31 October 2008


Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:37 am

Happy Halloween.

30 October 2008

Election 2008: Colorado Amendments

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:53 pm

[The morning after: Colorado election results are in the comments.]

With the election just a few days away I guess it’s time for me to decide how I’m going to fill in my ballot. In addition to the presidential and senate races there are several issues being put to the vote in Colorado. Although ordinarily this blog doesn’t have many local readers, I thought it might be informative to show what kinds of things the local citizenry is being asked to decide. Here’s how I plan to vote on each of them, but I might be dissuadable if you’ve got a good counter-argument to offer. Here are the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the State of Colorado being decided by popular vote during this election:

Amendment 46 — Prohibit governments from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, public education, or public contracting.

The U.S. Constitution already prohibits this sort of discrimination; the key phrase is “granting preferential treatment.” If this amendment passes, equal opportunity and diversity hiring policies, which attempt to rectify institutionalized biases and injustices in academe and the workplace, would be prohibited. I vote NO.

Amendment 47 — Prohibit requiring an employee to join and pay any dues or fees to a labor union as a condition for employment.

This is basic union busting — NO.

Amendment 48 — Define the term “person” to include any human being from the moment of fertilization.

A proven strategy for getting out the conservative vote is to put pro-life and anti-gay marriage any amendments on the state ballot. If this proposal wasn’t on the ballot I think Obama would win Colorado for sure. NO.

Amendment 49 — Prohibit any public employee paycheck deduction except for deductions required by federal law, tax withholdings, judicial liens and garnishments, health benefit and other insurance deductions, deductions for pension or retirement plans or systems or other savings or investment programs, and charitable deductions.

There seems no need for this legislation, except for making it illegal to deduct union dues from government employee paychecks. NO.

Amendment 50 — Allow residents of Central City, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek to vote to extend casino hours, approve additional games, and increase the maximum single bet limit; give most of the gaming tax revenue that results from new gaming limits to Colorado community colleges and to the gaming cities and counties; exempt the revenue raised from new gaming limits from state and local revenue and spending limits.

I don’t know. I think gambling can be fun, and if you want to play big-stakes games why should the State prevent you? It’s not like second-hand smoke, where hanging around in the same casino with a compulsive gambler is going to rub off on you. I have no idea how the local citizenry of these three towns feel about having gambling joints in their neighborhoods, but this amendment, but I’ve got to believe it’s the casino owners rather than the townies who are pushing for this amendment. On the other hand, the local jurisdictions will get significant increases in tax revenues, so they might like it. But the biggest chunk of increased taxes would go to the community colleges located throughout the state. This sort of earmarking of state revenues I’m generally against, but giving it to schools isn’t so bad. State-run lotteries are a regressive mechanism for raising tax revenues. Still, this amendment isn’t proposing a sin tax imposed on the gamblers, but rather an income tax to be paid by the casinos. The Voter Guide distributed by the Boulder County Democrats says “no,” but they don’t say why — I suspect it’s worries about compulsive gambling and the seedy environment that seems to crop up in casino towns. Much as I think casino gambling is a stupid way to spend your money, I could say the same thing about luxury cars and crappy $6 coffee-flavored beverages. The amendment doesn’t require these 3 towns to accede to statewide results; if it passes the legislation just just gives them the right to decide for themselves. I’m going to vote YES.

Amendment 51 — Increase state sales tax from 2.9% to 3.1% over two years; direct the new money be used to pay for services for people with developmental disabilities.

Again, the earmarking is problematic. Also, sales tax is regressive. So after originally thinking yes I’m changing to NO for this one.

Amendment 52 — Require the state legislature to spend a portion of state severance tax collections on highway projects.

Severance tax is levied against mining companies based on the amount of nonrenewable natural resources they extract from the earth. So, e.g., an oil driller’s severance tax would be used to pay for highway projects that would… encourage more driving and thus more oil consumption. NO.

