Ktismatics

31 March 2010

Fuzzy Insides by Olsen, 2009

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:32 am

On Monday night I attended the local installation of the Black Maria Film Festival. Now in its 29th year, this free traveling festival brings its jury-selected collection of  short films to universities and galleries around the country. For each showing, founder and director John Columbus assembles a particular set of films from among the 50 titles included in the Festival’s portfolio for the year. Columbus travels with the films, introducing and discussing them with the audience.

I wrote a bit about last year’s festival here. My favorite movie from this year’s offerings is Fuzzy Insides by Michaela Olsen, currently of Brooklyn. Here’s the program’s description of the movie:

A model animation has vaguely voyeuristic scenes which peek into the secret nightlife of the suburbs. Four stop-motion vignettes portray awkward relationships that fitfully develop romantically and sexually as realized by the deft creativity of the filmmaker.

It’s 5 minutes 20 seconds long.

UPDATE: It looks like Michaela has now password-protected the video. I had previously commented on her blog that I liked her film and had posted it here, agreeing to delink it if that was her preference. She never replied to the comment. I guess I’ll go back to her blog and let her know that I noticed…

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27 March 2010

Russell’s Realism

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

“Is there any knowledge of the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?”

This is the first sentence of Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Not having previously read anything by Russell but having a sort of passing acquaintance with his legacy, I expected (and feared) that he would devote most of his attention to logic. I expected him to transform ordinary sentences like “The cat is on the mat” to strangely annotated equations from which various inductions and deductions could be drawn. Happily, Russell touched barely at all on such arcana.

Mostly I’d say that Russell’s book is a concise elaboration on realism. In the first chapter, “Appearance and Reality,” Russell notes that the sensory impressions we get from, say, a wooden table, vary depending on the angle at which we view the table, the lighting, the scale of inspection (raw vision versus microscope), and so on.

“Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very different questions arise; namely (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be? (p. 11)

Russell answers the first question in the affirmative: there is a real table existing independently of the individual human observer and of intersubjective consensus. It is the real table that causes our sensory impressions of it.

“The real table, if it exists, we will call a ‘physical object.’ Thus we have to consider the relation of sense-data to physical objects. The collection of all physical objects is called matter.” (p. 12)

Russell dismisses as implausible and unduly complicated the idea that we create the sense-data about the world rather than apprehending it. E.g., suppose Russell sees a cat on one side of the room, then a minute later he sees it on the other side of the room. Russell deems it more likely and less intellectually baggy that a real cat moved unnoticed from one side of the room to the other, rather than than that Russell created two separate sensory impressions of a cat, first in one place, then in another, in a room which is itself merely a sensory projection of Russell’s mind. Intersubjective agreement as the source of what we purport to know about the world he likewise rejects. After all, we are acquainted with other people in the same way we know about tables: through sense-data. In short, the common-sense notion of a really existing external world populated with material things seems the most acceptable explanation of our experiences and thoughts about the world.

If real material objects cause our sensory impressions of them, then what are these objects actually like? Russell is prepared to accede to the findings of natural science. As to what science actually has to say on the matter Russell is fairly vague. He talks about stationary objects and motion and space, but he never discusses forces that act on objects or that impel motion. Of course this is a philosophy book and not a science book.

Eventually Russell does talk about logic, but he spends practically no time at all evaluating the logic of mathematical or linguistic statements in and of themselves. Mostly he insists that language, like sense data, is about something other than itself. If I say “The school is between the house and the mountains,” what’s most important about this sentence is the information it conveys about the relative positions of real things in the real world.

A statement is true to the extent that it conveys accurate information about those aspects of the world it describes. In other words, Russell contends that truth corresponds with facts about the real world. He’s not prepared to define “fact” precisely; e.g., “The grass is green” is true in that it corresponds with sense-data facts about the grass even if it doesn’t correspond with scientific facts about the “real” grass which causes the sense-data. Suppose I encounter a new statement that conveys content consistent with a body of other statements generally regarded as true. This sort of inter-statement coherence may increase the likelihood that the new statement will likewise prove to be true. However, coherence among statements doesn’t make them true, either individually or collectively: the whole pack of statements might all be false in similar ways.

