Sunday, May 27, 2012

Habits and Belief

I've been reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business looking at it in relation to Peirce's notion beliefs and habits.  There is a diagrammatic view of habits — as cues, routines, and rewards – and various communities, as well as faith, that can play a role too.  Of course, Duhigg looks at habits from an psychological and mass-marketing perspective, whereas Peirce's concern was with an intellectual and scientific point of view, but the two perspectives feed into each other in interesting and fruitful ways.

One thing that caught my attention was Duhigg's notion of belief.  I always understood belief as referring to the habit; that is, being a habit meant the thing was believed and there was a willingness to act on it.  However, as Duhigg discusses in his chapter on changing habits, a willingness to act is not automatic with a habit.  A new habit can function flawlessly day after day, and then in an important or tense situation, can fail (the person reverts to their old habit) from an unwillingness, a lack of belief or trust, in the new habit.  Believing seems to be something over and above, separate from, what is believed.

Maybe this should have been obvious.  After all, Pierce characterized the methods of tenacity and authority as making no reference to the content of what was believed.  But perhaps believing should be seen as something separate from what is believed even with those methods of fixing belief that do focus on content?  Perhaps the scientific community is as necessary to scientific beliefs as the community of recovering alcoholics is to undoing a habit of alcohol abuse?  Perhaps induction is a faith in science to the point of being willing to act on habits whose only guarantee is that they are part of a process toward the truth?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Diagrammatic Hegemony

David Foster Wallace in "The Host" describes the following scene:
"Ms. B. [Ms. Bertolucci, Program Director] gently chides the new host for not hitting the Greg Haidl trial harder, and for usually discussing the case in his show's second hour instead of the first. Her thrust: 'It's a big story for us. It's got sex, it's got police, class issues, kids running amok, video, the courts, and who gets away with what. And it's in Orange County.'  When Mr. Ziegler [the Program Host] … protests that both Bill Handel and John & Ken have already covered the story six ways from Sunday every day and there is no way for him to do anything fresh or stimulating with it, Ms. B. nods slowly and responds:  'If we were KIIS-FM, and we had a new Christina Aguilera song, and they played it heavy on the morning show and the afternoon show, wouldn't you still play it on the evening show?'" ["The Host," p. 10]
The Program Director is looking at this from the point of view of the business, an impersonal logical construct indifferent to either one of them as well as to all those humans that make up its audience except as the figure into its calculations. What does this diagram for making money, or perhaps more generally, being a successful radio-business require?  The Program Host has what amounts to a personal objection — be it moral, aesthetic, thoughtful — to doing this particular thing.  But this  objection carries no weight with the Program Director.  What she wants done fits the firm's formula for success, and there is no such personal objection for her for the simple reason she does not have to do it. Her argument, of course, wins.
"[O]n tonight's (i.e., May 19's) program he does lead with and spend much of the first hour on the latest Haidl developments." [Ibid.]
The subtle imbalance in this ubiquitous kind of transaction has reduced the fullness of two human beings to the status of indices in an abstract and impersonal diagram that is dictating their actions.  We like to think we can dip into these diagrammatic mechanizations of our existence without drowning our humanity in the process. Are we just kidding ourselves?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pinning Down Irony

"And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down." [David Foster Wallace, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," p. [183]
For what Wallace calls a "malign addiction" — where the irony is in a thing, like TV or alcohol, that offers a cure or relief for problems it only makes worse — the only response possible would seem to be a 12-step program or TTDTO (turn the damn thing off). When the cure for doing nothing, the doing something of watching TV, is more of doing nothing, there is indeed no way to pin the irony down and make it productive.

But what of the Socratic irony: "All I know is that I know nothing."  Was that just a polite means of concealing his own wisdom?  Was the irony an unending (as in can never be pinned down) joke on others?  Or was it the positive basis of argument?  Of considering reasons for believing things (which he did not know) were true?  In a world of scientific explanations (beginning, as they do, from indisputable facts) and expert opinions (dispensed from above as encapsulated certainties) we forget the need for arguments, the need for reasons for what we believe is true, because, pinning down that Socratic irony, the only thing we can really know is that we know nothing.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Creating Space

"The German word for 'uncanny,' as in Freud's famous essay on the Uncanny, is unheimlich — unhomely. The tourist thrives on the uncanny, moving happily through a phenomenal world of effects without causes. This world, in which he has no experience and no memory, is presented to him as a supernatural domain: the language of travel advertising hawks the uncanny as part of the deal."

