Friday 8 March 2013

Some non-academics read academic literature too, believe it or not

In the context of the ongoing debate over writing for free and how that can be exploitative for freelance journalists and writers, Steve Saideman writes:

Our journal articles are written for academic audiences.  If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings.  Non-academics are not going to read fairly indigestible stuff even it becomes free and ungated. If we want non-academics to understand what our articles are about, we need to do other stuff, like blog, to convey our findings.  Non-academics are not going to read fairly indigestible stuff even it becomes free and ungated.
That's true up to a point but I'm neither a student nor an academic right now and I still read academic articles.  (I can because I work for a university in a non-academic capacity and have access to all the resources.)  Okay, there's not that many weirdos like me out there reading journal articles when they don't have to but there's some.  There was a time between graduating from undergrad studies and doing my MSc when I had no such access, which, in addition to being very poor, meant that I had to resort to reading stuff from public libraries, most of which are completely useless for anything vaguely intellectual (and what libraries we have left are being downsized or closed anyway).

More remarkably, perhaps, my mum reads whatever she can find on the various medical conditions members of my family have and she isn't a highly educated woman, never been to university, etc. (not due to lack of interest but due to growing up poor and female and then having a bunch of kids).  She's always had an interest in psychology and sociology and now she reads up on genetics, epigenetics and all kinds of biology.  She ends up reading abstracts and previews of books and articles, including academic ones, that she can't access because these things interest her.  She won't 'contribute' to the debates academics have but she's a legitimate consumer of knowledge and someone who would clearly benefit from more open publishing.

A guy I work with is interested in engineering and says that one of the things he likes about working in a university (he's an IT guy) is having access to all this knowledge.  The list goes on.

So, yes academic literature is written for academics but don't flatter yourselves -- the rest of us can keep up, at least those of us who are thus inclined!

Also, not all academic institutions have access to everything.  I work for a fairly high ranking university (Bristol, as it happens) and there are still plenty of journals we don't have for one reason or another (usually because the publishers screw institutions by packaging a handful of quality journals in with a bunch of rubbish and then insisting that institutions buy the lot for much more than the quality titles would cost alone).

Moreover, very few high schools have any kind of access to academic materials (here in the UK at least) but younger students should have access to this stuff too, if they want it.  I know I'd have been interested in it when I was 16 or 17.  I bought and read Philip Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles when I was 17 just because I read a review in the newspaper that said it was good, so I was into that kind of thing.  (I don't think I understood it, by the way, but that's another story.)

So, of course, if all academic journals went 'open' tomorrow the general public wouldn't suddenly put down their novels, magazines and laptops and start reading academic stuff instead but that shouldn't distract us from the fact that a great many people would gladly consume this knowledge.

The argument for open access is overwhelming.  The only counterarguments I can even think of are born out of either ignorance or cynicism.  Steve doesn't really present a 'counterargument' as such but he does profess a degree of skepticism based on the frankly erroneous belief that no one besides academics are willing or able to consume academic literature.

The laity are interested!  (Some of us at least.)

Chaveznomics; One more thing

And no, Chavez wasn't an economic genius. Numerous commentators, like Matthew Yglesias, have pointed out that Venezuela's success in various areas has at least as much to do with its natural resources as its political leadership:
The entire Latin American region performed well during this period, and not coincidentally it was also a great time for incumbent politicians. That's as true in Venezuela as in Brazil or Argentina or Colombia. But if you look at it from the outside, it seems that Chavez was not really able to turn Venezuela's unusually generous natural resource endowments into unusually strong economic performance.
This is a fair comment as far as it goes but it also misses the point spectacularly.  Yes, the improvements in poverty, health, literacy and so on resulted from natural resource wealth and maybe that wealth could have been used better and, sure, maybe it hasn't set up Venezuela for long term growth and prosperity.  But, without Chavez or someone like him, none of that wealth would have done any of the good it has done in the short term but nor would it have been invested in long term infrastructure -- the poor would not have seen much of it at all.

