Overweening Generalist

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Trust Me On This: Deception, Biology, Politics

"Reality is the temporary resultant of the struggle between rival gangs of programmers." - Robert Anton Wilson

When I was 16 I lived with my father just outside of Denver, and he and his childhood friend and drinking buddy got into watching pro-wrestling on TV. The absurdity and theatricality of it all made them howl with laughter. Later I attended a few live shows in downtown Denver, and was struck by the idea that a few people sitting near us seemed to believe the "matches" were on the up-and-up.

Later I read then-structuralist Roland Barthes's Mythologies (I should say I tried to read Barthes, but the  epistemological [semiotic] assumptions - derived from Ferdinand de Saussure, who I had not read at the time - rendered much of Barthes's work opaque to me) and this 1957 book had an essay on pro wrestling, which I'll link to here, if anyone is interested. Barthes contrasted boxing - in which the thrust is to see who wins, with wrestling, which was a sum of episodes, the point not being about winning, but the sheer spectacle of the thing, which with its pantomimes of characters Good and Evil, had an underlying message of playing on the ideas in mass culture about Justice.

Later I read much of Murray Edelman's work in sociology. He had a lot to say about politics as a spectacle. (Here's the NYT obit for Edelman, which gives a thumbnail of his concerns.) Edelman seems a quite underrated figure; he was writing about things that Jean Baudrillard took up much later, and, while in academic language, Edelman was still quite readable. Some have called him the first postmodern political scientist. Politics? It's a show, sorta like wrestling. Edelman says that people fall into the drama, play parts, internalize the totality of the show, and increasingly take it seriously. What? I'll try to elaborate.

Look at the foggy, mystifying language surrounding politics and its main delivery system, the mass media. Look at how many people seem to not question the semantic content of the jargon and glossary in political-speak. (Because they don't know how? Or they'd rather stick with the "fun" of playing inside the melodrama of politics? I don't know. Edelman seemed to wonder too.) Political institutions are symbolic acts that must be interpreted within some schema or another. But the institutions and acts tend to serve to more or less keep things the same rather than change things. Oh, changes do occur. If they didn't, the Show would get stale, and the players wouldn't be able to take it seriously anymore. It must perpetually seem vital to the players within. Voters who don't show up or who don't follow politics? They're onto the game and don't want to play. They see the game as bullshit. I think Edelman is right here to an extent, but I also think there are people who would rather not know anything; they don't see into/through Edelman's elaborate socio-political spectacle because they never had a serious look in the first place.

Rituals in politics are elaborate. The quantity of them is large and they are repeated so often that people cannot "see" the rituals as rituals. Rather, something solemn about Justice and Freedom and Democracy and The Good and Fairness and Meritocracy is being upheld. (Sorta like...wrestling?) The rituals of politics invest in the authority of the main players on the stage, and we are meant to hold the whole show in awe.

Now, irony and provocation being two of my favorite tropes from intellectuals, I appreciate Edelman's ouvre and I think quite a lot of it is accurate and generally edifying discourse, but, like most of those thinkers we call postmodern, there tends to be an inexorable taking of the thesis to extremes, so that something begins to waft up...what's that? Do you smell it? You do? Then it's not just me, thankgod. Yea, but what is it? Does it smell like burning garbage to you? No? Like unpleasant incense? Really? Oh! Now I know what it is! We've been reading postmodernists, and we smell a reductio ad absurdum. Whew! I was about to get the fire extinguisher.

What I like about Edelman's work is the Things Are Not As They Seem-ishness of it all; I also like that he concentrated on language and semiotic/symbolic analysis, which fits into my main model and along with valued thinkers like Robert Anton Wilson, Alfred Korzybski, Marshall McLuhan, George Lakoff, and even, in a way, Noam Chomsky. Also, there's a thread running from Giambattista Vico's 2000+ years of class warfare of the Rich vs. Everyone Else that Edelman can fit with.

What I don't like about the over-baked aspect of Edelman is the lingering hopelessness, and there's quite a clash between an idea that I think holds much sway - that if you don't "do" politics it'll be done to you - and the sort of paralysis via analysis I get from Edelman, which leads to passivity. He has made me question my role in the political Show, and now I'm far more ironic about it all, but I'm verging away. Back to deception.

In the blogpost from four days ago, I briefly discussed Edward O. Wilson. Another giant in Sociobiology, who was there at creation, was Robert Trivers. In the bibliography for Wilson's revolutionary 1975 work, Sociobiology: A New Synthesis a handful of Trivers's papers are listed. Trivers has been perhaps most noted for being a sort of hardcore exponent of Dawkins's kin selection idea, but with particular emphasis on reciprocal altruism (shorthand: "you scratch my back and then I'll scratch yours" in Biology). When you get into reciprocal altruism, you also allow for "deals" between non-kin. It gets very abstruse when you start to run with it, especially when you're trying to keep in mind what Hamilton wrote, how EOW took it compared to Dawkins, how they sought to create new ideas to separate themselves as the first-line sociobiologists/evolutionary psychologists, etc.