The world of experience floods us.  Infinite combinations and permutations intoxicate us.  We see weird and wonderful things morphing from one to another.  We can pleasurably organize and describe this scene, pass our time taking pictures of it, explore it using maps and guides without really coming to a diagrammatic understanding of it ourselves.

But when Raban actually immigrated to Seattle, he could no longer remain a tourist:
"But for the newly arrived immigrant, this magic stuff is like a curse. … The immigrant needs to grow a memory, and grow it fast. Somehow or other, he must learn to convert the uncanny into the homely, in order to find a stable footing in the new land."
 Forming a diagrammatic understanding of his new home became a priority.  I don't think this is just a matter of doing things and getting around, for a tourist can do that, and I'm not sure it is just a matter of memories either.  The axioms of that first and foremost among diagrams, Euclid's geometry, created a space, and I think any diagram, by abstractly selecting only certain relationships from experience, also creates a "space."  Consider the aerial photo and map of the same region from a previous post to this blog.  The map is creating a space that the image, and perhaps the experience itself, lacks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Universal Diagrams

Even as we philosophically assess the diagram — its applications, logic, and consequences — we tend to look at single diagrams.  Looking at diagrammatic thinking only in terms of a single diagram is one-sided.  Diagrams evolve, interact with other diagrams.  They are limited by their own abstractive selections as well as by other diagrams, as complete and tightly strung as themselves, but nevertheless producing different consequences.

What's more, an exclusive focus on single diagrams flirts with delusions of universality.  Arendt noted the totalitarian emphasis on logic.
"The device both totalitarian rulers used to transform their respective ideologies into weapons with which each of their subjects would force himself into step with the terror movement was deceptively simple and inconspicuous: they took them dead seriously, took pride the one in his supreme gift for "ice cold reasoning" (Hitler) and the other in the 'mercilessness of his dialectics,' and proceeded to drive ideological implications into extremes of logical consistency …" [Hannah Arendt, "Ideology and Terror," p. 318]
This is an effect of taking a single diagram as universal. There is no need for concern with applications just as there is no need for concern with consequences.  Being universal, the diagram applies to anything and explains everything.  The only concern is with the logic of the diagram itself, and perhaps a "practical" concern with that circular fanaticism that goes all-in on realizing that universality.  Arendt continues quoting Stalin.
"The power, which Marx thought was born when the idea seized the masses, was discovered to reside, not in the idea itself, but in its logical process which 'like a mighty tentacle seizes you on all sides as in a vise and from whose grip you are powerless to tear yourself away; you must either surrender or make up your mind to utter defeat.'" [Ibid., p. 319].

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wedge Issues

A recent article, among others, in the Telegraph-News notes that Democrats are picking up on the Republican tactic of using wedge issues.  But I think this comparison overlooks a key element in the way wedge issues have worked.  Evolution, specifically the teaching of evolution in the schools, works as a wedge issue because an opinion one way or the other has no practical consequences for most people.  The majority of students are memorizing one thing and/or the other for an exam, and then they are done with it, as virtually all adults are, for the rest of their lives.  Their opinion, or what is done in the name it, is unhampered by any practical consequences for them.  A few people may resent the degradation of learning and scholarship — science teachers have balked at the insult to their discipline — but for the most part it is of little or no concern.

Abortion is a more interesting example, because it has been of practical concern to young people and their families at least as long I've been around.  But so long as the Republicans used a bait-and-switch of talking it up during the election and doing nothing about it once they were elected, it could function as wedge issue too.  And, it is precisely this, the fact numerous state legislatures are passing laws that threaten to take us back to coat hangers, back alleys, and unexplained vacations that mean it is not a wedge issue anymore.  It is becoming a real issue with practical consequences for more and more of the electorate.

Diagrammatically this brings out the necessity of there being practical consequences which can be assessed with regard to a concept or diagram.  Otherwise, anything goes.  And while we may still discuss the assumptions, applications, internal consistency, and even theoretical consequences of a concept, without practical consequences to the persons involved, all those things can be blithely ignored, distorted, and/or trivialized.