Chavez may not have succeeded in producing an ever-progressing socialist utopia, certain to continue stride bravely onwards into the future.  What he did do was to exploit the resources that were available to him in order to make colossal short to medium term improvements to the lives of ordinary people.  That might not in and of itself be enough for Venezuela's future but it's a lot more than would have occurred otherwise.  That's his legacy.

Drezner on Chavez and conspiracy theories

Dan Drezner comments on the commentary on Chavez's death and on Venezuelans' penchant for conspiracy theories.  He distances himself from either of the 'extremes' that would laud or denounce Chavez:
The passing of Hugo Chavez has prompted the usual 21st century cycle of news coverage and commentary that follows the death of a polarizing figure: the breaking news on Twitter, followed by the news obits, followed by the hosannahs from supporters, followed by denunciations of the figure, followed by official statements, followed by mealy-mouthed op-eds, followed by hysterical, unhinged criticism of standard diplomatic language.
Moving on from the (reactionary) reactions to asking what it all means for regional politics, Drezner continues:
[W]ith Chavez's passing, it would seem like a no-brainer for his successor to tamp down hostility with the United States. ... I'm not betting on it, however, for one simple reason: Venezuela might be the most primed country in the world for anti-American conspiracy theories

Drezner goes on to list the ways in which Venezuela is one "political climate that is just itching to believe any wild-ass theory involving a malevolent United States".

He's not wrong.  Chavez certainly indulged many bizarre conspiracy theories and never missed an opportunity to blame U.S. imperialism for any- and everything.  However, he also proved the truth of that old, pithy adage "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you."  He was certainly paranoid and sometimes seemed quite deluded but there's no doubt that the U.S. government were out to get him.

I think Drezner doesn't give enough weight to the reality of U.S. interference but he does acknowledge it, admitting to "a past history of U.S. interventions in the [Venezuelan] domestic body politic" and that "the United States play[ed] a minor supporting role in a recent [2002] coup attempt".  Many fail to see this connection at all, however.  To them I say:

You think the CIA only meddled in South American politics in the 1970s and '80s?  That's adorable.

Let's face it: when it comes to how the U.S. distinguishes between enemy and ally, locking up a few opposition leaders, leaning on the press a bit or building a cult of personality is pretty insignificant stuff.  Compared to the likes of Saudi Arabia (to name but one) Chavez's crimes and misdemeanors are almost quaint. None of that excuses anything he's done but it does illustrate the fact that none of his alleged crimes account for his pariah status. Perhaps these things should be the reason -- but clearly they're not.

Chavez and his politics are detested in the U.S. because they're socialist.  That's the top and bottom of it.  He made many questionable decisions and even more questionable alliances but, ultimately, it was his nationalising, socialising, poor-loving policies that placed him beyond the pale.  Far from him being a 'tyrant' who ruled with an iron fist he was a populist who was -- *gasp!* -- very popular.  That is why he was a threat -- the very fact he didn't need to rule as an unelected dictator was what made him so very dangerous.

The idea that the poor can take party political power and simply decide to use their national resources for their own benefit rather than abiding by unfairly negotiated contracts that chiefly benefit elites and foreign companies -- this is a revolutionary notion; a notion that threatens U.S. interests at their very core (primitive accumulation).  This is what placed Chavez in the cross-hairs of the U.S. national security state.

While most of the conspiracy theories flying hither and thither in Venezuela today are most likely complete nonsense, the U.S. has a long, long, long history of interfering with the democratic affairs of countries it deems to be subordinate, Venezuela included.  We may only have hard evidence and admissions for crimes long past but it takes imponderable naivety to think that the hulking behemoth that is the U.S. national security infrastructure is now somehow above trying to overthrow, undermine or generally mess with democratically elected governments that it deems inadequate.

