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.

Fetishisation of the hand-crafted

19/11/2012 § 1 Comment

Last night, while ironing my work shirts, myself, by hand, I caught TVNZ’s programme The New Old and its episode ‘The Artisan’. The blurb:

Presenter Wallace Chapman looks at the trend against mass-produced goods and the growing market for handcrafted objects.

Chapman interviewed several people who were somehow involved with hand-crafting. One couple were rescuing old bits of machinery, one woman effused about her hand-made leather couch, another woman talked about how she hand-designed embroidery patterns and then digitised them for mass production.

The show was clearly trying to position the narrative as the counter-argument to mass production. Hand-crafted items were superior because they lasted longer, showed the personality of the producer, or gave you a personal relationship with the artisan. But this narrative is false.

Economically, there is no outside of mass production. We live in an industrial world in which mass production provides. There are many examples that make this point: I, Pencil; The Toaster Project (via Tim Harford); Rivoli’s T-shirt. The examples provided in ‘The Artisan’ paper over the contribution of mass production and industrialisation in each example. The couch, for example, may have been assembled by hand. Where did the leather, wood, and filling come from? How were the hides stripped from the carcasses, tanned, dyed, and shipped? The machines that sewed the leather, where did their parts come from? The steel for the needles?

The economic value of the hand-crafted component is minor. If you toted up each person’s spending, the amount they spend on artisanal goods is minimal. Most spending, like most production, is on mass-produced products.

Hand-crafted goods are not economically important; they are psychologically important. They are fetishes. First, it is important to realise that they do not exist by themselves. They exist only in opposition to mass-produced goods. Each time we point to them — name them — we are singling out that important characteristic of them: they are the not-mass-produced goods. When we refer to them, we are also referring to their opposite. They therefore safely contain all the power of mass production.

Hand-crafted goods also keep a little distance between us and mass production. This is the other function of fetishes — providing some distance from the Real to provide a space for jouissance. These goods provide a little opening that mass production has not already filled (even though it has, because these specific hand-crafted goods could not exist without mass production).

The fetishisation of the hand-crafted is a way to live with mass production, to enjoy it while maintaining a psychological distance. If only I could convince myself that ironing shirts provided the same benefits.

Not being myself

11/10/2012 § 5 Comments

Andrew Dickson over at posted a brief reaction to some questions in the media about whether people are in denial over their weight. I posted a comment over there, but it started me down a track I want to pick up here. Yes, this is a Lacanian post. Skip to the next if you aren’t interested.

Dickson listed the comments from some expert quoted in the media. I commented (in part):

My favourite of those questions is:
- Does my body reflect who I really am?
The hard kernel that I take from Lacan is the split subject. The way I understand — which may be entirely wrong, but it is my wrongness — is that we are never who we ‘really’ are. In the process of becoming members of a human culture, we feel we have lost something of our true essence. Moreover, that feeling is an illusion of language, a figment of our imaginations, an ego conceit.

The more I read of Lacan and the more I am in the world, the more I find this foot-stamping, hold-breath-till-blue ‘I am myself’ fascinating. It seems to be behind so much of our trying to impose our preferences on other people, trying to impose our view of the world on other people. By trying to make the world bend to our wills, we are trying to assert our I-ness (I-nesses?).

(And then we can get into Lacanian language games, in which my I-ness wants to be my highness, and we are all little highnesses. Also, ‘I am myself’ takes us nearly to ‘I am who am’, and we get all Old Testament on ourselves.)

Economists can come off looking rather well-adjusted in all this. Some of them, at least, accept that other people have different preferences that lead to different choices that are equally valid. And they also accept that my choices create problems for your choices, that externalities are mutual, and this creates actual inter-individual (inter-subject?) conflicts that have to be resolved through some process or mechanism.

Here my big personal news: we bought a dog. A cute, fluffy, bichon frise of a dog. I’m really, really more of cat person. They look after themselves, give you a ‘hey, what up’ look in the morning, accept the occasional skritch when it’s on offer. Dogs, well, dogs are needy. And smelly.

But here’s the thing: my daughter loves dogs. Her face lights up when she gets to play with one. She’s been asking for one for years (and been pretty understanding about not getting one).

Even though I wouldn’t get a dog in my ‘I am myself’ world, we now have a dog in this world. And I’m okay with that. I even feel like it’s alright to have her preferences imposed on me, because my I-ness is just an illusion, anyway, and my we-ness (or wee-ness) is much closer to the Real of the matter.

So, no, my body doesn’t reflect who I am, any more than our new dog reflects who I am. But that’s a philosophical triviality. Next question?

Obligatory cute photo:

The return of society

12/06/2012 § 1 Comment

One of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis — and it extends into social theory based on psychoanalytical theory — is the return of the repressed. That which is repressed doesn’t go away. It reappears in some other form, such as the famous ‘Freudian slip’.

It used to be we had something called ‘society’. There were arguments about its role and importance, memorably set to music in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ from West Side Story. Even as late as 1975, Dr Scott’s line in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (all hail Richard O’Brien) still made sense: ‘Society must be protected!’

Things changed. Thatcher could claim, with a straight face, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ There were individuals, and families, and neighbours — but there was no society. There is truly nothing like a Dame.

The problem, of course, was that saying it doesn’t make it so. This attempt to repress the idea of society didn’t make it go away.

We are now seeing the resurgence of the idea that we are connected to each other. We are taking to heart the idea that what I do affects you and what you do affects me. However, this return of the repressed fits the new ethos of individuality. Instead of ‘society’, we have ‘externalities’. ‘Society’ contains an idea of connection. Even when society is in strife and riven by internal factions, it is still a collective noun. ‘Externality’ is combative, each individual for the self. It tallies and totes up.

The debate over raising the superannuation age in New Zealand is formulated as the burden that retirees are imposing on the rest of us. The fight over other people’s diets — their fat and sugar intake — is couched in terms of how much it will cost taxpayers. Stricter smoking and alcohol laws are defended because of the costs we all bear for these vices.

So what has really changed? We still recognise that ‘No man is an island,/Entire of itself./Each is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main.’ We are just recognising it differently. Now, we are simply trying to keep everyone else off our lawns.

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