Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bryant Watch: Egocentric R’ We, Repressive Desublimation, Toil and Trouble

Before I get to egocentricity—which I use in Piaget’s sense of the term—I want to look at Bryant’s post on his current comment policy:
Some of you have been complaining about your comments not being posted. My comment policy is simple: if your comments are rude, sarcastic, snarky, accusational, or insulting they don’t get posted. It has nothing to do with not tolerating disagreement. If you poke around the blog you’ll find plenty of disagreements, often very heated. It has everything to do with incivility.
Bollocks!—which, of course, is the kind of rude incivility Bryant forbids at his site.

He’s right about disagreement, there’s lots of it in his comments. But it’s disagreement within a carefully circumscribed orbit. While Bryant has a right, as does any thinker, to insist that criticism be informed and germane, so much of what he says is sloppy, incoherent, and flat out wrong that his post is self-serving nonsense, especially where Bryant accuses his critics of being boys and “masculinist, ape-like, asshole[s].”

Now to the interesting stuff.

Egocentricity in the Piagetian Sense

Yesterday Bryant had a post on networks, a subject I know something about. It’s incoherent and incompetent. But it’s also egocentric, and that’s what interests me.

When Piaget talks of the child being egocentric he isn’t asserting that the child is selfish, not at all. He’s saying that the child is a prisoner of his her own point of view. She can’t see the world as others do and so, in communicating with others, fails to take their viewpoint into account.

In this sense egocentricity is not an all or nothing affair. It comes in layers and varieties. As the child matures she sheds egocentricity after egocentricity. But even as adults most of us are egocentric in the sense of being ethnocentric; we look at the world from the standpoint of our own culture but are (relatively) blind to other cultures. Moving beyond egocentricity is not a matter of will or good intentions. It’s a matter of learning.

Any serious thinker will almost inevitably be egocentric at the outermost reaches of their thinking. It’s all you can do to formulate any idea at all, much less communicate the idea to others. The only way to move out of this egocentric well, this black hole of unawareness, is to get your work out there and see how others react to it. That’s why you pass your work before friends and colleagues before sending it off to be published.

Sure, it’s nice to have them catch typos, spelling errors, and infelicities of expression. But you really want to know whether they can understand you at all. If not, what doesn’t make sense? Maybe the idea’s wrong, or maybe you’re just trapped inside it and haven’t figured out how to convey it to someone else.

Bryant’s comment policy, alas, seems to be to insist that people step inside his bubble. He’ll argue with you there, but he’ll not consider the possibility that it IS a bubble and that he’s babbling nonsense.

The Egocentric Philosopher

The first thing you see in Bryant’s networks post is this diagram at the upper right, though he doesn’t comment on it immediately:


Those, obviously, are networks. The mathematical study of networks is quite sophisticated. It’s a branch of topology known as graph theory.


Look at those diagrams and imagine that, instead of lines drawn on a monitor, they are threads that are knotted together with beads at the free ends of threads having only one connected end. Pick up one of these networks, toss it in the air, and let if fall. Chances are pretty good that when it lands the pattern it makes will be quite different from the one it has in the diagram. That is to say, it will have a different geometry. But its topological structure, its connectivity will be the same. Free ends will still be free and ends tied to other threads will still be tied to those same other threads.

That’s why we study networks, to study patterns of connectivity. As a mathematical discipline, details matter. If you don’t get the details right, then there’s no point in talking about networks. Bryant consistently gets the details wrong, when he doesn’t just flat-out ignore them.

That’s why his networks post is mostly nonsense. Or rather, the networks aspect is nonsense; the rest is standard-issue Bryant.

Bryant announces his theme as politics and power:
Networks won’t save us, nor will assemblages. Sometimes we contrast networks and hierarchies in value-laden terms. “Networks good, hierarchies bad!” But like any ontological truth, networks are just what there is. Sadly networks have their hierarchies. There are only networks, but they too have their inequalities, their forms of oppression.
Well, OK. The trouble doesn’t start until the next paragraph, where he starts to explain what he’s up to:
In a network, power is called a “hub”. A hub is a point through which a variety of other points in a network must pass to act. Think of airports. You live in a rural region. If you live in a rural region you must travel to this city and then fly to this city in order to get a flight to another city in, say, Europe like London or Paris. That’s a hub. A point of passage.
The first sentence is a definition. It’s a little vague, but let’s see what Bryant does with it.

