The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

On Stereotyping

The other day I became engaged in an argument at a friend’s party because some of the guests had decided to engage in some gender stereotyping that rubbed me the wrong way. Believe it or not, I was actually surprised when one of them pulled out the old “but we have to make judgments about people and how are we supposed to do that without stereotypes?” argument. I spend too much time hanging around the ultra-radical corners of the internet, apparently, because I thought this argument had fallen into disuse, but I assure you, it is still alive and going strong.

The main point that I probably failed to make at said party is that a stereotype is a concept about a particular group of people that has a broader – let’s say, macro-social significance. I’m not going to get into the Heap of Sand paradox, and thus we will leave aside for now the question of how many people, or what sorts of people, must believe something in order for it to be a stereotype. I’ll just give the perhaps unsatisfactory answer that in order for something to be a stereotype it has to be a socially recognizable idea held by a particular social group and applied indiscriminately to another social group. A more jargon-y way of saying what I mean is that stereotypes are a part of a kind of institutional knowledge possessed by a community of practice.

What stereotypes are *not* are judgments or preferences. In the exhibit “The Artist is Present”, patrons must step through a doorway containing a naked man and a naked woman.  Most patrons – male and female – turn towards the woman in order to pass into the exhibit.  Clearly, there is some kind of social phenomenon occurring here – people are making their decision using social information, that is, information about the people they are interacting with.  However, does this information rise to the level of stereotype?  I argue that it does not.  There is no stereotype of women being better to turn toward while passing through some people in close quarters.  Perhaps people find it less uncomfortable to face a naked woman than a naked man, but is this because of a stereotype about men and women, or does the judgment occur below the level of stereotype?

Really, we all know what stereotypes are.  We know negative stereotypes: men are violent, women are bad at math, asians are bad drivers, blacks are lazy, jews are greedy.  We know positive stereotypes: women are nurturing, men are logical, asians are good at math, blacks are good at sports, jews are wealthy.  For some, these stereotypes may seem unfamiliar, or outdated, or just plain wrong, but no one can deny their cultural significance, at least in America (stereotypes of course vary across cultures).

So when I am faced with a question such as “how do you decide who to sit near on a train,” I cannot help but feel that the argument is, on some level, disingenuous.  Of course, everyone makes decisions – conscious or not – about who to group near in public spaces.  Of course, some of these decisions are based on the kinds of unflattering grouping methods that we are all socially conditioned with – and it would be interesting to do a study on grouping on subways, for instance, to see if white people preferentially group with white people, etc.  Of course everyone evaluates threats, and some people do so on race and gender lines.  But, to take an example that was brought up at this party, if a woman evaluates men as potential threats because they are more likely to rape her than other women are, is this based on stereotype?  The answer is, of course not.

The reason, quite simply, is that “rapist” is not a stereotype about men – except, perhaps, in certain ultra-radical corners of the internet.  For most people in society, if asked to come up with five, ten, or even a hundred words to describe the stereotypical male, “rapist” would not be one of them.  Stereotypes, as a macro-cultural phenomenon, tend to be aligned more with the dominant power structures in society.  Thus stereotypes about men that men think of as hilarious – such as obsession with power tools, inability to ask for directions, etc – are allowed to continue whereas facts or statistics about men that men consider troubling are never really allowed to become stereotypes.  Thus, while the stereotypical criminal is male, the stereotypical male is not a criminal (at least not the stereotypical white male).

So when a woman sees a man and uses her judgment to say “this man has the potential to assault me in one of several traumatizing ways” this is not engaging in stereotyping.  When a woman sees a man and says “this man probably likes trucks and leaving the toilet seat up,” that is engaging in stereotyping.  The first is a survival skill; the second is a way of maintaining and strengthening the oppressive gender divisions within our society.

Now back to the issue of grouping.  I would argue that grouping is based on a paradigm of “us” and “them,” or “Self” and “Other,” that exists prior to, and in fact underlies and enables, the kind of social knowledge that makes up a stereotype.  If a stereotype consists of the identification of a socially recognizable group and the application of social knowledge to that group, then every stereotype presupposes the identification of a socially recognizable group – and I argue that for grouping to take place – in other words, for someone to decide to sit next to one person on the subway rather than another – mere social recognition of “sameness” or “difference” is sufficient without the application of any additional social facts.

In other words, not all socially salient knowledge is stereotype.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Everyone’s a little bit racist

So, some windbag apparently came out and declared that if racism is inborn, then shouldn’t racism be perfectly acceptable?

