[iDC] A Curmudgeonly Look at last month's Conference.

Margaret Morse memorse at comcast.net
Fri Dec 25 21:39:30 UTC 2009

Dear Michael,
Thanks for your response to my query.   It wasn't what I was  
expecting.  I wasn't there, but I would think the work of the critic  
of the conference could be to foreground the bits of theorization,  
well grounded in empirical and emotional experience, that emerge in a  
more distributed and incomplete way.  Isn't it more productive and a  
lot more fun to pick out  and explicate the bits of theorization  
emerging in the "good" examples, for example of the people you named  
early in your curmudgeonly remarks?

Your two examples of Darwin and Wittgenstein foreground individual  
genius and grand theories. (Of course, these "good theories" could be  
framed completely differently, eg. as part of a range of  
contemporaneous and prior discoveries in Darwin's case.)  How are  
these examples pertinent to our contemporary situation of trying to  
understand and come to terms with "playbour" and its ramifications?    
Your invitation to try to emulate the "good theory" in your examples  
makes my eyes glaze over.  It just seems a lot of work and no play,  
trying to be like Darwin and Wittgenstein.   (Being Darwin and  
Wittgenstein is something else again.)   Furthermore, to root out  
"metaphor" would be to banish all capacity for imagination.  We need  
our capacity for inventive naming to come to terms with a world that  
still exceeds our understanding.

I realize I am echoing the tenor, if not the language or argument of  
Zac's response.

Best wishes for the New Year to all,


On Dec 23, 2009, at 8:30 AM, Michael H Goldhaber wrote:

> Dear Margaret, et al.,
>  As I mentioned, good theory is more a verb than a noun, always in  
> flux, never quite crystallized, yet headed towards ossification as  
> soon as stated. So you have to view it on the fly. In connection  
> with the conference, I thought Michel Bauwens's post of Dec. 8  
> "[iDC] p2p and the cosmobiological tradition" was a good stab,  
> though I don't fully agree with it. As for an older work, though it  
> has its faults, Darwin's Origin of Species still is a model. So is  
> Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.
> Let me add that BAD  theory is no monopoly of the left or of  
> humanists.  It is found throughout the sciences, in most of  
> contemporary economics, and sociology, etc.
> Are these standards too high to be reached by most of us? Often, but  
> they can at least provide goals to strive towards. In that regard,  
> it's relevant that Wittgenstein never thought PI ready to publish,  
> Darwin published only under threat o fbeing scooped, and Marx (not  
> exactly lacking in ego) labeled some of his work "Preface to a  
> Contribution to the Critique of ....", but my point is not that one  
> should refrain from trying nor from publishing so much as that one  
> should not take much for granted, should examine premises, and take  
> as wide a perspective as possible in analyzing one's own statements  
> or in quoting others. And forming little self-praising coteries,  
> though hard to avoid, is not helpful. Aim high, though.
> Best,
> Michael
> On Dec 18, 2009, at 6:44 AM, Margaret Morse wrote:
>> Dear Curmudgeon,
>> Can you give us an example of the "good theory" that you describe  
>> primarily by what it is not?
>> Best,
>> Margaret
>> On Dec 15, 2009, at 10:55 AM, Michael H Goldhaber wrote:
>>>  All this highlights for me that what some cleave to as “theory”  
>>> does not seem deserving of that name.... I started out my  
>>> professional life as a theoretical physicist, and as I changed  
>>> fields still referred to myself as a social theorist. I love  
>>> theory, if it is good theory — of many sorts from astronomical to  
>>> zoological, from political to literary theory.  By good theory  I  
>>> mean a search for new understanding , often through new concepts  
>>> of what the world is, how it works, how it can work, and what it  
>>> should be. Such theorizing has to be self-examining, subject to  
>>> doubt and critique, always a bit tentative, and certainly  
>>> constantly tested for its coherence and meaningfulness  against  
>>> new ranges of experience, as well as in comparison with other  
>>> theories. It should of course strive to be rational, but it can  
>>> never and probably should never be that purely. To get anywhere,  
>>> not all hypotheses can be put in question at the same time, yet  
>>> nothing should be beyond examination. Theory must always be  
>>> seeking to add  new kinds of observations and predictions,  
>>> examining how it comports or contrasts with other theories,  
>>> whether it can be improved in its logic and strength of  
>>> conclusions, where it is on possibly shaky grounds , in what ways  
>>> it can be useful rather than merely descriptive or pejorative,  
>>> when it is prematurely reductionist, when it can no longer easily  
>>> be extended, when there are aspects of the world it has has  
>>> overlooked, etc.
>>> Good theory must always be — to use a favorite post-modernist term  
>>> — transgressive —as well as audacious, surprising and  offering up  
>>> new concepts, which lead to new percepts. But even the best  
>>> theory, by the time it is articulated and typeset, is surely wrong  
>>> in some significant aspects. It always must be subject to  
>>> critique, modification, enlargement, and eventual abandonment. Any  
>>> textual formulation of it is by no means Holy Writ. It is not to  
>>> be quoted with an air of devotion, or as if by itself it stands  
>>> for or can prove anything.
>>> Three things are widely held to be true in the western world  
>>> today: first, that we live in a more or less strictly capitalist  
>>> society; second, that, except possibly for some sort of socialism,  
>>> nothing other than capitalism is possible; and third, that  
>>> capitalism is much to be preferred to socialism.  (What socialism  
>>> is generally taken to mean — especially in the US, but  
>>> increasingly elsewhere — is usually some variant of Stalinism.  
>>> With this definition, if the first two hypotheses are taken as  
>>> correct, a good argument can indeed be made for the third.) Many  
>>> or even most participants at this conference reject only the third  
>>> hypothesis, pointing to or taking for granted the evils of  
>>> capitalism, while also leaving unstated and little thought how a  
>>> humane socialism would work. But how do we know that our system is  
>>> primarily capitalist? Certainly not just by assertion. Nor by  
>>> metaphor. And equally not by superficial observation of capitalist  
>>> forms and notions, for the question has to be what other forms  
>>> might be present at a less explicit level. In other words, without  
>>> new concepts we cannot  clearly perceive what is around us.
>>> That’s not how to do good theory. The humanist tradition quite  
>>> honorably has taken up exact quotation, and  a desire to get back  
>>> to the text, in the case of poetry —in the largest sense —  or in  
>>> studying what a particular author thought or said.  Such  
>>> activities are commendable, but they should not be mistaken for  
>>> theory, any more than a portion of a painting or snatches of a  
>>> symphony would be . Not even a  mathematical formula, not even “E  
>>> equals m c- squared,”  can rest in that light.
>>> All this is true of scientific theories, but it is even more vital  
>>> to consider when dealing with theories that refer to the state or  
>>> the future of humanity, for through its own actions the human word  
>>> is in endless flux. What were indisputable “laws” cease to be,  
>>> what was the state of affairs has changed. Marx himself wrote in  
>>> 1851, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a  
>>> nightmare on the brains of the living.” Whatever he exactly meant  
>>> by that then, it has value for us only if reinterpreted to apply  
>>> to now. Marx’s own work and that of everyone who came after him —  
>>> in whatever tradition — is today part of a similar “nightmare.”    
>>> To live now,  we must be fully awake to now, not letting the  
>>> clanking chains of our dreamt ghosts entrap us in fears and  
>>> formulations of the dead past., not the past of the1860’s, nor the  
>>> 1960’s, nor even more recent times.
>>> Best,
>>> Michael
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