Tuesday, October 25, 2011

David Mamet on Culture and Society

David Mamet, in The Secret Knowledge, makes several points about culture relevant to the ongoing discussion.

"Culture predates society, as it evolves before consciousness" (11).

"the evolution of a culture takes place not through the disappearance of those lacking a beneficial adaptation and the interbreeding of its possessors, but through imitation" (11).

"cultural adaptations predate and are the basis for that more conscious, more sophisticated agglomeration called society, which might be said to be the appurtenances growing out of culture" (12).

He points out that culture allows those within the culture to be able to better predict the actions of fellow members of that culture (11-12). Of course, the same can be said of the emergent properties of the catallaxy as well. But these are two different levels of predictability: the smaller culture vs. the larger society. We are sometimes confused at the differences from one culture to the next at how people conduct business, then discover that cultural differences explain the differences.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What If Theatres Played Moneyball?

What if theatres played moneyball? An excellent question. How might theatres use economics to become better at what they do? I may have some more ideas on this after this weekend's conference, where I will be getting feedback on my paper "The Theater of Tensions," which discusses theaters as institutions on the borderlands of the economic, artistic, philanthropic, and democratic orders.

Yes, Culture is a Base

I will stick with Dario Fernandez-Morera’s numbering in response.

1.& 2. From my readings of cultural criticism, it is in fact culture as I have defined it which is being discussed rather than “society.” You are correct that in a sense “Culture is the new “base” because it underlies all else” while “All else is superstructure.” I do believe that is an accurate description of reality. In that sense, the move from the “relations of production” to culture is a welcome move, as it more accurately represents reality (it is historically wrong and patently absurd to assume “relations of production” are primary, while all anthropological evidence does show culture to be primary). However, I would disagree that that means that if we “Get the culture right and other things can be explained, including the economy.” The so-called superstructures all have their own emergent realities which can and need to be explained in their own terms. The task of pure economics is to understand the self-organizing emergent process known as the economy. However, as Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright try to make clear in Culture and Enterprise, cultural studies can help us understand some of the differing details. And, more, if those doing cultural studies understood economic, that would improve their work as well. Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright are interested in the two disciplines learning from each other, having the work of each inform the other.

3. It may seem obvious once pointed out, that saying “provides information for the action of entrepreneurs is simply a reformulation, and not a very ingenious one, of the obvious, pointed out by Mises and others: the entrepreneur looks for the most favorable conditions he can find that justify his actions,” but it was not obvious at the time that Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright wrote Culture and Enterprise (2000). From the point of view of understanding economic actions – from the point of view of doing science, in other words – we do need to understand all of the elements involved in entrepreneurial discovery. If those studying entrepreneurship have not taken cultural elements into consideration, their scientific understanding is not as rich as it could be. More, as L & C-W point out, the very nature of entrepreneurship is affected by culture. They give the examples of the differences among American, Chinese, and Japanese entrepreneurs, pointing out that both American and Chinese entrepreneurs are more individualistic than are Japanese entrepreneurs, and the Chinese are, in addition, more nepotistic. The Japanese would prefer to work in large companies together in a company which treats them like family, and are more likely to be entrepreneurial in that context. The Chinese prefer not to work for anyone, but would rather work for themselves and hire family. I am grossly oversimplifying their own summary of work done in this area, but it should give an idea of the importance of understanding culture to understand some of the details of business creation, which are bound to have importance in the way people relate to business and interact with and within those businesses. That affects, in turn, the kinds of patterns which will emerge in the spontaneous order of the economy. The little details contribute to our understanding of any particular economy, even as the structural framework of the economy remains essentially the same from economy to economy.

4. I do not disagree that the law of marginal utility applies regardless of culture – or of species (I agree that Mises did not realize how much overlap there is between human and many non-human species in their actions and that therefore many laws of economics can be found in non-human species). However, the law of marginal utility does not apply in trying to sell pork to devout Jews and Muslims, coffee to Mormons, beer to fundamentalist Baptists, dog meat to most Europeans and those of European descent, horse meat to most Americans, or any meat to a vegan. The reason it does not apply in these cases is due to cultural differences. You cannot ignore those cultural differences if you want to understand the economies of the cultures in question. A great example is Lake Turkana, in Kenya. Norway’s developmental agency saw a lake teaming with fish, built a fish processing plant, and saw it fail. Why? Well, it turns out (which this article still manages to miss) that the people who live near the lake think that fishing is such degrading work that they would rather stay poor than fish. To them, only the lowest of the low fish. For us, and obviously for the Norwegians, it makes perfect sense to build a fish processing plant near a lake full of fish, because we think fishing is a perfectly good occupation. However, this well-intended plant is now empty and idle precisely because cultural factors were ignored. This suggests that understanding a culture could tell us precisely where something like marginal utility will necessarily fail.