Amendment 53 — Hold a business executive criminally responsible for the business’s failure to perform a duty required by law if the official knew of the duty and the business’s failure to perform it.


Amendment 54 — Prohibit certain government contractors from contributing to a political party or candidate for the contract’s duration and two years thereafter; prohibit contributors to ballot issue campaigns from entering into certain government contracts relating to the ballot issue.

I’m sure the government contractors claim discrimination and excessive bureaucracy to monitor compliance, but I say YES to this one.

Amendment 55 — Prohibit private-sector employees from firing or suspending full-time employees except for specific reasons.

I understand that employers are going to regard this legislation as restricting their flexibility to respond to volatility in the economic climate. However, one of the “specific reasons” that’s acceptable for letting a worker go is “documented adverse economic circumstances that directly affect the employer.” YES.

Amendment 56 — Require private employers with 20 or more employees to either provide health insurance for both employees and their dependents or pay for insurance through a new state authority; limit the amount the employee must pay to 20% for employee-only coverage and to 30% for dependent coverage.

I favor single-payer health insurance that would eliminate employers as purchasers of health plans. This legislation will make it relatively harder on the smaller employers, providing competitive advantages to bigger companies. However, this law is designed to protect workers regardless of who they work for. YES.

Amendment 57 — Allow an injured employee to seek damages in court, beyond workers’ compensation benefits, if the employee believes that the employer failed to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

Certainly a company should be subject to punitive damages for creating or tolerating conditions that make it more likely for workers to be injured. As an aside, I’d like to see current and former employees of subprime lending institutions start suing their employers for PTSD and punitive damages caused by putting their workers in the untenable position of pushing toxic mortgages on their friends and neighbors. YES.

Amendment 58 — Increase the amount of state severance taxes paid by oil and natural gas companies, primarily by eliminating an existing state tax credit; allocate the increased severance tax revenue to college scholarships for state residents, wildlife habitat, renewable energy projects, transportation projects in energy-impacted areas, and water treatment grants.

I described severance taxes in Amendment 52. YES.

Amendment 59 — Eliminate rebates that taxpayers receive when the state collects more money than it is allowed, and spend the money for preschool through 12th grade public education.

I believe that current law requires the state to refund tax revenues that exceed expenditures within any given year, which seems stupid to me. This amendment eliminates that requirement. YES.

Referendum L — Lower the age requirements for serving in the state legislature from 25 to 21.


There are three more referenda on the ballot, but they’re mostly technicalities. If you think I should change my vote on any of these items, or if you want to reinforce my potentially wobbly support for any of them, pleas let me know. Tomorrow I’ll post on the city and county issues if they prove interesting (I haven’t read them yet).

28 October 2008

Three Things

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:57 am

During the Big Game Saturday night between Fairview and Boulder High Schools, some kid streaked across the field brandishing a fake sword and wearing nothing but a pair of running shoes and a red hat. He was tackled by police officers and taken into custody. Now the authorities are threatening to charge this kid, whose name is Tom, with a felony sex crime. This would mean that, for the rest of his life, everywhere he lives Tom would have to register with the local police and have his name posted on a public list of sexual predators. Why pick on this particular streaker when Friday night everyone walking through the downtown Boulder mall, including trick-or-treating kiddies, will witness the tenth annual Naked Pumpkin Run? I’m sure you can imagine what this event is like — some guy who participated last year told a local reporter he found it to be “super liberating.” Kids at Fairview (the Knights, hence Tom’s fake sword) are now wearing homemade “Free Tom” t-shirts to school. I like the ironic touch of announcing the pro-streaker cause on an item of clothing.

Tomorrow night at the University of Colorado’s Mackey Auditorium, popular memoirist David Sedaris will give a public reading from his latest book. He got famous by reading his short humorous pieces aloud on National Public Radio. Ticket prices range from $42 to $65.