The purpose of this book, first published a hundred years ago, is to introduce the big questions of philosophy, so Russell doesn’t go into great detail in justifying his answers. What strikes me, as someone who hasn’t studied philosophy, is Russell’s quite thoroughgoing (though not unalloyed) realism. My understanding is that Russell was an influential figure in the split of Anglophone analytic philosophy from continental philosophy. I presume that the analytics’ commitment to realism has generally persisted, but that the focus of their philosophical work shifted to mathematics and logic and language mostly because the philosophers regarded science as the proper field for investigating the nature of reality.


19 March 2010

The Universe as Divine Temple

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:49 pm

Before putting John Walton’s 2009 The Lost World of Genesis One on the shelf, I’ll summarize his interpretation of the Biblical creation story, because I found it interesting, distinctive, and not ridiculous. (I previously posted on Walton’s preliminary remarks about mythic and scientific accounts.)

Walton, an evangelical Old Testament scholar, begins by contending that the Hebrew scriptures should be read as artifacts produced by people who lived inside of a distinct historical culture rather than as timeless expressions of truth that transcend time and place. It should not surprise us then, says Walton, that God couched his Genesis 1 revelation in terms of an ancient cosmology — earth as the center of the universe, a “firmament” in the sky that keeps the heavenly floodwaters from pouring down onto the earth, and so on. That’s what the people of the time understood, and God didn’t see fit to enlighten them with more up-to-date information about. One wonders whether Walton might take the same stance about other aspects of the Biblical revelation that aren’t scientific but, say, ethical or political. E.g., did God reveal himself as jealous and punitive because that’s how the culture expected gods to act back then, and the people weren’t yet ready to understand the idea of a benign and forgiving deity? Did God present himself as championing a preferred nation that perpetrated genocide on its neighbors because national gods were a popular idea back then, and the people weren’t yet ready for a god of all nations, or a god for whom the concept of nation was irrelevant?

So, if Genesis 1 wasn’t intended as an accurate representation of cosmology or cosmogony, what was its purpose? Walton contends that the ancient Near Eastern culture subscribed not to a material ontology but to a functional ontology, in which objects and forces are characterized by their uses and purposes. A material object doesn’t exist in a functional ontology until its uses have been identified. So, e.g., unless that wooden thing across the room, consisting of a horizontal surface suspended 2 feet off the ground from four legs with a raised back, is recognized as something that can be used to sit on, it doesn’t exist as a chair.

Moving forward through the six days of the creation, Walton reiterates a set of distinctions that have long been recognized: days 1 through 3 establish functions, while days 4 through 6 identify functionaries. By setting light in oscillation with darkness, Day 1 establishes the beginning of time. I think this is an excellent interpretation, and it makes the literal passing of days an important part of the story. Day 2 marks the beginning of weather, separating the waters above (source of rain) from the waters below (sea). Day 3 is the beginning of food via plant life. The lights in the sky (day 4) are the functionaries for marking the passing of time (day 1). The sea creatures and birds and land creatures are the active agents of day 5. Man is the key functionary in the system on day 6. Again, all this is fine and has been proposed as a logical scheme by which functions are organized, rather than the temporal sequence of material ontogony.

Now we reach the heart of Walton’s interpretation. If Genesis 1 isn’t about God making the material universe or giving form to it, and if Gen. 1 is about assigning functions to the stuff of the universe, then what functional system is he assembling? Walton says that in Genesis 1 God is preparing the universe as his temple, as a place where he can live. In Genesis 1 God is assigning temple-related functions to various parts of the universe.