5. They also fade upon convergence to truth. I hope that’s the case here. :-)

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Problem with Culture 2

The Problem with Culture 2

The well thought out comments from Troy make this interesting.

1. “Culture” is now used in humanities criticism (“cultural criticism”) in the same fashion as “society” or, earlier, “material relations of production” (which “society” replaced as “relations of production” lost its allure in the face of Marxist Leninist societies where learned professors and leaders well versed in Marxist theory–his “German Ideology”--put it in practice). In other words, in this sort of analysis other entities are made to depend on culture; culture rules and so do the practitioners of cultural criticism; all is dependent on culture; all is conditioned by culture, etc. etc.: “Culture underlies all our other social structures including the economy.” Get the culture right and other things can be explained, including the economy. Culture is the new “base” because it underlies all else. All else is the “superstructure” because it is underlied by “culture,” the new base.

2. So the point is not that one cannot make de jure distinctions between culture and society. One can, just as one can make distinctions between culture and civilization. But as Cervantes said, “this matters little for our story.” What matters much for our story is that culture functions de facto for practitioners of cultural criticism the way society, social formations, relations of production, etc. etc. used to function once upon a time (then, by the way, many of the things that constitute “culture” from movies to “material culture”--a desperate way to conflate things here-- used to be part of the superstructure).

3. To say that culture provides information for the action of entrepreneurs is simply a reformulation, and not a very ingenious one, of the obvious, pointed out by Mises and others: the entrepreneur looks for the most favorable conditions he can find that justify his actions (he follows the economic Law of Marginal Utility).
4. But the laws of economics do not depend on culture. They apply regardless of cultural conditions. In this, as in many other things, Mises’ Kung Fu is the strongest. Take, for example, the Law of Marginal Utility again. It applies to farming in Fiji as much as to entrepreneurship in the U.S. The farmer in Fiji who does not watch out for it will be punished by economics as much as the entrepreneur in the U.S. The poor, near starvation person in Somalia, is as subject to it as the crack dealer in Chicago. What changes is not economic law but the means for its application or disregard. That obviously changes, since in Fiji the means include growing mangoes (or whatever it is that they grow in Fiji) and watching for the behavior of insects and making an educated guess on weather conditions, and in the other they might not include mangoes but something else. I would go further than Mises. The laws of economics transcend species. Higher level (this is important because decision making to choose, I repeat, choose, a course of action is needed for human or otherwise thinking action) predators on the African savannahs adhere to the Law of Marginal Utility all the time: the most effective, and therefore best predators, are the best observers of it. My Kangal dog (a guard dog and therefore closer to predation) is very good at it for certain goals (such as scaring potential intruders both human and animal by barking and acting fierce), better than my Bichon Frise (a lap dog), who barks and becomes hysterical indiscriminately when he sees something unusual.

5. We, too, in these fora, are subject to the economics of Human Action: Discussions fade under the impact of the Law of Marginal Utility.

Dario Fernandez-Morera

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Culture and Society

Dario Fernandez-Morera raises an interesting question regarding whether or not there is a distinction between culture and society.

Let's look first at the etymology of the two. "Society" comes from O.Fr. societe, from L. societatem (nom. societas), from socius "companion", and its meaning as a "group of people living together in an ordered community" is from 1630s. "Culture", on the other hand, from M.Fr. culture and directly from L. cultura "a cultivating, agriculture," figuratively "care, culture, an honoring," from pp. stem of colere "tend, guard, cultivate, till". It is related to the word "cult", which is derived from the Fr. culte (17c.), from L. cultus "care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence," originally "tended, cultivated," pp. of colere "to till". As one can see, then, these two words have quite different meanings.

Societies are defined by the patterns of relationships among the people. Cultures are defined by the beliefs, stories, etc. among the people. There can be different cultures and subcultures in a society, but not different societies in a culture. This should give some idea of the relationship between the two. Further, economics is a social science, but it is not a cultural science. Anthropologists study cultures. It is possible to study economics a-culturally (as economists have, mostly, done), to understand it as a social science. But if one is going to understand the details of a particular economy, one has to study the cultural underpinnings of that social organization.

