Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From

I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Unexpectedly, the book connected with a lot of my reading from a recent seminar called Queer Indigestion and the University. Thierry Bardini’s Junkware was the first text that I thought of when I read Johnson’s notion that good ideas are composed of spare parts: “Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients” (Johnson 42). He uses an example from Stephen Jay Gould, who praises the ingenuity of sandals made from old tires. Johnson refers to Gould later because of his concept of exaptation, a concept in evolutionary biology where a trait developed for a specific purpose is re-purposed for a different function. Gould himself “exapts” the ‘tire sandals,’ translating it to nature: “The tire-to-sandals principle [. . .] [makes] nature as inventive as the cleverest person who ever pondered the potential of a junkyard in Nairobi” (Gould qtd. in Johnson 29). Johnson will refer several times to the innovative power of recycling. Brent Constanz, for instance, in his project to grow coral reef that may eventually result in material for cities, discovered a new way to use excess CO2 from factories. We consider CO2 as “waste,” but through innovative thinking it becomes useful again. This may be one issue with Bardini’s narrow definition of junk, which he wants to distinguish from forms of garbage, waste and trash for (admirably) semantic reasons. He tries to describe junk as something that retains some of its affect (whereas trash, garbage, and waste, we just want out of sight, out of mind). This affect gives us “hope” in junk and possibly a “redemption,” language he draws from Phillip K. Dick’s SF Gnosticism. Toward the end of the text, he further generalizes: “junk is always the present potentiality of a renewed function” (Bardin 213).

 Either Johnson is not careful enough in his distinctions, or Bardini’s distinctions earlier in the text fall apart right here. Should we think junk as a renewed function in the sense that its initial function returns? I do not think Bardini means it in this sense, since he also wants to speak of “spare parts,” but in more ‘organic’ terms, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s Bodies without Organs. He uses the term Organs without bodies. Bardini cites the Tissue Culture and Art Project as claiming that their work is about “producing spare body parts” (204). Both of the texts seem to point toward innovation, but Johnson’s concept of “platforms” takes us out of the rhetoric of redemption/salvation. At the same time, we have to recognize that while Johnson’s work succeeds at discussing innovation, it rarely touches on the difficult subject of ethics of innovations and technology. Thus, Johnson avoids any discussion of the ethical consequences of “good ideas.” This is a limitation of Johnson’s book that should be acknowledged, but not harped on. Johnson hints at political and organizational concerns, but never directly addresses them, as it is not the thesis of his book. So, in a sense, perhaps it is disingenuous of me to compare Johnson and Bardini’s work.

Yet, we may want to look at one more moment in Johnson’s text that intersects with Bardini. Junkware begins with a historical narrative of Crick and Watson’s discovery of the Central Dogma. Bardini points out that a lot of the decisions made concerning the Dogma was made outside of the laboratory, in letters and informal meetings. In our course, we were a bit surprised by this and poked fun at the kind of arbitrary decisions made. Johnson offers a slightly alternative reading, where he shows how Watson and Crick’s tinkering and combining different disciplines led to their theories of DNA (Johnson 168-69). Bardini admits that Watson and Crick’s Central Dogma was useful at one time, but eventually grew into an actual dogma that limited possibilities of research (Bardini 211). Thus, the issue for Bardini is not the innovation/idea itself, but rather its rigidity and its ability to exclude work that, we have since learned, is less “counter-productive” than W&C initially had thought. How would we understand Watson and Crick’s work in Johnson’s terms of platforming?

Johnson modifies the basic Kuhnian paradigm structure, arguing that “modern scientific paradigms are rarely overthrown. Instead, they are built upon. They create a platform that supports new paradigms above them,” such as the molecular genetics revolution triggered by Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA (190). Although Johnson is clearly right here, he does not take into account that the way Watson and Crick defined what was “useful” and what was “garbage” within the DNA would marginalize certain research as invalid or, frankly, crazy. Perhaps Johnson would explain this phenomenon in terms of the concept of the adjacent possible? Bardini refers to one of the (now) famous Barbara McCintock, who was dismissed early in her career but eventually won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps Johnson would argue that McClintock’s ideas could not flourish in the early environment. But maybe it was because of Watson and Crick’s Dogma that they closed off the adjacent possible.

We may be able to see such definitions/dogmas of Watson and Crick as an elimination of “commons.” By calling most of DNA “junk” or “garbage,” actually get a very politically charged conception of human body where there are “productive” genes (‘coding’) and parasitic genes that have little function and just sort of ‘tag along’. I am struck by the similarity of this to the dominant trend in thinking that there are job “creators” and then there the people who depend on these job creators for their livelihoods. The 99% sucking off the 1% etc.