And if you needed any more reassurance that capitalism is here to stay, consider this guy. He’s apparently the most successful of the untold thousands of people who write and film advertisements for real commercial products, post them on Youtube, then solicit as many people as they can to go watch their ad. These are free marketeers in a literal sense: they aren’t paid for their work; instead they compete with each other for best ad. The winner is selected by popular acclaim, meaning that the top-rated ad must already have proven itself a viral marketing success in the marketplace. The winner gets a prize from the company being touted in the ad: sometimes the prize is cash, usually it’s a free product sold by the company. The losers get nothing other than the knowledge that every day somebody out there is watching the internet commercials they wrote, filmed, and posted for free.

26 October 2008

The Creativity of the Multitude

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:12 pm

The possibility of democracy is emerging for the very first time.

Always a bit slow on the uptake, I just read Hardt & Negri’s Multitude, their 2004 follow-up to Empire, a book on which I previously engaged in a series of tumultuous post-and-parry sessions. H&N argue that in late capitalism the knowledge worker has replaced the factory worker as the hegemonic form of labor, not through numerical domination but by signaling a change in how all work can “work.” Manual labor produces material goods, characterized by limitation and hence by scarcity. Knowledge work, by contrast, produces immaterial goods that can be distributed to everyone without natural limit, its spread restrained only by artificially constructed barriers like intellectual property laws. Not only that, but through dissemination the products of knowledge work actually burgeon and multiply rather than being dissipated. This is the power of the “multitude” – the singular and collective ability of people, working individually and in collaboration with one another, to create an ever-expanding congeries of immaterial cultural products which collectively H&N call “the common.”

I skip to the last thirty pages of Multitude, where the authors present as close as they get to a proposal on how democracy is going to emerge as both a political and an economic force from within the existing world order. What restrains the expansion of the common, say H&N, is the sovereign power which capital exercises over the means of production. According to the tradition of sovereignty, as elaborated by fascist social theorist Carl Schmitt, only the One can rule, whether that One be the king, the aristocracy, or the people. Without the dominance of the One, society descends into chaos.

Schmitt insists that in all cases the sovereign stands above society, transcendent, and thus politics is always founded on theology: power is sacred. The sovereign is defined, in other words, positively as the one above whom there is no power and who is thus free to decide and, negatively, as the one potentially excepted from every social norm and rule. (pp. 330-1)

According to H&N, this theory of political sovereignty applies to economic management as well:

The capitalist is the one who brings the workers together in productive cooperation. The capitalist is a modern Lycurgus, sovereign over the private domain of the factory, but pressed always to go beyond the steady state and innovate… To sovereign exceptionalism corresponds economic innovation as the form of industrial government. A large number of workers are engaged in the material practices of production, but the capitalist is the one responsible for innovation. Just as only the one can decide in politics, we are told, only the one can innovate in economics. (p. 331)

For H&N, the unrestrained expansion of the common depends on the intrinsic creative force of the multitude being released from the ideology of sovereignty. It’s not that the knowledge workers must form themselves into a manifestation of the One, whereby they can then exert the sovereignty of Labor; rather, the multitude succeeds by remaining true to its multiplicity, its limitless burgeoning channeled only by mutual collaboration among its singular constituents. What’s needed to achieve this infinite expansion of the common isn’t a unitary executive chain of command driving down through the hierarchy but rather a flat organizational architecture fueled by “common resources, open access, and free interaction” (p. 337). H&N see in the growth of the internet and cybernetics industries exemplars of this sort of “open source” development of an electronic commons.

Perhaps we can understand the decision making of the multitude as a form of expression. Indeed the multitude is organized something like a language. All of the elements of a language are defined by their differences one from the other, and yet they all function together. A language is a flexible web of meanings that combine according to accepted rules in an infinite number of possible ways. A specific expression, then, is not only the combination of linguistic elements but the production of real meanings: expression gives a name to an event. Just as expression emerges from language, then, a decision emerges from the multitude in such a way as to give meaning to the whole and name an event. For linguistic expression, however, there must be a separate subject that employs the language in expression. This is the limit of our analogy because unlike language the multitude is itself an active subject – something like a language that can express itself. (p. 339)

It’s this ability of the multitude to arrive at emergent decisions that fuels both economic innovation and democracy. Sovereignty, based on the myth of the One Who Rules, has in fact always depended on the consent of the ruled. If the ruled withhold this consent they don’t descend into chaos; rather, they achieve the absolute democracy and self-rule of the multitude.