The Chavez-haters are throwing stones while standing in a glass house.  The U.S. has no moral high ground to occupy (nor does the UK for that matter).  Venezuela may be a breeding ground for many bizarre, nonsensical conspiracy theories but the U.S.'s picture of Venezuela is scarcely any less deluded -- convinced as most are that Chavez was the South American Gaddafi or Saddam (an image not dissuaded by Chavez's own diplomatic conduct, it's true).  Nor has U.S. conduct towards Venezuela been in the least bit innocent over the years.

They might be paranoid but that doesn't mean that the U.S. government isn't out to get them.  Maybe the first step to making the Venezuelan people less paranoid is to stop giving them so many reasons to be.

As mentioned above, Dan acknowledges that U.S. conduct is a factor in the equation of Venezuelan paranoia, historically, but plays it down by concluding thus:
Venezuela is the perfect breeding ground for populist, anti-American conspiracy theories. And once a conspiratorial, anti-American culture is fomented, it sets like concrete. Only genuine political reform in Venezuela will cure it, and I don't expect that anytime soon.
So, ultimately, all the responsibility is placed on Venezuealans to grow up and be more rational -- the U.S. is implied to be little more than a bystander in this process.  Reform, embrace liberal capitalism, etc.  That's the prescription.  'It's their problem, not ours.'

While Venezuelan politics undoubtedly thrives on conspiracy theories, another way to ease the conspiracy mania in Venezuela would be to stop the hysterical attitudes displayed by so many commentators on Venezuela in the U.S. media.  Or, try not subverting a democratically elected South American government for a decade or two.  Or, acknowledge the legitimacy of democratic, socialist governments and their policies.  Or, stop supporting the kind of pernicious, malevolent capitalism that seeks to crush resitant regimes and exploit the poor.  Heck, maybe even stop trying to make the entire world subordinate to your imperial rule.

You know, be proactive.

Pluralising technical de-cisions; Calculating internalities and externalities

Jeremy on his Struggle Forever blog writes:
Monday I participated in a workshop on the use of multiple water quality models in the Chesapeake Bay Program – the benefits and drawbacks.  Throughout the day, much of the discussion centered around the ways that multiple models could improve the science of water quality management ... The other major issue was the social and political challenges that would arise from a multiple modeling approach. ... I went in expecting the modelers to be receptive to increased participation in modeling, at least in the ideal if not in practice.  I expected them to have practical concerns such as how to incorporate participatory methods into the existing modeling project, or how to solicit participation, etc. ... What I didn’t expect was the intensely political opposition to participatory modeling that came out. ...
This kind of dispute does pose very interesting problems for all kinds of political theory.  To what extent – or in what way – can lay people (the techno-scientific laity, if you will) participate in technical decision making; or, in other words, can technical decision making be democratic and if so how?

Walter Lippmann's view was that, for the most part, the public can participate in the selection of experts – i.e. the people get to choose their technocrats – but not much beyond that.  Speaking primarily of international relations, he argued that the world was simply too complex and fast-moving to involve the general public in anything but the most general kinds of decision making.  The ‘phantom public,’ in his words, was only meant to step in where the experts failed to agree; it could only intervene when issues were so tangled and complex that even ‘the powers that be’ could not reach a decision on them.

It's been a while since I read his 'The Public and Its Problems' but, as I recall, John Dewey’s view differed because he reasoned from a different starting point.  Rather than beginning with the frantic speed and complexity of life in the 1920s (!), as Lippmann does, Dewey began by arguing that politics itself resulted from the confluence of publics around their 'problems' – that politics itself is made possible by the formation of publics around issues and that political institutions should, therefore, derive their form and remit from this reality, rather than riding roughshod over it.  For Dewey, regardless of how difficult it is, publics are always already involved in politics.  Consequently, publics must bear far greater a burden than simply selecting the technocrats or intervening when said technocrats can’t make up their minds.  Dewey was vague on what this meant, specifically, but he was clear on the necessity of publics.