As Trivers elaborated on reciprocal altruism, he began to concentrate on something that seemed to spin out of it: deception. And now, after a few decades of writing and thinking about it, he's maybe the foremost thinker on deception from biology on up to humans.

Trivers, a manic-depressive genius since childhood, a longtime pot smoker, classic anti-authoritarian, who, in May of 1979 joined the Black Panthers and, according to David Jay Brown, Trivers's colleague Burney Le Boeuf, called Trivers "the blackest white man I know." (Mavericks of the Mind, p.54)

In John Horgan's review of Trivers's book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, we see this passage:

Trivers calls deceit a “deep feature” of life, even a necessity, given genes’ brutal struggle to prevail. Anglerfish lure prey by dangling “bait” in front of their jaws, edible butterflies deter predators by adopting the coloring of poisonous species. Possums play possum, cowbirds and cuckoos avoid the hassle of raising offspring by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Even viruses and bacteria employ subterfuge to sneak past a host’s immune system. The complexity of organisms, Trivers suggests, stems at least in part from a primordial arms race between deceit and deceit-detection.
So how much of this stuff goes on, in all the domains of our lives? It seems easy to fall into paranoia when contemplating The Spectacle, language as virus, conspiracy, double and triple crosses and agents, counterfeiting, prevarication (the very word seems to be hiding something, no?), "spin," fakes, secrecy, claims of "transparency," the information deformations that occur within status hierarchies, advertising and PR and hypnotic techniques, etc. Let us consider this list as The Shadow of ourselves, vis a vis what we'd prefer to think about "reality": that most of us care about the Truth and act trustworthy, because we want others to act honestly with us. The Shadow would be all that which is...less than trustworthy? 

The vast data from the animal kingdom shows how common camouflage is, how many animals have developed a way to APPEAR far more menacing than they are, on and on. Is deceit built into the fabric of all biology? It appears so. But then so is the attempt to detect...

It's common to read about deceit and lying and note the linkage between our very complex intra-species signaling system (i.e, human language) and how it's exquisitely available for the purposes of deceit. When ants communicate via very elaborate pheromones, the lying has its limits, it seems, at least compared to our signaling systems.

What I also note is the biological metaphor often used in writings on deceit: that lying is "parasitic" upon the truth, and that too many people engaged in deceit tend to ruin a system. From The Oxford Companion To The Mind:

Conveying useful information from one person to another about 'facts' is the essence of this extraordinary human invention. Lying is therefore parasitic upon general truthfulness, and if its incidence becomes too high the system becomes useless.

So here we have a reason for truthfulness that's not lame-brained ("The Bible sez..." or "good people tell the truth!", etc): the system is preserved. But then we must ask, "Is the system worth preserving?" Since Ronald Reagan, people running for office as Republicans have made it part of their platform that government doesn't work and should get out of the way of "people's lives," by which they mean corporations should be able to do whatever they want. Convince people you want a job that you don't think should even exist? What "system" do they favor? And do they really believe what they say or are they being deceptive? Hoo-boy...

The "parasite" metaphor brings us back to biology, but other writers have borrowed a metaphor from physics: that deception is like entropy. But I'd rather return to wrestling.

                                 Eric Weinstein, popularizer of the kayfabe idea
                                                  for thinkers caught in "ordinary" economic reality

Eric Weinstein, relating his ideas about information and deceit in economic systems, has drawn on the obscure wrestling term kayfabe. In an article in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (edited by John Brockman), Weinstein cites recent work in evolutionary biology by the aforementioned Trivers and Richard Alexander that says deceit plays a bigger role than accurate information transfer in systems with selective pressures. "Yet most of our thinking treats deception as a perturbation in the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity's future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory that uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information." (p.321) 

Weinstein says that in the early years of wrestling, matches went on for too long, guys got hurt, the matches became boring, and eventually the "sport" became a ritualized thing, "negotiated, choreographed and rehearsed," its complex dramaturgical "rules" closed to outsiders. This seems something like our financial system now, "an altered reality of layered falsehoods, in which nothing can be assumed to be as it appears." Wait, there's more.

Why didn't the "freshwater" Chicago school of economists foresee the 2008 economic meltdown? Why didn't the "saltwater" Ivy Leaguers catch it? Probably because they're caught in the kayfabe: there is a quiet agreement to not let the outsiders know the game is fixed. Note: neither group suffered for not knowing. And still they are "experts." 