People today seem unable to understand love as a political concept, but a concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude… We need to recuperate the public and political conception of love common to premodern traditions. Christianity and Judaism, for example, both conceive love as a political act that constructs the multitude. Love means precisely that our expansive encounters and continuous collaborations bring us joy. (p. 352)

I’m all for the multitude of knowledge workers being freed to control their own work and to generate their own innovations in love for one another and for the commons. But aren’t the limitations to H&N’s proposal fairly obvious? First, the workers suddenly becoming aware that the emperor has no clothes isn’t going to topple the reigning sovereign. Capital controls the work because capital pays the workers. It’s money, not ideology, that gives the owners their power over the workers.

Second, money isn’t just a controller of workers; it’s also a motivator. Knowledge workers may grind out the work through fear of losing their jobs, but most also attempt to excel in hopes of getting a raise in pay. The vaunted explosion of worker creativity in information systems and biotechnology was fueled by nerds who hope to get rich off of their cleverness, to invent their way into the plutocracy. There’s no question that the already-rich investors get more than their fair share from entrepreneurial ventures, but some knowledge workers really do make a lot of money from their ingenuity. The most visibly successful techie entrepreneurs are propelled less by the freedom to create something intrinsically excellent than by the possibility of accruing enormous financial rewards far exceeding what they could earn in decades working a regular job.

Third, the capitalists’ sovereignty over innovation doesn’t operate by executive fiat and exception. In the contemporary capitalist firm Innovation is a core corporate objective, part of the work at nearly every level of the organizational structure. For decades so-called intrapreneurship has been incorporated into business practice, providing even line-level ops workers with opportunities to collaborate and to put forward clever new ideas for consideration by management, ideas that might earn the innovative worker at least a small sliver of the pie if the idea goes into production and distribution. Certainly it’s capital that calls the shots: the financial projections attached to the proposed innovations, the expected reductions in costs or increases in revenues, the anticipated return on investment — these are the criteria by which management selects some ideas for development while rejecting others of equal or even superior intrinsic merit.

Fourth, I guess I’m just not persuaded about the incipient potential creativity of the multitude waiting to be unleashed. Certainly there are workers whose ingenuity is thwarted or diverted by the power of money. Productive and inventive workers often find themselves forced either to accede or to resist pressures from finance and marketing, pressures that would have them relax their standards in order to generate more revenue. Resistance to economic innovation often tends toward resistance to innovation generally and a guildlike protectionism among workers. Often the most innovative and energetic workers find themselves lured by jobs in management and marketing, jobs that offer both more control and more pay, jobs that drain creative passion away from innovations that benefit the common and toward those that benefit capital. However, management and marketing people aren’t particularly innovative either. If workers owned the means of production, if knowledge workers reaped the financial benefits of their innovations without having to pay off the investors, would passionate creativity begin to explode through the multitude? I doubt it, but I’d like to give it a try anyway.

It’s possible that H&N have gotten things backward, that instead of leeching away the creative energy of the multitude, capital is really the motivator, the engine, and the agent of innovation. That’s what neoliberalism asserts. Maybe without the propulsive force of capital, humanity would sink entirely into routine and repetitive contentment. The financial markets create money out of nothing through investment and lending; so too perhaps does the entrepreneur and the CEO create creativity out of nothing in order to make those investments and loans pay off for themselves and their companies as well as the capitalists. Only through a continually renewed stream of products does the economy keep growing, do share values go up among speculators, do existing loans get rewritten for ever bigger amounts. This sense that capital rather than biopower is the engine of innovation has been the subject of recent speculation among bloggers about accelerationism and capital unbound. Perhaps, instead of inhibiting the creativity of the multitude, capital is creating that very creativity, the current crisis actually hastening the move toward the singularity of a fully recursive, self-creative posthumanity.

