Friday, May 09, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Four

See also: [Part Zero] [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three]

The agenda from last time is:

  1. What is the role of signaling within the realm?
  2. What are the effects of Cynical attacks on those signals?
  3. What is higher education's actual and potential role in the above?
Last time we saw that reliable signaling ("coins of the realm") enable modern systems like governments, and that asymmetrical control over these is empowering. See Foucault for more in that vein. Now let's look at the effect of Cynical debasement these coins of the realm.

The power that is inherent to signaling can be co-opted by clever individuals. Probably anyone could create a so-called "mortgage-backed security" that was bound to fail, but to then get it blessed by a ratings agency is a work of Cynical art [1]. Speaking of art, Marcel Duchamps' The Fountain, poked the very notion of art (a social convention-type signal) in the eye with a sharp stick by entering a urinal in an exhibition. This is not only Cynical, it's a nod to the original Cynics and their habits. Modern epistemological challenges to the notion of art have successfully debased the traditional meaning beyond recognition.

My hometown of Pinckneyville, Illionois is famous for basketball. One story, as I received it, is that back during the glory days, the P'ville team had a strategy that drove opposing fans nuts. Late in the game, if they managed to get ahead a few points, in order to prevent the other team from evening the score, the five players would stand at the edge of the court, arms out-stretched over the out-of-bounds and pass the ball back and forth. This way, the opposing team couldn't get to the ball without fouling, and meanwhile the clock ticked down to a Panther's victory. Of course, this debases the meaning of "basketball game" to something silly, and new rules eventually put a stop to it. But it won a lot of games in the meantime.

Or take patent law. The sub-reddit /r/nottheonion accumulates stories that seem to be parodies but aren't--a good marker for Cynicism. One link there today is [US Patent Office Grants 'Photography Against A White Background' Patent To Amazon]. This is a case of Mutually Assured Derision, as big companies try to patent everything they do (no matter how trivial), so another company doesn't get there first and sue them. This ongoing Cynical destruction of the idea of intellectual property may finally end when no manufacturing or services are any longer possible, and the only business of the country is patent arbitration. You'll pass a friend on the street and think "Hello, how are you?" but are unwilling to pay the licensing fee, so you pass in silence.

You see the possibilities? What kind of general do you want leading your army--one who abides by the conventions of war (McClellen) or one that bends, breaks, spindles, folds, and mutilates them in order to get what they want (Lee, Jackson, Sherman)? What kind of lawyer do you want? What sort of lobbyist? What sort of CEO?

Cynicism as I have described it so far is an amoral strategy--it doesn't come pre-packaged with values. Driving down the wrong side of the road to make a point is evil. Finding a way to get out of a traffic ticket is good. That discussion will be deferred until we talk about signals that are internal to our own minds.

Cynicism is a powerful tool, and its better to have the Cynics on your side than the other side. This is where the liberal arts (finally, you say) comes in. There is a simple-minded perception that studying things like art and music and literature (and math and science are liberal arts too) are somehow useless. The contrast is made between such frivolities and "gaining the skills to get a good job." This is a dangerous viewpoint. Cynicism is fermented in the liberal arts--you can tell by all the alcohol consumed in those departments. It's dangerous stuff, and you aren't going to get it from "skills training," but by rubbing your nose in things that you disagree with, that keep you up at night wondering if you've gone mad. Because then you have a chance at seeing through convention and understanding that the whole thing's a put-on like the Wizard in Oz. If you put your hands on that font of signal, it is power.

Steve Jobs put a nice spin on it, taming the Cynics for a speech where their rudeness wouldn't be welcome:

In [Part Five] we begin to look inside as well as out.


[1] Lewis, Michael. The big short: Inside the doomsday machine. WW Norton & Company, 2011.

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