Both perspectives, from a contemporary viewpoint, seem somewhat naive – our Lippmannian elites routinely disagree on everything important but no phantom public has emerged to do the job for them, while Dewey’s image of politics seems to derive more from the experience of early 20th century U.S. participatory liberal democracy than any general political reality (he even argued that state borders were nothing more than an expression of publics; that states were bounded since not all issues affected everyone globally and, consequently, the institutions meant to deal with them were instituted only regionally – plainly this has been disconfirmed by history).  Yet both have some valid points.  Lippmann is correct that representative democracy in some form or other (not necessarily any form we see today) is the only way day-to-day technical decision making can occur in any complex society.  Dewey is correct that issues do not become political in a vacuum; they do so because of the involvement of publics, however inchoate.

If we want to go beyond the agreements and disagreements Dewey and Lippmann we need to ask: How can technical processes that are of general political and social importance be pluralised, which is to say democratised, without slowing these processes down, or making them grind to a halt entirely?  How can decision making be pluralised without making de-cision – a cutting, a delimitation, an end – impossible?  And how can non-technical participants claim the authority they need to demand their place in the process (since scientists and technicians are generally reluctant to grant outsiders any say)?

The technicians’ belief that the laity have nothing to add is surely an incorrect prejudice, as STS has indeed shown.  However, they will also object -- and this objection is less easily brushed aside -- that technical decision making processes are torturous enough, without having a bunch of jabbering, inarticulate, non-technically educated laypersons sticking their oar in -- sideways.  This is the mysterious contradiction implied by Lippmann’s ‘phantom public’: when an issue is too complex to be resolved by the experts how can adding even more voices resolve it?

I think what is really at issue is the very notion of political decision and who gets to make it.  So, it’s a question of power and authority – something that Dewey and Lippmann (and Latour, who is the most notable contemporary cheerleader for these two) largely ignore.

And that’s the problem with Dewey, Lippmann and Latour alike – they’re only really comfortable talking in the most abstract terms.  I think I can be more specific on one matter, however.  The main thing that must remain open to public participation in any significant technical project is the calculation of externalities.

Any project that has environmental or social consequences – so, any significant technical project, then – depends upon the economic calculation of internalities and externalities; those consequences and risks that are the responsibility of the project and those that are not.  No technical project can proceed without this calculation being made, formally or informally.  Absent the legal requirement for such a calculation, organisations will make their own judgements as to what they are responsible for (and will most likely conclude that their responsibilities are few and far between).

As well as attributing responsibilities, such a calculation also has the function of demarcating the commons or ‘nature’ as it functions as the constitutive outside of the internal artifices of the project.  A factory that can consider the river pollution that it causes as an externality for which it is not responsible takes the river to be ‘nature’ in the sense that it is part of the commons that it can use and abuse with impunity.  As Latour has argued, this outside, this nature qua commons, has largely ceased to exist since little if any of the planet can innocently be regarded as an outside to which we owe no care.

The demarcation of internality and externality is precisely the area where technical expertise is not enough and never can be.  Such decisions are often arbitrary and are based just as much, if not more, on politics and ethics than technical know-how.  Is the river an internality or an externality?  Is the factory responsible for its pollution?  There is no technical answer to this question.  Technicality may help us understand the scale, form and effects of the pollution but not its consequence in the sense of risk or sociality.

Indeed, here we see that the word ‘consequence’ has two meanings.   Firstly, and quite prosaically, when B is caused by A, B is A’s consequence.  However, secondly, there is the sense of being ‘consequential’ – if A causes B, C and D, is B consequential or inconsequential?  Is it significant?  Does it matter?  Technicality informs us of the first kind of consequence but cannot unilaterally decide on the second sort since that necessitates an attribution of value to things, a decision on what matters.  (Of course the question then arises as to whether we can keep these two kinds of ‘consequence’ separate.  If not then public participation is germane to the whole process.  That’s a tricky question.)

Anyway, that’s where public participation is most clearly appropriate.  That isn’t to say that the internality/externality demarcation is the only area where public participation is appropriate but it is perhaps the area where it is most necessary.

