From the Center for Peripheral Studies (OAC Branch). After Lance, the sky's the limit!

The papers discussed in our online seminars are often excellent, but this one is apocalyptic, as well as being an exercise in fine writing. Lee Drummond was once a Chicago anthropology PhD specialising in the Caribbean and later in San Diego's tourist attractions. He taught at McGill University for over a decade before retiring to the wilderness (Palm Springs!). July and August there are his winter when he withdraws into his airconditioned study to avoid the heat. The OAC is a principal beneficiary of this aestivation, as witnessed by the paper attached here. All I can say is you gotta read it, whether or not you participate in the seminar.

Lee's point of departure is Lance Armstrong's confession on the Oprah Winfrey show. The man who perhaps deserves to be known as the greatest American athlete ever admitted taking performance enhancing drugs, thereby triggering an intense public outcry. Lee deconstructs what he takes to be a key feature of the American ideology, the opposition of nature to culture, showing that biology and technology have been inextricably woven together throughout human evolution and even before. If it is impossible to identify the unequal influence of technology in sporting performance, what about other areas of cultural achievement, like literature for example? Should Hemingway's Nobel prize be taken away or Coleridge's poetry eliminated from the canon because they wrote under the influence of mind-altering substances?

Not content with this reductio ad absurdum, Lee then launches into a savage critique of American civilization and of the cultural anthropology it has spawned. Drawing on Marx's happy phrasing in the 18th Brumaire, he argues that the American tragedy (New World genocide) now reappears as farce (reality TV shows), one of which actually replayed the former in a grotesque reenactment of the competitive ideal. Anthropology tends to celebrate cultural achievement around the world, whereas in Lee's view, the current state of American society suggests that culture may be a disease killing off its carriers just as their ancestors once killed off the original inhabitants of what passes for the land of the American dream.

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I have been reading Mark Stahlman’s interventions with great interest because they take us out of questions to do with disciplinary benchmarking into altogether different territories. Analysis: notions of self and the capacity for analysis are clearly common to all human beings, but self encompasses radically different forms and capacities for analysis: Groote Eylandters, in a traditional way of life had to treat the burrawang nuts they found for toxins - otherwise they would be poisoned. Analysis is necessary. The self: As Mauss points out in his essay; his purpose is not to challenge the universality of the self either as a linguistic preposition or as a psychological a priori, but rather to complicate our awareness of the dyad self-individual/self-personality.

 

Kant put judgement as the highest faculty (the final Critique). Analysis (the first critique of Reason) is needed as a basis for judgement, as is practical moral awareness (the Second), but judgement is something other than and beyond analysis or moral awareness; it is the capacity to apply and combine aesthetic sensing with thinking toward an end (teleology) in order to understand the specifics of reality. Peirce’s triad in this respect is induction, deduction and ‘abduction’ – abduction is categorically different because it is taking thought in an entirely new direction. Ergot: Audrey Richards points out that great hunger can have, in this respect, the same effects as drugs – hence the spirit quest fasting etc. The Zulu preferred a thin spirit medium to a well-fed one because that person would have closer contact with the spirits.

 

Pantheism, cosmopolitics, the plural universe: all this is very much in the air and anthropologists are grappling with it in the context of the great changes going on since the interwebs came into being - the branching nature-cultures that it is bringing into play. Mark is quite right to ask why there isn’t a much more abductive rethinking going on in this light – whether it involves taking drugs or cutting calorie intake I am not certain. 

New nature-cultures in the making. From the Guardian newspaper:

'A furore over patents – sought in the US for the TLM technique by Auxogyn – erupted in July when Jacques Cohen, one of the world's leading embryologists, attacked Stanford and Auxogyn over their "outrageous" request to be given an American patent for cell-cycle timing technologies.

"Nature should not be owned by anyone," said Cohen, an embryologist based at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Washington. In an earlier edition of Reproductive BioMedicine Online, he wrote: "Claiming aspects of natural processes in embryos as property is an outrageous attempt to over-commercialise every step of an already expensive medical procedure."'