Well, here’s the thing. Racism is not inborn. No, no, no. Racism, in fact, *can’t* be inborn, because biologically there is no such thing as “race.” In order to be racist, therefore, people have to – HAVE TO – be TRAINED to recognize a thing called “race,” TAUGHT to understand what its characteristics are, and SHOWN how to interact socially with people from other “races.” Race is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION.

Now, certain patterns of behavior may be inborn and the concept of “race” may be deployed in society to access certain inborn patterns of behavior in different circumstances. You can be taught, for instance, to access the “member of my group/herd” pattern around “white” people and the “member of a rival group/herd” pattern around “black” people – that is, once you’ve learned what a “white” person is and what a “black” person is, definitions which vary widely from place to place and time to time. Most people today probably don’t know what an “octoroon” is but it used to be quite important in this country (hint: Homer Plessy was one, and, in order to get arrested for riding in a whites-only car, had to *tell* the train conductor about his lineage, because that was how white he looked.

So, now that we’ve established that there is biologically no such thing as race and that racism, therefore, is inherently ridiculous, let’s talk about how and why everyone actually is racist.

Let’s consider the average white person who does not consider himself racist, and imagine him walking through a black neighborhood. Imagine that for a moment, now, answer: is he nervous? Is it okay for him to be nervous? Is it racist for him to be nervous?

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September 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Post-RaceFail: A Post-Colonial, Post-Modern Take

RaceFail is supposedly over, yet I seem to hear about it now more than ever.  The fundamental conflict that became known as RaceFail ’09 was over how characters of various races (sometimes called people of color or non-white people) are represented in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  Opinions can loosely be placed along a spectrum of how much responsibility one believes authors have to present diversity in their works, and, when presenting a culture not the author’s own, to get it right.  On one end were those who believed that authors should be more sensitive to issues of race, should include plausible, well-developed characters from various races and cultures, and should avoid using stereotypes in portraying these characters.  On the other end were those who argued that authors have no responsibility and that if fans want their cultures represented they ought to write their own work.

The work of Frantz Fanon suggests an answer that is slightly off this spectrum.  Rather than addressing the issue of the responsibility of the creators of the dominant or colonial culture, Fanon discusses culture as a revolutionary project in colonized society.  According to Fanon, not only should people whose cultures have been colonized or appropriated create their own work, but they must do so if their culture is to survive.  Fanon sees culture as dynamic, as constantly growing and changing, as something vibrant and alive.  When the colonial stamp is put on culture, it solidifies and ossifies, becoming, in Fanon’s words, “the dregs of culture, its mineral strata.”  The colonizers then cling to this snapshot of culture, denying the oppressed people the right to innovation, using the mineral strata of colonized culture to maintain the status quo, which becomes the frame of colonizer and colonized.

Fanon does not believe that mainstream, white, Western culture is an appropriate battleground for decolonization, partly because the cultures of the colonized peoples are marked and can be used to reify and reinforce the colonial structure.  Fanon advises that such culture should not be emulated or aspired to:

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe?

That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.

Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different.  We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.

- Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

So what would Fanon make of something like I Didn’t Dream of Dragons?  A person from post-colonial India who wants to create a work of colonial literature situated in India but fails because he or she cannot reconcile colonial and Indian cultures?  I think Fanon would ask, why not create something new?  Why stick so slavishly to the rules of colonial and Indian cultures that you cannot create anything?  It is those rules that allow colonialism to function – yes, even the rule that a fantasy novel must contain a tavern, or the rule that no dragon has ever been to India – these are what Fanon was talking about when he referred to the mineral strata of culture.  These are the rules that will always separate, delineate, and mark various people.

Or, put another way, these are the power dynamics that create authors who can’t or won’t write good non-white characters.  Look at the issue of RaceFail from a Butlerian perspective: rather than asking why the authors in positions of power are insensitive to issues of race, we ask what the relations of power are that produce these authors.

Who are the authors of science fiction and fantasy, and how did they come to be counted as such?  In other words, what makes you an sf/f author?  As “I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” suggests, there are certain rules, or tropes, that can serve as identifiers of the fantasy genre: dragons, taverns, princesses, etc.  So an sf/f author follows certain sf/f tropes, certain general fiction tropes, etc.  The author writes a certain way, has a certain number of fans, is published by a certain sort of publisher.  Some of the RaceFail argument centered around whether non-writers even had the standing to criticize writers, which means that there’s even more potentially at stake for deciding who gets to count as an author and who does not.