Weinstein says that, if you're wondering why there are no investigative journalists doing the real work they used to do and seemingly "bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts," we'd understand this better if we knew what a kayfabe is. And it comes out of the traveling-carnival of hokum that is professional wrestling. 

"What makes kayfabe remarkable is that it provides the most complete example of the process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery." (p.322) Weinstein sees kaybrification as an important feature of love, science, war, finance and politics. And we would all be better served to know this term and its mechanisms. The truly horrifying thing about kayfabe, as I read Weinstein about it, is that it shows the 1%/Ruling Class and its managers how many layers of disbelief the human mind is capable of suspending before fantasy melds seamlessly with reality.

Add to that: wrestling eventually became so over the top that it had to admit it was fake...but the public loved it anyway, or as Weinstein puts it, "Professional wrestling had come full circle to its honest origins by at last moving the responsibility for deception off the shoulders of the performers and into the willing minds of the audience." (p.323) (an online link to the Weinstein article I'm drawing from is HERE.)

Going back to my idea about secrecy and spin and deceit and advertising and other such terms as part of the Shadow of truth, and given the kayfabe and Trivers's arguments (even bacteria and viruses employ subterfuge to sneak past your immune system)...to quote a famous painter: Who are we? Where are we going?

My favorite philosopher, Robert Anton Wilson, was not an academic and more like a great generalist-thinker. He gave an interview 36 years ago and here's one Q and his A that, I think, pertains to these topics, and provides a slight slant that allows us more perspective:

Science Fiction Review: How serious are you about the Illuminati and conspiracies in general?

Robert Anton Wilson: Being serious is not one of my vices. I will venture, however, that the idea that there are no conspiracies has been popularized by historians working for universities and institutes funded by the principle conspirators of our time: the Rockefeller-Morgan banking interests, the Council on Foreign Relations crowd, the Trilateral Commission. This is not astonishing or depressing. Conspiracy is standard mammalian politics for reasons to be found in ethology and Von Neumann's and Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Vertebrate competition depends on knowing more than the opposition, monopolizing information along with territory, hoarding signals. Entropy, in a word. Science is based on transmitting the signal accurately, accelerating the process of information transfer. Negentropy. The final war may be between Pavlov's Dog and Schrodinger's Cat.

However, I am profoundly suspicious about all conspiracy theories, including my own, because conspiracy buffs tend to forget the difference between a plausible argument and a real proof. Or between a legal proof, a proof in the behavioral sciences, a proof in physics, a mathematical or logical proof, or a parody of any of the above. My advice to all is Buddha's last words, "Doubt, and find your own light." Or, as Crowley wrote, "I slept with Faith and found her a corpse in the morning. I drank and danced all night with Doubt, and found her a virgin in the morning." Doubt suffereth long, but is kind; doubt covereth a multitude of sins; doubt puffeth not itself up into dogma. For now abideth doubt, hope, and charity, these three: and the greatest of these is doubt. With doubt all things are possible. Every other entity in the universe, including Goddess Herself, may be trying to con you. It's all Show Biz. Did you know that Billy Graham is a Bull Dyke in drag?
-The Illuminati Papers, p.47

Question from the OG: Where is The Shadow? 

Here's 7 minutes of Chomsky and Trivers, riffing on the topic of deception:


Eric Wagner said...

You can find the Shadow in the Wold-Newton family tree of Phil Farmer in his Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, as well as Farmer's The Peerless Peer and "After King Kong Fell."

Your post made me think of "F for Fake."

Great job as usual.

Eric Wagner said...

Also, thanks for the information theory reading list.

michael said...

I had a feeling the Q about the Shadow was a straight line for you.

Thanks for the kind woids, as always. And the info theory list? That's sorta why I'm "here."

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I live in Ohio, e.g. a swing state, and so whenever we turn on the TV, we are bombarded with political TV ads that are obvious lies. The fakery you talk about in your essay seems applicable to what I am bombarded with every day.

Andrew Crawshaw said...

This is a great article, I like the sources you draw on. I would like to direct you to a book, if you haven't alreay been directed to it, that was written by an author mentioned in prometheus risisng, it is called "the pragmatics of human communication"
it talks about redundancy and deception, it also analyses the very interesting play/film, 'who's afraid of virginia wolfe'. Deception and deception-detection is isomorphic to the war between encrypton and cracking in cryptography. it is a perrenial issue of any type of animal interaction. I think decpetion is rooted in zero-sum games, and happpens mostly between species (though you do get symbiosis) whereas co-opration and truthfulnness is rooted in non-zero sum games which happen more in intraspecies relations(though you do get intraspecies predators, especcialy in the primate world).