 Judgement is something other than and beyond analysis or moral awareness; it is the capacity to apply and combine aesthetic sensing with thinking toward an end (teleology) in order to understand the specifics of reality. Peirce’s triad in this respect is induction, deduction and ‘abduction’ – abduction is categorically different because it is taking thought in an entirely new direction. 

Which amounts to a pretty good description of what is nowadays often discussed under the label design thinking, the designer's holy grail being the ability to build on the foundation that research provides to achieve a specified goal in a radically new way.

Note the implication here: Analysis/research can define the conditions under which an innovative solution must work. It cannot provide the solution.

Thanks, Huon, for pulling this altogether in this intriguing way.


Huon Wardle said:

'A furore over patents – sought in the US for the TLM technique by Auxogyn – erupted in July when Jacques Cohen, one of the world's leading embryologists, attacked Stanford and Auxogyn over their "outrageous" request to be given an American patent for cell-cycle timing technologies.

"Nature should not be owned by anyone," said Cohen.

The absurdity of the current law of patents, trademarks and copyright extends to culture as well as nature. A couple of the more outrageous examples; the firm that produces the law books made up of reporting court proceedings in the US sought to charge the public for reproducing its contents; and a white Californian took out a patent on commercial use of the word "indigenous" and tried to charge First Americans running casinos, stores or whatever using that label. What is absurd and life threatening is the extension of private property to all things previously held in common like the law and language, not to mention song and stories.

Keith, you write,

Our problems are metaphysical, John. They can't be cleared up with examples.

That said, they cannot be cleared up without examples. The lesson of science is that only through examples analyzed in painstaking detail can we move beyond the glass bead game of sorting and recombining our prejudices. I would, however, underline through.  The larger goals should, indeed, transcend the particular case. 

Bringing this abstract reasoning to bear on this motley hodgepodge of hobbies we call anthropology, I would say that we need more—and more adventurous—comparative research. Consider, for example, a recent request from one of our younger members Giuseppe Troccoli, who is working on  "gangs" and "street organizations" and asks for references related to "informal and drug economy in Central America (or Latin America in general)." Why just Central or Latin America? Why not Africa, India, Europe or China? Gangs and drugs are topics with large and global literatures, and even if it turns out to be impossible to refer to it all, the insights into cultural differences generated by examining cases from more different parts of the world would, I suspect, be much more enlightening than retreading or mildly elaborating research done by others with a similar geographical focus. 

Arguably the most useful thing that anthropologists could do would be to focus neither on isolated ethnographic cases or purportedly universal ideas; but, instead, target the area that the sociologist Robert Merton called "middle-range theory," using case-based methods for small-n comparisons. (It was, after all, an anthropologist, Fred Egan, who pioneered this approach.)

John:

"The lesson of science is that only through examples analyzed in painstaking detail can we move beyond the glass bead game of sorting and recombining our prejudices."

I suspect that this statement is somewhere near (if not at the heart) of this discussion.  In what sense does science allow us to "move beyond" our "prejudices"?

Science (of the empirical sort you seem to be discussing) is logically incomplete, cannot provide fundamental premises, and is forever caught in the observer/observed dilemma.  Why is it that this sort of science doesn't just *compound* our prejudices in a way that doesn't even allow us to examine them?  Yes, ignoring *metaphysics* is, in a way, "moving beyond" but only if ignorance is indeed bliss!  

My guess is that few human societies ever studied by anthropologists have survived when such ignorance dominates the culture.  The initial Royal Society of London was shot through with *radical* millennarians -- anticipating the 2nd Coming through their inventions.  The "hippies" who "saved physics" did it based on their versions of a "New Age" religion -- starting with "prejudices" about the world that they then applied to their theorizing about "material" reality.

