You Don’t Have a PR Person Telling You What to Say

For years after the success of Pygmalion, his play later adapted into the more famous musical My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw spilled a lot of ink arguing that Eliza would not marry Higgins. But he never edited the script to make this explicit within the play itself. Yet he wrote the play, so presumably he knew his own intentions—surely his take on the matter is authoritative?

This is wrong. The meaning of a text, or a play, or a film, or a song, is not subjective. Nor is it objective. It is conjective; Deirdre McCloskey’s word for what John Searle refers to as an “institutional fact” (or even more of a mouthful, “ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective”). Shaw could only write the play at all because he was educated and gained experience within a particular storytelling tradition at a particular place and a particular period of history. Certainly a great deal of subjective thoughts, feelings, intuitions and understandings played a role in the process of writing the play.

But the meaning exists in the space between the play and the audience, not in any one person’s head. So despite Shaw’s protests, the interpretation that, having now fully become a lady, Eliza would not settle for anything less than marriage, has a lot of strength given the culture the play is supposed to take place in. Certainly that’s how audiences have largely interpreted it for as long as it or its musical adaptation have been shown.

There are some strange implications to this point, once you accept it. If text takes on a life of its own once you’ve put it out there, what about text with a less artistic intent? Say…a tweet?

Consider this telling statement from indie game developer Tim Schafer:

Game-fame, he says, is a tool. It is not to be taken personally and certainly not to be taken seriously. But there is always a price.

“If you’re going to create a high-profile media version of yourself, you have to accept that person is sometimes going to be a magnet for animosity. But early on, I always realized there was a difference between me the person and me the media creation who was generated to help me get games funded.

“Some people get driven kind of crazy by confusing the two things.”

Does this mean that the person who is presented to the public is a complete fake, a phony, a hypocrite? No, nor need he be.

The point is that every statement has an implied author, and that the character of this implied person is not the subjective vision you have of yourself. No, the implications are conjective; your audience will piece together that character from the context they have available to them.

Rhetoric is much maligned in our authenticity obsessed era, but it is nothing more than than the art of wrestling with how you will be interpreted. To see why rhetoric is so important, look no further than Suey Park, one of many who found her life turned upside down by a few tweets that went viral:

She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”

Public Relations, being a subset of rhetoric, is another thing that people look down their noses at these days. Yet Suey Park clearly wishes she could have had some of its insights in mind before this incident occurred.

An important part of communicating the meaning you intended to, and representing the implied author you had in mind, is to consider your implied audience. Sometimes the enterprising rhetorician will create this implied audience where it did not previous exist—McCloskey’s example is Robert Fogel creating an audience of economically literate historians. But most of the time this is just a recipe for not getting your intended meaning across.

We live in a difficult time. It has grown harder to control what your audience will be.

For most of history, a speech, a newspaper, or a magazine all had fairly clear audiences. Now, anything you say anywhere can suddenly go viral. This includes private conversations, given how trivially easy it is to record audio or make a video on a smartphone. Donald Sterling certainly didn’t think he was announcing his racist attitudes to the world.

Given that meaning depends on context, the fact that a statement can instantly jump contexts is troubling. But that does not mean that we should give up hope. We need to channel Tim Schafer’s detachment from the implied author we present to the world, and to take our rhetoric more seriously. The fact that meaning can be more easily snatched away from us than ever is all the more reason why we need to prepare ourselves to contest hostile interpretations, if we wish to have any influence at all.

Three cheers for PR, public personas, and rhetoric. We would all do well to take persuasion as seriously as the ancients our medieval ancestors.


McCloskey’s Representative Foe: The New Institutional Economics

I like to joke that Sweet Talk’s business model is to invite people to write here as though it were a big honor, and then guilt them until they take us up on it. Paul Crider is my latest victim; I invited him on a few months ago and he accepted but hadn’t decided on a topic. His first post came after we were discussing Deirdre McCloskey’s latest paper and he mentioned some concerns he had with it and with her treatment of the subject in Bourgeois Dignity. I said “That would make a great Sweet Talk post.” It was probably the second or third time I’d said that sentence to him; this time I got him to bite.