All this is to say that there exists a certain cultural milieu in which a certain kind of work is demanded and some writers were selected to meet that demand, and so these writers can hardly be blamed for writing the kinds of stories that they are good at writing, that they love writing, and that made them successful.  We have to look at the cultural milieu instead.  Specifically, at what Foucault calls the vehicles of power – in other words, people.  It is people – readers – consumers – who decide what to buy and what not to buy, which in turn tells us who is a science fiction author and who is a fantasy author and who is a nobody who doesn’t count for the purposes of this discussion.  Foucault said that people are not only the vehicles of power, but are simultaneously its point of impact: it is the relations of power that tell people whose work to read and whose to ignore.  Everyone – writers, and readers – is involved in a group relation of power that is responsible for the representation of race in sf/f.

Foucault would say that it is not reasonable to expect the institution of sf/f fandom to offer significant hope for change.  Instead Foucault would rely on “insurrectionary knowledges” – particularly something like a genealogy of the culture of a colonized people – to offer alternatives to the institution.  Remember, the institution works by excluding some people, by placing people in unequal power relations.  Remember, the world of sf/f publishing functions within a capitalist economy.  Foucault and Fanon would probably agree that the only way to win is to play a different game.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Postmodernism vs. Cuntalinagate

The line of recent posts at IBTP provide an opportunity to talk a little about the work of Judith Butler and how that work bears on discussions of power and resistance.  There’s this shout-out, of sorts, to Butler – I confess that I am unable to discern whether referring to Butler’s ideas as “entertainment” is meant to be complimentary, insulting, or some subtle combination of the two.  There is also, however, a series of posts that comprise “Cuntalinagate,” which started when Twisty called a woman a cuntalina and continues in the comments sections, subsequent posts, and a few pingbacks.

I refer to these posts, not to opine on the dropping of c-bombs, but because they illustrate an important part of the postmodernist critique of the political subject.  Specifically, every discourse creates, as a condition of that discourse, a certain set of signs and markers that identify and categorize the participants and include or exclude different participants based on their adherence to and/or deviation from the accepted categories.  Deconstructing this process means putting aside an emphasis on a “person” and their “position” and instead focusing on what persons and positions are made possible by this process.  Twisty, perhaps inadvertently, performs a postmodern critique by calling into question her own identity – is Twisty a real person or a fictional character? – and what it means to be a radical feminist who steps outside the accepted bounds of radical feminist discourse.

Twisty quotes a gloss of Butler’s work that says the following:

She follows postmodernist and poststructuralist practice in using the term “subject” (rather than “individual” or “person”) in order to underline the linguistic nature of our position within what Jacques Lacan terms the symbolic order, the system of signs and conventions that determines our perception of what we see as reality.

To make sense of this it will help to take apart the use of the term “subject.”  Loosely speaking, when we think of the role of the subject in language, we think of the doer – the active agent, the driving force of a sentence, the noun that takes action.  The “I” in “I went to the park.”  The subject of a sentence, then, is, in some sense, what the sentence is about.  “I went to the park” is a sentence about me; “The park is the place that I went” is a sentence about the park.  If you are the subject of a documentary, the documentary is about you.  Subject invokes primacy, and main-idea-ness.  On the other hand, a King also has subjects.  The King isn’t about his subjects – usually the subjects are described in relation to the King.  You can also be subject to something.  If you disobey the King you might be subject to penalties.  With this usage a subject is one who is subordinate to something else.

So the use of “subject” as a term to describe the part of the person that does things serves a dual purpose.  It does not allow us to view a person either as completely subject to her environment or as completely the subject of it.  It complicates the relationship between person and environment and calls into question the nature of that which takes action.

In this light, we can start to comprehend the claim that the subject is constituted by social relations – that it is produced by a discourse, upon which it is always contingent.  We just have to ask the question, what does it take to be a subject?  In other words, what does it take – within the confines of a specific discourse – to be considered someone who the discourse is about?  And the answer, appropriately, is that one must subject one’s self to the conventions of that discourse in order to be a subject within that discourse.

In the radical feminist discourse of IBTP, those conventions are pretty clear.  IBTP is a particularly good example because most of the conventions are explicitly laid out in the FAQ, guidelines for commenters, and the boilerplate “Blamer Terms of Use Agreement”:

New to I Blame the Patriarchy? Cast your jaundiced eye upon this before commenting.

Blamer Terms of Use Agreement

By clicking the “Blame” button, you affirm that you have read and agree to follow the Guidelines for Commenters. If English is your first language, you agree to use spelling, capitalization, and punctuation consistent with recognized conventions governing same. If you are a dude, you affirm that you have read the FAQ twice, and that, whether or not you are an authoritarian, supercilious asshole in life, you will be otherwise on this blog. All commenters are encouraged to begin their posts with a word other than “I.”