Today's fascination with "emergence" -- across the physical and social sciences -- is just the most recent reliance on a "prejudice," the story of which encompasses the entire history of science.  Indeed, without the "glass bead game(s)" can there even be anything worthy of being called *science* . . . ??

Mark asks,

 In what sense does science allow us to "move beyond" our "prejudices"?

The short answer: Through systematic search for alternatives and evidence used to evaluate them.

The long answer: I beg the indulgence of those who have heard me use these stories before.

One of my earliest memories of discovering a remarkable idea shows me around the age of twelve or thirteen reading a book call something like The World's Scriptures, a compilation of sacred texts from various religions. In it was a passage from the Apocrypha, attributed to the second Isaiah. In it the Lord God speaks to Cyrus, the king of the Persians, and says, "Shall the pot say to Him who moulds it, what are you making? Let the potsherd speak to the potsherd." Like I've said before, I was brought up Lutheran and this sentiment resonated with the teaching that humans are always fallible and will never know everything.

Later, in college, I roomed with a friend doing a double major in Electrical Engineering and Linguistics. He introduced me to Warren McCulloch's Embodiments of Mind. In his introduction, McCulloch, the father of automata theory, who devoted his life to create devices to model human neurone says that his goal is to produce machines that behave like human beings. So far, his machines have never reached that goal. There is always something missing.  Then, he says, there are always people who say, "See, machines will never be able to do what humans do." But, he continues, there are people like himself: "I go off and build a better machine."

Even though I majored in Philosophy and studied a lot of Philosophy of Science, it wasn't until I got to graduate school and read Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures that I found a truly compelling description of science. Chomsky said, we learn to think of science in three ways. Let's examine them as an engineer would, in terms of their inputs and outputs.

  1. According to the view we are taught in school, science is a Discovery procedure. The input is Facts. The output is Truth. If we do science or study the history of science we know that this is not the way science works. 
  2. We may then hear people saying that science is a Decision procedure. There are two inputs: Facts and a Theory. The output is the decision that the theory is right or wrong. But this, too, is not the way science works.
  3. Science in actual practice is an Evaluation procedure: The inputs are a body of Evidence and at least two competing Theories. The output is a judgment that, given this evidence, one theory appears superior to another. This is, however, a judgment that can be overturned by new evidence and, of course, a new and even better theory may come along.

But how, the skeptic asks, are we able to make judgments? It wasn't until a few years ago, that Robert Paul, a philosopher who taught at Reed College whom I met on a listserv called Lit-Ideas pointed me to something I should have read as a college freshman, when I took a course on Aristotle. From Nichomachean Ethics, Bk III-1

"Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

Which brings me back to something I did read as a freshman, serendipitously by Nietzsche. In The Birth of the Drama and The Genealogy of Morals, there is a passage in which Nietzsche compares a scientist and a metaphysician to two men watching Salome perform the dance of the seven veils. The scientist is content to be seduced as one veil after another is slowly lifted. The metaphysician is the boor shouting, "TAKE IT ALL OFF! NOW!"

 

Keith, John, Mark, Huon, all,

    As I mentioned at the end of my last Comment (sizzle, sizzle), I’d like to return to a theme I developed in my Lance essay.  I kept meaning to do this, but ran out of steam (and any modest space limit). 

    I’d like to suggest that social thought (at least in our Western tradition) has to grapple with two fundamental problems:

    1)  the relationship between the individual and the State; and

    2)  the constitution and ultimate goal or direction of the State. 

Is that three question?  Maybe, but it really doesn’t matter here; I’m not trying to compose a treatise, but to string together a few anecdotes and observations in hopes of shedding some light on these two major issues. 

    Here’s the kernel of my argument (unlike my earlier Comments, you don’t have to wade through a bunch of text to reach it):

 

Society is set up to organize a population of ordinary individuals who display predictable, and not particularly extreme differences.

Society is not set up to fit extraordinary individuals into an organization designed to slot ordinary people into its framework. 

