Conversation in Commerce: Intimate, Impersonal, and Indirect

Featured Image is The Moneylender and His Wife, by Quentin Massys.

The offering of a schilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest.

-Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence

In a post two years ago, Nathan distinguished transaction and exchange based on the impersonal quality of the former and the conversational quality of the latter. He gave grocery stores as an example of the transactional, and farmer’s markets for the conversational.

In many grocery stores the shopper can select, check, bag, and pay for the groceries without ever having to speak to another person. Where is the catallaxy in that? You do not make friends with your celery and dog food. Grocery shopping is about cost primarily, because your choices have already been laid out for you. We may trade off a store with a better selection for one with lower prices, but in that context we have already made our choice in choosing where to shop, and all that is left is cost. The transactional context contains risk that can be managed, but is devoid of uncertainty.

At the less structured farmer’s market, however:

In exchange there is possibility of alteration of preferences. You go to the farmer’s market for the experience, and fresh tomatoes. But you never know what else might show up at the farmer’s market. It is fraught with uncertainty. It is also steeped in conversation. The very context suggests that one approaches it wanting to have her preferences shaped by the experience. Sellers get intimately involved in each sale, talking with every customer and potential customer. Advice is given and recipes are shared.

I think Nathan is onto something here, but I also think that both settings are conversational, in an important sense.

It might be better to say that the wider context for each is conversational, in a variety of ways.

At a grocery store, the manner in which choices are laid out for shoppers is neither random nor entirely about cost saving. These strategically designed layouts create what Michel Anteby calls vocal silence; though no explicit direction is given, specific choices suggest themselves.

It’s true that at the grocery store these suggestions often emphasize cost saving, as with the placards indicating discounts or stands emphasizing some particular bargain. But the basic arrangement of items in aisle suggests a relationship among them. When I go to get ketchup, I might see mustard and suddenly remember we’re running low on it. Little things like that.

Providers and retailers spend a lot of time attempting to anticipate their customers. Sometimes this is simple cost saving, again—if things are organized in an intuitive way, it’ll take me less time to find them. But an important part of it is figuring out what innovations (however small) customers would be amenable to.

Adam Smith’s point about the shilling at the top of this post should be kept in view; money talks. But money talks very indirectly.  It doesn’t tell providers much more than that people were willing to pay a certain price for something. Market research isn’t as intimate as chatting with someone you see every week at a farmer’s market, but it is more direct than simply watching sales figures. We might call this style of conversation impersonalTens of billions of dollars are spent on it each year.

The conversational styles are continuously generated through transactions and exchange by establishing what Charles Taylor has called “footings” for the participants on each side.

 In the way we exchange, talk to one another, treat one another, we establish and then continue or alter the terms of our relationship, what we might call the “footing” on which we stand to each other. We do this through our rhetoric, our tone of voice, the kind of remark I permit myself and you don’t challenge, and on through an infinity of nuances.

Let’s say we are friends, but I am older than you. I can respond to this by treating you as an ingénue, offering avuncular advice on frequent occasions, sometimes intervening in a bossy fashion, dismissing peremptorily some of your ideas, and so on. You for your part don’t challenge this; you may even like it. The upshot is that what I call a certain “footing” gets set up, call it an uncle-nephew footing, in which we each have certain expectations of the other, in which certain moves are normal and expected, and others are surprising, even shocking, and in which certain obligations are implied on each of our parts, and the like.

The footings in the conversation between market researchers and their subject are that of detached analysts on the one hand and subjects of study on the other. Though the latter are there voluntarily, the authority of the former is established from the outset. Researchers control the structure of the engagement. The degree of freedom subjects are allowed is limited, and determined in advance by researchers.

At Nathan’s farmer’s market, the representatives of the farm establish the footing of experts and salesmen, but also something like an acquaintance. The tone of the conversation is more casual.

