Plagiarism (and Zizek)

16/07/2014 § Leave a comment

Slavoj Zizek has been caught doing what looks like plagiarism. Because I comment on his work and use his theories from time to time (too much, some would say/have said), I thought I’d weigh in.

First, the incident does look like bad academic practice, or, if we are going to speak plainly, plagiarism:

Plagiarism (including being party to someone else’s plagiarism): copying or paraphrasing another’s work, whether intentionally or otherwise, and presenting it as one’s own.

Zizek presented someone else’s work as his own without attribution. Excuses notwithstanding, that’s what he did, and it is the sort of thing that we correct with students and junior researchers.

I will point out — not as an exculpatory comment, but merely an observation — that I might not be pure in this area, either. I do try to cite all sources and attribute all ideas. But, I might not have been perfect. Things that make it difficult: self-plagiarising, also known as recycling; overwork and working against deadlines; general sloppiness; working with co-authors who may have different standards; working on non-academic publications. Somewhere in the 150+ reports and papers I’ve written, there might be something suspect. Perhaps I am thinking in a very Roman Catholic way: we are all potential sinners.

One interesting thing about the incident is how it is being treated. Zizek is clearly being attacked, and with some glee. I will leave you to do your own web search, but the NPR post is good enough. Zizek is now, apparently, a ‘Famed Philosopher’. Usually, he is pretty obscure: Marxist, Lacanian, Continental philosopher — could he be any more a niche product?

The Facebook thread of the International Journal of Zizek Studies (there is such a thing, and I have published in it) has pointed out that the incident is being framed as a celebrity story — Philosophers Behaving Badly! Zizek, of course, is complicit in this. He has developed a persona as a ‘bad boy’ who won’t be contained by archaic ideas of what constitutes academic writing or proper philosophy. That is part of his challenge — it is a schtick he uses to beat on conventions.

Now, suddenly, ‘Buzz Bomb from Pasadena’ is playing on my inner jukebox.

Zizek’s fans have come to his defence. I think they need to be careful, but their behaviour is instructive. Look, the guy messed up. He passed off someone else’s work as his own, and that’s not cool. But the essence of being a fan is that the celebrity can do no wrong. I think, to some, Zizek is The Man With No Name, even down to the scruffy beard. The allure of TMWNN is that he knows. He knows right from wrong, he has a moral code that is internally consistent and impervious to the foetid world. He knows who’s being truthful and who is shining him on. He knows who needs to die.

Another name for TMWNN is ‘analyst’. The analyst is the One Who Knows, and Zizek is in the place of the analyst for his fans. They have just learned that his knowledge — a small piece of it, at least — is a bit of stolen flame. It isn’t really his own knowledge; maybe he doesn’t really know. Maybe there isn’t a One Who Knows. Maybe it is time for their analysis to end.

Becker, Foucault, Lacan

07/05/2014 § Leave a comment

Gary Becker passed on this week, so I did a mini-lecture in class yesterday on his contributions to economics (I managed to use Peaches Geldof as an example of a rational addict). I thought it was important to think about Becker because of the way he pushed economics in new areas. He used marginal analysis and specialisation — standard ideas — in new ways. It shows both the usefulness of a few simple economic ideas and the way late 20th century social sciences developed.

Crooked Timber has had a couple of good posts, one about Becker and Foucault  and one linking to a good post on Becker’s contributions and shortcomings. Reading ‘Becker on Ewald on Foucault on Becker’, I wondered how Lacan would react to it. Foucault, apparently, was taken with the way that Becker thought about people making decisions. Foucault showed how law created crimes and doctors created diseases, by the way they deployed power. But Becker had people making decisions within each of the categories created. So, within the family, clearly a site of power relations, men and women were making strategic decision to maximise utility subject to constraints, balance marginal costs with marginal benefits. So, there was agency.

But I’m not convince that either Foucault or Becker had it right. First, if we take Foucauldian analysis seriously, then the power is creating the categories and determining individuals’ positions in the structure. How is it that individuals still have some residual liberty to make their own decisions? That would mean either that the power relations are not fully defined, or that there is some slippage between expectations and actual behaviour.

Becker, similarly, promoted universal explanations. The article I know best is ‘De gustibus non est disputandum‘, and don’t agree with it that tastes and preferences do not vary significantly across people. In fact, my research (and others) in food choices show that people do have different preferences and those preferences do affect spending. This issue is similar to Thomas Piketty’s endnote in Capital in the 21st century, that Becker didn’t let data get in the way of theorising.

