We Need Some Economics of Pomo

27 June 2006 at 8:44 am 1 comment

| Nicolai Foss | 

I am re-reading Tyler Cowen’s excellent What Price Fame? for the second time.  I continue to be amazed by the number of bright ideas that this slim volume is packed with.  Among the many observations of the ways that celebrities and critics can game their mutual relations is this one:

Some performers manipulate the style of their product to shift the incentives of critics to pay attention … Unclear authors, at least if they have substance and depth, receive more attention from critics and require more textual exegesis. Individual critics can establish their own reputations by studying such a writer and by promoting one interpretation of that writer’s work over another. These same critics will support the inclusion of the writer in the canon to promote the importance of their own criticism … In the economics literature, enormous attention is devoted to the vagaries of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory. The monetary writings of Milton Friedman or Irving Fisher, far clearer and not inferior as practical guides to monetary policy, do not receive equal attention from historians of thought (p.34-5).

Perhaps this observation may help us to account for the increasing prominence of pomo ideas in management (economics seems so far to have stayed almost immune to this disease).

Many management scholars, particularly in Europe, endorse the thought of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and others. They argue that the thoughts of these philosophers have profound implications for management studies.  Here is a paper that argues that Deleuze’s work holds important implications for understanding firefighting.

I have never been really able to make sense of the summaries I have been given of the thoughts of recent French philosophers, with the thought of Foucault as a partial exception (although I think he is dead wrong). I will not automatically dismiss a field because of its seemingly garbled terminology. However, what is one to do with a passage such as this from Gilles Deleuze, the allegedly most “radical” of the bunch:

There is a book from which one can learn many things, entitled Sexual Life in Ancient China …. This book shows clearly that manuals of love and manuals of military strategy are indiscernible, and that new strategic and military statements are produced at the same time as new amorous statements.  That’s curious.  I ask myself: OK, how can we extract ourselves, at the same time, from a structuralist vision that seeks correspondences, analogies and homologies, and from a Marxist vision that seeks determinants.  I indeed see one possible hypothesis, but it’s so confused … It’ perfect. It would consist in saying: at a given moment, for reasons that, of course, must still be determined, it is as if social space were covered by what we would have to call an abstract machine. We would have to give a name to this non-qualified abstract machine, a name that would mark its absence of qualification, so that everything would be clear. We could call it — at the same time, this abstract machine, at a give moment, will break with the abstract machine of the preceding epochs — in other words, it will always be at the cutting edge … thus it would receive the name machinic point.

And so it continues. (From www.webdeleuze.com.)

Deleuze, I am being told, is hip. He is strong in the humanities.  His interpreters are legion. Why, I ask myself, can many people read and endorse what my gut feeling tells me is simply pretentious mumbo-jumbo? We need some economic reasoning to reveal the rationality behind this.

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science. Tags: .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Fabio Rojas  |  28 June 2006 at 12:03 pm

    Well, I think economics does suffer from “unclear writings get more attention” syndrome – it’s called mathematical economics. Dress up some strightforward reasoning in fancy math and you will have legions of academic followers.

    Example: There was a recent post on marginal revolution about a paper showing how hotels have lots of hiddens fees to capture mypoic and price insensitive travelers (like wealthy business types). One commenter said that was really obvious and was shocked that such an obvious insight would be praised.

    But a lot of nice econ papers have this structure – have a simple insight that can be expressed in a pargraph or so, but the math and econometrics can take up quite a few pages. If you removed this, I bet most papers would collapse to about ten pages or so – and people would respect it less.

    About post-modernism, I have actually taught PM theory in classes for soc majors and there are concrete non-trivial claims. But the trick with reading these authors is that they mix it up with a lot of jive talk, hyperbole, puns, wild claims, etc. so it can be really hard to figure out what they are saying.

    Here are some concrete post-mod claims:

    Derrida: the meaning of words and texts is not stable because meaning is derived from a chain of references that amounts to an infinite regress. (i.e., econ is not sociology or management, which is not anthro, which is not lit, etc…)

    Baudrillard: modern culture is distinctive because people set up weird alternate realities (think of people building housing tracts that reflect past historical eras or people playing virtual reality games).

    Foucault: Western society from a philosophy of enforcing social order through corporal punishment to enforcing order through creating institutions that instill discipline through socialization and social control of “deviants”

    You may agree or disagree, but these are actually real claims a social scientist could argue with and prove or disprove.

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