I think this is a fascinating position. Walton cites examples from elsewhere in Scripture that fit this reading; e.g., God lives in the heavens and uses the earth as his footstool. Walton identifies parallels in other ancient Near Eastern religions, whose gods likewise regarded the universe as their house, where they rested, accepted worship, and exercised kingship over their domains. Material temples built in honor of the gods often patterned themselves after the cosmos as a whole, with fountains of waters, pillars of earth, heavenly vaults, and so on. Genesis 1 should be read not as a history of the construction this cosmic temple but as its dedication ceremony. The material universe might have been billions of years in the making, but the dedication takes six days to accomplish. On the seventh God takes occupancy of the prepared temple — he “rests” in his prepared and dedicated home. Says Walton:

“In short, by naming the functions and installing the functionaries, and finally by deity entering his resting place, the temple comes into existence — it is created in the inauguration ceremony.” (p. 89)

After going through this part of Walton’s book I woke up in the middle of the night imagining Genesis 1 as a grand celebratory recital. Start the light show! Put in the flowers and greenery! Let everything be fruitful and multiply! Bring on the human assistants! Roll out the red carpet! Wonderful! I can picture the Genesis 1 text — as can Walton — being read ceremonially every year as a spectacular rededication of the universe to God.

In short, I quite like this interpretation. A few further points are worth considering:

Walton contends that the Bible “implies” that God created the material universe even if it’s never explicitly stated and even though Gen. 1 doesn’t speak to the topic. The few Scriptural verses he offers to justify this position aren’t convincing, inasmuch as they could be interpreted as referring to the creation of function rather than matter, just as Walton interprets Genesis 1. If Christian theology is driven by Biblical exegesis, and if exegesis makes no definitive assertion about whether God created the material universe, how might Christian theology be affected by that acknowledgment? Since the Bible doesn’t make a big deal about God as material creator ex nihilo, would it make sense to downplay or even to eliminate this divine attribute from theology? Isn’t it possible that the Hebrew Bible remains entirely silent about God’s status as material creator ex nihilo? Would it be acceptable for faithful Judeo-Christians to acknowledge agnosticism regarding whether their God might have had nothing to do with material creation?

It is possible to assign functions to objects that already exist. Someone can find a stone and use it as a hammer, or as part of a wall, or as a medium from which to chisel out a sculpture. Why then couldn’t God have simply arrived on the scene billions of years after the universe had taken shape and simply decided to “move in,” adapting it as his dwelling place? The objects and processes comprising the material universe may have a set of functions relative to God’s dwelling place, but this need not exhaust their function. E.g., the sun might be useful for distinguishing day from night in God’s temple, but it might also be useful for keeping the earth from spinning out into space and for keeping it warm enough to live on. I.e., the same material object can serve more than one function. There’s no need to claim that the universe took the material shape it did specifically and exclusively in order that it might eventually serve God’s purpose as a home. Walton contends that God no longer uses the universe as his temple (though I’m not sure why). Nonetheless, the universe and its contents persist, serving all sorts of other functions.

Walton says that God’s temple serves not just as his home, not just as his place to “rest,” but as his base of operations for running the universe. Part of God’s purported operations include keeping the material universe running, all the way down to holding individual molecules together. Again, I don’t see why that necessarily follows from the exegesis. If Genesis 1 makes no reference to material creation of the universe, why assume that God’s running of the material universe is implied? It’s certainly not stated. Why not assume that the universe runs itself, just as it had been running itself before God decided to make it his temple?

16 March 2010

Milgram and Circuses

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:28 am

I thought this was sensational.

It’s not just that the findings of the Milgram Experiment have been replicated in contemporary times, now that blind obedience to authority and trust in technocrats have presumably gone the way of the Cold War — that replication has already been done. In this re-enactment the authority figure isn’t a nerdy lab-coated scientist but an attractive game-show host. And this time the would-be torturers aren’t acting under the cloak of experimental secrecy; they’re performing in front of a live, and lively, studio audience.

15 March 2010

The Sage Speaks!

