Occasional Notes No. 1

  • Above is my first tattoo; here is its Kantian inspiration. And Foucault’s commentary on Kant:

    It seems to me we may recognize a point of departure: the outline of what one might call the attitude of modernity…

    Thinking back on Kant’s text, I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by “attitude,” I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos. And consequently, rather than seeking to distinguish the “modern era” from the “premodern” or “postmodern,” I think it would be more useful to try to find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found itself struggling with attitudes of “countermodernity.”

  • I blogged at Ordinary Times. “Games Without Fairness” looks at why people go into a knowingly unfair MMO scenario, and what that might or might not say about political theory.
  • I blogged twice at my real job. First I looked at the political landscape of marijuana legalization, particularly in this November’s elections; next I considered how and to what degree legalizing all drugs is likely to help with our mass incarceration problem.
  • If anyone is still unaware, I’m on Instagram, where I scrupulously avoid anything having to do with work.

The Government of the Gaps

As I argue in my forthcoming book, there are a lot of things that we don’t know about governance. Sometimes they hide in plain sight. Or on Wikipedia:

A natural question to ask is how well fingerprint examiners actually perform. Proficiency tests do not validate a procedure per se, but they can provide some insight into error rates. In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was “designed, assembled, and reviewed” by the International Association for Identification (IAI).The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latents. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latents. Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from “shock to disbelief.”

Fingerprint testing is emphatically not the creature we imagine it to be. The shockingly poor performance of trained experts may or may not constitute reasonable doubt as the law would have it, but maybe it ought to be in the back of our minds the next time we sit on a jury.

The same is true – and more – with hair analysis and bite analysis, both of which were simply fabricated to suit a purpose. That is: There is no science of hair analysis. There is no science of bite analysis.

Who would tell falsehoods like that, and why?


Human justice is never complete. And this bugs us deeply, on a civilizational level.

In the Republic, Plato famously described a numerology that would order his ideal society, dictating when children would be born and what station in life they would occupy. The single biggest controversy about this numerology is whether Plato meant it sincerely. Did he really think he had a viable science for running people’s lives, or was Plato being facetious? Or was he equivocating between the two, perhaps to subversive effect?

For the record, Aristotle appears to have taken Plato seriously, and Aristotle would be one to know. For all of his apt criticisms of Plato’s thought, Aristotle gives not a hint that Plato was simply joking about his politics. Such a hint would have mightily dented the aspirations of Platonic statesmen and saved the world much, much utopian trouble.

Later Platonists also seem to have taken their master at his word, and we have been building imaginary cities – and phony sciences of government – ever since. It’s all through western history, this deficit between what we can do and can know, and what we would need to do and need to know for our theories of government to hold up.

The problem persists for theories of government both sympathetic and otherwise. There is of course no numerology that tells us how to populate a city. Tommaso Campanella, a later Platonist, suggested astrology instead. (No dice.) The Great Chain of Being was a fantasy. There never was an original contract. There was no state of nature, even if Rousseau’s arresting description of it may pass for the founding of modern anthropology. (Anthropology improved in the meantime; what says about government has also grown more qualified.) Dialectical materialism promised big and delivered nothing. Phrenology and physiognomy are garbage. Eugenics is too. Criminology, that basis of so much of the modern state, doesn’t rehabilitate the criminal. Panopticons breed paranoia, not docile bodies. Social darwinism doesn’t work, and it probably never had any genuine exponents – not even Herbert Spencer. The technology known as political correctness makes people anxious and resentful, not tolerant or empathetic.

Again and again, the political imagination infers the existence of technologies that would be needed to make a desired program possible. Politics is commonly not about actually developing those technologies. Rather, it’s about fudging the difference. And it’s not limited to technology. It’s anthropology, history, philosophy, even theology.

This suggests that there are a lot of gaps in our accounts of what we do to each other in this thing called government.


Yes, I said theology. In the early modern era, and even among Enlightenment authors like Voltaire, one commonly found it claimed that human justice was incomplete – but that God would settle accounts in the afterlife. Whatever we got wrong, whatever we missed, God would pick up the slack.