The conventions are not only enforced by moderation, but also by a consensus of Blamers.  As this post points out, the censure of Blamers in the comment section can constitute a significant barrier to entry for those who aren’t careful to use the markers of a Blamer and eschew any misogynist, anti-feminist, or otherwise patriarchal markers that they may have picked up in mainstream discourse.  IBTP has categories to describe those who cleave strictly to these rules, and those who deviate in some acceptable way, and those who deviate in an unacceptable way (for instance, to be a “funfem” or a “sex-positive feminist” or a “nice guy” is to take an acceptable non-radfem position from which to argue, and be argued with; to be an “MRA” is to take an unacceptable non-radfem position to argue from).  There are also certain positions that are not well-accounted for, such as the post-modernist feminist position.

This system is fairly robust – it can easily classify most positions and understand them accordingly.  But what happens when someone in the position of “radical feminist” uses a very anti-feminist term like “cuntalina?”  The frame of radical feminist discourse does not contain a position for a radical feminist who uses radically anti-feminist misogynist slurs; as a result, when that happens, the most widespread result is confusion.  The members of the discourse whose bounds were violated demand that the violator provide an account of herself.  How can this happen?  What do you mean?  What are you really saying?  What is the explanation for this event that can re-situate you in the discourse such that you will once again be intelligible to us?

This system of conventions that govern subject-hood – that determine which positions are accepted, and which forbidden, which are understood and which unintelligible – is socially constructed within each community of practice by its members through discourse.  In order to allow ourselves to be heard and understood within a particular social frame, we must take on a subject-position that is both permitted and intelligible.  Butler’s contention is that identity is a retroactive product of these positions – that identity is simply that which allows people to identify us (or us to identify ourselves), and that we are always identified by reference to one or more subject positions that we have taken on.

In the prevailing patriarchal order, oppression often takes the form of a limited choice of subject-positions.  For instance, for a woman to express the view that women are fully human and thus entitled to the same rights and privileges as men is considered a marker of “feminism,” which in the patriarchal frame is understood in a very specific way – “feminism” is associated with hairy, man-hating lesbians, etc etc, such that the term “feminist” itself can be an ad hominem dismissal of a woman’s position in many circles.  Such a frame is immensely powerful and oppressive, and so from the post-modernist perspective, it is not enough simply to fight from the subject-position of “feminist” – which, after all, is understood and accounted for by a patriarchal frame – but also to constantly problematize the meaning of the subject-position “feminist” itself, and in fact to contest all patriarchal assignments of subject-position so as to allow for new and different options for all humans to occupy.

This is the post-structuralist critique in a nutshell: that the potitical contest between two elements of a dichotomy (man vs. woman, black vs. white, bourgeois vs. proletariat, etc) should be secondary to the contesting of the dichotomy itself.  The oppression is not located in one side or the other, but in the structure of the contest.  Twisty implicity recognizes this by blaming not men, but the Patriarchy, a system in which men are dominant but with which women often collaborate.  And by transgressing the bounds of her own discourse, Twisty has demonstrated how jarring it can be when someone transgresses social boundaries that were previously thought inviolable.

It doesn’t take long for any given transgression to be processed, comprehended, and reintegrated into the prevailing social order.  Therefore the goal, from Butler’s point of view, is not to simply find a transgressive position and stay in it, but to constantly bring into view, through transgressions and other strategies, the contingent nature of the categories and subject-positions that we occupy, so that we can learn to recognize and accommodate, rather than ignore and oppress, new and unconventional positions as they arise.

This strategy makes sense from a historical point of view.  Historically, the women’s movement has always gained some synergy from other movements or events challenging the prevailing social order – from Wollstonecraft’s deployment of classical liberalism to argue in favor of education for women, to the increases in women’s rights that came about after WWII made “Rosie the Riveter” a valid subject-position.  If this is true, it also follows that an increase in the recognition of women who occupy non-patriarchal subject-positions would also synergistically make more subject-positions available to other oppressed classes of people.  This is why any study of the resistance to power and oppression is heavily staked in feminist movements, post-colonial movements, etc.

Speaking of post-colonial, I hope to follow up this post with a commentary on RaceFail ’09 from a post-colonial perspective, specifically using Fanon to deconstruct some of the assumptions floating around about race and culture.  RaceFail is also of interest because the subject-position of an author seems to be of critical importance to many participants.

May 31, 2009 Posted by | Feminism, Power | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Panoptic Power and Competition

It is fairly uncontroversial in classic economic theory that free and fair competition is often vastly more productive than limited competition or no competition.  Many economists view a monopoly as a market failure and believe that anti-trust laws must be created and enforced in order to preserve competition.  So-called “no-bid contracts,” in which firms are granted lucrative government contracts based on cronyism rather than competition, are slammed, correctly, for costing a great deal more money than competitive contracts would cost.  As a general rule, when agents compete on the market, the goods or services that the agents are selling become more productive and/or less expensive – in other words, competition allows buyers to get more for less.