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction, First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:19 am

[UPDATED: Due to popular demand (well, it’s one guy actually, and it’s more a question than a demand), I offer not just one but three exciting installments!]

I’ve just finished rewriting and editing my book about Genesis 1, and I’m pretty pleased with it. What nearly 4 years ago was a 95,000-word treatise has been converted into a 35,000-word work of fiction. Here’s me reading the first two pages or so with only a few minor verbal fumbles…

The second installment is a re-edit of an old Ktismatics post from 2007

And here’s the third and final videotaped reading…

10 March 2010

Science as Myth

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:10 am

“One of the principal attributes of God affirmed by Christians is that he is Creator. That conviction is foundational as we integrate our theology into our worldview. What all is entailed in viewing God as Creator? What does that affirmation imply for how we view ourselves and the world around us? These significant questions explain why discussions of science and theology so often intersect. Given the ways that both have developed in Western culture, especially in America, these questions also explain why the two often collide.”

– John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (2009)

Over a year ago Erdman, well aware of my persistent obsession with the Biblical creation story, alerted me to this book’s publication. I bought it awhile back, but only now am I getting around to reading it. Walton, professor of Old Testament at the evangelical Wheaton College, argues in his book that Genesis 1 describes the creation not of the material world but of its function in God’s ordained order. This interpretation fits nicely with my own non-theistic reading, so I’m intrigued. All the same, the early going reveals that I’m not going to see completely eye to eye with Walton.

Walton begins by proposing that the Hebrew scriptures should be read as texts produced by people who lived inside of a distinct historical culture, and that understanding the texts requires understanding the culture. That proposition seems fair enough, though as Walton admits it’s easier said than done. Only fragmented evidence is available to us that describes ancient cultures, and much of that evidence consists of the very texts we’re trying to understand. At the same time, we’re all part of the same species, and even ancient Hebrew is just as modern structurally as any modern language. So I’m fairly optimistic that we can understand texts produced by ancient writers. The earliest known writings were material inventories and records of local events: kinds of writing with which we’re still very familiar.

At the end of the intro Walton explains what he means by “myth”:

“The Canaanites or the Assyrians did not consider their myths to be made up works of the imagination. Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s ‘theory of origins.’ We sometimes label certain literature as ‘myth’ because we do not believe the world works that way… By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science — our own theories of origins and operations. Science provides what is generally viewed as the consensus concerning what the world is, how it works and how it came to be… For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view of origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our Western culture. It represents what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God.” (pp. 14-15)

I’m fine with Walton’s contention that the creation narrative probably does reflect what the writer truly believed happened. I’m not fine with his equating premodern myths with scientific explanations.

The sequence in putting forward any cosmogony, be it mythic or scientific, is roughly this: certain events happened; someone arrived at a belief regarding what happened; that person wrote it down. There is a gap to be spanned between what actually happened and what someone believes happened. Science consists of a set of systematic replicable methods for bridging this gap between event and belief. It seems to me that Walton wants not to bridge the gap between actual event and belief but to do away with it. He proposes that the shared cultural beliefs about reality are the reality for that culture. One culture says that its god created the material universe from nothing in six days; another culture, that its god gave birth to the material universe; a third, that the universe originated in a big explosion and organized itself over billions of years. Apparently Walton regards these three accounts as equally mythic and equally true for the cultures in which they arose.

This strikes me as a rather radical assertion for an evangelical to make, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. The material world is inseparable from the thoughts and words we use to talk about it; the world is what it means to us, subjectively and intersubjectively — it’s a variant on the postmodern hermeneutics of world-as-text. We discussed implications of this orientation in a recent post on Fear of Knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted on other aspects of the book I find interesting as I go along.

6 March 2010

Nomadic Rhizomatic War Machines

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 3:05 pm

In the years following the 1993 signing of the first Oslo Accord, which was intended to mark the beginning of the end of the conflict over Palestine, it became increasingly difficult for Israeli settlers to obtain official permits to establish official settlements in the West Bank. As a result, settlers resorted to increasingly sophisticated methods of piracy to help the government — which, unofficially, was keen to see settlements established but could not be seen to be helping in their foundation — bypass its own laws and international commitments.