We can see the need for the premise. It may be the central tenet of modern civic religion itself. The wide scope of modern government and its obvious tendency to sometimes get things wrong all but requires us to believe in an afterlife of punishment and reward. That afterlife is one of the few things that could make, and probably still makes, the rulers’ actions bearable. And thus the Enlightenment’s complicated, dreadful relationship with atheism: If the afterlife doesn’t exist, then human justice is radically incomplete, and it always will be, and no one is ever making things better. If there’s an afterlife, then human justice points toward something more complete that’s still to come. Without an afterlife, the gesture is false.

So many gaps: Governing is an inexact science, and not just because it takes human judgment, and because human judgment is faulty. Governing is also an inexact science because science is inexact. The stories that we tell ourselves about why have government, and what government is doing, and why it’s okay for government to do what it does, all tend to gloss this over. In fact, the stories that we tell ourselves about how government works are all woefully optimistic. They infer claims about what we can do from claims about what we would need to do to justify the state that we have, or the state that we would build.

A person who rejected these narratives, and who acknowledged the radical incompleteness of our accounts of the state and its justice, might be called a narrative anarchist. The position is increasingly credible to me. Someone who accepted the necessary incompleteness of human justice, and who nonetheless worked to better our governing institutions, would at least start from a realistic set of assumptions, which a lot of canonical political theory – and real-world- governance – clearly hasn’t done.




“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage”

Margaret Atwood in the Guardian:

“A Robin Redbreast in a cage, Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” wrote William Blake. “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” wrote John Milton, channelling God’s musings about mankind and free will in the third book of Paradise Lost. “Freedom, high-day, high-day, freedom … !” chants Caliban in The Tempest. Mind you, he is drunk at the time, and overly optimistic: the choice he is making is not freedom, but subjection to a tyrant.

We’re always talking about it, this “freedom”. But what do we mean by it? “There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia lectures the captive Handmaids in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” […]

Governments know our desire for safety all too well, and like to play on our fears. How often have we been told that this or that new rule or law or snooping activity on the part of officialdom is to keep us “safe”? We aren’t safe, anyway: many of us die in weather events – tornados, floods, blizzards – but governments, in those cases, limit their roles to finger-pointing, blame-dodging, expressions of sympathy or a dribble of emergency aid. Many more of us die in car accidents or from slipping in the bathtub than are likely to be done in by enemy agents, but those kinds of deaths are not easy to leverage into panic…

Minus our freedom, we may find ourselves no safer; indeed we may be double-plus unfree, having handed the keys to those who promised to be our defenders but who have become, perforce, our jailers. A prison might be defined as any place you’ve been put into against your will and can’t get out of, and where you are entirely at the mercy of the authorities, whoever they may be. Are we turning our entire society into a prison? If so, who are the inmates and who are the guards? And who decides?

…but all of that may seem a little old-fashioned. It harks back to the mid-20th century, with its brutalism, its strutting dictators, its mass military spectacles, its crude in-your-face uniforms. The citizen-control methods of modern western governments are much more low-profile: less jackboot than gumboot. Our leaders are applying the methods of agribusiness cattle-raising to us: ear-tag, barcode, number, sort, record. And cull, of course.

All done by thoughtful, reasonable, well-educated people. By people like ourselves – which makes it seem morally permissible. By people who are not Stalinists or fascists, but who are good, right-thinking progressives, who have only the humanest of faces. And besides, we are comfortable. So, so comfortable.

It can’t be that bad, can it? They’re as far from Robin Redbreast as one could imagine, but are naked mole-rats not satisfied with their lot in life? Are they not less anxious than we twitching primates? Guided appropriately by information technology – and by our unfortunate tendency to panic – might the naked mole-rat not be our future?

What would we lose if it were?

Two Deepities from Martin Heidegger

Daniel Dennett defines a deepity as “a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading it is true but trivial.”[1] I might add that deepities are most likely to arise when we already expect the profound, and when we might be embarrassed if we did not actually find it.

