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Re: <nettime> Between Tracking and Formulating
Keith Hart on Sun, 27 Jul 2008 22:12:27 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Between Tracking and Formulating


I fully understand where Brian's cri de coeur about the normative tyranny of
'we' comes from and I enjoyed Eric's creative use of Pound in this context.
The move from I to we is a liberating as well as an oppressive device. All
language exists in a dialectical tension between universal and particular
meanings and retaining a sense of our common humanity is still a valuable
corrective to relentless egotism. Not that either Brian or Eric would
dispute that.

But the revival of this thread encourages me to return to the central
premise of Jordan Crandall's original article which, in its undiluted
empiricism, is simply wrong. Taking issue with the rhetoric is one thing,
but to let a basic fallacy go unchallenged is quite another. The following
extract sums up his position:

>Increasingly, the tracking apparatus is able to reach far back into the
past, further back than was humanly possible, through the use of
regressions.  Regressions are statistical procedures that take raw
historical data and estimate how various causal factors influence a single
variable of interest (for example, the quality of wine, or an enemy's
movement).  A pattern is revealed, derived from the past, and this
demonstrates a likelihood, a propensity, for what could happen today. This
pattern might be stabilized, made operational, in a formula.  You just plug
in the specified attributes into a regression formula, and out comes your
prediction.  A moving phenomenon -- a stock price, a biological function, an
enemy, a product or part -- is codified and understood in a
historical trajectory, in order to extrapolate its subsequent position.<

It  is a scientistic fantasy that predictions can be made on the basis of
statistical regularities observed in the past. Crandall's belief in the
power of algorithms leads him to claim that number-crunching on a massive
scale allows 'us' to dispense with theory altogether. This is a rehash of
William Petty's argument in 'Political Arithmetick', published in 1690 and
written two decades earlier as an explicit appeal to King Charles II to base
policy on econometrics, in opposition to the proponents of micro-economic
theory like Dudley North. The epistemology of economics has remained trapped
in the opposition between rationalism and empiricism ever since, proving
that it is an ideology, not a science. The reconciliation of the pair in
dialectical reason, not to mention the methodological discoveries of
scientific modernism (quantum mechanics and relativity theory) just passed
the economists by.

In the first half of the twentieth century, economics took a normative,
rationalist turn that was hostile to the empiricism of sociology,
institutional economics and the rest. Frank Knight articulated this position
in 1940 when he told Melville Herskovits that he was wasting his time trying
to make economists take on board the findings of ethnography, since their
discipline was an intuitive and deductive one. But a revolution took place
in economics in the 1940s.

The second world war posed unprecedented logistical problems, especially for
the USA fighting on two fronts. We know that this led to the basic
inventions of the digital revolution -- the transistor, computing, radar,
but it also led to economics was remaking itself as a positive science. Two
Dutchmen, Jan Tinbergen and Tjalling Koopmans, opened up a mathematicians'
scenario similar to Crandall's, proposing that new information processors
and a systems approach would allow economists to model economic reality on
any scale they chose. The post-war rise of economists to a position of
unprecedented intellectual hegemony was fuelled by these econometric methods
and by machines of increasing sophistication. Knight's normative approach to
economic reasoning came to look rather quaint. It was displaced by an
aspiration to predict developments in the real economy; and economists
asserted their new mastery of the public sphere with a dazzling repertoire
of equations, charts and numbers.

This work was already done by the time that neoliberalism requires the
economists simply to sing the virtues of the free market as eternal truth,
so that rational abstraction replaced number-crunching as the dominant
tendency in economics. Brian's substantive complaint in his comment was that
subjective universalism masked the continuity between bureaucratic
hegemonies during and after the Cold War. My point is that retention of a
seventeenth century epistemology as ideology deserves to be exposed for what
it is, regardless of whether the emphasis lies on the rationalist or the
empiricist pole.

This isn't just a matter of economics or of the surveillance society.
Western civilization as a whole is based on an erroneous construction of
tense, on a notion of science that assumes consistency between past, present
and future. The idea appears to thrive on moments of technological
innovation, but it is philosophically independent of any machine revolution.
Another instance is glottochronology, "methods in historical linguistics
used to estimate the time at which languages diverged, based on the
assumption that the basic (core) vocabulary of a language changes at a
constant average rate" (Wikipedia). The original idea is associated with
Morris Swadesh. It's bunk of course. The mathematical approach requires a
uniformity that is not present in history.

Jordan Crandall may be a great artist who sold out, if I read Brian
correctly, but his intellectual failure goes deeper than the manipulation of
pronouns.

Keith

2008/7/27 Eric Kluitenberg <epk {AT} xs4all.nl>

> dear nettimers, Brian,
>
> I was planning to respond briefly to Brian's post "50 ways to leave
> your lover" and before even being able to do so he posted something
> else that struck me as interesting and in need of a short comment -
> the use of "we" as a comprehensive claim, ironic or not. It seemed to
> me that the use of "we" was always suspect, already for a much longer
> time, and I try to avoid it as much as possible when writing, though
> it slips in from time to time...
> (all too human)
 <...>


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