Now, this does not mean that culture is not social. Anthropology is a social science, after all. But culture is but one element of the social. It is an element that gives character to the other elements, that creates the subtle differences in expression among different economies which may otherwise be similar. It is part of society, but it is not identical with society. We can see this in these definitions of culture as

a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time

and society as

a : an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another
b : a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interests

There is certainly overlap in the b definition of society and of culture give above, but the important element is that with culture, it is learned and passed on from generation to generation, which is not necessary for there to be a society. A culture is internalized by the individual members of a society, and that culture informs their actions in many ways. Of course, common culture does help strengthen social bonds, but mere trust is sufficient for that. This goes back to my point that culture in fact underpins society.

So is culture and society two words for the same thing? I think not. I don't doubt that there are many who conflate the two, but these are really two quite different, though related, concepts.

The Problem with "Culture"

This is regarding a number of posts on the importance of "culture" for the application of economics to the humanities. I just want to point out that the word "culture," very fashionable in the academic world of the humanities these days, is a camouflaged or newly dressed "society." "Society," as we know, has been used in the social science approach to a number of disciplines, which are relativized with respect to "society." "Society" thus becomes the basis for examining human phenomena. Of course, this hierarchizing gives the upper hand to social scientists or anyone using social scientist-related approaches. Naturally, this hierarchizing necessarily gives the upper hand to a collectivist view of things, from which spring the various collectivist approaches to understanding human beings and how they act, including our now very old friend, Marxism ("materialism," etc.). Collectivist approaches and those who practice them are thus conferred superiority over anything else being studied. Thus, for example, the economic law of marginal utility might not apply in Papuan society (excuse me, "culture"). This approach is being extended to the understanding of science by many "historians of science," whereby even scientific laws can be made to depend on social formations (excuse me, "culture"). I recommend as a counter to all this Antony Flew's wonderful Thinking About Social Thinking, where one can easily replace the word "society" with our "new" one, "culture."
Dario Fernandez-Morera, author of American Academia and the Survival of Marxist Ideas.

Taking Culture Seriously

it is always possible for some members of society to influence their cultural profoundly. Historically the most influential avenue for the shaping of values has been through "popular culture," the stories, poetry, theatre, and so forth by which fundamental values are imparted. (Don Lavoie and Emily Chamlee-Wright, "Culture and Enterprise," 80)

Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright argue that since culture underlies our other social structures, including the economy, if one is going to have a real impact on the kind of economy we have, one should be writing the culture's stories, poetry, plays, songs, etc. If we leave it to others, we should not be surprised at the outcome. This is a way in which we must take culture seriously.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Culture and the Artist as Entrepreneur

From "Culture and Enterprise" by Don Lavoie and Emily Chamlee-Wright:

Entrepreneurial decision-making is not some sort of pure calculation but a complex reading of the polysemic dialogue of the market. It is necessarily embedded within a cultural context. (72)

Hayek pointed out that entrepreneurs also make use of inarticulate knowledge, perhaps derived from the experience of many years within a particular industry, which enables them to make sense of all the many bits of information available to them. (73)

culture provides a framework of meaning that allows entrepreneurs to make sense of all the various, often conflicting pieces of information. Culture gives shape to the interpretive process that is entrepreneurship. (73)

All the above quotes describe what artists do. Their experience within a particular industry is their familiarity with one's genre. And of course, the works they read or view or hear are done so within a particular cultural context, which affects the creation of the artists' own new works.

The last quote applies to both artists and critics. The artist if of course interpreting within their own cultural context, translating works from their own culture and from others into new works within the culture in which they work. But the critic must also keep in mind that they are in a particular cultural context as well -- a lesson from the best elements of postcolonial theory and cultural criticism. There should be little question the importance of culture to the creation of art and to the understanding of works of art. Like the economy, the spontaneous orders of the arts are embedded in a cultural context, which affects the nature of that order. While spontaneous order gives us a structuralist explanation of artistic production that is necessary to understand artistic production, one can argue that the details of that order require poststructuralist approaches, including the details derived from an intimate understanding of the culture the work was created in. However, culture too has its structures:

culture is a society's collection of meanings which emerges through social interaction, and which allows the individual to interpret her own circumstances. This interpretive process results in patterns of behavior across individuals that we call cultural structures. (67)

So a structuralist approach also underlies the apparent poststructuralism of cultural criticism. And if one wants to go further, and argue that individual interpretations can still give us poststructuralism, one can point to the structuralism of the human mind/brain itself. This does not disprove poststructuralism, but rather points to the fact that the insights of poststructuralism come from the space between structures, rather than from cultural differences. But as in any space between stable structures, between equilibria, if you will, you find a discontinuous, far-from-equilibirum space where creativity takes place. So this place is precisely one we should find of great interest, whether we are artists or critics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Culture is Spillover From Human Action?

