The Tyranny of the Reader

Sweet Talk’s very own Adam Gurri picked up a little Gadamer recently, a fellow who applied 20th Century epistemological questions to literary criticism. In my mind, he dealt a fatal blow to structuralism, releasing us from its evil bonds for the exhilaration of “non-modern” reading, aka, the way reading was always done until the Continental fundamentalists ruined reading for two hundred years. Now we’re back to the cat chasing its tail, as it should be.*

He brought an end to the tired “implied author/implied reader” schematic as a formal means for textual criticism and interpretive method. The fact is, we know there’s something like an implied reader, because, as authors, we all project one. I’m projecting one right now, and I’ll even tell you who you are: a late-middle aged male sitting in the silent room of a 19th Century Londoner’s club, someone with white mutton chops facial hair smoking a large-bowl pipe, quietly folding back the paper in which this post has been published. In short, you, my dear implied reader, are my variation on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes.

Before I met Gadamer in my readings, I especially liked the schematic arranged left to right: The real author–> implied author–> text <–implied reader <–real reader. And now the fundamentalist program: identify, as best you can, the real author, his mind, and what meaningfulness he means to…to…

Well, what’s the word here? Nothing is appropriate. You make one up. “…meaningfulness he means to express.” Was ist das? Anyhow, just align yourself with the implied reader, and you’re set to get meaningfulness! Interpretation by numbers, ftw.

This is, as I say, a fundamentalist program, and everything fundamentalist is a tyranny. We were taught for a couple hundred years there to tyrannize interpretation, which, of course, kills it. Meaningfulness dies, and the author–>text–>reader experience becomes a cadaver under inexperienced and unexperiencing scalpels. “Here, can you see the latent feminist reaction?” “Why, yes! There it is!” Mirabile Dictu! I couldn’t have seen it without your help, but it really is there!

Well, Mycroft, you’re probably thinking, “How then should we interpret?” I don’t know, but I’m guessing you’re going to interpret more or less as you feel like interpreting, experiencing how you desire to experience, but not without having those immutable marks on a page or screen affect you somehow. The trick is to communicate that experience, if you want to, or to understand the effects it has on other readers.

As the drinker of a particular wine grows older, the wine’s effect changes.

*This, like everything, is debatable.

Circles of Commitment

Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of a good internal to a practice implies a system of many goods. These goods are not derivative of one another; they exist independently. But some are subordinate to others.

Say you are a carpenter. Then you are committed to excellence in carpentry. But if you are a father, then you are also committed to being a good parent. Sometimes these goods come into conflict—when a project requires a lot of your time in order to see it through to completion, but your daughter needs help on her homework. Most people would agree that being a good carpenter should be subordinate to the requirements of being a good father. But that doesn’t mean that you always prioritizing your duties as a father over your duties as a carpenter. Part of your duties as a father, after all, involve making a living so that you can provide for your children. Figuring out how you set your priorities in each specific situation you face requires Aristotle’s phronesis, Aquinas’ prudentia; wisdom in practical affairs.

All goods in your life are subordinate to your commitment to being a good person on the whole—or should be. And Aristotle would argue that the highest good is the good of the polis, something which the modern individualist bristles at.

The book I’m writing focuses on the relationship between your commitments to the good of your particular line of work, the prudent good of making a living, and the commitment to having a good life as a whole.

David Henderson Doubles Down on a Calculated Love

David Henderson is not happy with Richard Thaler’s potshot against neoclassical economics.

Thaler made a typical joke about economists—that if they treated their loved ones  the way their models imply they do, they would be very unloving, indeed.

Henderson digs his feet in and insists that expected utility calculations are central to evaluating a “potential romantic partner.”

You fall in love with someone. You start discussing your future. You find out that you’re a Bryan Caplan who wants 10 kids and she’s a career woman who wants $10 million. What do you do? You drop her, or she drops you. In other words, you’ve tried to get relevant information about this potential romantic partner and that information has led you to conclude that this relationship won’t work.

In another example, he explains how a specific preference that a potential partner has causes “Your estimate of the probability that this will work” to fall.

In other words, he presents us with a typical prudence-only story of how love works, going on to talk about the role of incomplete information and up-front investment costs, and so forth. Perhaps, beyond the narrow points he’s seeking to make against Thaler, he does not think that everything about love is so reducible to expected utility calculations. Keeping this possibility in mind, I’m going to respond to the version of love he actually presents in the post.

Continue reading “David Henderson Doubles Down on a Calculated Love”

The Problem of School Mascots

Local Sports Talk Radio, as I have argued elsewhere, is the application of a handful of social sciences and economics, and a good sports talk radio show host, like Mike Schopp of WGR in Buffalo, (@shopptalk, who, by the way, is a scotch whisky connoisseur like yours truly), must fearlessly engage at all levels with some deftness, else his ratings plummet.

