Consultant as analyst

20/03/2014 § 1 Comment

I attended a talk on economic modelling today. It was a straightforward presentation of a certain technique, explaining how it works and providing some examples.

There was some close questioning of the presenter. The questions weren’t always, um, helpful. They weren’t in the spirit of the presentation and raised questions with no real answers.

As I was listening, I suddenly heard Lacan’s discourse of the hysteric. And then I thought about the whole structure of the talk.

The presenter was trying to say something like this: economics has some theories –> we can turn those theories into a model –> we can solve the model –> we can then model things that didn’t happen or haven’t happen.

It was all presented in the discourse of the university: knowledge (S2) trying to reduce the excess (a), bounding the uncertainties and keep them from spilling over the edges of the research. The group contained many who were aspiring to know ($) more about the technique: holding the workshop produced a group of people who wanted to know.

The questions did not stick to the discourse. They did not, for example, ask what the equation structure was or where the elasticities were sourced. Such questions would validate the modelling. They would confirm that having an elasticity is important, and having a model in which to put it is important.

These questions were:

  • why do you believe your theory? I have another one
  • have you included my special knowledge of the subject?
  • your method is incomplete, isn’t it?

These are questions  that come from the perspective of the hysteric. The perspective was: I have lived, I am specific ($) — what does your unifying model (S1) have to say about my own experience?

Then, a consultant in the room answered from the analyst’s discourse. The comment was, we would like to talk to you more about it. It would be good to discuss your specific knowledge and incorporate it into our analysis. The idea of the un-modelled excess (a) would make the specific subject ($) speak, in order to re-produce signification (S1).

Odd to think of consulting as analysis, but I think it might work.

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?

A Zizekian look at the GFC

21/01/2014 § 3 Comments

A bit gauche, perhaps, but I’m going to point you to an article I had published at the end of last year. It is my attempt to grapple with economics and the global financial crisis. Because of the nature of the explanation, it appeared in the International Journal of Zizek Studies.

The content will be familiar to regular readers of this blog — Zizekian philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis can help explain the economy. Given that it’s an article and not a post, it works through the arguments more fully and with better references.

The work started with two things I couldn’t understand:

  1. why were reputable economists and economics commentators spouting nonsense about the GFC? I don’t mean different interpretations of facts, or bringing different sets of values/preferences to bear on the evidence. I mean relying ‘evidence’ that was not true, developing explanations based on falsehoods
  2. why weren’t more economists concerned about the fraud revealed by investigations into the GFC? It seemed like the central players in the economy were cheating, brought down the economy, and then imposed the costs on other people.

A brief bit from the article:

In the response to the GFC, mainstream economic theory has acted as a prop or a magician’s wand, to be waved around as a distraction. What happened in the actual economy represented a turning away from standard, textbook capitalism, based on the idea of capital as a factor of production. Owners of capital should receive returns – get paid – because they own that capital. In addition, the more they take risks with that capital, the more they should be rewarded when they are successful. First, the fundamental principles of ownership and contract were replaced by a focus on smooth functioning of bureaucratic process. Secondly, the financial sector was able to decouple risk from reward; reward for taking risks no longer describes the origin of returns to capital.

Let me know what you think.

Dear editor: Love, me

29/08/2013 § Leave a comment

I finally finished a submission to a Lacanian academic journal. Lacan was swimming around in my head, analysing everything. It occurred to me that a journal submission is a little love letter — Dear editor: Love, me.

First, of course, we start with Lacan’s dictum that all demands are a demand for love. And what is a submitted paper but a demand? It imposes an obligation on unseen, unknown others. An editor must vet the submission and send it to referees, who must then read it and consider it and render opinions on it. I in my act of submitting have demanded that they respond. Perhaps I stoop to conquer?

A submission is a demand to be read. More than that, it is a demand to be understood, or — in Schroeder’s formulation — a demand to be recognised as a subject. I am asking these august personages to include me in their circle, to say to the world that I am good enough to be in their midst.

Then, inevitably, comes the reply from the Other. Have I behaved well enough? Have I submitted to the desire of the Editor/Other well enough that he/she/it will recognise me? Four outcomes are possible:

  • Rejected — My love will be unrequited. I will need to turn my attentions to a new journal, a new Editor — perhaps that affair will end better.
  • Revise and resubmit — I am making progress with the Editor/Other. The possibility of recognition remains open. All I need to do is learn to submit. I must re-enact my submission, only better.
  • Conditional acceptance — I am recognised! The Gaze of the Editor falls on me and sees me. I must change, of course — the Gaze sees me not for who I think I am, but for what the Editor wants me to be.
  • Accepted — Oh rare joy! To be accepted without condition! I have never known such love.

For the moment, though, I wait in agony, my love letter lying in the Other’s in-tray.

The barred subject of innovation

17/07/2013 § 3 Comments

Reading piles are funny: the Callaghan Innovation (CI) Statement of Intent (discussed here) ended up near a great paper entitled ‘High Anxiety‘ (pdf), by Cormac Gallagher, and an article on functional stupidity. So naturally, I drew links amongst them for a Lacanian critique of an innovation institute.

One thing that struck me with CI is that they know. The clear message from the SoI is, we know how to innovate, we know how to accelerate the high-value manufacturing sector, and we know what has been holding us back. Although there is some talk of experimentation, the real point is, ‘we know what we’re doing’. Even talk of fast failure contains a seed of knowledge — we know what failure is.