Dennett cites the sentence “Love is just a word” as a short, sweet, and totally preposterous example: “Love” may be just a word, and a four-letter word at that, but what the word denotes is clearly no such thing. Or if it is, the claim is entirely unsupported.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Martin Heidegger:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.[2]

On the literal reading, the statement is manifestly false. On the figurative reading – reading it to say, rather, that we all make use of technology somehow, and that we would be greatly inconvenienced without it – one is inclined to shrug. Or perhaps cheer. It is in no sense a calamity or even a profundity.

And for an encore, not one paragraph later:

We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is.

That’s one question we might ask. Which is trivial. But is it the question? And if so, what would that mean? That all other questions aren’t questions? That would be false.

I begin to wonder, after the first page of “The Question Concerning Technology,” whether I need to go on or not.


[1] Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013, p 56.

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology.”

Obscured by Lego

MIT is using Lego in urban planning:

MIT researchers unveiled something earlier this month that will please toddlers and serious urban planners alike. It’s a model of Dudley Square—a neighborhood in the greater Boston area—about the size of a kitchen table. The roads, sidewalks, bus stations, and buildings are all made out of Lego blocks. Wee Lego figures represent pedestrians. Laid over it all is a computer-generated projection of the actual neighborhood, filling in the details of current green space and traffic in Dudley Square.

The project is a collaboration between the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Changing Places group at the MIT Media Lab, and the Barr Foundation, all of whom are are using the new tool to test how bus-rapid transit systems could affect the city. The test includes three components, each representing the city of Boston on a different scale. There’s the Lego model of Dudley Square, another 3-D model (also made of Legos) of a Boston street, and a touchscreen interface to illustrate the potential effects of different plans on a regional scale—such as how changes to public transit might affect people’s access to jobs.

It’s important, though, not to characterize the Lego here as a planning tool. It’s nothing of the kind. The real work is happening elsewhere, by algorithm:

On the touchscreen, for example, viewers can point to a specific part of the city and have the computer tell them how many jobs they can get to from that spot via proposed public transportation. They can then fiddle with the model to see how different transit systems and route networks affect their commute.

“And then they can say, ‘Well, what if I added these new transit routes, and what if I change the frequency of the buses, and how much would it cost?’” explains Chris Zegras, professor of transportation and urban planning at MIT, who leads the project team. The information, he adds, come from publicly available data…

And what’s more accessible and familiar than Legos? “The platform lowers the the threshold of participation because every kid knows how to move a Lego piece,” says Phil Tinn, a masters student at MIT, who is also part of the team.

The CityScope project stands or falls on its data, not on those little plastic bricks.

So where is the data? It’s “publicly available,” says the publicity. I emailed the project’s contact person, who eventually pointed me to this site for app developerssome relevant documentation here – which… let’s just say it’s not as accessible as one might like. You’ll need to register for an API key and brush up on your programming.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, the Lego bricks here function as a persuasive game, one that encodes programmers’ assumptions about urban life and gives their predictions the appearance of results. The purpose of the Lego here is to make things look cute, and tidy, and… convincing. The information that powers the simulation is considerably less scrutable, which seems like it should be a bigger problem than it currently is.

The assumptions that turn data into results might be accurate. But I’m not sure that I or anyone else can tell.

A Parallel.

“[T]he most acute forms of the modern existential crisis are appearing today at the margin of a civilization of prosperity… One sees there rebellion, disgust, and anger manifesting not in a wretched and oppressed subproletariat but often in young people who lack nothing, even in millionaires’ children. .. Blank despair can occur right up to the finishing-post of socio-economic messianism [accompanied by] the sense that something is still missing.” – Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger (1961)

“Some ten years ago, in the midst of the rebellion on our campuses, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It was written by a Yale psychologist, and it title was a quotation from one of the student leaders. That title was ‘You Don’t Know What Hell Is Like Unless You Were Raised in Scarsdale.’ Now, Scarsdale is one of our most affluent and sophisticated suburbs. It is also, so far as young people are concerned, one of the most tolerant and ‘permissive’ places in America. Nothing is too good or too expensive for the children of Scarsdale.” – Irving Kristol, The Neoconservative Persuasion (1975)