School mascots, particularly those of American Indian progeniture, are a source of anxiety, both for those who are offended by them and for those who have some emotional investment in preserving them. Today, June 3, 2015, Schopp made one of the most cogent arguments I have ever heard against maintaining these racist or near-racist mascots which hearken to a time of a peculiar American injustice.

For the record, I grew up a Washington Redskins football fan; in addition, my personal ancestry includes a fair measure of American Indian. It’s very difficult, on the one hand, to argue that the word “Redskins” is not at least vaguely racist and does not include some pretty hefty racist baggage in its etymology. On the other hand, the Washington Redskins is an NFL football franchise, not a 19th Century Army Cavalry unit scouring the western deserts for Apaches to kill. And it’s a bit of my childhood, right? We used to tease my dad that, when he spent time in the sun, his skin turned the color of the Washington Redskins mascot, and the franchise was championship-caliber at the time.


The problem is fundamentalism. On the one side, it is essential to scour from view anything that bears a connection to a vile past. For example, if any person derives pleasure in such an image or name, then that person is participating as a belligerent in those past vile acts. On the other side, it is essential to maintain at all costs those mascots because they are ritualistic and deeply personal, occupying the same emotional space an animistic religion might. Taking those images and names away is literally removing a sacred totem.

These things really are contextual. As Mike Schopp remarked, “I am not emotionally attached to the mascot. I’m not making an argument that you should be like me; I’m just telling you how I am about it. I couldn’t care less if they changed my high school’s mascot to The Nachos or whatever. In fact, wouldn’t that be a great gimmick? ‘We’re The Nachos, and we give away free nachos at our football games.'”

Local sports talk radio was considering the topic because a local high school, Lancaster High, has recently changed its mascot, by vote of the student body, from the Redskins to the Legends. The vote to do so was an overwhelming majority.

I think this is brilliant. This non-argument argument gets right to the core: why are you emotionally involved in a mascot? Is it because you can’t be made by those liberal anti-culturalists to give away your childhood? Or your childishness? Yes? No? Maybe? Is it because you can’t stand those dunderheads who won’t see how offensive they are to people who aren’t a member of the oppressive American middle class?

All right, then. Why don’t we vote on it? In fact, at the high school level, or even the college level, why don’t we vote on the school mascot every eight years? That way, two full classes can come and go, enjoying the important cultural unifying effect of being a Warrior or a Bullet or a Bear or what-have-you, and then, the new kids can reconsider. While they’re reconsidering, we can talk to each other sweetly about what we want our mascot to be and why we want it to be that one and not another one.

Let’s take, for example, the Washington Wizards. In the unlikely event that the KKK becomes ascendant in the Midwest, perhaps Wizards becomes a terribly evocative mascot. Is it time to change? Well, here your arguments for and against would be helpful, and the local sports talk radio ratings would be sky high.

Let’s take an example concerning aesthetics: most collective singular mascots, like the Heat, are horrible. But some, like the Crimson Tide, are heavenly. Fierce, silly, whimsical, retrospective, reactive: the tug-of-war among the various factions of fans would create quite the marketing bonanza!

More importantly, I think a regular reconsideration of school mascots would loosen the bonds of fundamentalism. Let’s say that I honestly believe that Redskins doesn’t really harm anyone, but you do. Your job becomes one of persuading me. We take a vote. I win. Your job still remains that of persuasion, because you know another vote is coming.

On the other hand, after some time, perhaps you come to think that maybe, just maybe, you’re expending gigawatts of energy on something that might be a burnt-out 60-watt lightbulb, and you just let it go. Who knows?

The Seven Million Year Itch

They say the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. When L.P. Hartley wrote this opening line to his best-known work The Go-Between, it’s possible that he intended nothing more than to restate Heraclitus for a 1953  audience: don’t let your nostalgia get the best of you. Like Heraclitus, it’s equally possible that Hartley said more than he meant. The past is indeed a foreign land, and one that you can only ever hope to be a tourist in, at best. Understanding is relational, comparative. When thinking of the Black Death, I cobble together what little I know of European fatality rates with a few contemporary stories and top it off with the “bring out your dead” segment from Monty Python. I have no deep understanding of 14th century Europe, at least in a sense that someone from that time would recognize. No matter how much I might learn from accounts of the time, from the archaeology, or from high-fidelity reenactment, no true understanding is within my grasp. My perception is indelibly colored by my own experience. I might be able to fantasize or live-action role-play being a Medieval peasant, but I’m no more able to truly know life under James II than I’d be able to pass as a native of Outer Mongolia.  Continue reading “The Seven Million Year Itch”

Own Your Standards

What does it mean to be a master of a craft?

Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of the goods internal to a practice self-consciously separates the standards of practitioners from mere material gain, which constitute “external goods”. As a follower of McCloskey, it seems clear to me that the sacred and the profane are not so cleanly separable. Previously, when I have written about this, I argued that external goods must be internalized in some way. That is, part of the way you become a good carpenter, or good lawyer, or good salesman, is by making money in a good way. That is to say, part of the ethics of a practice is precisely how you deal with your customers or clients or patrons or donors.