What he does is to immediately talk nonsense. The points in a network, that is to say the nodes (a term he uses a bit later) do not pass through one another. The nodes are fixed in place; that is, their relationships with other nodes are fixed. If the network represents a map, and thus the nodes are cities and towns, we can say that George, for example, must pass through Philadelphia on his way from New York City to Baltimore. But it would be nonsense to say that New York City (a point, a node) passes through Philadelphia (another point) on the way to Baltimore (still another point). And yet that’s just what Bryant said: “A hub is a point through which a variety of other points in a network must pass...”

He then gives an example, that of an airport. And that IS a very good example of a hub in a network; “hub” is even the term airlines use to designate key airports/cities in their network of routes. The notion of airline hubs is thus likely to be familiar to most of Bryant’s readers. And that’s a good rhetorical strategy: explain something new to the reader in terms of something they’re already familiar with.

Thus most of Bryant’s readers are likely to have little or no difficulty in understanding the passage I’ve just quoted. Why? Because they’re quite familiar with airline route patterns. They’ve flown several or many times and have looked at route maps in the back of on-flight magazines. People will skip over the blunder I’ve just pointed out because they know perfectly well that New York doesn’t pass through Philly on the way to Baltimore; it’s the traveler who does the passing. Bryant knows this too.

Imagine, however, that you don’t know what airline routes are like and you’ve never encountered the term “hub” in that context. In that situation, what’s that passage mean? As it unfolds Bryant says that “if you live in a rural region you must travel to this city and then fly to this city in order to get a flight to another city...” That says that if you live in CityA and you want to travel to CityQ you must first travel to CityG and then to CityM. THAT’s a hub. Which one? CityQ, CityG, or both?

Now, try to trace such a path in one of the diagrams Bryant has given you. The path he’s described involves four nodes in a chain. You can easily trace such a path in the right-most diagram, which shows a distributed graph, but doesn’t contain any hubs and doesn’t look like an airline route map. You can also trace such a path in the middle diagram, which does look rather like a route map, one with seven hubs. I can say this because I already know what a route map looks like. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t understand what Bryant is saying.

That’s the sense in which he is being egocentric. He assumes the reader knows what he’s saying. And what he’s saying in this post is mostly about power and politics and it’s pretty much what he’s been saying for the last several months or a year. If you’ve been following his blog you already know the power/politics stuff. The material on networks is at best irrelevant and at worst noise. It conveys nothing about power and politics or, for that matter, about networks, which remain a mystery to Bryant. But if you’ve not been following Bryant’s thought but know something about networks, well then, the network stuff is going to leave you stumped, because it’s gibberish.

Let’s consider another brief passage, which is about centralized networks (the diagram at the left):
A centralized network is what we now critique as “transcendent”. It was always a network, never a genuine transcendence (as in the case of Plato or theism), and never fully successful. These networks were the medieval “great chains of being”, the Oedipus, patriarchy, and more recently systems of party politics or the Stalinist state-form. They were machines that required all other nodes in an assemble to pass through one point: God, the king, the father, the dictator, the president, or the party.
On the one hand, the reader of Bryant’s work knows pretty much what he’s saying about Plato, Oedipus, Stalinism, etc. But that really has little to do with the diagram at the left. If you think that the diagram IS important, then in every case you want to know exactly what the nodes represent.

Bryant doesn't say. So you have to guess. Or, since guessing implies that Bryant knows, but isn't telling, you have to formulate your own correspondence and see if it makes sense. For Bryant obviously hasn't gotten that far in his own thinking,  or, if he has, he's playing coy games.

Let’s say that the central node represents Stalin, or the Soviet dictator of the moment. What do the other nodes represent? Individual citizens? If so, what about the whole state and party apparatus and all the officials between ordinary citizens and the dictator? Where are they in the diagram? Or do the other nodes in that diagram just represent Stalin’s direct reports? If so, what about everyone else? And what about the fact that there’s more to political power than the explicit and overt structure of bureaucratic officialdom?

If you want the mathematical precision of network models—which is really the only reason for using them—then those nit-picky questions aren’t nitpicky. They’re essential. They’re what the model is about. If you don’t care about such details, well then you’re just using networks as a vague metaphor.

But I don’t see the point of the metaphor because it really isn’t doing any useful intellectual work. It’s obfuscatory nonsense. It’s pretentious scientism.

Repressive Desublimation and Bryant’s War Against Science

It’s also a cognitive analogue to what Herbert Marcuse called repressive desublimation. According to the Wikipedia
Repressive desublimation is a term first coined by philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse in his work One Dimensional Man that refers to the way - in his words - in advanced capitalism “sexuality is liberated (or rather liberalized) in socially constructive forms” so as to serve, rather than to challenge, forms of social control. Rather than acting against the social order (as the repressive hypothesis would suggest), sexual liberation was thus co-opted to support the repressive order, through the undoing of sublimations and the release of pleasure in socially approved forms.
Whatever Bryant’s views on sexuality, or his practice for that matter, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about his intellectual practice and I  am asserting that it has a rhetorical dynamics which is similar in form to the sexual desublimation Marcuse describes.