 

    The version of society with which I’m most familiar – the contemporary United States – takes some, shall we say, extraordinary steps to insure that its population is as ordinary as possible.  Under the leadership of that great philosopher of education, George Bush (George Jr.), schools in the United States were required to implement a program, “No Child Left Behind,” designed to improve learning for all students, not just the privileged ones.  No more passing kids on to the next grade if they weren’t prepared, no more lazy teachers not drilling kids enough, and, especially, no more liberal pinko teachers filling kids’ heads with rubbish like “grades don’t matter; what matters is what you experience.”  Instead, students, teachers, and whole schools are now subject to continuous evaluation to determine if the kids are learning at the right speed, the teachers are doing their job, and the school is performing at an acceptable level.  With that new system now in place, kids from first grade on take batteries of “standardized tests” and, when they’re not actually taking the tests, spend a lot of what class time remains studying for those tests.  This new policy not only keeps kids’ noses to the grindstone, it also greatly motivates teachers, because the test scores of students in a particular class are used to evaluate their teacher.  Those scores figure largely in whether the teacher receives a salary increase or, especially in these Sequestered times, gets to keep his or her job.  The school in turn is evaluated, and its budget determined, by the aggregate scores of its teachers.  It’s all standardized, standardized, standardized. 

    An educational system that smoothes off the rough edges and grinds down the personal idiosyncrasies of its young charges is perfectly suited to that system’s goal of slotting its human products into an American economy / society in which eighty per cent of the population hold down wage-labor jobs that secure them a whole ten per cent of the financial resources of this great land.  Of the remaining ninety per cent, about half goes to the top one per cent of the population, the super rich (including those Wall Street criminals who somehow have avoided cells in our growing number of super-max prisons), and the remaining forty-five per cent is shared out among the nineteen per cent of the population who cling to managerial or professional jobs. [see the reference to Wealth, Income, and Power, by G. William Domhoff in my Lance essay]  Standardized students become standardized workers in a standardized society that is run (I won’t say “governed” because even that fiction is rapidly shredding in an American government flirting with self-destruction) by a cabal of super-rich ideologues and delusional “public servants.”  It is a society at least as totalitarian as that envisioned in Plato’s Republic – with the crucial difference that the United States, whose political philosophy was inspired by its founders’ admiration for classical Greece, has transformed idea into fact. 

    There is another crucial difference between Plato’s ideal Greek city-state and contemporary American society.  In the former, an individual’s position in society was determined at an early age and he was then installed for life within a caste-like system (worker, warrior, ruler).  In American society a glaring inconsistency exists at the heart of the system.  A population bred to be ordinary – standardized – is beseeched at every turn, with every magazine page and TV commercial, to be special, distinctive, its members implored to spend the little money allowed them for mass-produced consumer products that promise individuality.  It is a paradox that would have stumped Russell.  Faced with that unsolvable problem in logic, he could have stopped work on the Principia and gone off to pursue his customary  lechery.  There is a name for an individual or a society that preaches one thing and does another: hypocrite. 

    The “individuality” offered Americans is a sham, a carefully crafted strategy to provide its citizens, standardized products of a standardized education, with the illusion that they are special, different, truly individuals.  That strategy is generally effective, but it does encounter a major problem: A few of its citizens are genuine individuals, extraordinary individuals whose innate gifts and personalities cannot be ground down to fit a mold.  What is a standardized society to do with decidedly non-standard individuals?  

    This is the dilemma that fascinated me when I began to think about the case of Lance Armstrong.  Unlike most hyped, made-for-television heroes of American sport, who are forgotten after one or two seasons (the rout “Of lads that wore their honours out, / Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man), Armstrong  possessed from birth or early childhood incredible physical stamina and strength that made him virtually unbeatable as an athlete.  Combined with an obsessive drive to win, he dominated international bicycle racing for years.  That drive, of course, led him to bully his teammates, manipulate sponsors, and, to increase his already formidable abilities, take performance-enhancing drugs.  Armstrong’s drug use got him into trouble with the quasi-governmental agency which regulates his sport and eventually brought him disgrace in the public eye.  His remarkable abilities did not protect him from the relentless effort on the part of officialdom to standardize everything. 