Since the entire point of Sweet Talk is conversation, I’d like to add to his inaugural post with one of my own.  I’m going to push back against his main claim, while tying it back to a previous thread on the nature of literatures more generally.

Neo-Institutionalism in Economics

Like Paul, I’m not what anyone would call an expert in institutional economics. I generally defer to fellow Sweet Talker Sam Wilson on such matters; I am here obliged to point you to a wonderful series he wrote on the subject over at Euvoluntary Exchange.

However, I did go to GMU to get an MA in economics, and while I was there I took a course on institutional economics taught by John Nye, a founding member of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics. I took the class the year that Oliver Williamson won the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Professor Nye proudly pointed out that, with that, the first three ISNIE presidents all had Nobels. The other two were Ronald Coase and Douglass North.

Professor Nye is one of the smartest, most incisive thinkers I’ve had the honor to meet. Like so many young men in a theoretical field, I was quite confident I knew the answer to everything, and he always had a question ready that forced me to rethink everything from the beginning, more carefully. Mancur Olson seemed to me to present nothing but Revealed Truth, but Professor Nye sketched out three or four contradictory models that could reasonably be said to represent a particular passage in The Rise and Decline of Nations, showing how imprecise Olson could be. I had fun watching as he participated in a discussion with McCloskey, Mokyr, and Boudreaux last year.

So I confess to a guilty amusement at finding him mentioned by McCloskey in her paper, in a highly sarcastic manner:

The less dogmatic of the neo-institutionalists, such as Joel Mokyr and John Nye, seem on odd days of the month to believe in the North-Acemoglu pre-judgment that N -> G. No Ideas present. On even days the lesser-dogmatists calls ideas, D, “culture,” which is the vague way people talk when they have not taken on board the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories, and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians.

McCloskey’s paper finally clarified a confusion I had had since reading Bourgeois Dignity. I understood her point that institutions could not explain the Great Enrichment, because Great Britain had had basically the same institutions for a long time before its onset, and because such (or even better ones) institutions had existed many times in many other places throughout human history. What I did not understand was her point that the Enrichment was not caused by culture. She said instead that it was caused by a change in rhetoric. I did not really understand the distinction—to me, “culture” was simply the word that described everything that filled the gaps left by institutions. To say that the rhetoric about business had changed seemed to me no different from saying that there had been a particular change in the culture.

It’s now clear to me that coming at institutional economics from a GMU perspective is precisely why I had trouble grasping her framework. As she says, culture is often referred to as a sort of black box to explain the residual that was not explained by institutions. And institutions were treated as merely a bundle of incentives and game theoretic rules which guided utility maximizers into outcomes that they would not have arrived at on their own. Culture was expected to be something different, but not different in kind—there was always the implication that some sort of game theoretic guidance was probably going on there, too.

That is what McCloskey takes aim at in her paper, as well as many of the big names in the new institutional economics who don’t even include the hand-waving reference to culture. I think her critique is dead on, and what I like about it is that she really fleshes out the positive case for what institutions, culture, and rhetoric actually are. I was delighted to see her citing John Searle’s institutional ontology, as well as brain scientists, and I have basically been saying the word “conjective” wherever I can get away with it since reading the paper. It makes me even more eager to get my hands on Bourgeois Equality, the last book in here series which should go into this in greater depth, when it comes out.

The Literature? Which Literature Would That Be?

Paul points to an interesting review of a growing literature that makes a concerted effort to stop treating culture as a mere black box. I find this very interesting, because my own experience with the institutionalists lines up much more with McCloskey’s. The character of that literature is an assumption that, as Dan Klein puts it, knowledge is a flat thing that you either have or you don’t, without a place for judgment. Beliefs and ideas don’t enter into it at all, and institutions are just systematic levers of doling out pain and pleasure to achieve particular collective action outcomes.

But the review Paul cites seems to grapple with more dimensions than that. And it has 12 pages of citations; it really draws on a broad base of scholarship.