The grocery store strives to make conversation as indirect as possible. They may conduct market research, and the providers of the goods they sell certainly do, but once in the store all they want to hear from their customers is the sound of their wallets emptying. In as much as there is a footing here, it is established through vocal silence. And customers respond primarily through their buying patterns.

This has been given its ultimate expression in our day through online retail. Amazon sets itself up as the website of choice for ordering what you want as quickly, cheaply, and painlessly as possible. There seems to be no human element at all. But of course, there is. Amazon is constantly listening to their customers. Vocal silence is created algorithmically, on the fly, and those algorithms are constantly being evaluated by people. New business prospects are experimented with on a smaller scale before being deployed to the general customer base or abandoned.

Even at its most indirect and impersonal, commerce is a series of ongoing conversations, establishing, challenging, and altering various footings on each side along the way.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization

Featured image is Novgorod Marketplace, by Appolinary Vasnetsov.

Few phrases capture F. A. Hayek’s vision of emergent order more concisely than “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization,” the second chapter of The Constitution of LibertyFree societies, in this vision, are perpetual discovery processes. One may wonder, however, how we evaluate what it is that these processes discover. Inspired by Hayek, James Buchanan appeared to believe that the evaluation itself emerges from the very same process. Hayek is harder to pin down on this question, but in The Constitution of Liberty appears to be a simple rule consequentialist.

Hayek and Buchanan’s view of social becoming as a discovery process is immensely valuable, but the frameworks by which they defend or evaluate this process leave much to be desired.

Continue reading “Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization”

The Schismatic’s Mirror

Featured Image is Works of Mercy

We live in a schismatic era; the spirit of our age is division, negation, standing against rather than for.

Schism is an act of violence; the schismatic tears their community asunder. Violence is not inherently bad. Surgery is violent, and so is setting a broken bone. Violence, in short, can serve a medical purpose.

But surgery must be conducted under the right conditions if we don’t want surgical incisions to turn septic. If the man with the hammer too often sees everything as a nail, our current situation too often inclines us to reflexively reach for the bone saw. Amputations can be lifesaving. But it isn’t the best way to treat a flu.

When we encounter a schismatic, we are too much like Narcissus encountering Echo:

In Echo he heard himself, but was not able to differentiate himself from her, so he hated her, revealing a self-hatred, making her (and himself) nothing.

Instead we ought to see them for what they are to us: a mirror to ourselves, to the ugliness and the beauty of our shared situation.

Echo’s mom was infuriated, luring him to a reflective pool of water, wherein he saw a reflection of himself. At this point, you’re supposed to “get it.” Ah, Narcissus finally sees himself and realizes that he is lovely.

(…)

Nemesis gets her revenge, of course, but what revenge? The higher gods have short-circuited Nemesis’ plan: Narcissus is transformed, becoming the loveliest of flowers, with neck bent in utter humility, which is a love for self. Narcissus loves himself, and we love Narcissus.

The schismatic rejects to protect themselves from ugliness, but the ugliness was a reflection of something already a part of themselves. Their rejection is propaganda by deed; it invites others to join them. And the spirit of our age, impoverished as it is, seems to offer few defenses but to reject them right back.

I believe that we need, instead, to accept them. Most of all, we must accept that we are a part of the world and the age that we share with the schismatics. We must accept responsibility for our part of that world. We must be able to love the schismatic, and what they reject, and ourselves; to be able to take responsibility but also to bend our stiff necks in humility.

Martin Gurri, my father, observes:

Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions.  One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy.  Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations.  A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities:  instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.

In reading this piece, I couldn’t help but feel that he was reaching for the bone saw, too. But some other tools in the medical bag are hinted at, though left untouched.

Why not probe deeper into the nature of authority? Why not search (frantically or calmly) for “higher-level arguments”. Seeking to justify opinions already held can be a great provisional starting point on a longer journey. If we can have the courage to face doubt, and a willingness to press on when the certain becomes uncertain.

