Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"It became apparent that the "modern" worldview, which explained the world in terms of 'states and failed states' and which was shared by both the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, no longer sufficed to explain what is truly going on in the world today and why. However, the objective truth of the modern world was not replaced by a new objective truth.

Now we are left with post-modernist "accounts," subjective opinions of self-appointed experts, because we often lack hard data about the nature or severity the problems we face. Policy makers and states now use the "precautionary principle," (thanks to the Bush administration) which presupposes that you don't have to wait for conclusive hard evidence to act against a perceived threat. The way "experts" frame the problems, or "questions" at hand, determines our response to these problems. The academic gave the example of HIV/AIDS. Is it a developmental problem or a security problem? The answer we give to this question will determine which actors will tackle it, what they will do to solve it, and what resources will be spent on it. We can think of many other examples. Take terrorism or climate change.

Although we often don't have hard evidence and easy answers, it is still important to try to understand the actors we are dealing with. For example, the West perceives China as a rising power, a competitive force so competitive precisely because it does not respect the rules. But it is difficult for Westerners to convince China that complying with international labor and environmental standards, reining in on corruption and crime, and refusing to deal with the likes of Hassan al-Bashir will be good for the Chinese in the long-term. China needs high economic growth in the short-term to maintain social peace." From my article,
Leading Uneasy Lives, 17 January 2009.

"Also in 2001, Bent Flyvbjerg in his book Making Social Science Matter identified a way out of the Science Wars by arguing that (1) social science is phronesis, whereas natural science is episteme, in the classical Greek meaning of the terms; (2) phronesis is well suited for the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests, which any society needs to thrive, whereas episteme is good for the development of predictive theory, and; (3) a well-functioning society needs both phronesis and episteme in balance, and one cannot substitute for the other." From the Wikipedia entry, Science Wars.

"[Sociology is ] ... the science whose object is to interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and theeffects which it produces. By 'action' in this definition is meant the human behaviour when and to the extent that the agent or agents see it assubjectively meaningful ... the meaning to which we refer may be either (a) the meaning actually intended either by an individual agent on a particular historical occasion or by a number of agents on an approximate average in a given set of cases, or (b) the meaning attributed to the agent or agents, as types, in a pure type constructed in the abstract. In neither case is the 'meaning' to be thought of as somehow objectively 'correct' or 'true' by some metaphysical criterion. This is the difference between the empirical sciences of action, such as sociology and history, and any kind of prioridiscipline, such as jurisprudence, logic, ethics, or aesthetics whose aim is to extract from their subject-matter 'correct' or 'valid' meaning." Max Weber The Nature of Social Action 1922, from the Wikipedia entryAntipositivism.

A few thoughts on social sciences

When I studied economics in university I considered subjects like sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, psychology and even politics "soft." They didn't give definite answers, there was little way of "falsifying" them. Because they couldn't be tested, it was hard to tell their value. But then I realized, as with many things, social reality isn't something that could be understood easily.

Once a senior colleague explained me the three ways of approaching social reality (please correct me if I'm missing something). Durkheim believed that the society was like an organism; interdependent actors and institutions performed different, but complementary functions in it. The characteristics and health of a society could be studied objectively. Marx argued that the power struggle between distinct groups gave rise to social action and conflict. Weber thought that there was no objective social reality, neither the meaning an outsider gives to an action nor the insider's intention in performing that action could be taken as its objective meaning.

We unconsciously draw from all three approaches while trying to make sense of social reality. However, I find Weber's insights particularly useful. The outsider should shed her preconceived opinions and try to understand the context, imagine. The insider should shed her interests in that particular context and try to judge her actions against more objective benchmarks.

Limits of perception

I wrote before (here and here and here) that doing things that allow you to lose and forget yourself are the ones that make you happy. You don't think about yourself, what other people think of you, running out of time, what you will gain or lose, the before or the after. This is cliché, I know. But you are consumed in whatever you are doing, you are lost in the moment. You are not in control. You don't know where it's taking you, but you are willing to go.

(It is like reading a long book. A long book wouldn't be intimidating if you didn't think about how you will get to the end. A long journey away from home wouldn't scare you if you didn't count the days. Work would not be frustrating if you did not set your eyes to a vacation or promotion. Let go.)

Imagine you lived life like that. You didn't typecast yourself, your appearance, you didn't think about what others think of you, you didn't think about the past or the future. All these things wouldn't constrain your consciousness like metal bars. That way, you would become aware of so much more. You would constantly discover new truths, more pieces of the truth, the kinds I described in my post about truth and value in literature.

We could even discover original truths, truths noone else ever discovered before. Because we are not shy of being ourselves, looking at the world through noone else's eyes but our own.

We fear these discoveries, because they involve a "rewiring of our inner circuit," as Zadie Smith wrote in her essay about writing. Instead we prefer to hold on to our convictions of what is right and what is wrong and what is beautiful and what is plausible. We measure everything against the benchmarks in our head. When we look around, we only want to see confirmations to our beliefs. Our beliefs are like bubbles, they take up so much space. But we are afraid of bursting them, because we don't know how to fill the void of their absence. How much of the truth can you see looking through a bubble?

I went to BBC Proms with a friend the other night, and she told me that children are much more receptive of modern compositions than adults. Then yesterday, a colleague of mine who used to teach languages said that children can start speaking a new language much more easily. "College kids understand what you are talking about, but kids start speaking much more quickly," she said. That was probably because college kids were thinking too much.