Which brings me to Lacan. Lacan provides a motive force for difference and decisions — this is the analysis that Copjec offers in Read my desire. The Foucauldian analysis fails because of the impossibility of ‘saying it all': the law cannot fully establish all the required categories. The act of creating categories creates its own excess; the act of neoliberal analysis creates its own outside-the-analysis. Becker fails because of the impossibility of fully determining preferences and because of the idiosyncratic nature of desire and its impacts on behaviours. Becker seemed to move too quickly from the idea that people pursue that which they think will make them happy, to the idea that we know (he knew) what makes people happy.

Millennials’ problems so much more problematic

25/03/2014 § 7 Comments

You wanna set me off? I’ll tell you how. Bring up the problems of the Baby Boomers/Millennials.

Ted Rall is right on this. He’s brought it up before, and he’s nailed it again. We Gen Xers don’t matter:

I’ve been disappeared.

Erased from history.

Dropped down the memory hole.

(bye)

If you were born between 1961 and 1976, you no longer exist.

Is it just me, or is this a spoken word piece?

I’m hearing how hard-done-by these poor Millennials are. And y’know, I have some sympathy. Except that nobody cared when I had tens of thousands of dollars of college debt and home ownership seemed like a pipe dream and full-time work was scarce and we were all doing jobs that didn’t require a college degree. Now I’m supposed to care about the Millennials?

Oh that’s right, there are more of them.

And so, when they can’t afford cars, it’s a movement (or not). Not like when Xers were in their mid-20s and couldn’t afford cars — we were just slackers.

When their Boomer parents try to sell their houses and can’t cash out, it’ll become a public crisis to be solved with public money. When those same Boomers can’t sell their accounting practices and plumbing businesses because they didn’t train their successors and didn’t share the wealth, it’ll be another crisis to be solved with tax breaks and succession subsidies.

But sorry, Ted, there is nothing we can do about it. Remember that the US presidency skipped a generation, going from a WWII veteran (Bush I) to a Baby Boomer (Clinton) and skipping the generation in between. It’ll happen to us, too.

We’ve already been disappeared.

Incest and politics

04/03/2014 § Leave a comment

The leader of the ACT party, Jamie Whyte, stirred up controversy last week with comments on incest. For context, it must be recalled that Dr Whyte is a former philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University. Incest is thus to him a philosophical puzzle he must solve with logic. His logic led him to suggest that adults should be allowed to do what they want, regardless.

Two angles on this. First, the incest taboo, according to anthropologists, is common in human societies. See, for example, Freud’s Totem and Taboo, or Claude Levi-Strauss’s work. What’s fascinating, though, is that the specific taboo differs across societies/cultures. Thus, as Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice put it so memorably:

As my Intro to Anthropology professor told us, it is a fact universally acknowledged that The Tribe Over There is full of lowlife degenerates who eat taboo foods, have sex with their relatives, worship false idols & use entirely too much of the common resources. All else is commentary…

Whyte goes further, and suggests that the group does not have an interest in regulating the sex behaviours of its members. This is entirely consistent with an individualistic formulation of philosophy, rights, etc.

The second angle is that any appeal to society, culture, history, or group harmony ends up sounding like any racist justification for ‘the way things are’. Anti-miscegenation laws are based on a taboo that Those People should not be mixing with These People. It isn’t right, it will create mongrels, it degrades our purity of essence, and the rest.

Now, I worry about incest taboos because of a Freudian/Lacanian concern with the return of the primal father. One of the bulwarks against an Id-driven regime, one element of the Super-ego, is an incest taboo, however constructed. In a blunt sense, I don’t stand a chance in an Id-driven world. I’d rather avoid it. I appreciate the Super-ego.

So…is there a justification for an incest taboo that doesn’t wind up sounding exactly like a racist rant? And if there isn’t, what is human society without an incest taboo?

Adjunctivitis — a choice, not a condition

10/02/2014 § 13 Comments

Universities in the United States run on adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are part-time, temporary, untenured faculty paid per course to teach. They have little time for research or administrative duties, and they are finding it hard.

Paid a few thousand dollars per course, they apparently now make up around half of US university faculty. There is concern about what it means for the quality of education and the future of universities. If teaching staff don’t have time to research, how do they stay current? If they can’t contribute to administration, how will all the curriculum and ethics committees get their work done?

