Stepping Outside the Snowglobe

by on Nov.23, 2011, under general

A few days ago I was have a Facebook back-and-forth with Julian Dibbell about this Atlantic blog post about the now infamous Lt. Pike of the UC-Davis police force.

To roughly summarize the Atlantic argument: Lt. Pike, like all of us, is the product of an institution: the police force. Institutions socialize individuals into them. What Pike did is not as attributable to him as it is to the institutional practices of policing. And we should be focusing on those rather than the corporeal person through whom those practices manifested themselves.

In the discussion with Julian I pointed out that I don’t actually disagree with the merits of this argument. Like my good friend Will Frank, who in his thesis articulated something that had been stewing in my head for years in a less coherent fashion, I don’t believe that human beings have free will sufficient to meaningfully assign moral praise or blameworthiness. We are all fundamentally products of systems and of institutions; the behavior which comes out of us is not because of us, but because of what happened to us.

But I also feel strongly that it is OK – more than OK, it is important and necessary – to condemn Lt. Pike for his brutal actions, and to make a strong stand against them as things which are wrong and bad.

In the week or so since this discussion took place I’ve been trying to figure out how I can hold both of these ideas in my mind at the same time.

One explanation is relatively simple. Hard determinists of the insufficient will for praise/blameworthiness school don’t believe that actions don’t have an effect. It’s just that the actions (and their effects) aren’t meaningfully “yours.” But it’s not an argument from or for nihilism. It’s an argument about origin.

In other words, even if I realize that Lt. Pike acted as he did because of the institutional practices which manifested through him, and even if I think he thus isn’t truly accountable in a moral sense for his actions, I can still find the actions (and the forces which caused them) deplorable, and so deplore them. And I can still consider Lt. Pike, like an ax murderer, someone who is unsafe and unworthy to be in the general population.

But there is another dynamic this teases at: the problem of theory and practice.

It might be descriptively correct that Lt. Pike was a product of institutions. As a hard determinist, I would believe that. But in everyday life – in everyday politics – that isn’t a conversation you have. Instead, you have to have a conversation within the rhetorical hegemony of free will and individuals as agents and so forth.

In my posts with Julian I described this as “snowglobing the discussion.” What I meant by that metaphor was that these arguments about Lt. Pike the individual are trapped in a rhetorical snowglobe where things like independent actors and agency and will and so forth matter, and to a certain extent we need to engage within that space, even if, stepping outside the tiny false world of the snowglobe, we realize that it’s the institutional issues which are truly the problem. But that realization doesn’t make the argument inside the snowglobe any less important, because it’s inside the snowglobe where, you know, the argument is located, and where policies are advanced, and where minds are changed, and so forth.

I have the incredible good fortune to be taking CMS 790 at MIT this semester. It’s an introduction to core theories and methodologies of media studies taught by department head William Uricchio. And it’s a really mind-expanding class.

The other day we were talking about paratexts and deconstructionism and hermeneutics and all that fun stuff and one of the other grad students – Abe – brought up this dilemma. He’s an MIT employee in one of the academic game research labs but also a CMS student, and he talked about the difficulty of balancing the insight of everything being interpretive and floating and so on with the practical need to, you know, get funding for your lab, when your funders want numbers and metrics and objective goals. And the basic question was: well, maybe these understandings of interpretation and deconstruction are accurate, but are they helpful in practical, day-to-day things you need to do?

I brought up the Lt. Pike issue above and the whole debate over will vs institutional power. I said the same thing as Abe, which is basically that, in my example, the hard determinist angle might be true, but it’s not an argument which you can generally have, and so there are these multiple layers, and you have to figure out which layer you’re operating in to know how to do the work you want to do.

Professor Uricchio, in response, said it’s all about interpretive communities. And I think that’s right, but I also feel like there is this real layering of communities as well. Each layer of unpacked meaning and interpretation is wrapped within another layer of meaning and interpretation. And basically you have to engage with each / any / all of them. Lt. Pike is both an institutional product and a individual actor. A GAMBIT game is both an inevitably meaningless experience waiting to be deconstructed and a concrete definable thing with certain markets and targets and historical attributes. Which thing it is – and how you engage with it – just depends on which rhetorical, interpretive babushka you happen to be located in at that moment.

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