Perhaps the most relevant work on the problem of the “commons” is elucidated by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth. The “commons” is neither private nor public, but autonomous from both. Indeed, the commons goes beyond the idea of “property” and so even “public property” is still in some sense “private” compared to the openness of the commons (Hardt and Negri 282). “The common” and what Hardt and Negri, following Foucault, call biopolitical production create surplus value, but are not subject to the logic of scarcity:

Biopolitical production puts bios to work without consuming it. Furthermore, its product is not exclusive. When I share an idea or image with you, my capacity to think with it is not lessened; on the contrary, our exchange of ideas and images increases my capacities. (283-284)

This new “social sensorium” is what much labor (at least in the United States) now works towards. We need to start thinking the commons because the internet has allowed for increased and productive circulation of ideas and images. It is through the free circulation of ideas and tools that innovation comes about.

Indeed, since ideas and imagesdo not operate on the logic of scarcity, we have to construct artificial barriers that protects them from circulation. Stephen Johnson writes that, although efficiency tends to be the goal of every economy, and economy that “traffic[s] in ideas”  must build inefficient markets:

And so where innovation is concerned, we have deliberately built inefficient markets: environments that protect copyrights and patents and trade secrets and a thousand other barricades we’ve erected to keep promising ideas out of the minds of others. (232)

Of course, ideally, there is one place where ideas should circulate freely: the university. The modern research university, argues Johnson, participates in “fourth quadrant” research; that is, it is decentralized and nonmarket driven. Of course, as many writes have recently pointed out, markets have taken over funding for research and many people consider the Humanities type of research (what Christopher Newfield refers to as “cultural knowledge”) as useless. So, in one sense, the University may be in danger of becoming a market-driven institution. But, again, ideally, university research goes like this: “new ideas are published with the deliberate goal of allowing other participants to refine and build upon them, with no restrictions on their circulation beyond the proper acknowledgment of their origin” (Johnson 233).

Johnson and Hardt and Negri, I think, are actually remarkably close in what they seem to be arguing for, even though Johnson is less extreme. Johnson admits that there is no “ready-made political vocabulary for the fourth quadrant, particularly the noninstitutional forms of collaboration that have developed around the open-source community” (235). I would suggest that this type of thinking may correspond to what Hardt and Negri calls “the multitude.”

Both Hardt and Negri see the concept of the city and the metropolis as a key requirement for what Hardt and Negri call “biopolitical production” and what Johnson calls simply “good ideas.” The city, also, is the location of the political collective Hardt and Negri call the multitude: “The metropolis is the site of biopolitical production because it is the space of the common, of people living together, sharing resources, communicating, exchanging goods and ideas [. . .] The metropolis is a factory for the production of the common” (250). For Hardt and Negri, the city is important because it fosters “unpredictable encounters,” the task of which is to transform “conflictive encounters” into “joyful and productive ones” (252-255). This focus on encounter and collisions corresponds with Johnson’s idea of ‘collisions’: “Collisions [lead to creativity]—the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space” (Johnson 163).

But Johnson argues that the idea of the ‘commons’ is limited for two reasons. First, he notes that it is conventionally used in “opposition to the competitive struggle of the marketplace” and innovation environments are not necessarily hostile to market competition (244). I think Hardt and Negri would respond that biopolitical production is, rather than ‘hostile’, simply overflowing the market. That is, it creates surplus value that is difficult for capital to appropriate and hold onto: “Cognitive labor and affective labor generally produce cooperation autonomously from capitalist command” (140). The second limit Johnson points out is that the commons (which, admittedly, maybe this is different from the “common” without an ‘s’)

doesn’t suggest the patterns of recycling and exaptation and recombination that define so many innovation spaces. When you think of the commons, you think of a cleared field dominate by a single resource for grazing. You don’t think of an ecosystem. The commons is a monocrop grassland, not a tangled bank (244)

Indeed, Johnson argues for a metaphor ‘drawn from nature’ that more explicitly recalls an ecosystem. I think both Johnson and Hardt and Negri are trying to go beyond a state-controlled socialism or capitalism. Both are interested in a careful balance between order and chaos and both believe that creativity and innovation stem from decentralized, non-hierarchal aggregates that allows a free flow of ideas. It’s possible that Hardt and Negri have a larger task, as they are seeking to think of a new way of governance. Johnson, too, however, points to the possibility that the ideas he identifies toward innovation should be applied to government, but in a different way.