– Eyal Weizman, The Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007), page 1

At the level of theory, this book is about de/reterritorialization in a literal, material sense. Politically, it’s about specific strategies and tactics deployed by the Israelis in order to dominate the Palestinians. I read some blog posts about this book a couple of years ago, but only just got around to reading it myself. It’s appallingly superb.

There’s no way to do justice to Weizman’s detailed research and dense documentation in a blogpost. The text, like the Palestinian territory which is its subject, is complex and intricately layered, tracing the paths by which the occupiers and the occupied continually confront, undermine, and override each other. The consistent message is that the stronger faction prevails, even in the deployment of strategies and tactics that presumably give the underdogs a fighting chance against hegemonic power.  In the most compelling examples, Weizman shows the Israelis not just using the structural characteristics of the natural and built environment to assert their will, but actually inverting the affordances and meanings of those physical features.

Topographically, the Occupied Territories consist largely of fertile valleys and rocky barren hills. The Palestinians, farmers and herders, live mostly in the lowlands. The Israeli occupiers have penetrated this landscape not by pushing the farmers out of the valleys but by establishing suburb-like gated communities on the hilltops, taking advantage of loopholes in the tax laws in order to gain possession of the land. Occupying the higher ground at strategic loci throughout the territory gives the Israelis an interconnected network of defensible vantage points distributed across the landscape, from which they can keep the Palestinians under perpetual surveillance. The convolution of walls and fences delineating Palestinian space works its way around the hilltop settlements, ensuring that the Israelis continue to control the heights.

Purportedly to enhance the Palestinians’ sense of ownership over their territorial boundaries, the Israelis built a series of border checkpoints visibly manned by Palestinians. However, behind one-way mirrors were Israeli security forces. Those who wish to cross the border pass their papers to the Palestinian staffers at the counter, who then slide the papers through a slot to the Israelis hidden behind them. It’s the Israelis who make the actual approved/denied decisions.

Even in that patchwork geography which the Palestinians control, the Israelis control the subsurface and the airspace. The Israelis siphon off more than 80% of the water from the aquifer located under the West Bank. The skies are populated by a fleet of drone aircraft, which conduct surveillance as well as unmanned bombings and targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders.

Just as the interior boundaries between Israeli and Palestinian space are fluid and permeable, so is the external boundary between Israel and Egypt. Israel replaced its traditional Bar Lev line of border defense with a network of military emplacements positioned inside Israeli territory. When in the 1973 war the Egyptian army surged across the border, the Israeli Defense Force converged behind the advancing Egyptians, cutting off their supply lines and their retreat route.

The debate between the two different military doctrines of territorial organization — linear fortifications and a network of strongholds laid out throughout their depth — recalls comparisons made by Antonio Gramsci between the ‘war of position’ and ‘war of manoeuvre’, with similar political patterns. For Gramsci, the shift from the former to the latter implies an erosion in political hegemony… The political ‘war of manoeuvre’, by contrast, exists according to Gramsci as a multiplicity of non-centralized and loosely coordinated actions that aggressively compete with the power of the state. In local terms, the breaking of the Bar Lev Line seemed to have turned the former into the latter.” (Weizman, p. 77)

Maybe Weizman’s most compelling and terrifying illustration of Israeli deterritorialization of the Occupied Territory is the 2003 attack on the West Bank city of Nablus:

