Ambiguity of Institutional Purpose
Obverse Apparent vs Obverse Actual
I started my current assault on this important (set of) point(s) rallying from the concept “obverse.” Perhaps I would have done better to emphasize and analyze the concept “ambiguity” first: or the concept “purpose.” Where I start is less important than readers seeing the significance – and interrelatedness – of all three (and more). [And squeeze in multipurpose.]
Several drafts went several places, I’ll merge them once I can compare and edit; first I put up all I find:
The French colonists set up a “province line” separating this political polity, a province, from that. Later the English Puritan colonists misread it as “Providence”: Ah, God made those lines! Which was it? politics? or divine omniscience? In history, it was politics, but in the minds of the political successors to the French around that particular territory it was foisted as divine omniscience.
After meeting a girl in the park you go to kiss her goodbye: you sense her stiffen a bit. Was that rigidity frigidity? she hates you? then why did she spend the last two hours with you? No, no: she let you kiss her, sort of. Maybe she’s just playing the female game with a female poker face.
If you don’t know whether the speech impaired person just said she’s cold, or bold, or old, told or sold, it may be 90% her impairment, it may be 10% your hearing, maybe it’s 5% the wind blowing. Some ambiguities have no deeper meaning. But the signals the girl you met in the park was sending all have enormous meaning: enormous ambiguous meaning: enormous for the species, for the genus, for the family, for the biosphere. Sex is no trivial business for sexed creatures. Signals are no trivial business for sentient symbol users. (Did the trees sigh “my”? or “neigh”? The trees didn’t sigh anything, trees are not sentient symbol users, so far as we have thus far been reasonably able to determine.)
Now: how about ambiguity in institutional purpose? I’ll use the first institutional ambiguity ever presented to me, by Paul Lauter and Florence Howe, in the pages of the NYR: is the purpose of the school system — government controlled, compulsory, don’t forget: you can go to jail if you resist — to drill the young in literature and numbers? or to regiment them so they’ll tolerate some shitty job for the rest of their life, showing up sort of on time? Lauter and Howe argued that if the purpose of the school is literacy, then the schools suck at it; but if the purpose of the schools is to regiment, then the schools give good bargain for every penny no matter how many trillions have been spent over the decades, over the centuries.
To follow my points here forget any assumptions you may have been trained to that “purpose” is necessarily “conscious,” necessarily deliberate. If you still haven’t digested Freud, then you still won’t digest this: indeed, you won’t be here at all.
I suggest that Lauter and Howe’s principal is a good one, an Occam’s Razor, for social criticism. Is the institution good at its supposed obverse purpose? Or could there be another, hidden purpose, that the institution actually serves? the real “obverse,” the alternate obverse?
Take religion for example. Does religion have a purpose? Religion in general? Specific religions. With either, is the best understanding of the purpose the purpose claimed by adherents? Or is some hidden purpose actually being served?
None of these things can have “factual” answers, though answers are obliged to fit with available facts to be rational. Indeed, isn’t that close to the core of what religion is: beliefs that do NOT have to accord with rationally discussable truths? But note, there isn’t anything pk devotes writing or thinking time to that doesn’t come under his rubric of Macroinformation: information that emerges in the mind, is not limited to data, IS invariably interpreted information. Why did the chicken cross the street? Getting to the other side may be an answer, but it is not an answer rich in macroinformation.
Civilization has multiple purposes – all of them abstract: unless there’s a purpose setter, a God: something adding awareness from the start. I’m talking about emergent purpose: after-the-fact(s) purpose. Darwinian “purpose”.
Civilization has many purposes: political, economic … cosmological. Groups follow the agriculture bandwagon, substracting land from the commons, dedicating it to farming wheat, goats, cattle. It starts out we want more food, why not? Then we find we’re feeding more babies, more of whom survive: more food means more medicine, more expertise, more temptation toward political coercion: you will grow the wheat, you will weed the fields, you will become a soldier and defend the fields, and the barns, and the bakery … and the bureaucracy, and the church, and the official set of beliefs … At the same time you will not try to grow amaranth instead of wheat, or rice instead of wheat: you will not write or perform plays satirizing wheat and what farming … You will not pray to a fish god, you will not marry outside this immediate wheat growing, wheat worshipping culture. You will not invent industry, or network all interests. You will support fake choice, not real choice.
Etc. etc. etc. Until you are all, we are all, too stupid to live.