Hardt and Negri argue that revolutionary institutions must be

1.) Based in conflict

2.) create their own forms of habits and practices

3.) open-ended, susceptible to change give the singularities that make it up

They go on to say that this form of institution can be derived through the metaphor of network in cybernetics (357-358). 

However, I think Hardt and Negri, although attuned to the environment of the metropolis, lack discussion of how we are related to other beings besides other humans. Johnson's metaphor of the "coral reef," which emphasizes recycling and sustainability as well as innovation and 'common' spaces I think is a powerful addition to Hardt and Negri's book. Rarely is what we typically call "nature" introduced into Hardt and Negri's discourse. The only except is the Wasp and Orchid, uh, 'parable' if you allow the misnomer:

Wasps who love orchids, instead, point toward the conditions of the biopolitical economy. How could these wasps be a model for economic production, you might ask, when they don't produce anything? The bees and flowers produce honey and fruit, but the wasps and orchids are just hedonists and aesthetes, merely creating pleasure and beauty. It is true that the interaction of wasps and orchids does not result primarily in material goods, but one should not discount their immaterial production. In the encounter of singularies of their love, a new assemblage is created marked by the continual metamorphosis of each singularity in common. Wasp-orchid love, in other words, is a model fo the production of subjectivity that animates the biopolitical economy. (188)
Perhaps it would be prudent here to at least note the difference of Johnson's project and Hardt and Negri's. Hardt and Negri are trying to elucidate a theory of radical institutions and governance that would produce new subjectivities. Johnson, however, is simply trying to think about how innovation happens and what we can do to foster it. Both, again, are focusing on the creative potential of the overflow of ideas in a kind of "commons," but Hardt and Negri clearly lay out a political project.

I think what Johnson can add to the conversation is language focusing on environment, recycling, and sustainability that spurs on innovation and creativity. Bardini's definition of "junk" also helps this project. Maybe the important aspect is in realizing that institutions do not only have to exist to preserve the status quo, but that institutions can be creative in a similar way that technologies and "platforms" are created.

I am not sure if any of these connections matter, but, as Johnson recommends, I am simply trying to write it all down. It's just a slow hunch, albeit poorly defined.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A long drive with Zizek

Over thanksgiving break, I had to drive for 8 hours to and from Asheville, NC. During that time, rather than singing loudly to music, I decided to listen to various lectures and podcasts I had downloaded. Although I listened to many episodes of Entitled Opinions, a podcast from Robert Harrison at Stanford, the most enlightening thing I listened to was various recorded lectures from Slavoj Zizek.

A long time ago, I read a couple of Zizek's books and have been following recordings of his work online since college. Zizek is generally considered a legitimate "authority" in my current institution on literary theory, politics, and philosophy. His arguments and readings of texts are interesting and clear. But more importantly, he is simply a blast to listen to while driving.  When describing my activities in my car, I would say I was listening to "Father Zizek's sermons" because it is really like listening to a preacher. He has even described himself as "dogmatic." Of course, I am aware of the ironies in designating him "Father" Zizek. For one, as a Lacanian, "father" recalls the Name of the Father and the symbolic order. While Zizek is a brilliant reader of the symbolic order (the various texts, films, and more often than not, jokes), many consider him as the one that has done the most to elucidate Lacan's Real.

But I'm less interested in pondering the Real as traumatic event. As a nascent rhetoric and composition scholar and a graduate instructor, I began to focus on how Zizek makes his arguments. Interestingly enough, I found that Zizek uses the very basic device I was teaching my students (although in a very unique way): "Most people read this/think this as x, but I am going to argue that it is really y." Indeed, he tends to take a "common sense" way of thinking and turns it on its head. I am aware that this is not unique to Zizek, but it screamed out at me that this was the main thing he was doing.  Some examples are in order.

Instead of Dostoevesky's "If there is no God, everything is permitted" (although in an interesting digression he indicates when this famous quote was attributed to Dostoevesky), he argues that "If there is a God, then everything is permitted." He begins with this simple transformation and proceeds to draw implications from this. If I remember correctly, related to this statement, he argues that while most people see Christianity as a restrictive, moralistic, joyless religion and paganism as the religion of enjoyment, it is really the opposite.

Zizek points out that by taking into account that we all we meet with his death at the end, paganism is shot through with knowledge of death and decay. In contrast, Christianity allows us to enjoy life with the knowledge that there is eternity--you don't have to worry about death. If Christ has died on the cross for our sins, he has taken the "price" of death, decay, and sin upon himself, so that sin becomes possible. If you are a believer, you put all of the debt on Christ/God himself and then you are free to enjoy.