    I would like to propose a different response to Armstrong’s documented drug use and public confession, one that goes against the grain of a society geared to organizing the ordinary: So what if Lance Armstrong took drugs?  So what if he was an insufferable bully and manipulator?  So what if, as Mark Stahlman rightly notes, he was a first-class jerk?  Does a true hero, someone gifted with remarkable physical and/or mental abilities, need to be a nice guy?  To be liked?  To be a “people person”?  Although I don’t follow bicycle racing – or any organized sport – and could care less about who won this or that event, I am terrifically impressed when an individual emerges from the lumpen mass of humanity by performing exceptional feats, feats that are so far beyond my own and others’ abilities that they possess an eerie, uncanny quality.  They are feats, in short, that stand out from and, in a powerful way, invalidate the normal arrangement of society, of the social contract under which we all must live (or face the consequences).  The property I describe here is genius

    Down through the ages societies – and not just contemporary American society, that witches’ brew of consuming greed and vicious ignorance – have demonstrated an inability or intolerance in dealing with genius.  Socrates, Jesus Christ, Petronius, Copernicus, Galileo, Alan Turing, Aaron Swartz have paid dearly for the immense gifts they have conferred on civilization.  And genius comes in all stripes and colors; it is not limited to the textbook examples I’ve just recited.  Human abilities are remarkably diverse, as are individual competencies in those abilities.  I am fascinated by this aspect of people.  In addition to bicycle racers and home run sluggers, there are test pilots, chess players, card sharks, sculptors, musicians, and others whose accomplishments are so impressive that they defy ready comparison. 

    Probably because I have been obsessed with chess at different periods of my life, I am keenly (and painfully) aware of the tremendous range of players’ abilities.  Since junior high school I have been fixated (again, that obsession) on the figure of Bobby Fischer as the embodiment of genius.  Although I am now familiar with superb accomplishments in fields far removed from chess, I still would not hesitate in ranking Fischer’s “Game of the Century,” played when he was thirteen years old, as a towering monument to human thought.  His Knight sacrifice on the 11th move followed by his Queen sacrifice on the 17th move stunned even grandmaster spectators, leading one to declare the Knight sacrifice in particular “one of the most powerful moves of all time.”  As is well known, Fischer combined his chess genius with a thoroughly obnoxious personality and, in later life, with an odious anti-Semitism.  Like Lance Armstrong, he was a first-class jerk, and to a greater extent than Armstrong.  Fischer’s odyssey from national hero to villain paralleled and exceeded Armstrong’s.  When he defeated Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship match, he was hailed as the American underdog who single-handedly confronted and demolished the Soviet chess juggernaught assembled in Reykjavik; he was our victorious Cold Warrior, our David to their Goliath.  Twenty years later when he met Spassky for a rematch in Yugoslavia, the United States government branded him a criminal for violating United Nations sanctions against that war-torn country.  Fischer lived out the rest of his life as a fugitive.   The Pentagon runs guns to half the world’s despots, but his country issued an arrest warrant for one of its most talented citizens for playing chess. 

    Bobby Fischer and Lance Armstrong share a kinship with other figures of genius, whether persecuted, honored, or both, from other times and other parts of the world.  That kinship, paradoxically, is their absolute difference from one another and from the mass of humanity that wraps them in its suffocating shroud.  We can stand back and admire in awe their unique achievements.  At the same time, recognizing them for the extraordinary individuals they are requires us to take a long, sober look at what it conceivably means to posit a common humanity which they represent.  If we would like to congratulate ourselves for being members of a human species which possesses such a great diversity of talent and achievement, must we not face up to the cold, hard fact that there is so little commonality among “our” geniuses that their “humanity” itself is the merest artifice, a last-ditch rationale by a mediocre world committed to mediocrity? 

