June 27, 2006


Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:01 am

John O. McGinnis’ “Age of the Empirical” in the new (June/July 06 issue of Policy Review raises some important questions for Generative Anthropology.  McGinnis argues that the increase in information available to social science researchers along with the greater efficacy of computing technology are getting us to the point where consensus on good policy will no longer be impeded by partisan interests:

our future politics is more likely to forge consensus than that of the past, because we are on the cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism that will help bring a greater measure of agreement on the consequences of public policy. The richer stream of information generated by empirical discoveries will provide an anchor for good public policy against partisan storms and special-interest disturbances, making it harder for the political process to be manipulated by narrow interests.

Arguments over, say, crime prevention policy, poverty reduction, and education will no longer be “philosophical” disputes:  we will actually be able to measure the effects of specific policies in ways that will ultimately be impossible to dispute on merely “principled” grounds.  McGinnis recognizes that there must be limits to this new empiricism–for example, there is no quantitative measure that can enable us to adjudicate between those who think a fetus is a human baby and those who think it is a clump of tissue.  (Although one could imagine empirical studies determining the best way to reduce the number of abortions having significant effects on pro-life advocates.)  McGinnis doesn’t expand the list of conflicts resistant to such an approach–he leaves foreign policy and war making, for example, completely out of the discussion.  It’s not to hard to see how such approaches could be useful in these areas as well, once we find the best way of quantifying the effects we aim at:  for example, changes in the rate of attacks in a particular area in Baghdad.  Still, it seems clear that in some areas the new empricism will be of more local use, testing out different ways of implementing a particular policy rather than deciding upon the policy itself.  And the very attempt to quantify the presumably unquantifiable, even as a thought-experiment, will often yield provocative, counter-intuitive results.

What is even more interesting about the essay is that McGinnis explicitly sees this new method as a model for conflict reduction–in terms of GA, it would be a new mode of deferral, in which we would withhold appropriation of the policy mechanism while we allow a methodological approach beyond reproach and manipulation to work itself out.  One could, for example, support the experimental implementation of a policy one finds abhorent on the ground that we can be confident that its destructiveness will be proven once and for all.  As McGinnis explicitly affirms, the new empiricism would not, then, banish values from the public sphere:  we would simply be obliged to put our values to the test, accepting a common measure between opposing values.

It would be easy to devise caricatures of this process:  should, for example, we be ready to “try out” the extermination of a particular group of people since we will now be able to verify whether they were really a “virus” after all?  But such irony would miss the point because, perhaps most interesting of all, McGinnis’ call for a new empiricism is ultimately a policy proposal in its own right, or at least a criterion for acceptable policy proposals:  since the new empiricism requires lots of information to be effective, those modes of organizing society that generate the most information are to be privileged:  hence, the new empiricism favors transparency, the replacement of “committed” academic research with distinterested inquiry in the academy, decentralization and a high degree of liberty, leaving people to work things out on the ground and thereby generate lots of data.  The new empiricism, in other words, is most compatible with a Hayekian “spontaneous order,” in which everybody knows a lot more but also a lot less:  we have increasing access to all kinds of information but we are all even less equipped to claim to know anywhere near enough to usurp the freedom of others. 

The new empiricism, then, is highly congenial to GA; but we are still in a position to raise some important questions that probably won’t come from elsewhere.  For originary thinking, form comes before “matter,” i.e., before the divisible and quantifiable. The world must be constituted before the diverse things in it can be sorted out.  We might, indeed, locate the origins of social science in the sparagmos, the destruction and devouring of the central object once the originary sign has been emitted and acknowledged by the group.  The object must be divided equally, and some intuition of what “my share” entails, along with the orientation toward any form of power or custom capable of enforcing the symmetry of shares, must be intrinsic to any community.  

The demystifying dimension of even the most conservative social science should not surprise us, then–what could be more demystifying than the sparagmos itself, in which God turns out to be food?  Think of the kind of mischievous questions which keep atheism in business:  if God created the world, what, exactly, are the cockroaches for?  If everything that happened is God’s will, why did he have such a profound desire for cripples?  Etc.  In other words, once we start to “detail” (quantify, categorize) God’s “characteristics,” we very quickly move toward farce (what material are angels’ wings made of?).  These questions are not serious for GA in their literal form, but are of great interest as an originary account of a certain kind of crucial, if cynical and limited freedom of thought.

Following the sparagmos on the originary scene is the iteration of the scene in the ritual.  Social science is necessarily suspicious of ritual, or, in our de-ritualized age, habit and normalization.  Social science wants to stay within the sparagmos, where we can argue about equal shares and how to determine them:  the social sciences are at their best and their worst in proposing paths toward modernization precisely because modernization leads to societies which produce the kind of rationalized distribution and hence measurable quantities social scientists are comfortable with.  Habits and normalization always have at least a tinge of the irrational–people adhere to customs even when they “obviously” lead to unjust distributions (and even while the same people tenaciously, and often equally irrationally from the point of their own share, insist that the existing mode of distribution be enforced to the letter), and it is extremely difficult to to do more than ridicule people in this regard.  “Development” is always from customs and rituals to rationalized distribution; habits are always favored to the extent that they are signs of such a mode of distribution.  (Nor do I simply oppose these assessments)

But social science is most of all suspicious of the transcendent sign itself, which is inexplicable in terms of any social scientific model of the social, a model that will inevitably be drawn from the sparagmos, where the participants on the scene are themselves “modeling” their relation to each other primarily in relation to the divisible object, ignoring while presupposing the formal sign which makes division possible in the first place.  What is the centripetal force that holds society together? Faith can explain the emergence and maintenance of the more desirable habits, which in turn lead to more rational distribution, but once faith has thus served as a Ruse of Reason it might as well step off the stage.  Once we know what faith is good for, why should (indeed how could) we continue to believe?  That the renewal of the transcendent sign will always be incommensurable with the existent and, in the short run, counter to all the “material interests” it must defer, remains beyond the ken of the social sciences.

It would follow, then, that McGinnis’ argument would hold true for those areas of social life where we find the greatest consensus regarding desirable social ends:  higher standards of living, less poverty, students with higher reading and math scores, safer streets, etc.  And this certainly covers a lot.  His argument is most dubious when applied to those areas where our transcendent guarantees and the constitution of the community itself are at stake–most obviously, perhaps, in matters of war and peace and life and death, but also in areas of national symbolism and individual freedom. 

We could take a step toward McGinnis’ position and simultaneously try to render his position more minimal by searching for ways in which the “new empricism” might extend its sway over new areas of life, which is to say bring new areas of life under the emergent acceptance of spontaneous order.  Can we ever really be sure in advance that any particular question is inherently resistant to quantification and measurement in some way that would be truthful and elicit general consent?  Why not work under the assumption that it’s always worth trying?  At the very least we will understand the dimensions of the conflict in question better by identifying precisely where and why it is thus resistant.  And this in turn will serve to indicate where habits are entrenched because the prevailing form of the transcendent has not yet finished its work, and where such entrenchment vaguely points to emergent forms.  In this way, the “new empiricism” will be not only an increasingly comprehensive and helpful method but a new sign of our desire for an enhanced consensus–enhanced both in its breadth and its depth, as we provide the social sciences with the elements of a new vocabulary. 


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