Wednesday, May 03, 2006
On the Origin of Interdisciplinarity--a cost/benefit model
Just came across a passage I thought might make for a good follow-up to Scott’s Darwinian origins of jargon post. Actually, I don’t really have a particularly good reason for mentioning the passage. Just thought it offered a memorable analogy, packaged in the pleasantly astringent prose style that used to characterize the best mid-century social science. (Or maybe that’s just my impression.) The text is the preface to The Calculus of Consent (1962), James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s seminal work in the theory of public choice.
This is a book about the political organization of a society of free men. Its methodology, its conceptual apparatus, and its analytics are derived, essentially, from the discipline that has as its subject the economic organization of such a society. Students and scholars in politics will share with us an interest in the central problems under consideration. Their colleagues in economics will share with us an interest in the construction of the argument. This work lies squarely along that mythical, and mystical, borderline between these two prodigal offsprings of political economy.
Because it does so, the book and the work that it embodies seem closely analogous to any genuine “fence-row” effort. As almost every farmer knows, there attach both benefits and costs to fence-row plowing. In the first place, by fact of its being there, the soil along the fence row is likely to be more fertile, more productive, when properly cultivated, than that which is to be found in the more readily accessible center of the field. This potential advantage tends to be offset, however, by the enhanced probability of error and accident along the borders of orthodoxy. Many more stumps and boulders are likely to be encountered, and the sheer unfamiliarity of the territory makes unconscious and unintended diversions almost inevitable. To those two characteristic features we must add a third, one that Robert Frost has impressed even upon those who know nothing of our agrarian metaphor. “Good fences make good neighbors,” and neighborly relationships stand in danger of being disturbed by furrowing too near the border line. Orthodox practitioners in both politics and economics will perhaps suggest that we respect the currently established order of the social sciences. We can only hope that the first of these three features outweighs the latter two.
Nice image, and thought, isn’t it? Disciplines overplow their turf and leave the good stuff to the side. But watch out for stumps and surly neighbors. And, of course, if you haven’t got an old stone-age savage keeping your apples out of his pines, your likely to get into trouble. (I wonder if Buchanan and Tullock might be aware of Frost’s dramatic irony, too, and having a little fun at their own and their readers’ expense.)
And yes, since you asked, I only fell on the passage cause, like everyone in literary studies these days, I’m--probably foolishly--looking for some juicy loam on the edges. [The working hypothesis: Buchanan and Tullock come near the end of the heyday of pluralist theory in American political science and are looking for an account of constitutional norms that doesn’t require a belief in collective agents or, by contrast to some of their predecessors, a deference to cultural traditions. I.e., they want an account of collective decision-making rules that can seem consistent with methodological individualism--which leads them to draw a sharp distinction between constitutional rules (requiring a supermajority) and the operational choices of quotidian politics (which, though they generate lots of, um, externalities--i.e., logrolling--can work fine with simple majority rule). The new fiction of the American 50s (Salinger, Bellow, Nabokov, Ellison, Kerouac, Highsmith, etc.) faces a similar problem, one aspect of which is dramatized by the contrast between the (roughly operational) picaresque form and flamboyant first-person narration, on the one hand, and the (at a stretch, constitutional) second-person agreement established with the reader, on the other. The underlying issue is similar: how do you shuck off the collectivist theory of the ‘30s and ‘40s and, while glorying in the pluralism of market society, nevertheless preserve a sense of seemingly necessary social coherence?
The underlying issue you’re describing sounds right to me - i.e., reconciling a distrust of collectivist theory with the need to preserve a sense of social coherence. In my own work, I’m trying to work through similar issues with respect to postwar fiction and “consensus” sociology (i.e., Talcott Parsons).
I’m not quite clear yet, though, on the homology you’re drawing between constitutional rules and operational choices vs. second-person contract with the reader and first-person narration. Is it that Cold War writers appeal to an underlying, unstated “Americanness” linking them and their readers that exists in tension with the first-person narrative? I can see this in the case of some of the writers you list - definitely Ellison’s Invisible Man. I.e., Ellison has that section near the end of IM in which the narrator suddenly breaks into a paean to the Constitution and Bill of Rights that seems at odds with the rest of the novel ("we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence"). And he ends by directly appealing to the reader ("Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"). But how would this work for someone like, say, Nabokov?
Yeh, Nabokov and Highsmith seem to me to have a different project (did the latter write first-person narration?); I’m curious to hear why you classify them with the others when discussing what they’re “glorying in.” But it strikes me as an extremely fruitful schema and makes me want to rush off to reread a good number of scholars and novelists to see how it works for them. I think Okada, for example, deals interestingly with that “underlying issue.” Maybe also Fifties neoconservatives like Heinlein.
Thank you for the excellent comments, guys. I underexplained because my main interest was just to put that nice passage up.