The narrowness of the age is rivaled only by the breadth of resources available to us. Most of the great classics are available online, free of charge. Pictures of great art can be accessed that way as well. And an army of scholars and enthusiasts on every topic under the sun are a few keystrokes away, to talk to and to learn from.

Accept the schismatic character of the age. Love the nihilists as yourself. And then accept responsibility for the serious pursuit of answers to your questions. The road to wisdom was never an easy trek, but it’s no harder than it’s ever been.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

Against the Hegemony of Backstories

Batman_origin_1940_02
From Detective Comics #33

The twin stars of superhero comics and Freudianism have left a terrible pock mark on our culture: a fixation with backstories and origin stories. Superhero comics have, from the beginning, given not only their protagonist but the villains origin stories that establishes all of their crucial characteristics. And Freudianism has always had a larger presence in Hollywood writers’ rooms than in practiced psychiatry, and this influence has far outlived the discrediting of Freudian psychotherapy as a science.

Whatever one may say about Freud and the practitioners and theorists who followed him, in storytelling it has created a cage in which many writers ensnare themselves. In this cage, every little aspect of a character that is salient to the plot (and many that are not but might stir the audience in other ways) can be traced back to crucial events in their childhood. The way the characters construed those events comes to define who they are in adulthood.

In superhero comics, origin stories come to define heroes in villains to an extreme and essentialist degree. This is parodied, to great effect, in One Punch Man. One villain ate too much crab and thus becomes a crab monster. Another hero launches into a dramatic telling of his origin story unprompted.

There was one show I watched, which I will not bother to name, which had a particularly egregious example of this. The story was going along just fine, when the writers clearly decided it was time to add emotional depth (or something) by giving the main character a backstory. We learn that he was found, abandoned, by some family, who raised him. We then watch this family die off one by one, in a way that provides him the motivation for doing what he is doing in the present arc of the show.

Essentially, this poor family was created and killed all in the span of an episode, just to show that the main character takes his task really seriously….or something.

We have lost the distinction between being and becoming, and it has created a lot of confusion. We don’t even need to get into an argument about nature vs nurture, or whether people can choose to react to or construe the same events differently, in order to see that backstories are often superfluous at best.

Let us say you have a character who is a mob boss. He runs a human trafficking operation. He has innocent people killed in order to keep anyone from testifying against him or the people who work for him. Perhaps he also loves his wife, and is devoted to his children. Does seeing the path he took to get to that point change any of that?

The point is that you can see what kind of person someone is without tracing how he became that way. And in fact it is not always clear that learning about the latter will shed much light on the former.

What of Spiderman’s dead uncle Ben, or Batman’s dead parents? These are the classics, of course. Perhaps we must concede that these characters would not be who they are without these origin stories—but this, of course, is by construction. And it’s not clear that that’s the case at any rate.

Spiderman is characterized mostly by his powers, the fact that he’s a costumed vigilante, and his constant in-fight wise-cracking. Batman is a rich man who has learned martial arts and decided to use his resources to fund his vigilante activities. He’s dour and intimidating where Spiderman is lighthearted and friendly. Their struggles are much better characterized by who they are and the internal dynamics of their various story arcs than through reference to an all-encompassing origin event.

So repeat after me: who someone is must be distinguished from how they came to be. That doesn’t mean we ought to discard the latter; we simply ought not to confuse the two.

This is true of people, animals, objects; anything. Art and science can both be much improved if we keep this simple distinction in mind.

Batman_origin_1940_02 - Copy
From Detective Comics #33

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

She’s sitting across from me in a pub. It’s well after dark and the shadows are closing in around her. It’s cool outside, so she has elegantly wrapped a thick, black, impeccably embroidered Kashmiri shaal around her shoulders. Her hair is pulled back, as she used to wear it back then, and she’s leaning into the back of her seat. The smile on her face is perfect: it’s the final second of a closed-mouth smile, before her mouth comes open and she gives me that big, bright, loving smile that I’ve seen so many times since then. Her lips are pursed, her head angled to the side, and her eyes are absolutely gleaming at me.