Jeremy’s discussion is an interesting example since it shows that technicians are more than a little reluctant to collaborate, pluralise or publicise their decision making processes.  Again, this brings us back to the question of power – the ability of the laity to demand their seat at the table.  However, being fair to the technicians, it also raises practical questions of how technical decision-making processes, as I wrote above, can be pluralised without making de-cision impossible.

Politics is correlational, not correlationist

Graham Harman has written a few posts in the past few days on art and 'correlationism' and now on politics too.  He criticises:
a bizarrely literal interpretation of how to get past correlationism. First, it is assumed that the problem with correlationism is that humans are involved. Second, it is assumed that we must brainstorm some way to remove humans from the picture, even if we’re talking about a domain (such as politics) that is obviously saturated with the human even if we try to expand it into a Latourian Dingpolitik (I don’t think Latour is claiming that there will literally still be politics even if all humans are exterminated).
It is, indeed, rather strange that anyone would think that a non-correlationist politics is a good idea -- or even a meaningful idea at all.  I've heard it argued (often as a matter of outraged critique) that Latour's political philosophy makes humans and non-humans politically 'equal' -- as if it's a competition and as if there could be politics without human beings.  On the contrary, the 'Ding' within 'Dingpolitik' simply highlights on the polyvalence of the word ‘thing,’ drawing together its meaning ‘object’ and also the use of that word to mean 'political assembly' in many European languages.

Latour is drawing the two meanings together -- thing qua object and thing qua political assembly -- to argue for a political philosophy based on John Dewey's 'The Public and its Problems'.  Things, Latour argues, are the 'problems' or issues around which human political assemblies -- i.e. publics -- must form in order to resolve them.  Things provoke these politics, they provide the impetus and the risk that makes these politics necessary and which interests the human actors involved, but there is no suggestion that the things themselves are equivalent to the human political actors; it is very much the humans who have to sort things out, albeit as networked, materially and technoscientifically complex actors.

There has been a tendency in political science (as throughout the social sciences and humanities) to treat things as extrinsic to politics in the sense that we have politics one hand and the material world on the other.  In other words, conventional discourses of political science map very much onto the dualisms that get critiqued by people wielding concepts such as 'correlationism.'  Therefore, it may seem natural to involve the concept of 'correlationism' in critiquing and trying to think past these structuring dualisms.  However, people shouldn't take the notion of 'correlate' to be a dirty word!  There are many things that only exist as correlates of something else -- and politics must surely be one of those things.

There can be things without humans but there can be no humans without things.  There can be no politics without humans.  Therefore, there can be no politics without things.  But this doesn't make humans and non-humans 'equal' -- humans still have to do the work of resolving political controversies; they just do so neck-deep in political things, or 'dings,' if you will.  Politics is not ‘correlationist’ – it’s correlational.  And there’s nothing wrong with that as such, so long as it doesn’t distract us from the ontological and political folly of mind/world or human/nature dualisms.

'Para-academics' or 'para-intellectuals'? A reflection on intellectual discourse and the academy

Terence on his Agent Swarm blog:
I do not like the term “para-academics” as it suggests a mere neighbouring but parallel position in relation to academia, as if the ghetto were isomorphic with the official hierarchy and seeking merger.
'Para-academic,' to me, implies 'wannabe-academic'.  There's a hint of condescension to it.  It implies that we're outside the main building where the real stuff is happening, cold noses pressed against the window panes, breathily gawping at what's going on inside.  More prosaically: in the phrase 'para-academic' the in-group ('academic') defines the out-group ('para-academic') but not vice versa -- and this denotes a hierarchy (since the 'academics' require no distinguishing prefix; they simply are what they are).

There are personal reasons why this is wrong but there could also be social and political ones.