    In earlier Comments I have emphasized the undeniable fact that what we call “humanity” or the “human species” arose from something not-human, from groups of protohuman hominids on their way to what we have become.  I believe it is also undeniable that, if our ancestors manage to survive for another few thousand years, they will have become Something Else that is not conceivably “human.”  Let me now propose that that moment of humanity’s disappearance, its irreparable shredding about the edges is upon us, has been upon us for a considerable time.  There are no coherent bridges that connect bicycle racers, chess grandmasters, test pilots, mathematical prodigies, serial killers, sculptors, musicians; the thoroughly discrepant universe of being these figures represent overwhelms a facile categorization.  All that we might point to by way of asserting any commonality among them is not their sharing some inner kernel of human-ness, but that their individual brilliance radiates throughout our little province of semiospace, a province with its own shifting boundaries, and illuminates our own individual dulled and tarnished surfaces.      

 

Lee, 

Individuals like Armstrong and Fischer are tragic figures. They grab our attention because they represent hubris in the classic Greek sense. But are they sufficient evidence that all or even most exceptionally talented people wind up forced into preconceived molds? What about Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies? Or, for another more recent example, directly involved with drugs, Janet Woodcock, big pharma's favorite regulator

Lee: (the short version of the Norbert story)  He was a genius, so he was "officially" silenced.  Then he launched his Genius Project.

Where the McCulloch's wanted to make machines that "behaved" like humans (very useful for the military) and the Von Foerster's theorized about how everyone lives in their own little world (very useful for commercial purposes, as well as for psychological warfare), Wiener wrote about the HUMAN use of HUMAN beings and caught the attention of people like Walter Reuther, all of which made him a serious "trouble-maker."

Lee,

I've taken my time replying to your last comment, both wanting to give others a chance to chime in with fresh perspectives and hoping that they would, so I wouldn't find myself stuck in a familiar position re what you have written. There's a lot in that comment I agree with. I, too, think that "No Child Left Behind" is a crap piece of public policy. As a long time science-fiction reader, I have no trouble at all that our descendants a thousand years hence may be barely, if at all, recognizable as what we call human. But man, I have to say it, I read Ayn Rand when I was in my teens and have long since gotten over that. I read tragic tales of genius crushed by a soul-destroying state and think of all those other geniuses for whom the state has provided extraordinary opportunities. I am reminded of the surgeon who dug the bullets out of Ronald Reagan after he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. When Reagan tried to make political capital out of hailing him as the best kind of self-made man immigrant American, the surgeon responded with an open letter in the New York Times, saying (I may be embellishing a bit), "My mother was a welfare mom. And the only way I got to go to college and medical school was government grants."

You mention Lance Armstrong and Bobby Fischer. I'll counter with Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein. And what about Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Sergey Brin? Or remarkable people in a whole bunch of other fields who don't seem crushed at all by the wealth and celebrity they've achieved?

Have you, by any chance, read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers? What he says there agrees pretty much with my own observations. Superstar success appears to be the result of three factors: opportunity, talent, and incredible persistence. Talent has measurable effects but only up to a certain level. Beyond that it's a combination of opportunity and obsession that overrides setbacks and demands incessant practice. Opportunity has, of course a lot to do with the luck of the draw and where and when and in what class position the potential genius is born. The persistence appears to be only in part a trainable habit.