Zizek makes a very convincing case for this latter position. Surprisingly, Zizek admires certain aspects of Christianity. The essence of Christianity as the death of god "for himself," is the killing of God as the "big Other." According to Zizek's reading, it is God saying, "ok, now you are by yourselves." There is no big Other to judge us, but we must work out our own salvation, in fear and trembling.

My own personal realization comes from thinking about the nature of this big Other. For Lacan, the point is to realize that there is no big Other. The problem is thatwe think there is a big Other figured as maybe "society"  that wants something from us. In the psychoanalytic situation, the analyst plays this role of the fantasy big Other. We think that the analyst is looking for something--as if he was a torturer that wants to bring out the truth. We may go in and say "you probably want me to talk about my mother, but the problem really isn't my mother--you psychoanalysts are all the same." This is why Lacan thinks that the analyst needs to be silent. The analysand  thinks the analyst as this big Other that wants something from him or her.

This is why psychoanalysis aims at its own termination. The analysis is over when the analysand no longer needs the analyst. The analysis is over when the analysand understands that the analyst does not want anything from him.

So why am I going on about the big Other? Because I must confess that I feel like I certainly still believe in a big Other that somehow will judge my actions in reference to some truth or in reference to what that Other wants. Allow me to digress here to another article I was reading concerning art and politics. In the book Tactical Biopolitics,Claire Pentecost tells  how she is bothered by her students' declarations that they do not want their work to become "too political" or "too didactic." Political is like a dirty word for artists. Why?

According to Pentecost, to be political is to have a common opinion, an opinion that is not "one's own." Earlier in her article (or maybe it was another one in that book, I forgot), she talks about the current "rhetoric of the personal." We tend to think about opinions as my opinion. I have an opinion, I have a position. Art, however, tends to be more ambiguous, not necessarily taking a definite position or an opinion. If I remember correctly,  Deleuze and Guattari say in What is Philosophy, "art does not have an opinion." Artists want their work to be somehow unique.

I bring this up because this relates to "my" big Other (it is not really 'my' big other), a call of conscience that speaks from god knows where. Perhaps a "call of conscience" is not quite correct here. Perhaps a better way of saying it is a "devil's advocate" reaction. It is the knee jerk reaction to question whatever position is presented to me, be it liberal, Marxist, or conservative--I seek its flaws whenever presented. If a conservative speaks to me, I present the liberal argument and vice-versa.

An example: I would like to think that given my own generally liberal position (or at least a position that I'd like to believe I take), I would be unequivocally in support of Occupy Wall Street, which paints a certain part of the population (rich corporate executives) as the problem. Now, I tend to think that to claim that the occupiers are engaging in "class warfare" is a bit ridiculous, but I still have the conviction that it is a bit more complicated than the protesters make it. I still have this knee jerk reaction to defend the 1% as those who are probably decent people just trying to make a living and love their family.

Now we are getting to the crux of the problem: the distinction between interpersonal relations and how those people function in society given their roles of power and privilege. It's the idea that if we could only "understand" those people,  if we could "get their side of the story."we could excuse their acts  Zizek thinks this is problematic because the "stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" are always flawed and we are always going to put ourselves in a positive light. The point is that we can't understand everyone completely--that there remains some "radical other" within ourselves that we cannot know. In order to show that this is false, Zizek uses extreme cases: would we say that if only we understood Hitler he would not have done what he did or we could understand what he did? Most of us would say no.

So here we must speak of preserving the otherness of the other. Perhaps this is the only way we can avoid meaningless relativism and absurd justification.

At the same time, we cannot merely dismiss someone like Hitler as a "monster" or some sort of Force of Evil (nor can or should we do to the same to George Bush, President Obama, whoever the media wants to compare to Hitler these days). The terrifying part is that we are all possibly "monstrous" but not in a sublime, transcendent sense, but in the very way we allow ourselves to be part of a system of extermination. This is precisely the point of realizing our non-innocence in what we would call "monstrous" acts in the world. Pretending that we could ever "understand" this, as if it is merely a question of something we would say, only perpetuates a world where we seek to justify our acts rather than a world of responsibility.

And this is really what ethics comes down to: responsibility. The responsibility for our actions, for our words, and not only for "our own," but others as well.  In a world where our slightest action has an indirect but potent effect on others--in a globalized and networked world--we are responsible for more and more even if it is easier and easier to hide it.