It is a vision of pure beauty.

Not quite eight years ago, through dumb luck, I managed to capture a photograph of the exact moment – the precise second – I realized that my wife is the most beautiful woman I had, and have, ever seen in my whole life. I don’t mean that the photograph is a favorite photograph I have of her. No, I mean that even had I not snapped that photograph, that moment would still be the moment I came to that appraisal of her. It was just my dumb luck that I happened to be taking her photograph when I realized it. Lucky me.

There are two reasons why I’m not including that photograph in this blog post. First, I’m not going to plaster my personal life all over a public forum. Take that, Kim Kardashian! Second, even if I did, nobody else would see in that photo the same image I just described. They’d see only a pretty young woman smiling for the camera. It’s not that you had to be there, it’s that you couldn’t have been there – you weren’t me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

You have to take your own photograph.

Continue reading “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder”

Public Spheres

If you play a game by its rules, and can’t predict the moves of the other players, isn’t there a sense in which the game plays you?

Social participation is a far thicker thing than most people believe it to be. After the Lockean turn, we are capable of thinking of participation as only a personal choice. In as much as we feel the pull towards participating, we call it “peer pressure” or “social pressure,” and class it as a type of oppression (however mild in degree).

This thick participation, however, is central to the human experience. It is at the heart of language, art, politics, and commerce. It’s not just how we accomplish things together, but how we reach common understanding, how we fill our lives with a shared joy. It is also, of course, how we dominate and immiserate one another and ourselves.

But I don’t think we can avoid this sort of participation, nor do I think it is wise to try. The project of eliminating all power relations, pursued by 19th and 20th century radicals, has proven fruitless. All relations, from our most cherished and intimate to our most remote and official, have political implications. To eliminate power means never to love, trust, or depend upon anyone ever again. In short, it means isolation and it would result in our extinction.

Continue reading “Public Spheres”

Mistrust and Misunderstanding

Featured image is The Weighing of the Heart Ritual, from the Book of the Dead of Sesostris.

There’s a path dependence to trust. We trust the people we already know, we guess at the trustworthiness of people we meet for the first time based on what we’ve learned from people we already trust.

There’s a path dependence to understanding. Our pre-established understanding of our situation, and the range of possible situations we might encounter, heavily influences how we read each new situation we enter into.

There are political implications for each. To extend our trust is to empower, to withhold it is to deny options or access. To read a situation one way means to affirm that some responses to it are called for, and deny others.

These things cannot be profitably examined apart from one another for long. How we understand the games that life throws us into is the basis of who we trust, but the web of trust we are within is what pulls us into the specific games we find ourselves playing, and shapes our understanding.

We understand our situation based in part on what we are told by peers, family, and authorities (such as teachers when we are children), because we see them as peers, family, and authorities. Our understanding is shaped by trust which is shaped by our understanding.

To extend our trust is ultimately to make a leap of faith, whatever our understanding of the person and their role. We are always capable of making that leap, to trust people we’re initially inclined to believe are untrustworthy.

When we analyze these things in merely formal terms, it’s hard to understand how we can ever grow beyond our initial position. Faith and spirit do not lend themselves very readily to formal treatment. A good faith effort at conversation, approached in a spirit of openness to the new and unfamiliar, likely contains no formal differences from its opposite. Anything we can take as a signal of good faith or openness can just as easily be interpreted as a cynical maneuver to get an interlocutor to let their guard down.

One can understand, then, why many people think Gadamer is simply doubling down on the cage of our nature when he affirms the power of tradition:

That which has been sanctioned by tradition and custom has an authority that is nameless, and our finite historical being is marked by the fact that the authority of what has been handed down to us—and not just what is clearly grounded—always has power over our attitudes and behavior.

