Competence

For a while, “competence” has been a weapon used by the Left against Republican Presidents.  It began with the Dukakis campaign, I think, most immediately as a way of distracting attention from the candidate’s liberalism, and while it failed for a while, it has finally yielded fruit–certainly, the Bush Adminstration was effectively labeled “incomptent,” and the Democrats can present themselves, with lots of Ivy League technocrats who really want to run everything they can get their hands on, as competent.  It turned out to a be savvy strategy for a couple of simple reasons:  first, any modern administration is doing so many things that one will, at any point along the way, be able to point to dozens of “mistakes,” many of them egregious and harmful; and, second, the mass media, still the liberal, mainstream media even in these, its dying days, is much more interested in recording mistakes made by Republicans than Democrats.  After all, what is the measure of such things–according to what “objective,” competently administered criterion of competence could one “rank” the Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Reagan administrations?  All one can do in making a case is list a series of mistakes–by the time you get to 15 or 20, it looks pretty bad, even out of thousands of decisions, so it really becomes a question of who wants to make such lists and what you believe belongs on it (not to mention the problem of ranking more and less serious mistakes, mistakes which are repaired to some degree or another, mistakes made out of carelessness as opposed to tough choices that could have gone either way, etc.).  Along with the rreasons i just mentioned, Leftists prefer these lists because the Progressive philosophy of governing insists upon expert administration as the test of legitimacy–if you see yourself, as an elected or appointed official, as akin to an engineer or doctor, then the number of serious mistakes becomes an important measure of your performance.  Conservatives rarely think to make such lists, because they are more interested in having the government do less rather than doing it better–indeed, if the government does things, or can be presented as doing them, better, that provides a ground for having it take on more.   You would think this would make Democratic administrations vulnerable to charges of incompetence, but since now one really knows what it means anyway, having lots of plans and being staffed by the type of people the media likes is good enough.

We could usefully trace at least one central strand of Progressivism to John Dewey’s argument that the scientific method should be applied to public and social life.  Rather than being driven by tradition and prejudice and constant shifts in public opinion, let’s explicitly identify “problems,” study the “causes” of those problems, try out “solutions,” and then measure the results of those solutions–exactly the way in which we would test a hypothesis in the laboratory.  Democracy, in that case, would depend upon the scientific method coming to replace traditional common sense in the public as a whole.  There are quite a few rather obvious problems here–first of all, the inevitable split, which must persist even as the population becomes more educated, between experts and non-experts when it comes to social problem solving; the fact that “failed” experiments in the sphere of social life have lasting effects and can’t just be “scrapped” as in the laboratory; the law of unintended consequences or, perhaps, Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, dictates that the experiment itself will transform, in all kinds of unpredictable ways, the conditions that were to be tested in the first place. 

This is not ancient history–what else does one imagine Barack Obama meant by “restoring science to its proper place” in his Inaugural Address?  On the one hand, it is a gesture to environmentalists, the abortion lobby and others; more generally, though, it is an assertion of the Progressivist philosophy of governance–why shouldn’t science dictate the way we organize health care, education, gun control, etc.?  There seem to be limits, though–has anyone proposed a “scientific” foreign policy?  Has gay marriage been formulated as a “scientific question”–would supporters accept as conclusive a study showing that children raised in gay marriages are less “well adjusted” than those raised in traditional marriages?  Of course not, and rightly so–even if one could scientifically determine the meaning of a term like “well-adjusted” one couldn’t scientifically determine what portion of one’s “adjustment” is determined within the family and what portion determined by what is outside, and in the interaction between the two.  To put it simply, no one accepts a scientific accounting of their values.

So, progressivism is meaningless as an actual practice of government, but as an ethos of those who govern it is extremely powerful–what it refers to is not so much scientific practice but the rule of those of us who define ourselves as pro-science.  The secular and those who don’t identify themselves in terms of their obligations to any community; those who can comfortably present themselves as victims of religious, ethnic or bourgeois “prejudice”; for all of these, “science” is the default position because in the mythology of modernity the anti-science position of the church and monarchy is what stands in for all the forces of reaction holding back economic, ethical and social progress.  Which brings us back to “competence” as a purely political term, similar to a more recently invented one like “reality-based.”

But a claim like “science is what scientists say it is” is not mere tautology.  The real meaning of competence is in performing the practices of some specialized community in a way recognizable by other members of that community.  An astrologer who stumbled upon the theory of relativity in 1895 would still have been “wrong,” or, more precisely, “not even wrong,” because no one in the scientific community could have done anything with that claim–it didn’t emerge out of some problem recognized by the community, some unanswered question or unresolved anomaly.  To be competent in such a community–and, I am saying, this is the only real meaning “competence” has–is to be able to recognize the relation between problems, questions and anomalies and the ongoing revision of the practices of the community or, as I would prefer, the discipline (a community which focuses on addressing a specific region of reality, a specific set of phenomena). 