This brings me back to the discussion that Sam Hammond, Garett Jones, and a few others and I had on the nature of literatures in general. As a literature like institutional economics matures, it gets bigger and develops a lot of sub-literatures. Your perception of the general character of the literature will probably depend a lot on your entry point. For McCloskey from Chicago, and for me from GMU, we see the towering figures who started the field to begin with. I was surprised at the way McCloskey characterized Ronald Coase’s two famous papers in The Rhetoric of Economicsshe emphasized that Coase’s world was filled with talk, which is true. But it seems to me that you could see right in those papers the destiny of the fields that were to be inspired by his work. For if we take the equation that McCloskey gives us:

I get the price theory: price and property, the variables of prudence, price, profit, the Profane as I have called them, move people. But the point here is that they are also moved by the S variables of speech, stories, shame, the Sacred, and by the use of the monopoly of violence by the state, the legal rules of the game and the dance in the courts of law, the L variables. Most behavior, B, is explained by P and S and L, together:

B = α + βP + γS + δL + ε

It seems to me that Coase talked about at most a model where B = P + L. And certainly, P + L is superior to merely P, which characterized most of 20th century economics. And indeed, the fields inspired by Coase—Law and Economics, Institutional Economics, and Industrial Organization, to name but three—all had this character of assuming B = P + L.

Nevertheless, perhaps precisely because Paul is seeking to get up to speed on the latest literature rather than taking a course that provides a broader genealogy of the field, he found something that seems to be consciously trying to work McCloskey’s S into the equation. She commented, saying that she would check the paper out, and adding:

I’m very willing to believe there are others who are more aware of the force of culture (Joel Mokyr, for example, an ally of mine in emphasizing the role of ideas in economic history; Joel and Avner Greif are going to reply to my article). But “culture” is a vague word. I prefer to speak of particular ideas, such as equality of dignity.

I would bet that the people Paul mentions have made valuable contributions, but I’d also bet that McCloskey will be frustrated by their lack of engagement beyond the boundaries of economics or social science in general. Hence her taking to task Nye and Mokyr for not having “taken on board the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories, and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians.”

I wonder whether economics will ever be able to internalize such a broad-minded approach into its practice. Another option is already unfolding: McCloskey and others like her (such as frequent co-author Arjo Klamer) are contributing what is essentially an independent, alternative conversation that has grown into a literature in its own right. Whether that literature one day gains prominence among the big schools of economics is an open question. I’m a short term pessimist on that count, but I am certainly rooting for them.

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Individual Volition and Conjective Reality

A couple of weeks ago, Nathan continued what as been a very fruitful conversation on the subject of individual responsibility and group decisionmaking. The first couple of paragraphs give you the gist:

I don’t agree with Adam that individual responsibility emerged within a tradition, or only ever existed within a space framed by groups. Individual responsibility may be a relic of the state of nature, if one ever existed.

The Durkheim and Foucault schools seem to rightly identify that the individual is shaped by structures and institutions, wherever the individual does not practice volition. But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.

For Nathan, individual responsibility truly is individual; in origin and in operation. He acknowledges that institutions influence individuals, but treats those institutions as external things, acting upon otherwise autonomous individuals who hold “volition over the shaping of self in every respect.”

Against this, I want to argue that most of what makes us particularly human is what Deirdre McCloskey calls conjective; that is, existing neither in the subject nor in the object but in the group. She draws heavily on John Searle’s institutional ontology; her “conjective” fact maps to his “institutional” as opposed to “brute” fact.

But Searle’s analysis needs another word, which one might coin as “conjective,” what we know together as against what we know inside an individual head or what we imagine to be God’s objectivity. The conjective is a result of human agreement or acceptance. The Latin is cum + iactus, that is, “thrown together,” as after all we humans are in our mammalian cuddling and especially in our conversations.

One of Nathan’s fears is that if we accept the centrality of groups, people will never take individual responsibility or initiative. Essentially, they will use the centrality of groups as an excuse never to do anything themselves, but if no one does anything then by definition the group won’t be doing anything, either. On the subject of virtue, he says:

[V]irtue is best exemplified and then caught, rather than taught. But who will take the initiative to demonstrate? Particularly when the students might be few, and might not absorb the lesson apart from repeated demonstrations? Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

Nathan hasn’t fleshed out his model too much, which makes it difficult to respond in too much detail. Suffice to say I also believe that individual responsibility and initiative matter, but I think the very idea of such things is primarily understood conjectively, rather than subjectively.

