Thursday 14 February 2013

A paramedic's view of the 'modesty' of bankers

Worlds apart from all the bombastic verbiage of academics and would-be intellectuals, real life experience, when expounded with eloquence, is wont to cut straight to the point:
I am an ambulance medic and part of a two-man crew. We often get up at 4am, check over a 999 frontline ambulance, then drive anything up to two hours to our area of cover, all in our own time. Then follows a 12-hour intensive shift, where we deal with anything from multiple car pile-ups to seriously ill children. We are sometimes abused both verbally and physically. Sometimes we are threatened with sharp implements and have to negotiate or even physically fight for our safety.

Half-hour rest breaks are not always taken due to the demand on services. We then have the drive back, where we have to clean our vehicles before driving home. The stress is monstrous, but we are exempt from any legislation that makes sure we are not worked to death as we are an emergency service. Our average wage is about £15 an hour. We are life savers, counsellors and sometimes just company, as we hold the hand of someone beyond help. We have cultivated a black sense of humour so we do not crumble and, even so, often cry on the way home. I am sure there are many other professions which have their own untold stories of daily physical and mental hardship.

I would like to say to Sir Philip Hampton of RBS that our wages are "modest" for what we do (RBS chief underpaid, says chairman, 12 February). A multimillion-pound pay packet for a banker's success or failure is not "modest". We take home in a gruelling year of real blood, sweat and tears what Stephen Hester earns in six days. I wish that those who earn such sums would realise that their renumeration is not right. Perhaps they should not apply terms to themselves like "I have one of the hardest jobs in the world" (Fred the Shred) until they see what others do on a fraction of their wage. What comes out of their mouths undermines millions of hard working people in this country. If an ambulance turned up to one of their children severely injured on a country road, would we seem only worth £15 an hour? As they watched as we fought for their child's life, far from back up and hospital facilities, would they reconsider the value of jobs that do not make a profit?

Would they consider our wages modest as they apply this term to their own? Modest is a powerful word and has to be earned.
That's an extremely powerful bit of writing.  Angry but not nasty, indignant but not exasperated; 'modest' in all the right ways.  Humility is the word.  And it casts quite a stark and revealing light on the mollycoddled myopia of elites -- how they can, it seems completely earnestly, buy their own hype -- that they're irreplaceable, irrepressable √úbermenschen doing what no one else could, benefiting everyone by benefiting themselves.

At least it seems that way.  Is it real or is it just spin?  Do elites really believe that they are hard done by when they are given only 'modest' severance packages or when people say they should be prosecuted for crimes that 'everyone else was doing' (see MP's expenses, LIBOR fixing, all manner of financial crimes perpetrated by those 'too big to jail').  Are they so cut off from the rest of the world, so naive?  Or is that just the face they present, all the while being cruel, devious, backstabbing bastards?

Well, perhaps the two things are not mutually exclusive.  History shows that elites invariably buy into their own propaganda even while they understand that it is propaganda -- cognitive dissonance be damned, Orwell be praised.  If it's true that we judge our social status relative to our immediate peers rather than society as a whole then business and financial elites are under no less pressure than anyone else to climb further up the slagheap of capital -- few ever reach the summit and those who do so do not so much admire the view as worry about those clawing their way up from behind.

An obtuse metaphor, to be sure, but then I'm no paramedic.

Whitehead, Latour, the reality of events, irreduction

Levi is back with some thoughts on realism, flat ontology and so on:
I just can’t agree with Whitehead regarding things like rainbows and the beauty of sunsets.  Oh sure, I think these things are real enough because they involve the properties of light coupled with brains. ... I draw a distinction between “exo-qualities” and “endo-qualities”.  An endo-quality is a quality that resides in the thing itself.  It’s there regardless of whether or not anything relates to it.  An exo-quality, by contrast, is something that only emerges in a relation between two or more entities.
Interesting stuff!  Forgive me my rambling:

Isn't 'light + rain + brain' an object itself?  Sure, they're objects individually and the rainbow qua aesthetic object only exists by their becoming related but, in Whitehead's terms, doesn't this combination of things forms a unique actual occasion?  In your terms doesn't it form an object, emergent from and irreducible to its component parts?  From the perspective of the rain droplets the rainbow may be merely exorelated as it is an event that the rain constitutes by entering into relationships with other things without exhausting the rain's own specificity.  However, from the perspective of the rainbow qua aesthetic event itself the rain droplets are endo-related because they are part of the event.

The fact that this event requires a brain is, therefore, neither here nor there -- it also requires a body, water, air, sun, particular atmospheric conditions, etc.  Rainbows aren't real in the same way that rain drops are real -- this is certainly true.  But this is a perspectival question since you could equally say that, from the perspective of an oxygen atom, the water molecule that it constitutes along with two hydrogen atoms isn't 'real' in the same way as the atoms themselves.  The water molecule isn't 'real, out there' because without the oxygen atoms there would be no molecule.  Similarly, the rainbow isn't 'real, out there' because without the perceiving brain there is no rainbow, only water in air forming a prism that diffracts light.

If there is a difference between these two examples it is because you have introduced a distinction between cognitive apprehension and other kinds of relations -- not an indefensible argument but one that must be made carefully.