When in reality few are more optimistic about our ability to reach new understandings than Gadamer:

The fact that we move in a linguistic world and grow up into the world through an experience preformed by language does not at all remove the possibilities of critique. On the contrary, the possibility of going beyond our conventions and beyond all those experiences that are schematized in advance opens up before us once we find ourselves, in conversation with others, faced with opposed thinkers, with new critical tests, with new experiences. Fundamentally in our world the issue is always the same as it was in the beginning: in language we are trained in conventions and social norms behind which there are always economic and hegemonic interests. But this is precisely the world that we as humans experience: in it we rely on our faculty of judgment, that is, on the possibility of our taking a critical stance with regard to every convention.

It may seem like a paradox, but it is precisely our starting point, path dependency and all, that makes it possible for us to arrive at understandings which are radically different from them. You cannot go on a long journey without starting from somewhere—but obviously your starting point makes some end points more or less likely.

I agree with Paul that the essentially contested nature of trust and understanding have, as I said above, political implications. He draws on the work of Miranda Fricker, who shows her debt to Rawls by making justice the prism through which the political is viewed. But justice—that is, determining who is owed what, and how much, and in what way—is not prior to the hermeneutic problem. It is rather the other way around. The very notion of justice is “sanctioned by tradition and custom” with “an authority which is nameless”. We can see this clearly in Fricker’s formulation, which presupposes the heritage of late 20th century liberalism. We cannot get around the thrownness of our understanding by appealing to some notion of justice intended to stand outside of it. No understanding can stand outside of this thrownness.

It seems trivially true that our webs of trust and the understandings that make them possible create relationships of domination. But we should not be seduced into thinking that such relationships are one-directional; the dominion of the cartel of mutual trust against the untrusted. The narrative of the hegemony over the narratives of the oppressed. No, just as often trust and heterodox narratives are weaponized against the trusting and the orthodox.

The Catholic priest abuse scandal was just a special case of the basic fact that the people we trust are overwhelmingly the most likely to hurt and exploit us. According to one source, 68% of child abuse cases are perpetrated by a family member, and 90% are done by someone the child knows. Priests and other high status officials in a community command a trust that is dangerous not only because potential victims let their guard down, but because victims are by default less credible than the victimizers.

Moreover, any understanding can become a tool of domination. Look at the communists. They believed that they had the one, true understanding, which would allow them to overthrow exploitation. How’d that work out for them?

When we demand that people yield to our understanding over theirs, when we claim that ours is the path to righteousness and theirs is a pretense for protecting their interests, this can be described as an attempt to dominate. After all, our reading of a situation has political implications—and so rhetoric, ethics, and politics can all be collapsed into various struggles for power. If we choose to embrace cynicism whole cloth.

Acknowledging the truth of all this while avoiding vulgar cynicism requires, I think, an embrace of faith and of spirit. As I said elsewhere:

Whether or not business can be characterized as exploiting the less fortunate or participating in their flourishing, myopically opportunistic or directed towards the common good, may be more a matter of the spirit of the enterprise than of its formal characteristics.

Whether or not a given conversation, a decision to extend or withhold trust, to spend our time trying to understand something new or simply apply what we already understand—whether any of these are better treated cynically or idealistically depends upon the spirit in which they are pursued. We cannot trust everyone, and we cannot understand everything. We cannot even completely understand the concepts we are already most familiar with; our time on this Earth is simply too short, and our concepts are too rich in implications and too broadly interconnected with other concepts.

Every attempt to abolish privileged (or prestigious) roles or frameworks will fail, because it is in the nature of the game to create such privileges. To put it differently, they are a necessary part of how humans act in concert; we could not achieve our greatest accomplishments without making ourselves vulnerable to our worst abuses.

So I must conclude that Fricker draws some useful distinctions, but the direction of her inquiry (as Paul represents it in any case) seems wrongheaded. The problem is much larger than whether or not we have good reasons to mistrust someone, or whether we misunderstand the plight of the oppressed because we haven’t formulated enough concepts.

But that’s probably just a convenient fiction I am holding onto in order to advance the hegemony of my web of trust.