In counterpoint, here’s an excerpt from an essay by Mario Tronti:

What’s missing? A political interpretation: serious, lucid, realistic, non-ideological, non-conventional, non-electoralist. The famous transformations of work are like the equally famous transformations of capitalism: when everything has been said, nothing has changed. The storytellers of the social come and describe the state of affairs: the liquid instead of the solid, what melts into air rather than what sediments on the ground, the whole that must become flexible, the production that becomes molecular, the power that is everywhere and nowhere like the holy spirit, because it is micro and no longer macro, and then the immaterial, the cognitive, the politics that is bios, made to measure for the asocial individual – forget about women and men of flesh and bone who organise themselves for the struggle. With limitless patience we read and listen, careful not to let what we don’t know slip through our fingers.

25 October 2008

Vibratory Recall

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:11 pm

Our daughter was trying on some zombie make-up, and when I saw her I broke into song: “Hey there, Zombie Girl.” It was a slight lyrical variant on a sixties pop song of a similar name that I hadn’t heard for years and years, a song I never liked all that well but which I heard so often on Top Forty radio that it lodged itself indelibly in my brain. When I tracked down the original on Youtube, I found that I had been singing it in the right key. This happens to me frequently: I remember not just the tune but the key it was recorded in. I couldn’t name the key, but I spontaneously start singing it with the right starting pitch. I don’t know if its an aural memory or whether, when singing an old song again, it just feels right in my throat when my vocal chords vibrate at a particular frequency.

22 October 2008

Daisies by Chytilová, 1966

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:46 am

20 October 2008

They Came Back, 2004

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:34 pm

Fitzcarraldo by Herzog, 1982

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:30 pm

18 October 2008


Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:32 am

It’s eight o’clock Saturday morning and our daughter Kenzie is back at the high school taking the PSAT. The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is the standardized entrance exam used by most U.S. universities as part of their admissions criteria. This is the pre-SAT: a practice version of the real thing taken by many if not most college-bound high school juniors. The fact that Kenzie and most of her pals, only sophomores, are sitting over there taking the test has to say something. I don’t believe that Anne and I drove her to it, but we didn’t dissuade her either. Hey, it’ll be fun, I told her the other day as she was deciding at the last minute whether or not to sign up. I happen to find these tests amusing and I suspect she does too, since in her free time she often tracks down mini-IQ tests on the internet and reports her results to us.

Should you guess if you don’t know the answer to a question? This was the focus of the family breakfast discussion this morning. I said yes, but then we wondered whether the test scorers simply count up the right answers or if they impose a penalty for wrong answers. Anne did a quick internet search, and it turns out there is a penalty for mistakes. But how big a penalty? The testers’ recommendation: if you can eliminate one or more options, guess; if you can’t, then leave the question blank. So let’s say each multiple-choice question presents 4 options from which to choose: if you guess randomly you have a 25% chance of getting it right. If you can eliminate one clearly wrong answer then you choose from the remaining 3 options, leaving you with a 33% chance of guessing correctly. That means the penalty must be somewhere between 0.25 and 0.33 per wrong answer. Problem solved.

But this formulation of the problem seems awfully logical, awfully Bayesian in its solution space. What if you’ve just got a feeling that one of the answers might be right? Should you go with your instinct, your gut, the vibe coming at you from the test booklet?

(a) yes
(b) no
(c) only after you’ve eliminated any obviously wrong responses
(d) it depends

For extra credit please explain your answer.

16 October 2008

Paths of Glory by Kubrick, 1958

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:31 am

15 October 2008

On Ops

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:50 am

Lately I’ve found myself toying with the possibility of making myself more useful to society. Fortunately I caught myself before doing anything drastic — this time. But the risk remains real.