The neologism ‘adjunctivitis’ is revealing. The suffix ‘-itis’ suggests a medical condition that has befallen the faculty — think appendicitis, bronchitis, etc. But what we have here is a choice. These faculty haven’t suddenly come down with adjunctivitis. They have been building towards it for years, making a series of choices, continuing on this particular path despite the difficulties.

It is a hard choice, yes, but a choice nonetheless. Maybe they feel driven to teach. Maybe they really like their specific area of research. Maybe they like where they live, or their partners are settled into their own jobs. But let’s not forget that these are people with options. They are clever people with good work ethics who know how to communicate. They are choosing to continue being adjunct faculty because they feel it is better than the alternatives.

Hey, sorry, it’s not my problem if you can’t land your dream job. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be Prof Reg Chronotis — a little office, a little sinecure, no teaching load? But such positions are works of fiction.

What if a bunch of them said no? What if they just decided, y’know what, selling real estate or writing computer code or being in middle management is less stress and more money? I don’t know what would happen, but it would be interesting to find out. A new cohort of adjuncts might appear, ready to do the same work at the same pay. Or, universities might have to do something about pay and conditions.

Universities are under pressure to offer students luxury facilities at reasonable prices (air conditioning?! private bathrooms?! hah!). Universities are also affected by governments cutting spending:

In 1980, states provided 46 percent of the operating support for public colleges and universities, according to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. By 2005, average support had fallen to 27 percent.

Something’s got to give. In this case, it’s the cost of producing the lectures and assessments. A big variable cost with them is the teaching staff. If there’s no countervailing pressure from people, oh I don’t know, refusing to work for peanuts, then that’s where the universities will cut the costs.

Finally, there’s a revealed preference here about the attributes in the bundled good ‘university education’. This adjunct trend has been going on for years, and the complaints about impacts on teaching quality are nothing new. And yet, people keep shelling out more money for poorer teaching. Why? It does suggest that going to university is about getting that certification, or building networks, or being socialised, or buying the name brand if you can. People — students, parents, employers — seem less worried about the quality of the education.

Until they do — can I interest you in a little fixer-upper bungalow with nice harbour views?

Why inequality? A reply

07/02/2014 § 4 Comments

Paul Walker asked a question recently — why are some of us focusing on inequality? That started a discussion on the Dismal Science feed at Sciblogs. Since I’ve been implicated by link, I figured I should say something.

Why inequality?

Well, first, other people are talking about inequality, but they are getting it wrong. One thing I’m trying to do is establish a sort of factual basis for the discussion. For example, people like to point to The Spirit Level as somehow the final word in the evils of inequality. So I’ve read the  book and pointed out its faults, which I think are serious enough that the book doesn’t prove its thesis. Or, alternatively, I’ve calculated that mobility of income quantile doesn’t tell you as much as you think it might. I’m doing this work 500 words at a time, so it takes a while.

Secondly, I’m interested in the economy as a human construction. We’ve designed it, and we can re-design it. Note that I’m not suggesting something like a New Socialist Man. I’m not advocating that we re-make people. But if as economists we believe that (a) incentives matter and (b) institutions matter, then changing incentives and institutions produces different results. So, I’m interested in exploring how we make changes to meet different goals.

Finally, I’m acting according to my preferences. I like fairness. I like symmetry and order. There’s something about equity that appeals to my sense of order. Now, perhaps you think the economy is fair, in the sense that people get what they deserve and actions lead to appropriate consequences.  Or, perhaps you think that life is not fair and that’s enough of an explanation. Me? I look around and see more than just the background cussedness of it all. I see people using power and privilege to maintain their own positions, and then saying that it’s just The Way Things Are. Or, more academically, that we shouldn’t turn away from the fraud that accompanied the global financial crisis, for example.

That’s why I’ve been writing about inequality. It’s just my tiny little effort to make the world a better place.

Poverty: plus ca change…

03/02/2014 § Leave a comment

While it is in vogue to talk about inequality, it would be better to focus on poverty. The inequality strategy is intended to reduce the ‘othering’ effect of poverty: the poor are those other people over there, who are different from us. However, it lets all of us non-poor, non-elite assume the stance of victim. We get to say that we, too, are suffering. In our heated houses and comfortable clothes, wondering what to eat from our full pantries.

The biggest mistake with the inequality strategy is that it activates our demands for fairness, which prompts people to make judgements about whether the poor are ‘deserving’. On the one hand are people arguing that it is inequitable for lots of children not to have enough to eat and two pairs of shoes, while on the other hand are people arguing that it is inequitable to take money from people who work hard and scrimp and save and give it to people who don’t. Two sets of judgements, two set of preferences, and no clear solution.