On the personal side, I've been debating for the last few years whether to go back into education and pursue the PhD.  I currently work in a university on the research side of things but the study I work on has little to do with my academic interests (save for the fact that it's scientific and I'm interested in science studies).  Dropping this more-or-less stable employment and going down the academic route often seems like a great idea -- but just as often it seems like a terrible one.  Getting funding is incredibly difficult in the first place, the 3 or 4 years of PhD study (in the UK) are extremely stressful for most people and, at the end of it, academic jobs are scarcer than hens' teeth.

Of course there are many reasons for doing a PhD and diving into academia other than professional or financial advancement (which is just as well).  But does a PhD really give you so much more than a title and a certificate?  I'd say 'yes it probably does'; but, then, just how much?

I have quite a few friends who are completing or have recently completed their theses and their experience, so it seems, has been one of daily disillusionment.  Not that they had any illusions that it was going to be easy or that there'd be plenty of jobs waiting for them when they graduated.  The dire state of that side of things is a given.  What they're disillusioned about is the support they've received (or rather not received) from their supervisors, the alternately disinterested or malignant way they've been treated by university administrators and the general sense of living and working in a glorified sausage-factory -- less the "dynamic intellectual environment" promised by the prospectus, more REF-friendly unit shifting, churning out drab, cookie-cutter publications by the dozen.

In other words, far from 'intellectual' and 'academic' being synonymous it seems that, more and more, they're being pulled apart.  This is what is putting me off, far more than the hopeless job prospects, etc.

Of course, grad students and academics are wont to complain and I enjoyed my time studying in that school in the past.  I enjoy going to conferences, seminars and reading groups; I love thinking and writing.  The thought of teaching fills me with dread but I suspect that, over time, I'd come to love that too.  So, I'm also rather skeptical of those who make it seem as though academics and grad students are the most put-upon, oppressed workers in all of capitalism.  Plainly nothing could be further from the truth -- academia is, compared to most of the alternatives, a great place to work.

However, given all these problems, given that the intellectual and the academic are increasingly antonymous, is it such a bad time to be a 'para-academic'?  If, on the contrary, it's actually a very good time to be thinking and writing outside the academy then the dismissive connotations of that phrase are surely misplaced.

And, in actual fact, my soul destroying, low responsibility, relatively low paying 9-to-5 job gives me considerable free time to pursue my own interests -- much more than my Teaching Assistant, PhD-chasing friends seem to have.  People talk about academic publishing being archaic, a remnant of the days before information technology (never mind the Internet) -- and they're right -- but couldn't something similar be said of academia as the hallowed seat of the intellectual?

It's an open question but I'd argue that if academia does still dominate intellectual discourse then it needn't do so.  Self-consciously philosophical, political, critical, theoretical kinds of work can just as easily carry on elsewhere -- maybe they could even flourish outside the strictures of academic bureaucracy.

I was reading the other day about the composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass who, when they weren't able to make a living from their music back in the '70s, started a furniture removals company together to pay the bills.  Both had offers from academic institutions to teach and research but they chose manual labour and working on their music in their spare time.  Can you imagine many would-be philosophical radicals doing something similar?  And yet isn't this precisely the kind of conclusion that their ideas should reach?

For the better part of two thousand years, in the Western tradition, intellectual debate was dominated by aristocrats and clerics.  For the past century or so it's been dominated by university employees.  This model continues to be relevant, but is it always and everywhere appropriate?  Given near universal literacy, hyper-abundant texts and almost zero participation costs isn't the sociology of intellectual discourse bound to evolve sooner or later?  And wouldn't this be a good thing?  Wouldn't the rather stifling ecosystem of the academy be much more productive if it opened out, seamlessly, onto a civil society that was fully capable of carrying on similar debates under its own steam?

Maybe if academics were made to observe themselves not as card carrying intellectuals -- granted such status by dint of their profession -- but rather as 'para-intellectuals' -- actually hamstrung by the contradictions of their professional status -- then the whole discourse would come to have less to do with the bitter, jealous feuding of professional fiefdoms and and more to do with having some new bloody ideas for once.

Ah, one can dream.