There was a time when I evaluated empirical data and expert performance in order to specify so-called “best practices” in fields ranging from financial underwriting to medical care. This sort of work is vulnerable to critique on any number of grounds, but then so is all work. Skepticism is mostly what motivated me: to understand what passes for expertise, to subject its claims to careful scrutiny. By separating the real expertise from the hype it would be possible to make the former more widely accessible in society while relegating the latter to the shitpile. If certain aspects of expertise could be codified, then it could be taught to paraprofessionals or encoded in computer programs. The real experts, no longer having to spend so much of their time performing routine tasks, could devote more energy to thinking, imagining, experimenting, inventing, collaborating — pushing back the boundaries of their expertise.

But the experts always find themselves squeezed by the money guys. The codification of expertise becomes a means of saving operating costs through hiring cheaper labor or automation. Push the boundaries? Let somebody else invest in R&D; we’ll steal their demonstrated successes later. And then there are the marketing people who want to loosen the standards in order to crank up sales. When finance and marketing gang up — as was the case in the mortgage lending fiasco — the operations people don’t stand much of a chance. Businesses exist in order to generate profit for the investors. When push comes to shove the products and services are just “content” — useful for generating a revenue stream, but essentially interchangeable with other sorts of content. The experts are just content providers: ultimately their job is to lure money into the conduit. When every ops job is reducible to finance and marketing, it’s no wonder that operational expertise gets compromised.

So in light of the financial meltdown I’ve started thinking about getting back into the ops world. What would it take to sustain the practitioners of operational expertise when confronted by the persistent onslaught of finance and marketing? Wouldn’t some sort of intensive and collaborative effort among ops workers help shift the balance of power from capital to labor, at least a little bit? Even if most of these ops jobs aren’t particularly glamorous or personally fulfilling, they’d still need to be done even if the businesses they work for suddenly became owned not by investors but by the workers or the citizenry. As Dominic observes:

productive participation in the economy, even as part of a profit-making enterprise, nevertheless adds something to the common good – even if the profits made are subtracted, qua profit, from the commons.

I think I could make a case that supporting operational expertise would be a worthwhile contribution I could make to the common weal. I’d supplement my background in outcomes and best practices with my more recent work on passion and calling and agency. The main obstacle? I’m just not that into it any more.

10 October 2008

The Return of the Socioeconomically Repressed

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:18 am

Recently k-punk wrote a post entitled Be Positive… Or Else, in which he points out the association between the positive-thinking ethos of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, and neoliberal capitalism. In his post k-punk links to this article by Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader. Since k-punk’s blog doesn’t support comments, I’m simultaneously emailing him my response and posting it here…

There’s empirical evidence supporting CBT’s effectiveness in reducing symptoms, but in most cases the results aren’t any better than for other therapeutic praxes. The same holds true for psychoanalysis: it achieves neither better nor worse symptom reduction on average than other therapies. Therapists with more training and experience don’t get any better results than novices. In fact, just having a sympathetic person to talk with on a regular basis is nearly as effective as going to a professional in achieving symptom relief. On the other hand, any treatment is better than no treatment: symptomatic individuals who are left on waiting lists typically show no improvement, whereas any treatment modality yields significant and fairly sizable symptom reduction. (See e.g. Creating Mental Illness by Horwitz for summaries of effectiveness studies.)

Darian Leader wants to listen to symptoms instead of just treating them, and that’s fine. But he expects the symptoms to tell him to look inside the self for clues about their causes and their possible resolution. In this respect psychoanalysis and CBT are allies: both modalities regard the self as the source of his or her own misery. So too does neoliberalism: if you suffer from economic symptoms like unemployment or poverty or alienation it’s your own fault. The cause may be a shallow one correctable by quality improvement techniques or coaching, or the individual may be hamstrung by deeply rooted flaws that will take a long time and a lot of money to correct through retraining or serious attitude adjustment. But make no mistake: it’s your individual problem.