If you buy the argument that internal goods exist, what you think about the nature of them probably relates to your beliefs about the nature of morality in general. I have my own thoughts on the matter.

Regardless, it seems to me that our understanding of these goods is conjective. That means that it is contestable, negotiable, political—in short, a matter of persuasion.

Continue reading “Own Your Standards”

Hot Cop on Cop Action

Ferguson and Baltimore are raw blisters on America’s hindquarters, the boiling symptoms of a festering disease that has infected America’s thin blue line. I was thinking, however, it may be related to a basic birth defect.

Americans have heard since the very beginning that they are a barbarous and uncivilized society. It was a criticism during the Cold War from European Soviet Russia that stuck in European ears: we are gangsters, lawless cowboys. Ronald Reagan purposefully embodied the criticism, going so far as to dress the detachment of American athletes to the Sarajevo, Yugoslavia-hosted 1984 Winter Olympics as cowboys. We were still under the threat of Soviet nukes, so the sentiment of lawlessness under that kind of lawfulness was beautiful.

It calls to mind however, the inculcation of lawlessness in American society, that we are a barbarous society from birth, shooting people only when we can see the whites of their eyes, which requires hot and cold blood at the same time, driving the seven-hundred year old throne out of his own colonies. What was on TV in the afternoons, and with cable awaiting in the near-future so that we all watched it together? What sold soap and candy bars?

It was Little House on the Prairie, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and a handful of other TV shows that were set in the Wild Wild West, not to mention all the weird outer space shows (before we realized how boring space actually is), which were just projections of the wild, lawless American character onto a starry black canvas. Lawlessness abounded, and civilized individuals moved and breathed within it, dealing with it one-on-one, head-to-head, with the occasional hired law man with deputized posse rounded up. Good people even sometimes died in the swirling maelstrom of lawlessness, wherein towering individuals advanced with strength against the cosmic fury to carry out the revenge demanded by flesh and blood.

By chance, I have two cop neighbors. Not by coincidence, ours is a very quiet street, and considering that a retired cop lives further down the street and the judge lives on the corner, it is also always plowed first during the winter. This is convenient. One officer is my friend, and I am in awe of him, toeing the blue line in my behalf. He’s a big guy, too, of Greek or Turkish decent, tall and solidly built, casting a more solid shadow than I do, darkened, I think, with that olive Mediterranean complexion. He’s pretty imposing when he approaches you at hockey speed on ice skates, but when he puts on his cop outfit, completing it with the reinforced Mylar bullet proof vest, he’s downright fearsome.

I’ve talked to him a bit about policing, and I have the impression that he does not think philosophically about his job. Further, he earnestly believes that it is his calling to stand between civilization and barbarity.

I have seen the time-series charts which show that policemen in the United States have killed more people in the line of duty, on average, per year than in all of Germany, England, France, and Italy combined since World War II. Well, yeah, but they’re civilized.


Voice, Exit, Loyalty, and Option #4

Albert Hirschman summarized the options of a consumer facing deteriorating quality of a good – voice or exit. That is, they can complain about the quality and hope the producer listens (voice), or they can just take their business elsewhere (exit). He extended this logic to government too, where voice is participation within a political system and exit is, well, not.

His discussions on loyalty are about how voice will often get used when exit is easier, out of loyalty. We see this in both the private and public spheres.

There’s a lot of sense to this, and it describes well how a lot of people act in real life. As an American example of the public sphere, voice is voting in local elections, and exit is moving to a new State for a better regulatory and job climate. Or maybe just switching careers to something differently regulated. This sort of freedom of choice by consumers produces a competition between providers that keeps the quality of available choices from deteriorating terribly.

Hirchman’s model also a trap. The lens of Voice, Exit, and Loyalty almost seems like a closed set of choices, but in fact there’s a Door #4, and if we forget it’s there a terrible surprise will befall us when it opens.

My co-blogger David has chosen exit as his response to the current culture war, but his closing thoughts remind us that Hirschman’s model is missing the fourth and, ultimately, most important option – Violence. There’s big, obvious violence like Timothy McVeigh or the Civil War, but also the everyday chronic violence of legal prohibition. Violence is the tool applied when voice is ignored and exit isn’t tolerable.

And I want to emphasize, that both the “winning” and “losing” sides of political contests may resort to violence once they tire of using voice. Both the loser and winners have failed to convince 100% of the population of the merit of their idea. Both the winners and the losers may decide that “live and let live” isn’t an option. Both the losers and winners may decide that the easiest solution is then simply to punish (whether by physical violence or other means) the recalcitrant other until they shut up and get with the program. Only the labels differ. The losers are “rebellious”, while the winners call it “enforcing the law”.