We often fear forgetting what we have learned during our twenty years of education. But the point of our education was not the knowledge per se. That time and money was spent to train our brains to work better. We shouldn't be afraid to use it.
How can Babacan mend a broken heart?

As I was listening to Ali Babacan (our economy minister) on NTV Radio in the office, I almost liked him. I liked it when he said "they tell us to spend more money, to drive our debt/GDP ratio to 80%... we should also look at the maturities, the structure of the debt. Each country should find her own 'right' policy." He admitted that an agreement with the IMF would leave more room for private sector borrowing. He said that the skill sets of job seekers do not match what the employers are looking for. He observed cutting taxes isn't enough to ensure compliance. When given the opportunity to accuse the banks, he didn't take it: "The profits of the banks are increasing because the value of the government securities are increasing. Of course banks are being more selective now, but we also know that they are extending large loans to healthy companies - naturally only unsuccessful applicants speak up and complain."

My infatuation with him lasted until I saw his lecture at the LSE. I didn't mind so much that he arrived an hour late, but I am a bit impatient with bullshit nowadays. If there was still time for questions by the time I built up my courage to ask them, I would ask the following:

First of all, I would ask him, why didn't his government get on with the structural reforms when the global economy was booming and money was pouring into the country? Now he is talking of tackling the informal economy and investing in the education and training programs to improve the skills of the workforce. These problems are not new, they were always there, but the shower of foreign money allowed his government to look over them.

When asked about the persistent tax charges to Doğan Group, he said no sector should be immune to tax investigations. This is a clever way of turning the call for "freedom of media" on its head, but I hope nobody in the audience was naive enough to buy it (except maybe for that one guy who "applauded" our democratic and economic advances under the AKP). Then he proceeded to explain how Doğan could go to court or negotiate with the Finance Ministry, and in fact, 85% of the companies who went to court to dispute their tax penalties won the cases. Hımm, maybe that is a sign that the investigators of the Revenue Administration, the one the government is so afraid of making independent, are not doing their job properly? Way to encourage companies to repent and move into the formal sector.

But Babacan dealt the fatal blow when he started talking about democracy and judicial reform. In moments like this I emphatize with those activists who lose it and start screaming at the speaker. (Sometimes sanity seems like a privilege only to the ignorant and the naive.) How noble and enlightened of him to acknowledge our shortcomings so openly. Yes, we have a government so enlightened and open minded to recognize the mistakes of the past.

Only if they understood the spirit of democracy and justice.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Truth and value in literature

My friend forwarded me a video, an interview with thinker Jacques Derrida about the fear of writing. The video was comforting, as I found justification for my own fears in Derrida's words. I feel quite vulnerable when I write and publish something here, because it makes me open to scrutiny, judgement. The value of my thoughts and feelings will come out in the open. But I already decided that not standing your ground for fear of rocking the boat is not very respectable.

The reason I go ahead and publish my stuff here is neither this principle, nor a disregard for others' views. It is rather the strong emotion a "good" idea creates or a desperate need to overcome my confusion over something. My favorite posts were written under the influence of a powerful idea or feeling, or they culminated in it. A discovery gives rise to this emotion - gaining a deeper, vaster understanding of something. My discovery may be obvious to everyone but me, but it is new and dear to me. If I can come up with something that rings new and true to others, then I could call myself talented and my work valuable.

(Precisely because I love this feeling, I am also scared by it. I am scared of being possessed by a bad idea, convincing myself that it's good simply because I like the ecstasy of conviction.)

I am possessed by a new idea now: Over the past few days I have been thinking about truth and value in literature. I have written before that the idea of value in art or science is closely associated with the belief in the existence of a truth. The quicker and closer you get to a truth, any truth, the truth of a place, a time, a feeling, a dilemma, an encounter, a relationship, a situation, a conversation- the more valuable your work is. In this quest for discovering and portraying the truth, I don't think a literary piece is any different than an academic article. I like it if it can show me something new and meaningful. The ecstasy of reading a good novel or story would only be second to writing it (I have never written fiction, so I can only guess). It is like the first derivative of the enlightenment I described, only shadowed by a hint of envy.

A piece of fiction is obviously not an opinion piece, academic article or lecture. This is simply because of its subject matter. A good fiction writer does not try to reach conclusions, he simply presents the many facets of human relationships and dilemmas. This is the truth of our lives: there is no absolute truth. I can't imagine anything more off-putting than a self-righteous "moral of the story" in a work of fiction. A writer should respect his readers enough to let them think and decide for themselves.

I also believe in the limits of prose. Words are like rays of light flowing from our reason, hence I find it redundant to try to use them to break into the opaque world of emotion. The result would be melodramatic. Emotions are to be felt, not read about or understood. Poetry, music and cinema can evoke emotions, but prose can only point at them and rely on the readers' memory and imagination.

A reader puts his trust and faith in a writer when he starts reading them. He is after that second-hand joy of discovery, understanding. If the writer hides the meaning under too many cushions, he robs an open-minded reader of this reward.

Many readers, including myself, are too ready to underestimate their knowledge and abilities when faced with complicated prose. We are used to not understanding and find this quite normal. Sometimes we may really be ill-equipped to understand something. We may understand at another time, or we may never understand. But opaque language should not stand in the way of meaning. I started to detest being told that something is too sophisticated to be told in simple terms. I am not convinced of the value of a work of art unless I see it for myself.

As I said, I feel vulnerable when I share my thoughts, but even more than that, I fear false enlightenment. (Besides, it was me who wrote this, too.) I would appreciate comments very much.