That establishing a relationship with an untrained but sympathetic listener can help alleviate psychological symptoms provides evidence compatible with Leader’s observation about how therapy works:

[T]herapy is not like a plaster that can be applied to a wound, but is a property of a human relationship. Therapy is about the encounter of two people.

If establishing this sort of interpersonal relationship can be curative, might not the lack of relationship be causative? I believe it is. Individuals are the basic economic unit of neoliberal capitalism. While individuation seems to promise unfettered freedom to pursue one’s own version of the American dream (even if you’re not American), people find themselves increasingly isolated from one another. This of course offers a strategic advantage to capital: isolated workers don’t organize themselves; isolated consumers can exert no leverage in driving down costs or improving quality.

The economic threat posed by letting psychological symptoms speak is that the symptoms will direct people’s attention not deep inside themselves but outside, to socioeconomic conditions that provoke depression, anxiety, rage and alienation as natural reactions to sick situations. It turns out that the same psychotherapeutic techniques work equally for all these conditions. It also turns out that the same mood-enhancing medications are prescribed for all of them. Leader regards this convergence as evidence that diagnosis isn’t all that important, that the same underlying intrapsychic condition can manifest itself in a variety of symptoms. But couldn’t the same conclusion be drawn if you listen outside the self for causes? Workplace stress, alienation from coworkers and customers, exploitation by management and capital; the pressure to compete as worker and consumer; the nearly universal demand for presenting a facade of relentless optimism, as k-punk cogently observes; the expectation that you can buy your way into happiness; isolation from others in the community and even from one’s most intimate friends — aren’t these ongoing external sources of unhappiness at least as likely to cause symptoms as are traumata experienced long ago in infancy? If we let socioeconomic symptoms speak, if we experience a collective return of the repressed, what sorts of interventions are liable to suggest themselves?

9 October 2008

Trinitarian Labor Union

Filed under: Christianity, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:23 pm

I concluded my post about calling by suggesting that, when a cook goes beyond merely satisfying appetites and begins trying to create something like culinary beauty, then perhaps the cook’s passion goes deeper and the calling higher — as if it were the Holy Spirit working in and through this cook. This low/high, shallow/deep distinction between appetite and art is an elitist one, where God is more concerned with pleasing the food critics than with feeding the hungry. But a cook who makes food more readily available to the hungry who otherwise might have to do without: isn’t such a cook performing an act of justice? So let’s democratize the possibility of divine calling: not just deeper and higher but wider might distinguish the Spirit’s summons.

In this mystified model of Passion and Calling the Holy Spirit has a job to do, but for the Christian Trinity that’s only a 33% employment rate. How about the Father and the Son: what useful work might they perform? Here’s a tentative outline of trinitarian job descriptions:

The Holy Spirit generates the energy that activates Passion and Calling, through which the self maintains a dynamic connection to the other and the world. The Spirit’s force is immanent, generating the drives and desires that propel human action, as well as the environmental attractors and affordances that draw human attention to themselves as possible satisfiers of desire. In Deleuzian terms, this Spirit-force is the source of all multiplicity, shooting rhizomes through the world that merge and collide with and counteract each other, churning up a dynamic force field in which everything takes shape. It is through the widespread and complex interactions and attractions affecting these immanent vectors of multiplicity that the Spirit also generates transcendence: the structures and collective forces which accumulate into a medium in which all this dynamic activity takes place.

The Son is the force of incarnation, where body interacts with spirit. This is the force of individuation and subjectivity and personal agency. It’s the force through which the free self paradoxically emerges from the interacting tyrannies of biological determinism and sociocultural hegemony. The incarnate self is inspired, channeling the passions that flow through him or her in order to shape the rhizomes of multiplicity shooting through the world. The incarnate self cultivates expertise and taste and standards in order to shape the world in particular ways. Through interaction with others and the diverse calls they issue, the incarnate self moves toward identity within flux, toward individuality within collectivity, toward meaning within absurdity. The Son represents human agency both individually and corporately: the senders and receivers of passion and calling, the individual worker and the workforce, the impetus for discrete works of creation and for the cumulative works of human culture.

