good – although my students will long ago have realised that incorporating audio visual materials into my classroom is not (yet?) a personal strength… ;-P

Would You Like an Exam with That?

The strong divide between “research” and “coursework” postgraduate programs here, means that Australian universities don’t tend to put social science postgraduate students through any additional coursework or comprehensive exams, beyond what they completed for their undergraduate degrees. US postgraduates, by contrast, usually have to pass specific postgraduate coursework as well as a comprehensive exam, in order to be admitted to full PhD candidature. The existence of coursework and exam requirements in postgraduate research programs confuses some Australian academics: I was asked some fairly… er… basic questions about academic research during my interview for PhD candidature – this in spite of the fact that I had completed two theses (and other research) in the US prior to moving here. It turned out that my interview committee was confused by the coursework listed on my postgraduate transcripts, and thought that my US degrees must have been from a program that did not require research…

I gave an ambivalently-received talk at a postgraduate conference a few months back, where I discussed this difference between US and Australian postgraduate programs in the social sciences. I noted that postgraduate students at my current university often complain that they are very socially isolated, and also that they have difficulty orienting to the history and the theory of their fields. I argued that the US coursework and exam system, although it has drawbacks, does address both of these issues, and I suggested that it might be worthwhile to consider whether some version of the US model could be adapted to Australian universities.

When I say this talk was “ambivalently-received”, I mean: it appealed to some of the faculty in attendance, and resulted in an offer to teach Research Strategies (a social science methods course that is the sole coursework requirement for research students); on the other hand, it emphatically did not appeal to the postgraduate students in attendance, who – quite reasonably – didn’t want additional hurdles placed between them and their thesis.

My personal position is that you don’t need to follow the US model religiously in order to gain a good cost-benefit ratio: the amount of coursework, followed by exam preparation, in the US does place a large additional burden on research students – and also privileges theoretical and academic perspectives that would benefit from the corrective experience of doing actual research. At the same time, I think that the quality of research can be substantially improved, if students can spend some dedicated time exploring the history and theory of their discipline before writing research proposals and plunging into the field.

All of this is by way of introducing Scott Eric Kaufman’s latest project over on the Acephalous blog. Scott is hosting a “distributed intelligence” project, trying to determine the best overview/introductory works for a range of topics in Literature and Literary Theory. The list is already quite interesting, and should become more so as further contributions are assimilated. While the compilation of this kind of list will seem very familiar to US postgraduates, who likely will have been asked to study, or even compile, such a list for their own exams, it may be an even more valuable resource for those who are not routinely exposed to such lists in their postgraduate careers.

If you’d like to contribute, or just look in on the project, the original post is:

Temporary Comment Section for ‘Best Introduction’

The current (revised) version is: Best Introduction

I have to confess I haven’t yet contributed – I keep hesitating over whether books I’ve found useful would actually “count” as introductions to literature and/or literary theory, and I also have a closet sympathy for those who argued, in the original thread, in favour of including original works, rather than secondary introductions. Scott has indicated that he’d rather save this primary-vs.-secondary source debate for another thread, and concentrate on secondary works for purposes of this project. I agree with him that developing a list of good secondary introductions has value in its own right, regardless of the snobbery of primary-source purists like me… ;-P

Loving Big Brother

It’s always strange when you find a passage that could easily find a home in a critical text – except that it was actually written by someone who approves of what they’re describing. From the readings discussed in the History and Theory of Planning course today, comes this modernist fever-dream. I could as easily see a similar passage – with a very different valence – in a Frankfurt School critique:

The twentieth century is called upon to build a whole new civilization. From efficiency to efficiency, from rationalization to rationalization, it must so raise itself that it reaches total efficiency and total rationalization. (Paul Otlet, quoted by Le Corbusier in The Radiant City, 1933, p. 27)