“Soldiers avoided using the streets, roads, alleys, and courtyards that define the logic of movement through the city, as well as the external doors, internal stairwells and windows that constitute the order of buildings; rather, they were punching holes through party walls, ceilings and floors, and moving across them through 100-metre-long pathways of domestic interior hollowed out of the dense and contiguous city fabric… This form of movement is part of a tactic that the military refers to, borrowing from the world of aggregate animal formation, as ‘swarming’ and ‘infestation.’ Moving through domestic interiors, this manoeuvre turned inside into outside and private domains to thoroughfares. Fighting took place within half-demolished living rooms, bedrooms and corridors. It was not the given order of space that governed patterns of movement, but movement itself that produced space around it. This three-dimensional movement through walls, ceilings and floors through the bulk of the city reinterpreted, short-circuited and recomposed both architectural and urban syntax. The tactics of ‘walking through walls’ involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but as the very medium of warfare — a flexible, almost liquid matter that is forever contingent and in flux.” (p. 186)

Israeli (and US) military intelligence experts acknowledge that they adapted these tactics from guerrilla fighters, including the Palestinians themselves, as well as from radical and poststructural theorists like Marcuse, Gramsci, Debord, Deleuze & Guattari, and Agamben. Decision-making is decentralized; individual soldiers are regarded as intelligent agents in their own right. Networked together, the intelligence distributed across the “swarm” exceeds what could possibly be available to any centralized command and control function. In a sense this is free market theory tactically applied to the military, but with the “invisible hand” of an emergent and unplanned order replaced by the shared strategic mission of defeating the common enemy. Weizman quotes from an interview he conducted with Israeli Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi:

“This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion — after all, it must be bounded by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every town planner does, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place forbidden to walk through? That depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him. This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do. This is why we opted for the method of walking through walls… Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing.” (p. 199)

4 March 2010

Measuring Students and Teachers

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:39 am

Appertaining to yesterday’s post about workplace audits, the Gates Foundation conducted a survey of 40 thousand American teachers in primary, middle, and secondary schools. The results have just been released. From the summary of findings (and link to the full report) of respondents’ opinions:

In improving students’ academic achievement, establishing clear standards for students is deemed more important than making the standards tougher.

In measuring students’ academic achievement, ongoing assessments, class participation, and performance on class assignments are judged far more important than standardized tests. Teachers say they use results of student achievement measures to adjust the curriculum, to identify students needing special attention, and differentiate teaching for the learning needs of specific students.

In identifying the most important goal of education, preparing students for careers was rated far more important than preparing students for college, learning life skills, or graduating from high school. (Learning the material for its own sake was not included among the choices.)

In engaging students in learning and facilitating academic achievement, digital resources, magazines, and books other than textbooks are considered to be far more effective than traditional textbooks.

In evaluating teachers’ performance, students’ growth over the year and their engagement in learning are the most important indicator, whereas evaluations by parents, students, and the principal are least important.

In retaining good teachers, supportive leadership is most important whereas performance-based pay is deemed least important. Also rated highly important: collaboration among teachers, good teaching resources, clean/safe schools, professional development, higher salaries, collegiality. The more experienced teachers are less likely to support performance-based pay.

As always, the kinds of questions asked affect the kinds of answers generated. It seems, though, that teachers regard ongoing evaluation of student performance as important both for improving student achievement and for evaluating teacher performance. But “alignment of incentives,” in which pay is tied to performance, is regarded as not a very good management tactic. Not addressed in this survey is whether teachers think that students’ incentives should be aligned, such that kids who get the best scores on ongoing evaluations should get rewarded by placement in the best universities and jobs.

2 March 2010

Am I a Killer?

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:43 pm

I’ve not read Mark Fisher’s book, but apparently he’s incensed about workplace management audits. I’ve read his latest post, which also links to the podcast of a talk he gave recently about the book. Keeping track your own performance is worse than a waste of time, says Mark, because it prevents you from doing more useful work. Of course no one really believes that these audits help improve performance, he asserts; they’re only representations of performance staged for the Big Other. It’s “nuBureaucracy” — an absurd simulation of market forces perpetrated by government as a means of perpetuating the class distinction between workers and managers.

The k-punk post cites Michelle on healthcare auditing:

getting “good” results from audits is probably a lot worse on the whole than getting “poor” ratings… nuBureaucracy is not only psychologically destructive, it can actually kill people.”