Barbara Ehrenreich had a column in The Atlantic last month, ‘It is expensive to be poor‘:

I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced.

She also traced the development of attitudes towards poor people. The US War on Poverty started by President Johnson arose from the idea that government should do something to help the disadvantaged. The conservative backlash argued, instead, that people were not ‘disadvantaged’ — which is a social condition, and speaks of what is done to someone — but that ‘poverty arises from the twisted psychology of the poor themselves’. She continued,

pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years.

Of course, it has been going on much longer than that. I’m currently reading Emile Zola’s Germinal, a story about miners in a company town in the 1860s. The life of the miners is juxtaposed with that of the bourgeois investors, the Gregoires. Zola captures the attitude of the comfortable bourgeois towards the miners (source):

One must be charitable. They said themselves that their house was the house of God. Besides, they flattered themselves that they performed their charity with intelligence, and they were exercised by a constant fear lest they should be deceived, and so encourage vice. So they never gave money, never! Not ten sous, not two sous, for it is a well-known fact that as soon as a poor man gets two sous he drinks them. Their alms were, therefore, always in kind, especially in warm clothing, distributed during the winter to needy children.

In the meanwhile, M. Grégoire repeated aloud the reflections inspired by the sight of these starving ones.

“There is evil in this world, it is quite true; but, my good woman, it must also be said that workpeople are never prudent. Thus, instead of putting aside a few sous like our peasants, miners drink, get into debt, and end by not having enough to support their families.”

We are still having the same argument.

I like Lake Dunstan

27/01/2014 § Leave a comment

My family has a little place — a cabin, a crib, a bach — near Lake Dunstan in Central Otago. I can walk to the lake in 5 minutes and see it from the property if I stand in the right place. The area is beautiful in an arid, unforgiving way. The lake is warm as South Island lakes go, and supports a lot of boating and swimming in the summer months.

The lake is artificial, the result of the Clyde Dam, built in the early 1990s. Underneath the lake are the old Bannockburn bridge, parts of the town of Cromwell, farms, and a rapids called the Cromwell Gap. In an emotive piece in the December 2013 New Zealand Geographic, Dave Hansford quotes a kayaker who once shot the Cromwell Gap. The kayaker describes how rising to the challenge was a life-changing experience.

Fair enough — he got something out of the rivers as they were before the dam. But my family gets a lot out the lake as it is. So, in response to Hansford, here is my equally emotional (and deliberately parallel) response to the imagined destruction of the Clyde Dam:

Bill Kaye-Blake has lost a lot of water from his life, a whole hydro-lake’s worth of water. For him, it is — or was — a place he went to find tranquillity while reconnecting with his loved ones. Where currently thunders the dangerous Cromwell Gap, says the former Lincoln University student and lecturer and ardent advocate for lake recreation, “there was a thing called Lake Dunstan, and this is where the Clutha and Kawarau arms of the lake met. It used to be a tourist attraction, it was such a big wide lake. Now it’s fallen 80 metres in depth.

“We used to sit on the shingle beaches in the shade of willows and think, ‘how lovely that our children have a safe place to swim and grow to love the water’. It was a central experience in their growing up, in their Kiwi childhoods. There might be 10 to 20 motorboats lined up along the shore, with parents teaching kids how to kayak and swim and waterski. On a hot day, there would be hundreds of people enjoying the lake at the different swimming coves and boat ramps. But that experience is now no longer available to anybody. The last waterskier was in the year before they dynamited the dam.”

Change leads to winners and losers. Focusing on the negatives may get you published in New Zealand Geographic, but it is only half the story. Probably less than half.

Science stumble with young students

01/09/2013 § Leave a comment

The science sector in New Zealand wants to get more people — particular young people — interested in science. It believes that science careers get short shrift when students are planning their education. It also wants to encourage more girls into STEM subjects. Don’t take my word for it. There’s a 2008 Science Maniesto from the Royal Society explaining all this.

I’m certainly in favour of my daughters having interesting, rewarding jobs. If a science career provides that, great. There’s been some science talent in the family, so it’s a possibility.

We’ve been supporting what science is available for primary and intermediate girls. Recently, one daughter participated in the NIWA Wellington Science Fair. From our experience, the event didn’t help get kids fired up for science.