How is this related to panoptic power?  Economic competition conforms closely to the panoptic model of power.  Let us compare economic competition to the two hallmarks of the panopticon:  self-surveillance, and isolation.

In the panopticon, self-surveillance is produced within a subject by causing that subject to behave as though at any moment she might be under surveillance by a central observer.  Who is the central observer of the competitive market?  The consumer.  At any time, the consumer might evaluate the quality of the products offered up for sale by the competitors.  Competitors earn reputations based on the quality of their products, and these reputations greatly affect the profits of the competitors.  The consumer is also somewhat unpredictable, in that one never knows exactly what a consumer’s preferences might be.  Perhaps your innovative new product might become the next iPod – or perhaps it might become the next Betamax. Competitors must strive towards innovation and invention and reinvention, and must also master marketing, and still success is not guaranteed.  The point here is that competitors are always being evaluated, and they may live or die based on the results of these evaluations.  This is a powerful incentive towards self-surveillance.

In the panopticon, isolation is caused by physically separating prisoners in individual cells.  In a competitive market economy, isolation comes in the form of patents, trade secrets, and the information asymmetries that arise when competing agents each try to find and maintain a competitive edge.  If you own a restaurant, you might make the best marinara sauce in the county, but if you give away your secret recipe, that will not be the case for long.  Isolation also comes from the fact that individual agents may earn more profits through competition than through cooperation – because there will be fewer people to share the wealth.  Laws against cartelization and other forms of corporate cooperation can produce isolation effects.  In a situation where workers are competing for jobs, the workers may become isolated from each other because some wish to go on strike for higher wages while others wish to take over their jobs.

If the productive power of a competitive market is related to the productive power of the panopticon, then do the same downsides exist?  Sure.  One of these is that PD-like situations may arise in which competitors end up reaching a suboptimal equilibrium state because of their isolation.  An example of this is an industry in which advertising costs comprise a significant percentage of the industry’s income but do not effect a significant redistribution of market share for any one firm nor attract a significant number of new buyers to the market.  Each firm would be better off if no firm advertised, but if any firm advertises, they all must in order to avoid losses.  In the end every firm advertises, and the entire industry essentially throws money away.  The tobacco industry is one such example (although you won’t hear me mourning their suboptimal profits.)  There are also cases like railroads or utilities where, without collusion or intervention, redundant services may be established (imagine the case of two competing rail lines running parallel to each other).

Because the effects of panoptic power are generally experienced as difficult and unpleasant, free markets tend toward a mix of competition and cooperation.  Many agents would like to collude with each other in order to avoid the panoptic effects – in other words, break isolation to resist the power of the panopticon.  A cartel is a good example of this – competitors get together and decide that rather than compete with each other, they’ll fix prices and production at a certain level so they can all profit equally.  These cartels often result in higher prices and lower quality and quantity for goods produced – they are less productive, but they make things easier for those involved.  Labor unions are a form of cartel for workers, who agree to band together to achieve higher labor prices (wages) and shorter working hours (less production).  Such cartels and unions suffer from the risk that one agent will defect or a new agent will enter the market, thus destroying the cartel or union, and as a result an equilibrium can be reached.

The free market, which depends on competition for its functioning, is thus an example of panoptic power at work.  This is an important insight because many experience panoptic power as something which imprisons them, which calls into question how much “freedom” agents in the free market actually have and provides a theoretical framework to contrast, rather than conflate, liberty and productivity.

October 25, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Power | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


The name of the game is Monopoly.  The object of the game is to win.  You win by having the most net worth at the end of the game or by being the last player left after all other players have gone bankrupt.

Basically, your goal is to collect money and property – as much as possible, by any means available.

Most people are probably familiar with Monopoly, which makes it a good example for a thought experiment.

Imagine that four friends are playing Monopoly and a fifth friend shows up and asks to get into the game even though some number of turns have already passed.  How can this fifth friend be integrated into the game?

One way is to start the person the way everyone else started: at Go, with $1500 and a pair of dice.  The beginning is the logical place to start, after all.  This method presents problems, though.  The four original players have had many turns to increase their wealth and their earning potential.  Many good properties have already been bought.  Monopolies may have already been established.  Depending on how late in the game it is, this fifth player may be at some great disadvantage.  Imagine if 90% of the properties on the board are already owned.  The fifth player has virtually no chance of winning – of surviving on the board – under these circumstances.

Another way is to grant the person some portion of the money/property on the board.  You could total the value of the properties each player owns, average the totals, and then randomly assign the new player  unowned properties until that average is approximated.  You could do the same for money.  However, if there isn’t enough unowned property to do this, you’d have to take property away from some of the players who are already playing.  How can this be done fairly?  Should the property be taken from the winning player(s), or equally from all?