Does anybody besides me find this line of argumentation offensive? Why shouldn’t the government be concerned about the quality of healthcare its citizens receive? Isn’t it possible to identify specific standards of adequate care? Isn’t it in the public’s best interest to evaluate the extent to which these standards are being met? If the standards are wrong or the measures inappropriate, change them. But to claim that the measurement apparatus itself is killing people, rather than the faulty processes of care which the measures are trying to identify — that’s just fucked up.

Mark argues that nuBureaucracy constitutes a simulation of market forces in an environment of heavy government regulation. Twice in his  podcast he says that allowing the free market to operate, where maximizing profits is the explicit objective, might be better than the “market Stalinism” of nuBureaucracy. It seems that Mark’s biggest objection to performance auditing is that it stifles workers’ freedom, choice, and flexibility. This sounds a lot like a libertarian argument. Industry has made similar objections to governmental auditing of environmental pollutants, pharmaceutical side effects, and risky lending practices.

I don’t understand why work audits should be dismissed as a spectacle staged for the Big Other. I thought we were talking about systematic empirical evaluations conducted on behalf of the public, which pays for the work being evaluated and which suffers the consequences of poor performance. The public is the Big Other now? That sounds like a good thing.

I understand that audits are often used to punish individuals for systemic failures and to justify getting rid of workers when money is being squandered on bailing out big financial institutions and so on. I also agree that some measures really are worthless indicators, and that collecting some kinds of data isn’t worth the time and effort. But tell me this: if the workers actually controlled the means of production, would they no longer regard it as important to evaluate whether they’re doing a good job or not? Should workers’ freedom really take precedent over those for whose benefit they’re doing the work? Is it really that much to ask of hospital workers that they keep the nosocomial infection rates down, or of doctors that they adequately manage their diabetic patients’ blood sugar levels? Should the citizenry simply take the healthcare workers’ word for it that they’re doing a good job?

Mark contends that work audits serve as a mere substitute for real marketplace forces. But how is someone undergoing bypass surgery to evaluate whether this doctor or that hospital is better than any other? It’s not like you buy bypass procedures every couple of months: hopefully it’s a one-time-only purchase. Readily accessible market indicators like price or the hospital’s location or the shininess of the doctor’s shoes aren’t of much use in being an informed healthcare consumer. What you really want to know is whether this doctor and this hospital are demonstrably good at what you need done. The relevant information can be obtained only by compiling and analyzing aggregated data — that is, via performance audit. Otherwise you have to rely on marketing and hearsay.

I’m familiar with the contention that standardizing work processes stifles innovation, and this may be true. But shouldn’t the innovative worker be able to handle the routine stuff as well? It’s like arguing that students shouldn’t have to be able to do algebra because it gets in the way of their learning calculus. In most fields of endeavor progress is incremental, built on a foundation of lower-level skills. Most of the time people who can’t do the basics well aren’t very good at the advanced stuff either.

If you’re a professor with a Ph.D. you almost surely think you’re smarter, more creative, etc. than the people who think up the measurements schemes by which you’re evaluated. It’s possible, of course, that the measurement types might be just as smart and creative as you are, but their jobs don’t provide them with as much opportunity to express their brilliance as your faculty position does. Besides, how much does brilliance really factor in to how good you are as a teacher? Do students pay tuition, do citizens pay taxes, in order to subsidize your brilliance, or to educate people? If existing measurement systems don’t accurately distinguish between good and bad teaching, maybe there’s not really much of a distinction to be made.

Maybe I’m just sensitive to this shit because I have measured healthcare work processes and outcomes as a job. Maybe it bugs me when somebody claims that, while I thought I was contributing to systemic improvements in quality of care, I was actually killing people. Or maybe I think it’s disingenuous when somebody claims that getting “good” (note the irony quotes) ratings on, say, keeping people alive post-surgery is probably worse than getting “poor” ratings.

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