In this sense, competence is extremely important, politically.  The hijacking of disciplinary authority for short term advantage is scandalous because we rely heavily upon those who set aside immediate questions for the sake of what, in the words of Charles Sanders Peirce, “will prove true in the long run.”  But it will always be an ongoing temptation, because there can’t be any extrinsic authority governing the discipline–only those within it are competent to judge its workings; even while the results of work within many disciplines becomes increasingly valuable to the world.  Real conservative political thinking, at this point, would best direct its attention to finding ways to ensure that every one stays within their sphere of competence–a concern that would mirror that evinced by the American Constitution for a separation and interaction of powers.  Those within one discipline ask questions of those within another discipline; consumers, voters and elected officials don’t interfere with disciplinary activity but choose the results of such activity that they prefer–that is the proper relationship.

But disciplines change and overlap with each other–new domain of “competence” emerge all the time, and can take advantage of the time-lag between their “discoveries” and the progress of other disciplines to arbitrarily proclaim upon all manner of things–academic disciplines like cultural studies are perfect examples:  they have a fairly sophisticated vocabulary that draws upon serious trends within modern thought, so they are capable of repelling criticism and attracting supporters–very few people are in a position to point out that they are essentially frauds.   At their best, disciplines are in between the sheer love of inquiry and conversation without bounds characteristic of the “amateur” and the rigor and accountability of the “professional”–indeed, one might say that disciplines start off amateurishly, pursuing some anomaly or taboo subject within an existing field, or separating an interesting question or problem from some craft or cult that has hitherto monopolized it; and then establish a vocabulary and idiom of inquiry that might some day freeze into jargon but will hopefully generate enough anomalies, paradoxes and antinomies to prevent that from happening. 

But we can open a disciplinary space any time, any place–whenever there is something not immediately visible that we feel could be seen if we had the right instruments or found the right “angle,” and we set aside differing interests and opinions in order to, jointly, see if we can find a way to see it–we have a disciplinary space.  In this case, a disciplinary space is an iteration of the originary scene–an iteration in relative safety, but somewhere in the back of the disciplinary foundation there is the sense of danger, the sense that order might give way to violence if we don’t find ways to see the same things.  And this lurking danger shows up in error–whenever we try to see something new our old habits keep getting in the way, even if it was a kind of interruption in those old habits that led us to seek something new in the first place.  When we point at something together, there is no guarantee that we “see” the same thing, and the only way to check on that is by pointing to something else, which repeats the same problem, etc.  There is no guarantee that after several “sightings” in common, having assured ourselves that we see together, some “monstrous” divergence won’t disabuse us of that assumption (in such cases, how do we know which is the error?).  We revert back from “seeing” to the idiom that enables us to talk about convergences and divergences, and even here there are no guarantees.  We simply gamble that the generative is better than the self-enclosed–whatever can produce more of itself, and in varied forms, seems preferable to anything hermetic and repulsive.

In this case, there can be another discourse of “competence” other than the “progressive” one, which takes the “administration” of “society” as its disciplinary object.  We can speak about habits, signs–ostensive and imperative,  idioms, norms and error, and overlappings.  Any of us can be sufficiently self-reflexive to note where our extant habits are taking on new material; any of us can identify others whom we consider to be competent to judge our practices; and those who are competent to judge the results of our practices, and because they fall into the region covered by their habits;   we can position ourselves at the limits of others’ habits and point out–set up a disciplinary space aimed at pointing out–where they exceed their competence; and we can test, at the margins of practices, where norms get fuzzy and error and innovation get entangled.

The whole idea of a “mainstream” is un-American–far more normative for us is the 19th century conditions, when we were flush with con men, cults and debunkers, and it must have been hard at times to keep them apart.  The “mainstream” is an invention of progressives, a way of holding together the welfare state and Cold War belligerency.  Let FOX News cultivate some crazies; let the creationists have their conferences and densely argued and meticulously documented pseudo-academic treatises; and let the debunkers have at them. And maybe I was too hard on cultural studies a moment ago–once we see it as a specifically academic cult, with an affinity for other cults (UFO hunters, gay subcultures, conspiracy theorists) we can find a place for it as well.  But not in state supported academies–a major project, probably far more important than any strictly political activity, over the next few decades, will be circumventing and ultimately undermining the University as a source of authority and credentialing.  Employers should decide what they want their employees to be able to do; and then they should train them in those skills specific to that job, while relying upon academies that focus on requested skill sets offering credentials that testify to the student’s ability to do x, y and z.  Lots of vocational schools, and lots of on-line education, then–but the Humanities need not suffer, since there is no doubt that advanced interpretive and communication capacities will have an important place in economies of the future.  But there is a huge gap in that [employers] “should”–no one is competent to issue imperatives here.  Only the proliferation of disciplinary spaces on the margins of and outside of the University will fill in that gap.  For now, though, we can hammer away at tenure, on all its forms in all institutions–there is no more pernicious habit than that one. 

This is probably not the way in which most participants in the discipline of Generative Anthropology see it, but I would like to practice the originary hypothesis as a source of idioms of inquiry–a habit of prying loose new vocabularies and grammars from the anomalies within existing, especially decaying, disciplines.  It is the difference between iterating the gesture on the originary scene and assessing the results of that gesture.  Perhaps these are different competencies. 

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