Another way is to simply restart the game.  This isn’t necessarily fair to the players who were doing well – their good luck and good strategy ends up going unrewarded.  However, the player(s) who think(s) he/she/they would have won can at least declare victory in this case.  I have found that generally speaking
this is the most oft-chosen option for inserting a new player into an existing game, for the simple reason that usually at least half of the players are not winning and usually the choice of methods comes down to a loosely democratic vote:  All of the players who are losing choose to restart.

Aside from the highly practical use that this line of thinking has in actually inserting new players into existing games – a situation I have encountered in life from time to time – we can also consider the larger implications, like when we insert new players into the more realistic economic systems presented by, for instance, the economy.  Imagine, for instance, that half the population of some country was playing some game analogous to Monopoly – attempting to acquire money and property and personal enrichment – for years, or decades, or centuries.  Imagine then that the other half demanded to be inserted into the game.  How would we fairly insert these newcomers?

Obviously this question is not simply theoretical.  Various large population groups have been granted property rights in our history – women, for instance, and blacks – rights which amount to $1500 and a pewter thimble.  These groups were then allowed to compete freely with the people who already owned almost all of the property, people who were busily going through the Monopoly winning strategies of bankrupting whoever they could and consolidating and developing their assets.

Just letting someone into the game doesn’t establish fairness.  These groups weren’t really given a chance.  Even those who did start off with some property – many former slaves were given land during Reconstruction, and women could always inherit an estate from a husband or father – were still at a disadvantage.  Imagine starting a game of Monopoly with a house on Baltic Avenue when another player has hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place.

In the game of the American economy, women, blacks, and immigrant groups have had to claw their way up from the bottom with the help of luck, charity, and government aid.  It’s no wonder that the players who are already winning want to deny entry to immigrants, why they fought to keep women from having the right to own property.  It’s no wonder that the players who aren’t doing so well want to restart the game and distribute everything evenly.  But when we assess some data – the wage gap between men and women, for instance – it’s important to keep in mind that some of the players started late.  If women owned half the property and controlled half the wealth in the American economy, would there still be a wage gap?

And before we say that some group has had enough opportunity to improve their lot, let’s ask ourselves how many turns we would need before we caught up in a game of Monopoly if we started fifty turns late.

Again, no solution presents itself.  What is fairness?  How can all players be satisfied with a solution?  Certainly whatever happens, it will require the cooperation of people who don’t currently acknowledge that there is a significant problem with how the game was set up in the first place.

June 4, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Feminism, Game Theory | , , , | 3 Comments

Authentic Human Desire vs. Power

First and foremost, this is a post inspired by the OSBP situation. Having first heard about this situation via my most oft-visited news source (LiveJournal), I assumed that theferrett was, like, a friend of a friend or something, and that the situation hadn’t reached great internet fame just yet. Turns out it’s been analyzed to death already, and I don’t know how it came to be news on my LJ friends’ page (although at least one of my LJ friends has theferrett friended, and, perhaps ironically, it’s a girl who once called me a misogynist), but I’ve been thinking about it all day.

A few years ago I was struck by the phrase “authentic human desire.” I am not quite sure who I was reading at the time – it strikes me that it was related to Žižek in some way, but that may be because I’m going to relate my analysis back to Freud and Lacan. Something about the backlash against the OSBP brought all this stuff into my head and provoked a strong reaction – almost a defensiveness.

The OSBP was basically a con game where people (and by people I mean women) could opt into a system where other people (and here we’d assume that these other people would predominantly be men) could ask them, without penalty, “could I touch your breasts.”  If the woman says no, the dude has to respect that, and if she says yes, he gets to touch her breasts.  Those in favor of this project pointed out that it was a more open and honest way to interact.  Those against the project seemed likely to condemn men for wanting to touch a woman’s breasts, or at least for expressing that desire to the woman.

Continue reading

April 26, 2008 Posted by | Feminism, Power | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cooperation and Membership

In Organized Labor: A Power Analysis, I examined the power relationships involved in the formation of a labor union. In one sense, the formation of a union follows the prisoners’ dilemma: the workers can cooperate with each other by striking, or defect by becoming scabs. If enough of them cooperate, they can be successful and gain a measure of power back from the employers. If enough of them defect, the strike can be broken and the striking workers fired. In this and other examples following the panoptic model of power, cooperation is a counter to the isolation that produces the panoptic effect. Once the workers are part of the union, the union acts on their behalf – negotiates wages, benefits, vacations, etc. The union thus becomes a symbolic agent – instead of saying that the workers took an action, we say the union did it. The union thus has metonymic power. In this example, we see that metonymic power is also a counter to panoptic power – membership in a group with a powerful symbolic agent allows people to act without self-surveillance.