It does not make sense to apply the standards of conscious conduct to those unintended consequences of individual action which all the truly social represents, expect by eliminating the unintended---which would mean eliminating all that we call culture. -- F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Vol. 1: Rules and Order, pg. 33

According to Hayek, culture is essentially an unintended consequence of our various actions in our various spontaneous orders. Culture is thus spillover. So, too, is society itself. To try to replace spontaneous orders, then, with a constructed order will thus, as Nietzsche also observed, destroy culture (Nietzsche pointed out that there was an inverse relation between the strength of government and the strength of culture, and he also pointed out that government would not support the kind of education necessary for there to be a strong culture, but would only support the kind of education which would serve the government).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tribute to Steve Jobs

Why in a sense what Keynes mischaracterized Say as saying is right and Keynes is wrong:

A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.

-- Steve Jobs, 1998

This is as true of the arts as of technology. In fact, so is the following:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

The success of the artist of genius, the success of the person with the new idea -- how different are they?

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

R.I.P., Steve Jobs. You are the best example of the best free markets can offer. What you did is what spontaneous orders of all sorts are all about. The artist, the critic, the inventor, the entrepreneur can all learn much from you. Thank you for making our lives better, for making the world a better place.

The Nested Hierarchies of Spontaneous Orders

Larry Arnhart has an excellent post on property rights. Of note is his observation that "the property claims of the [California gold] miners moved through three levels--natural possession, customary rules, and formal laws. This manifests the general structure of Darwinian social order as the joint product of natural desires, cultural practices, and deliberate judgments." This is spontaneous order in a nutshell.

Those wishing to find spontaneous orders at work in literature should thus be on the lookout for expressions of natural desire, the cultural practices/customary rules that emerge from those desires, and the deliberate judgments and even formal laws that arise to solidify or guide those practices and rules. We must also keep in mind that one of the roles of literature is to act as eminent criticism -- judgment -- of those orders represented. And the literary critic acts as eminent critic of those representations and critiques.

The implication here is that our natural desires, including emotions, morals, trade, etc., give rise to spontaneous orders that are critiqued through other spontaneous orders, such as philosophy and literature, that themselves emerge through other natural desires (understanding the world and storytelling-- which overlap -- respectively). Eminent criticism is itself a natural desire, and gives rise to a variety of spontaneous orders, from literature and philosophy to literary criticism and cultural criticism. There is even now metacriticism, the existence of which points to criticism itself now being a spontaneous order. And in identifying metacriticism as the eminent criticism of criticism itself, where does that place such a critique as this? Meta-metacriticism? Or merely another form of metacriticism, only self-referential? I have perhaps outpostmoderned postmodernism!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Empathizing With Shylock, or Sarah Skwire on Shakespeare on Usury

Sarah Skwire is on a roll. Today she has an excellent piece on Shakespeare's attitude toward usury, critiquing a piece by Yaron Brook, “The Morality of Money-lending," or at least what he says about Shylock. I would go a bit further, though, and argue with Frederick Turner (in Shakespeare's 21st Century Economics) that Shakespeare is more generous toward Shylock than we typically imagine (forgetting, as we do, that our moral order is not the same as the one Shakespeare lived in -- and that he helped lay the foundations for our own). Given what Shakespeare knew and did not know, and given the prevailing attitude toward Jews and usury, Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock is in many ways generous and complex. Take for example one of Shylock's most famous speeches:


To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

These harsh lines have Shylock proclaiming, "If I am this way, you made me it; and yet, I am human, like you." He insists on empathy, and to whatever extent Shakespeare could get you to empathize with Shylock, he had humanized him. Even if you want to see revenge on him, he has invited empathy -- by wanting revenge on him, you understand wanting revenge, and you thus understand how he feels. Thus, you empathize with him, and come in on his side, just a bit. In this Shakespeare has done the unimaginable (for the time): made a Jew a sympathetic character. And this matters in Shakespeare's attitude toward usury as well.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sarah Skwire's critique of Valiunis

For a friendly criticism of the Valiunis article I linked to here, read Sarah Skwire's critique on her blog. She raises several valid points in regards to literary analysis. She reminds us that literature is (or ought to be) complex, and thus not easily reducible to simple categories. Which is after all one of the points of doing an Austrian economics analysis of literature rather than the reductionist Marxist one.