Have you, by any chance, read George Ritzer's The McDonaldization of Society? Half his analysis about creating a nation of burger flippers, trapped in jobs that involve repetitive physical labor. But he also mentions the other side, the elite, haute cuisine side, where creativity and innovation are prized. Straightforward old-fashioned class analysis, but not at all consistent with the idea that all of American education is devoted to producing cogs for industrial machines. The material problem is that the middle-class dream of education as a step up the ladder out of repetitive physical labor was bound to run up against the fact that the supply of highly educated, individualistic souls demanding meaningful jobs would far outstrip demand. That's not just a problem for the USA. This year I read an entire issue of China Daily devoted to the problem of an excess of jobless graduates from institutions of higher learning that is now endemic throughout Asia, in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and India as well as the Peoples Republic. Why the problem? Has a lot to do with the new technology we love and use to interact here. In retrospect a lot of those white-collar middle-class jobs that seemed to offer job security were the paper pushing equivalent of the work that the transistors on IC chips now do. When reliability was the number one demand, that fine old Japanese saying, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down" made a lot of sense. It still does for repetitive, physical labor jobs like flipping burgers. But it's no accident that publications like The Harvard Business Review and Fast Company are full of stories about the difficulty of attracting and keeping the talent that businesses need for innovation or that concepts like "design thinking" and "abduction" have become buzzwords. This is the world we have to comprehend and sweeping romantic rants about the poor oppressed genius don't, I'm afraid, get us very far. 

Greetings, I'm checking back in after a couple years, reminded of these discussions by a comment from Mark.   I think we always have a choice between discussion cultures as living things, like organisms, or as categories of theory, as abstract subjects.  Discussed as "organic" things cultures are self-defining objects of nature, viewed subjectively, and discussed in "abstraction" they are "hypothetical" worlds invented subjectively, a very big difference  

It becomes tricky to not confuse oneself or one's readers/listeners, though, due to those viewpoints alternating between ontologically different subjects, with big changes in word meanings and use, almost totally different languages differently using the same words.  I find scientists don't yet have a comfortable way to signal a switch between those viewpoints.  

We do all seem to casually switch between back and forth between those ontological viewpoints, many times a day, though.   For example, at breakfast we use word meanings associated with self-defining objects of nature, like "toast" defined by pointing to the physical thing.   At the office "toast" can also refer to the organic experience of defeat in the battles of the business world.  More often the language of the office is defined abstractly, in terms of the "rules of the boss" and "the rules of the trade" it is in, with every boss and trade having different rules for the business to create a culture around and work with.   We go from one form of "socially defined reality" to another each time we switch between relating to someone's "private sphere" (and its private language) and the "public sphere" (and its many abstract languages) where larger scale cultures and organizations dominate.  

So that influences my response to what Lee describes as the kernel of his argument:

"Society is set up to organize a population of ordinary individuals who display predictable, and not particularly extreme differences.

Society is not set up to fit extraordinary individuals into an organization designed to slot ordinary people into its framework. "

I tend to see "Society" from the organic view first, as a "culture of cultures" on multiple scales, to then struggle with perceptions... and how differently people in each culture will perceive the world around them, and perhaps not perceive each other at all.   The whole "culture of cultures" as an organic system would appear to have evolved over time as the sub-cultures emerged and organized around their separate ways of thinking and living, interacting more or less ecologically to arrive at more or less set arrangements with each other, as if species relying on coordinated niches.  

So, I come to agree with Lee on the first statement, on the whole of society seeming to be organized around roles for people that many people find comfortable, naturally reinforced by the productive relationships between its subcultures, and then the difficulty of forging one's own role without wider societal supports and recognition.   But people still do create new roles all the time too, and the facts of evolution also seem to say societal roles all came from innovations and are always in flux, the opposite of his second assertion.  That says much the same thing as Margaret Mead's famous remark, on the subject:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

If there's an error I think it's suggesting that change requires "committed citizens", as "commitment" in social circles may as often reflect true blindness as far reaching insight... (my prejudice?) so perhaps "innovative" might be the better word there.   But it still expresses the "change comes from people making new paths" idea, which is what's at once both an insight into the organic nature of cultures, and an expression of what I see as the best of our broadest common culture. 

Stil, was Lance being "blind" or "innovative"?  He did achieve a lot, but it seems mostly in a hypothetical world that didn't stick.

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