Let me explain that claim a little more. It is safe to say that laborers are under direct and indirect surveillance. An example of direct surveillance would be when a foreman or supervisor actually watches the laborers and directs their activities. An example of indirect surveillance would be an inspector who checks the laborers’ work for defects. In either case, the laborers must constantly behave as though they are under surveillance – hence they regulate their own behavior to fit the standards imposed on them from outside. These standards are imposed through a fear of punishment. If the work is defective, the laborer may be docked. If the laborer behaves the wrong way he may be suspended or fired.

With the intervention of the labor union, workers have a degree of protection from arbitrary discipline. The supervisor or inspector has a burden of proof to satisfy if action is to be taken. The laborer can work knowing that his membership in the union provides a degree of protection from the surveilling authorities. The more powerful the union, or symbolic agent, the more protection the worker, or acting agent, has. The same is true for citizens of powerful countries – the symbolic agent – the king, or president, or country itself – has a power that allows its citizens to act with greater freedom. At the same time, the cost of this freedom is a loss of agency. This may seem paradoxical, however, we can see how a displacement of agency allows greater freedom of action with the simple phrase, “I didn’t do it.” Americans benefit from the privilege of America’s dominance at the same time as many or most of America’s inhabitants disavow their responsibility for the actions which lead to this dominance. Hence the soldier who is just following orders or the taxpayer who is just doing his share for society – yet their money and their lives are used to maintain America’s power in the world at a deadly cost for all who oppose us. Our privilege as Americans comes from a lack of self-surveillance: we do not carefully watch and regulate our actions because we do not fear the consequences of carelessness.

If cooperation and membership both serve to attack the basis of panoptic power, what is the cost of these tactics? The cooperating prisoner takes a risk – the risk that the other prisoners will defect. The member of an organization sacrifices their agency in return for the power of privilege. It seems then that the two goals of any project to mitigate panoptic power should be to decrease the risks of cooperation on the one hand, and to combat the displacement of agency on the other. How can either of these goals be accomplished? A question for the future.

March 16, 2008 Posted by | Power | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Semiotic Analysis

One of the many fascinating aspects of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is the way that it is framed. Take, for instance, this concise description from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Tanya and Cinque have been arrested for robbing the Hibernia Savings Bank and placed in separate isolation cells. Both care much more about their personal freedom than about the welfare of their accomplice. A clever prosecutor makes the following offer to each. “You may choose to confess or remain silent. If you confess and your accomplice remains silent I will drop all charges against you and use your testimony to ensure that your accomplice does serious time. Likewise, if your accomplice confesses while you remain silent, they will go free while you do the time. If you both confess I get two convictions, but I’ll see to it that you both get early parole. If you both remain silent, I’ll have to settle for token sentences on firearms possession charges. If you wish to confess, you must leave a note with the jailer before my return tomorrow morning.”

First of all, what’s in a name? “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” tells us about a dilemma faced by a prisoner – note the placement of the apostrophe. In this example, though, there are two prisoners, and they both face the same dilemma. Why, then, do we not see this dilemma called “The Prisoners’ Dilemma?”

Well, the dilemma only comes about as a result of the separation of the two prisoners into individuals. If there were one player controlling both prisoners and trying to maximize her score, she’d have no dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, however, is faced by one individual, alone, isolated from contact with her fellow prisoner.

That leads to another question: why a prisoner? There are plenty of ways to propose the same paradigm – for example, two students who turned in identical examinations. Or an invading army offering a reward for whoever will open the town’s gates at midnight. The point is there are any number of anecdotes that match the payoff matrix of the PD, and perhaps infinitely many could be invented. Prisoners were chosen – why?

On some level, the prisoner’s dilemma applied to prisoners is well-understood. Plenty of people enjoy the legal drama as a story – plenty of people have been exposed, in our time, to Law and Order, Homicide, or CSI, and these modern shows have predecessors, and those predecessors use tropes set up in literature.

I would argue, however, that the choice of prisoners goes deeper than a simple familiarity. There is a match in situation between a prisoner and one caught in the prisoner’s dilemma. In other words, if this same problem were explained using students caught cheating instead of criminals caught robbing a bank, the students would still feel trapped. They would still feel like prisoners. And the person who reads the dilemma sympathizes with the subjects of the dilemma and feels their sense of being trapped. The situation that we call the Prisoner’s Dilemma works because of panoptic power, and panoptic power makes its subjects into prisoners, much more than it makes them into students, or frightened villagers.