Stephen, you’re a step ahead of me, I think. May basic assumption is that Schaub has it right, the new fiction of the fifties is intuitively anti-statist and associates picaresque narrative form and the colloquial first person with a challenge to both bureaucratic constraint and social conformity. In this way, the aesthetic sensibility and political values are comparable to the attitudes of the postwar pluralists. Some are willing to pursue these attitudes quite far, toward a preference for a post-nation-state world and toward a pretty serious challenge to the novel form (e.g., Burroughs). But, not many actually. There’s a nagging doubt for lots of people about the effect of abandoning sovereignty. In some cases, the proximate cause is the Cold War (how can we win if we’re all just wandering all over the place in search of barbecues and tailfins?), but in others, there’s also a question about what might stimulate people to social responsibility or undergird the sense of justice if there’s no state to speak for the collective good.
If I understand correctly, Buchanan and Tullock are interesting partly because they come relatively late in the political discussion, and because game theory enables them to construct a model of how constitutional agreements should work that doesn’t require any abandonment of methodological individualism--and thus doesn’t require them to make any reference to cultural traditions like Americanness. Like most of their contemporaries, they end up seeing American constitutional democracy as the best of all possible worlds, but their explanation for why everyone should think so depends entirely on what they calculate to be the interests of all rational individuals involved in some kind of common group.
It’s a stretch, and a minor observation, but I think if you look at the framing structures of novels like Catcher in the Rye or Lolita or Invisible Man, you see a comparable interest. I.e., after showing us lots of social confusion, manipulation, deception, and, maybe above all, emulation etc., the narrators want to establish an agreement with the reader that looks like an alternative framework. And almost literally, the suggestion is that (roughly comparably to Buchanan and Tullock, who suggest that a rational-choice analysis will reveal why people should commit to bargains that limit their immediate chances to pursue their desires), they suggest this depends on a second-order of thoughtful consideration. E.g., Ellison specifically describes the movement of IM as being from oratory to writing, with the implication that the latter is less manipulative, less personal, and more suited to giving a better handle on problems of social justice than the former.
I agree that Nabokov and Highsmith are very different, Josh, (hadn’t considered Okada) and also that it’s important that Highsmith does write in the third person. But what they share, I think--apart from picaresque form, a fascination with aestheticism, and a willingness to explore its association with cruelty and insensitivity--is a withering skepticism about their contemporaries’ effort to find a reliable, quasi-constitutional framework. I think of the ending of Lolita (the sound of concord rising up from the children at play) as being like the end of Catcher in the Rye (now I understand how to relate to Stradlater and Ackley). Both narrators explicitly address their readers to explain why they now understand their former social interactions better. But in Nabokov’s case, we’re almost explicitly asked, I think, to see this as a craven rationalization. The ending of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is, I think, roughly comparable--and a weirdly brilliant and completely explicit exploration of the limits of the pluralist view. The protagonist tries, but is simply unable, to rise to the level of abstraction evident in Buchanan and Tullock. He can’t figure out why, if the state is just an extension of the processes of social bargaining (the pluralist view), he owes any obligation to anyone other than those he directly injures. And when they don’t care that they were injured, he can’t figure out why he feels disappointed. He’s almost literally like a far less clever Humbert Humbert.
To get back to your point, Stephen, the reason Nabokov and Highsmith stand out, I believe, is that they’re genuinely not nationalists. Most of the era’s pluralist thinkers and most of its new novelists were unlike Buchanan and Tullock. They really thought that without a sense of common cultural identity, without inheritance, there was going to be no basis for collective rules, social norms, etc. And, yes, hence the end of IM, which is striking, I think, precisely for the way it wants to merge constitutional principles and ethnic identity. (If I remember right, this is something that I think, e.g., Greg Crane misses in his piece in the Cambridge companion. He sees the constitutionalism that Ellison shares with lots of his contemporaries, but not the way Ellison also wants it to be a distinctly American and genealogical bequeath.)
Ok, now I’ve probably maundered on far past your generous attention. Thanks for the helpful thoughts!
I’ve been out of commission for awhile due to a dead hard drive and traveling, but as a proponent of the Highest Eclecticism I like the fence-row metaphor. The edge principle in ecology is rather similar—you get a richer biology where two ecological zones meet (salt and fresh water, or mountain and plain) than in either of the two zones by themselves, or even both of them combined.
At worst, however (which is usually), interdisciplinary work just adds another level of interdisciplinary methodologization on top of the two already existing methodologies. I’m in favor of knocking out some walls, rather than adding a new set of common rooms and authorized passageways.
And Buchanan and Tullock look to me more like economics imperialist than interdisciplinarians anyway. Economists and physicists believe that they’re smarter than anyone else, and when they dead-end in their own fields they often decide to drop down to something easier.
My take on Nabakov is that Lolita is a road novel, and as I recall it preceded Kerouac’s book.