That insistence on knowledge takes me in two directions. The first is functional stupidity, specifically the article linked above. Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer point out that organisations nurture a certain amount of stupidity, and good functioning depends on having the right amount. Too much, and employees spend all day problematising the overarching goals of the organisation and the optimal processes for achieving them. Too little, and there isn’t enough self-reflection to keep the organisation from sinking into a morass of process and procedure.

CI has told us what they know and what they are going to do with that knowledge. They haven’t told us what they are going to do with their stupidity, though, which may be just as important.

The insistence on knowledge also takes me to the agent or subject of innovation, that is, the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs/innovators are people who create new realities. They take what is and make it something different. To me, that takes an action of willfulness or ego — taking the thing that exists in my mind and making it exist outside my own head. I think of it as an act of desire.

That is why the Lacanian piece made me think. It focuses on anxiety, and specifically the role of anxiety in analysis. It takes issue with the idea that analysis is supposed to provide knowledge, knowledge about why the patient is anxious and what childhood event triggered it and the emptiness of anxiety (‘fear without an object’ in the conventional formulation). Gallagher argues, though, that dealing with anxiety isn’t about covering over a gap with knowledge, but rather about recognising and living with the experience of anxiety. The point is that anxiety is real, all too real, and can’t be captured in the symbolic structure of codified knowledge. In Gallagher’s words:

Lacan argues that this emphasis on knowledge has the effect of barring the subject’s access to his own desire.

If we use this idea in the innovation space, we can see the negative impact that knowledge — that an insistence on the power of knowledge — can have on innovation. If innovation is an act of will or desire, then insisting on knowledge is a turning away from the source of innovation.

Taken together, these ideas mean that CI will likely be too smart for its own good. It doesn’t understand its own functional stupidity, so it is likely to be an ineffective organisation. It also isn’t leaving space for desire, so it probably won’t permit innovators to, y’know, innovate.

Psychoanalytic economics

23/01/2013 § 2 Comments

Regular readers of this blog — both of them — will recognise that my favourite place to play is in the intersection between psychoanalysis and economics. Admitting that this intersection may well be imaginary, I am very pleased to advertise an upcoming conference organised by the irrepressible Andrew Dickson.

The conference is entitled Lacan and the Discourse of Capitalism: Perhaps it is rotten after all? A conference announcement and description is here. This being the modern age and all, the conference will also be presented on-line, so you don’t even have to be in Wellington.

It is very important to be working on this discussion. Economics and psychoanalysis are both about human behaviour, but they understand it completely differently. So differently, in fact, that I do wonder whether they are compatible. And yet, both claim to speak some truth about the human condition.

Researchers in both disciplines will sometimes dismiss the other, but that’s too easy. Economists will complain that psychoanalysis over-complicates the internal conversations that people have, and ignores the simplicity of revealed preferences and utility functions. Psychoanalysis — especially when married with Marxism — condemns economists as the priests of a secular religion, apologising for existing power structures rather than liberating individuals.

I hope that this conference is a chance for investigators of humanity — anthropologists? anthro-apologists? — to move beyond those disciplinary canards*. Pretty please?

I’m presenting a paper — fingers crossed it will be done in time. I hope to see you there, either really or virtually.

* My mental image is a duck in bondage gear.

NZ’s environmental street cred

20/11/2012 § 2 Comments

The last post considered the fetish of hand-crafted goods. Pondering this more yesterday, I wondered how this idea mapped onto environmental values. New Zealand trades on and worries about its environmental ‘brand’, and there seems to be a conflict between pretty green hills and contaminated streams.

Then I saw the news reports about Dr Mike Joy from Massey University:

Just nine days before Wellington’s world premiere of The Hobbit film, an environmentalist has launched a scathing attack on a tourism campaign depicting New Zealand as ‘100% Pure’.

Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science at Massey University Mike Joy told The New York Times that New Zealand’s image as a clean, green nation is as “fantastical as dragons and wizards.”

“There are almost two worlds in New Zealand… there is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality,” Joy told America’s most well-read daily newspaper.

I can see how he has set this up. On the one had, we have reality — that which is really happening and we can show and demonstrate and measure. The rivers have X amount of nitrogen and Y faecal count. The greenhouse gas inventory is up to Z. On the other hand, we have the story we tell the world, the picture-postcards we send through blockbuster films and the post.

This description doesn’t account for the power of the New Zealand environmental brand. It doesn’t account for why we believe it. To do that, we have to understand how and why the brand functions. I really do think that the fetish provides a way to understand it.

We have imbued ‘100% Pure’ with both the utopia of our one-ness — a time before the fall, before language, when we could live at peace with the world. If only we could be 100% Pure, we would be living rightly. We have also imbued it with the power of the destroyer — Shiva, or Yahweh who brought the flood. If we are forced to be 100% Pure, the our economy will be ruined.

But at the same time as we do not actually live it — and know that we do not — we also act as if it contains an essential truth about New Zealand. The rest of the world does, too. This isn’t a New Zealand fetish; it is a global fetish. The whole world wants New Zealand to be 100% Pure, or should I say ‘100% Pure’. That fetish allows the industrialised world to recognise the power of industrialisation and mass production, while at the same time providing a place (an English-speaking place in a temperate climate) where we imagine it has not already happened.

As I am trying to describe this, it starts to sound like the logic of the feminine in Lacan’s Seminar XX/Encore: not all countries are subject to industrialisation, even while we know that there does not exist a country that is not subject to industrialisation.

‘100% Pure’ is thus a fetish that resolves an economic hysteria. We ask the question, are we an industrial nation or not? The fetish allows us to answer, we are both and neither.

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