So, beauty isn't a property of the droplets or the lightwaves or even these things together but we can definitely say that it is a property of the rainbow.  Beauty is a property of the rainbow so long as we accept that the rainbow is constituted by perceiving beings as well as rain, light, etc. -- that it is not an object perceived by a subject but an object that includes a subject.  The rainbow is not beautiful unless it includes a mind that perceives it as such but that doesn't mean that beauty is not a property of the rainbow itself, that beauty is confined to the mind.  It just means that it is contingent upon the precise constitution of the aesthetic event.

I'm just thinking 'out loud' now but we could say that two people looking at the 'same' rainbow won't experience beauty in the same way, therefore beauty is only in their minds.  But Whitehead could just say 'well, they're not looking at the same rainbows, then'.  They're looking at the same droplets and light rays, perhaps, but not the same rainbows.  So, rainbows are subjective, as is their beauty, but they are subjective in the sense that they include one and only one perceiving subject.  They are not a subjective apprehension of an external objective reality as this would mean perceiving subjects transcending objective reality, all looking out on the same, singular reality but experiencing it severally.  But they are a singularly subjective apprehension in the sense that these aesthetic events -- the rainbow qua beautiful thing -- can only include one perceiving subject.  When two or more people look at the 'same' rainbow they are experiencing two different events that merely share some constituent parts.

So, it's not a case of several subjects perceiving a singular reality but several aesthetic events involving an overlapping plurality.  This makes sense to me but it clearly requires a category of 'subject' distinct from other kinds of objects because there are many objects within a rainbow -- billions of water droplets, innumerable lightwaves, etc. -- but, for it to be a 'subjective experience' in the manner I described, it can contain only one subject.  Add another subject and you have two aesthetic events.

Although perhaps we are not trapped in our individual subjectivity.  Perhaps if we talk about, write about, paint about our experiences of beauty and if we share the same cognitive and aesthetic preconditions with other subjects then we can share experiences of beauty.  Perhaps through social, artistic processes we can draw our experiences together and perhaps we can meaningfully talk about multi-subject aesthetic events.  But those subjects would have to be drawn together by other conditions beyond the isolated events themselves.  We'd have to be drawing in further mediators, as it were.

Anyway, on Latour's principle of irreduction, people seem to forget what he actually says:
1.1.1 Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything
• I will call this the 'principle of irreducibility', but it is a prince
that does not govern since that would be a self-contradiction
That's his first principle in its entirety and each part of it is significant.  People often fixate on the 'irreducible' part and think that the principle is all about everything being unique and sui generis and nothing being articulable in terms of anything else.  I recall Ray Brassier in his review of Irreductions being most upset at how Latour said, first, that everything was irreducible but then proceeded to reduce everything -- even science, the horror! -- to his own terms.  He didn't realise that this is actually Latour's entire point! -- that the only way of understanding and perhaps even existing in the world is via an infralanguage (or something similar) that articulates other things in its own terms, thus reducing and rendering articulable what may be irreducible in its entirety but is not entirely irreducible.  (But then I don't think Brassier even really tried to understand that book -- his intention was damnation, not fair reading.)  Latour later calls this process 'formatting' and it's really the core of his whole philosophy.

Anyway, I'm all for unflattening the ontology.  Flattening it is just a first, critical step taken to erase all the fallacious distinctions that others have made in error.  Ultimately, having reduced everything to a single type, one must be able to make categorical distinctions within that typology.  Perhaps subjectivity can be suitably rearticulated in the manner I described above, or some other way.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

The cult of 'policy relevance'

Duck of Minerva draws attention to yet another know-it-all-know-nothing mouthing off about how political science should be stripped of state funding since it doesn't inform policymakers.  PM excoriates this reasoning, noting that if policymakers fail to heed social or political science this isn't necessarily the fault of scientists -- perhaps it is the policymakers who are at fault.

However, beyond that, isn't the worst part of the 'policy relevance' obsession the notion that social science exists solely to satisfy the epistemic requirements of the state? That academics are really just government think-tankers who do a bit of teaching on the side?

Why is it always just 'policy relevance'? Why not 'activist relevance'? Why not 'public relevance'? For that matter, why not 'student relevance'? One can hardly teach a subject that no one researches. Doing research for the benefit of students or simply for the sake of informing public discourse is at least as honourable, in my view, as producing knowledge for policymakers. Perhaps even more so.

The accusation that social science is policy irrelevant and therefore should be de-funded shouldn't be counter-argued simply by maintaining that it is policy relevant because that response accepts the premise of the accusation: that policy relevance is the only meaningful metric for assessing the value of research.

As the story about Karzai demonstrates, policymakers shouldn't be spoken of in such hushed, cowed, deferential tones. The people with the power are quite often complete cretins -- and nasty, corrupt ones at that. Why should we want to write policy advice for these people? Chances are they'll either misunderstand or just plain ignore it.

Quite simply, academic research can be a public good (and therefore justify receiving state funding) even if it doesn't directly inform policy-making. Having a critically minded, well informed civil society is at least as important for achieving peace and justice as having well-briefed and advised political elites.