The most important thing to realise is that these kids have choices. Sure, science is one possibility, but so are medicine, law, finance and more. Science has to be appealing. So let’s compare:

  • My daughter’s division had over 50 entries. Only four kids won prizes. Most of those kids won more than one prize. By comparision, a singing competition might have four prizes in a division with maybe a dozen entries. One of their maths competitions has five prizes for the 30 or so schools who participate.
  • There was no feedback. The kids have no idea what they did well and where they fell down. They don’t know what they could do better. By contrast, performance judges fill out sheets for each performer. They typically give positive and critical comments, which helps kids both understand their mark on the day and identify things to improve.
  • The best we can figure is that the judges liked some combination of science, application and presentation. But there’s no way to gauge how much those things contribute to the rankings. On the other hand, a maths competition is judged in terms of right and wrong answers. If your team gets it right, you get the point. The kids are competing against the maths problems as much as they are competing against each other. The ICAS and Australian Mathematics Competitions are similarly based on getting the answers right, not tickling the judges’ fancy.
  • My daughter’s girls’ school had one of the largest contingents from any school in her division. They won nothing. Nada, zippo, zilch. We can talk about other schools having more experience with the competition and larger schools having more resources for extra-curricular activities and the rest. But none of those explanations changes the experience this girls’ school had of sending a big group to a city-wide event and coming back empty-handed.

What my daughter and her classmates experienced seemed to be a subjective, secretive, winner-take-all tournament. Now, obviously, these folks can run any kind of competition they want. They just shouldn’t be surprised when these girls don’t rush back to do it again, and find something better to do with their time.

Work, dammit!

12/08/2013 § 5 Comments

Over the weekend, I ended up at a review of The Invention of Capitalism. The book’s author is Michael Perelmen, an economist in California who has stirred up controversy over the years. Apparently, he doesn’t disappoint in this book.

Disclaimer: I have no idea whether Perelmen is right in his history, or should I say ‘right’, as history is a matter of interpretation (written by the winners and all that). Having said that, I had two reactions:

1) Aren’t we still living with the attitudes described?

This quote from a pamphlet of the day caught my attention:

The  possession of a cow or two, with a  hog, and a few geese, naturally  exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering  after his cattle, he acquires a  habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and  occasionally whole days, are  imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes  disgusting; the aversion increases by indulgence. And at length the  sale of a half-fed calf, or  hog, furnishes the means of adding  intemperance to idleness.

Here we have a peasant making a decision about work and leisure. He has a few animals and the wherewithal to maintain them, and that suffices. ‘Day labour becomes disgusting’ — well, or not worthwhile. Not worth the effort. And what does our peasant do to while away the time not spent working? He drinks! He is intemperant! Oh my stars and garters!

What is the problem with this? Well, he isn’t working. He isn’t being industrious. He isn’t being productive.

The review (and thus the book) suggests that the problem to the thinkers of the time was that these were potential labourers who could produce profits for the rich. They needed to be forced out of their traditional lifestyles, and hunger was the weapon.

What I noticed, though, was the command to be productive. It wasn’t up to the individual to make such decisions. They were clearly wrong. And alcohol was clearly part of the problem.

It is the same today. When the ‘social costs of alcohol’ are computed, lost productivity and lost worklife are often included. These are largely private costs, locally affecting the drinker and perhaps a few people around the drinker who are able to make local decisions about the problem (and thus force the drinker to internalise the externalities). Nevertheless, there is horror that these people aren’t working to their full potential. So, as much as this is a history book, that same command to work and produce is still apparent today.

2) What does the forced labour of those people mean for today?

We (the industrialised West) are rich. Fabulously wealthy by historical standards. Yes, there is poverty and want, but most people have enough. We have more food than we can eat. Most individuals have their own bed (or share by choice). Our farm animals don’t live in our houses in the winter. We have one room for sleeping, one for eating, one for sitting, etc.

We rarely convert this personal wealth into anything productive. It goes on consumer goods, so many that they don’t fit in our houses and we pay people to store them for us. My daughter was marvelling this weekend at the size of the Wellington Storage King.

Many of us could take all this wealth and buy back the lifestyle of the peasant or the ‘native Highlanders’ of Scotland. And yet we don’t.

So, even though as a matter of historical record the shift to factory work may have been achieved through a deliberate campaign of dispossession, and even though this is an excellent demonstration that property rights are socially constructed and enforced by rough men standing ready to do violence, how does that help us make sense of the consumer economy? Is it about understanding that we have options — that we choose to live like this? Is it about understanding the violence inherent in the system (Help! I’m being repressed!)? Or, is it nostalgia for a simulacrum?

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