The Father is the force of plenitude and perfection. Truth, Beauty, Justice — these are standards that exceed passion and calling, that go beyond individual self-expression and difference. These standards cannot be prescribed by law nor are they universal and eternal: they depend on the movement of Spirit shaped by the agency of incarnation in specific places and times. The Father also establishes the standard of subjective incarnational excellence which manifests itself uniquely for each individual. The Father is the horizon toward which all creation and every creator moves.

I haven’t compiled specific Scriptural references to justify this framework. As a materialist I don’t even buy into it myself. As I said, it’s a tentative formulation, possibly providing a basis for further conversation and collaboration.

8 October 2008

Calling as Transcendence

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:14 pm

A friend of Anne’s recently asked for my opinion as a Ph.D. psychologist about the idea of a “calling.” She clarified: there’s the person who feels a calling to be a chef, and then there’s a calling from God to undertake some sort of mission on His behalf. She was interested exclusively in the latter, and wondered whether those who experience such a calling might be classified by professional psychologists as schizophrenic because they claim to hear voices telling them what to do. This woman apparently believes in divine callings and hearing God’s voice. I told her I mostly believed in the idea of being called to be a chef so I couldn’t be much help on her project.

Just as the word “passion” carries connotations of sexual desire, so does “calling” imply mystical communion with the transcendent — but I think that’s not all bad. Here’s how I’d make the distinction between passion and calling. If I I derive pleasure from my own cooking — I enjoy the process and the results — then I have a passion for cooking. If other people derive pleasure from my cooking — they enjoy eating what I make — then I have a calling to cook.

Framed in mystical terms, the relationship between passion and calling is a relationship between immanence and transcendence. Like everyone else, I have an innate biological need for nourishment, and I’m genetically equipped to satisfy this need by having a desire to seek out food and to experience the olfactory and gustatory pleasure of eating digestible and nourishing foods. My passion for cooking is “fed” by a desire to conjoin my biological needs to certain features of the environment that can satisfy my needs. This linking of organism to environment via desire is immanent in the sense that comes up from underneath who I am as a conscious and intentional agent in the world, both preceding and shaping my preferences for particular types of food and my efforts to prepare it according to my tastes.

But my immanent desire for nutritious and tasty food isn’t unique to me; it’s a desire I share with every human. As a species we are linked together by the internal need for nourishment and the external attraction that draws us to nourishing foods. In a sense, then, the desire for food transcends me as an individual: it’s a force that links all of us together. Seeking food is a primary reason either to cooperate or to compete with one another; eating food serves as a main reason for getting together communally; cultivating divergent tastes in food becomes a basis for conversation. If other people happen to enjoy the foods I prepare, they are likely to express that enjoyment by wanting me to repeat the performance. This is a “call” — a summons issued from outside me to satisfy others’ desires. If I have a desire to satisfy others’ desire, then I’m likely to respond by cooking for them again.

Things work out wonderfully if immanence flows into transcendence and vice versa; that is, if others issue a calling for me to exercise my passion. When I like to cook I do it better; when I do it better others want me to do it; when others want me to do it I’m more likely to oblige. Passion and calling reinforce one another in a circuit of desire linking me to others through our mutual attraction to something in the world that we need and like.

I’ve presented the desire-calling circuitry almost entirely in terms of biology. It starts getting mystical when we start moving beyond instincts and appetites, beyond personal and common tastes, into something like culinary excellence and sophisticated palates and the sheer aesthetic multisensory beauty of the food. Then the passion becomes infused with something deep and rare, and the cook heeds a higher calling that perhaps at first no one but he can hear. Then the cook becomes a chef and an artist of la haute cuisine; then the desire that flows from instinct and food through into the higher human culture him begins to feel like the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit…

{On a related subject, see Erdman’s post on the Pay-as-you-go Church.]

6 October 2008

Grizzly Man by Herzog, 2005

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 8:23 am

In honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was Saturday…

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