When I say that people sympathize with the subjects of the dilemma, I mean, the reaction intended by the framing of the dilemma is that the reader puts herself in the place of the prisoner. The reader must ask “What would I do if offered such a deal,” and not “What would I do if I were the prosecutor and I had two prisoners?”

And that brings up another quite interesting point. We are told explicitly what the preferences of the prisoners are: they want to maximize their freedom, even to the detriment of their partner in crime. We are never told the goal of the prosecutor, although the prosecutor’s actions seem to speak for themselves. The prosecutor’s goal is, simply, to get convictions – to maximize jail time for the two prisoners. In our legal system, prosecutors build their careers by putting people in jail. If the goal of the prosecutor were to find out the truth, the Prisoner’s Dilemma would not be an effective tool. Imagine that one prisoner committed a crime and the other prisoner just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who would be more likely to confess a crime, thus putting the other person in jail, and who would be more likely to maintain her innocence, thus going to jail?

If the panoptic model helps to maximize power, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma uses the panoptic model on behalf of authority, then it is a blind authority whose power is maximized. The authority does not care about the well-being of the society it has authority over; it is merely concerned with maintaining its own power. And indeed, this relationship is reflected by the names of the moves in the Prisoner’s Dilemma: defect and cooperate.

To defect is to cooperate with the authorities. To cooperate is to be defective from the point of view of the authority – a defective, criminal citizen, a defector, a saboteur of civil authority. The terms “defect” and “cooperate” refer to a presumed partnership between the two prisoners. I say presumed because nowhere in the description of the Dilemma is it stated or implied that the two prisoners have made any kind of agreement about how to handle such an eventuality as being placed into the Dilemma. The two prisoners are presumed to be partners only in the sense of (allegedly) participating in a criminal activity together; since nothing is stated about their guilt or innocence it may well be that neither of them has even met the other. The two are described as “accomplices,” but accomplices who prioritize each other’s well-being much lower than their own – in other words, hardly friends, or compatriots, or long-term partners in any sense.

However, the term “defect” implies something defected from, some country or alliance. Again, the term cooperate is ambiguous – the prisoners can cooperate with each other or with the authorities. We’ve already established that the authorities do not have the best interests of the prisoners in mind, and now we also establish that if the prisoners are to do any cooperating, it will be with each other, against the authorities. The authorities want to gain power by destroying the bonds of cooperation and causing someone to defect from society; the prisoners want to remain free by holding together as a society.

The choices could have been named differently. Confession could have been called cooperation – and certainly if we view the game from the perspective of the prosecutor, a confession would be a way for a prisoner to cooperate. However, again, the PD puts us in the place of the Prisoner, who is depicted as being in society with other prisoners but not with the prosecutor or the authorities.

Again, the PD does not have to be expressed in these terms that suggest that authority is opposed to, rather than part of, society. It doesn’t have to, but it is, and I consider this highly significant. The PD is not a dilemma about how we get justice – it is a dilemma about how we get freedom. And the freedom of the reduced sentences is not simply a freedom from jail, but a freedom from the power that would turn us against each other in pursuit of its own anti-social goals.

March 9, 2008 Posted by | Game Theory, Power | , , , | Leave a comment

Economics Foundation

One of my goals in this blog is to examine the interplay between certain postmodern theories and certain economic theories that, due to certain political and demographic realities, might never be considered together. In Constituting Feminist Subjects, Kathi Weeks points out that there is a “paradigm debate” between modernists and postmodernists that makes it difficult to constructively combine elements of, for instance, Foucault and Marx. However, someone whose area of interest is feminist politics would be highly likely to, in their course of study, come across somewhat favorable accounts of both of these thinkers. Perhaps socialist feminism and postmodern feminism would be presented as opposing movements, but they oppose each other only in their approach to meeting ostensibly similar goals. Thus the logic of Weeks’ attempt to bring some degree of reconciliation to the two.

This same student of feminist thought would be very unlikely to encounter certain other
theories, thinkers, or schools of thought, or if they were encountered, they’d be likely to be presented negatively, misrepresented, or dismissed as irrelevant for one reason or another. This is not an attack on the feminist movement – merely an observation that, in any movement or school of thought, there are areas of particular interest that are studied in great depth, and there are areas of no particular interest that are not studied at all. I could easily level the same critique against economics. In fact, I arguably already have, when I said that Libertarian thought needed to be reevaluated in the face of certain postmodern theories. I’ve spoken a bit about some of the formulations of power that will inform this project of deconstruction and reconstruction, so now, I’d like to talk a little bit about the economic side of things. My project here is to begin to lay the foundations for my postmodern theory of economics.

Continue reading

March 2, 2008 Posted by | Economics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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