The idea that the acknowledgement of the group, of “man with man” (as Martin Buber describes the “fact of human existence” and McCloskey quotes approvingly), as a hindrance to responsibility remind me of a similar criticism of Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott argued that politics should be about seeking “intimations” for action from inside of a political tradition. Critics argued that this amounted to no recommendation at all. He responded:

The critic who found ‘some mystical qualities’ In this passage leaves me puzzled: It seems to me an exceedingly matter-of-fact description of the characteristics of any tradition-the Common Law of England, for example. the so-called British Constitution. the Christian religion, modern physics, the game of cricket, shipbuilding.

Clarifying with a sports example:

Again, is Mr N. A. Swanson all at sea when he argues in this fashion about the revolutionary proposal that the bowler in cricket should be allowed to ‘throw’ the ball: ‘the present bowling action has evolved as a sequence, from underarm by way of round-arm to over-arm, by successive legislation of unorthodox actions. Now, I maintain that the “throw” has no place in this sequence .. .’? Or, is Mr G. H. Fender arguing without a standard or criterion, or is he merely expressing a ‘hunch’, when he contends that the ‘throw’ has a place in this sequence and should be permitted? And is it so far fetched to describe what is being done here and elsewhere as ‘exploring the intimations’ of the total situation?

Individual responsibility looks very much like the argument over throwing in cricket, or the manner in which evidence is presented in a common law court. There is a gigantic conjective background that frames any act of individual volition. One cannot conceive of virtue without language, the consensus that bravery, restraint, wisdom, charity, fairness, and similar qualities, are in fact worthy of praise. Moreover, virtue ethics as a specific intellectual tradition is itself a vast conjective enterprise.

Where Nathan may be wary is with the idea that people treat the conjective as given, but McCloskey strongly emphasizes that quite unlike the objective or even the subjective, the conjective is contestable and constantly being renegotiated.

Searle argues persuasively that a society is glued together by conjective facts of the sort “X counts as Y in context C.” Thus, a clergyman saying “I thee wed” counts as marrying two people in the context of a properly constituted marriage ceremony. A $20 bill counts as legal tender in the context of the territories of the United States. A ball going over the goal line counts as a goal in the context of a soccer game. As Stanley Fish so often notes, of course, such conjective facts are always contestable. Objective facts (“water is two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen”) or subjective facts (“Beckham intends to score a goal”) are not. The physical facts of the world and the psychological states of human minds are “brute,” to extend Searle’s word, in the sense of being incontestable in their very nature, their “ontology” as the philosophers say. Physical constraints such as the law of gravity and utility such as a great love for vanilla ice cream are not the sort of facts we can quarrel about once we have grasped in a humanistic inquiry their nature, their “qualia,” as the philosophers put is. All we can do then is measure, if we can.

The conjective by contrast is always contestable and always in that sense ethical, that is, about “deontic status,” in Searle’s vocabulary, “deontic” being about what we ought to do (the Greek means “being needful”). The clergyman might be argued to be not properly authorized to perform the marriage (look at the long controversy about gay marriage), the definition of “U.S. territory” might be ambiguous (embassies abroad?), the goal might be disputed. If any part of the ball breaks the plane of the goal line is it a goal? Was the linesman in a position to judge?

What I have been groping for with my pieces on group responsibility, and what McCloskey’s “conjective” supplies theoretical resources for, is the idea that we are individually responsible for the extent to which we either contest or support a given conjective fact.

Thus, democracy is imperfect, and does not really aggregate preferences, but is that grounds for abandoning the enterprise? I say not. I say the American project is still worthy of our commitment. Making such a commitment just is to take responsibility for your role as citizen, member of your community, neighbor. It is to take ownership of your own influence, however small, on our conjective reality. And in practice it involves the exact sort of shouldering of burdens and public mindedness that Nathan calls for. But it also involves participation in politics—as voters as well as in other roles, which require individuals to fill them.

If I’m lucky enough to get Nathan to reply to this, here are some questions I would like him to answer:

  • What is the relationship of the individual to things like language and social contexts with “deontic” meaning?
  • Are the latter merely external things that an individual takes as given, or is their relationship deeper than that?
  • Do you forsake politics entirely?
  • What is your ideal outcome; what does a polity look like when all of the individuals adopt your radical individualist ethic?

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