What Bryant is “desublimating” is science and mathematics. He’s desublimating them by using scientific and mathematical terms so as to give the appearance that he’s dealing with science and math in a serious way. He thus burnishes his materialist and naturalist credentials by giving the appearance of coming to grips with 20th Century thinking about, among other things, the nonhuman world. But he uses only the terms, not the ideas. His treatment of such central ideas as entropy and complexity is so lax as to amount to a repudiation of those ideas. He adopts the terminology as a defense against the ideas themselves.

Thus when, in Fighting Words, Bryant indicts Continental philosophy for its “rejection of naturalism” he is indicting himself: “Rather than choosing nature–which is to say materiality and efficient causation–as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution.” Bryant’s philosophy is a tissue of obscurantist gestures in which terms from mathematics and science are mixed with terms from Continental philosophy into a bricolage of grand sounding gibberish.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
This is no way to make a revolution in philosophy. Were he a better writer, Bryant might write interesting fiction. Fiction need not be true in the common sense of the word, but it must be coherent and sensible. Bryant’s philosophy is neither. It’s little more than a desperate word game.


  1. This is a very powerfully argued post, and it goes well with my general argument that OOOxians are concept-blind, using as you say "the terminology as a defense against the ideas themselves". Hence the need to find the magic word that protects him from all danger of real intellectual criticism. First it is objects, and now it is machines. And people who insist on critically discussing ideas are called "masculinist, ape-like, ass-holes", "boys" that "behave like obnoxious, insulting idiots". What is interesting and distressing about this response is that there is nothing philosophical about it, it as if Bryant the man (or rather the "boy") has taken the reins from Bryant the philosopher and given vent to his juvenile resentment on what tries usually to be a philosophical blog.
    I think Bryant is lacking in emtional and intellectual maturity and has trouble dealing with it when he comes across it in others. Consensual debate as you point out is a very limited form of exchange, and not the least because it limits not only the degree of divergence over the content, but also of the rhetorical form. I simply do not express myself like Bryant and any surface "incivilty" that he might perceive in my style is totally perfused by concepts and arguments. And I am not an isolated case. The point is that a critic of Bryant may well have their basic responses for and against things saturated by their philosophy. That is to say that their reaction will not necessarily be "right", we all make mistakes and lots of them, but it will be philosophical (and so philosophically corrigible if it is mistaken).
    This is why I say that Bryant is "immature": his reactions reveal the unreconstructed empirical drive dominating the philosopher. This is not just the case in his reply to critics but also in his enthusiasms for "machines" and "networks" and "naturalism" etc. When he says "you are all ape-like ass-holes" -as you well know Bill because you have analysed the vacuity of Bryant's metaphors, this is the worst sort of emotionally_tinged mixed metaphor. What would an "ape-like ass-hole" look like? An ass-hole in the form of a gorilla? As in his use of the jargon of networks to talk about nodes passing through other nodes Bryant's emotivity dominates his cognitivity and he talks nonsense.
    You have traversed a very long path of emotional and conceptual work as have I, and it should be respected. We are not to be summoned to be in the posture of wide-eyed acolytes with only minor differences to express or be consigned to the company of bullies and louts. This is a very immature reaction in Kant's sense: Bryant cannot accept, cannot handle, cannot relate to intellectual autonomy. Faced with a mature reaction, in this sense of "mature" (the free use of our intellective powers) he regresses, he calls his critics "masulinist, ape-like assholes", he falls under the power of his drives. This is why I think your use of the concept of "represssive desublimation" is spot on. Despite its promises there is no liberation and no maturity to be found in Bryant's philosophy.

    1. I fear you're right, Terry, about Bryant's emotional and intellectual maturity. When I read his blog I get the impression of a long drawn-out train wreck. Whatever he may be as a private individual, as a professional intellectual being he's falling apart.

      We all have our deeply personal reasons for our intellectual pursuits, reasons that are often beneath language and, to the extent that they can be verbalized, that verbalization is not for public presentation. We sublimate and transform these reasons into proper intellectual "engines," if you will. In Bryant this defense structure seems to be leaking very badly.

      He's playing the role of grand seignior and he has neither the intellectual heft nor the personal maturity to do so. In post after post he presumes to explain a techical subject, like networks or entropy, to the uninitiated, when in fact his explanation is an attempt to explain the subject to himself. But he can't admit that. So he puts up a facade and crumbles behind it.

      It's distressing to witness.