Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Graeber v. Gradgrind

At the last Refactor Camp I presented a theory of play, which was quarter-baked at best, and I never got around to fully baking it. The underlying impetus was one of my periodic attempts to come up with a theory of mental representation that isn՚t completely broken – which seems like a ridiculously ambitious project, but I don՚t see anyone more qualified tackling it, so every so often I nibble at it. Anyway, that՚s how I came to be thinking about play back then, and haven՚t much since. However, my attention was recently directed to this article by David Graeber on the subject, which rekindled my interest a bit. Graeber also has ambitious goals for his theory of play. He is an anarchist and closely identified with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and he sees play as a weapon in an ideological battle against certain versions of biology and economics, but one that ultimately requires an alternative metaphysics.

I had very mixed reactions to this essay, which seems to have its heart in the right place, but like much of Graeber՚s writing he can be intellectually sloppy, especially about the political implications of whatever he՚s talking about. So this is mostly an attempt to winnow some genuine insights from the chaff of error.

Play is a subject both deep and slippery (in that it is difficult to even define or pin down as a phenomenon) Let՚s define play roughly as when humans or non-human animals engage in behavior patterns that seem to be modifications of more obviously functional ones (like fighting) but in are somehow modified to be less serious, decoupled from their usual triggers and consequences. It՚s tedious to think about play without some actual playfulness at hand, so here՚s a clip of my dog (the white one) playing with her friend:

From this and many other examples, we should have no problems believing that animals play (whether or not play is confined to mammals or is found in other clades is a matter of contention). This suggests, at the very least that play is not a late, spurious artifact of culture but something that is rooted deeply in the foundations of cognition and behavior.

The No-fun Universe

Because play has this definitionally quality of being decoupled from ordinary purpose, it may seem to have no purpose at all. Graeber seizes on this to use play as a tool to attack an ideological enemy that that seems to be a kind of coalition between science, capitalism, and rationality. The apparent uselessness of play becomes an argument against the linked ideas of neodarwinian evolutionary theory and economic rationalism, which in his view are anti-fun, anti-play, and thus anti-human. Under their oppressive sway, reality is a relentless battle for survival and dominance. Both are aggressively intellectually hegemonic as they aim to be totalizing theories that supervene on every single phenomenon of biological or social life. Such theories, according to Graeber, have no room for something definitionally purposeless like play. On observing a worm engaging in some behavior that seemed play-like:
How do we know the worm was playing? Perhaps the invisible circles it traced in the air were really just a search for some unknown sort of prey. Or a mating ritual…Even if the worm was playing, how do we know this form of play did not serve some ultimately practical purpose: exercise, or self-training for some possible future inchworm emergency?…Generally speaking, an analysis of animal behavior is not considered scientific unless the animal is assumed, at least tacitly, to be operating according to the same means/end calculations that one would apply to economic transactions. Under this assumption, an expenditure of energy must be directed toward some goal, whether it be obtaining food, securing territory, achieving dominance, or maximizing reproductive success…
According to Graeber, the very nature of science limits the sort of theories that behavioral scientists are allowed to entertain:
I’m not saying that ethologists actually believe that animals are simply rational calculating machines. I’m simply saying that ethologists have boxed themselves into a world where to be scientific means to offer an explanation of behavior in rational terms—which in turn means describing an animal as if it were a calculating economic actor trying to maximize some sort of self-interest—whatever their theory of animal psychology, or motivation, might be. 
… the neo-Darwinists were practically driven to their conclusions by their initial assumption: that science demands a rational explanation, that this means attributing rational motives to all behavior, and that a truly rational motivation can only be one that, if observed in humans, would normally be described as selfishness or greed. As a result, the neo-Darwinists went even further than the Victorian variety.
Let՚s call Graeber՚s ideological enemy Gradgrindism, after the character in Dickens՚ Hard Times who exemplifies a sort of cartoon version of utilitarian rationality:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over…. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. 
“You are to be in all things regulated and governed … by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery.
Gradgrindism holds that if humans play, that is, engage in behavior without a clear purpose, it՚s a mistake to be corrected. And while most scientists would strongly disagree, Graeber sees the scientific worldview as basically Gradgrind՚s.

Against Gradgrindism Graeber describes the purported tendency of all animal life towards seemingly useless action, and not just in our near relatives the mammals but in ants and lobsters as well. Animals, Graeber asserts, do things just for fun, solely for their own amusement:
That’s why the existence of animal play is considered something of an intellectual scandal. It’s understudied, and those who do study it are seen as mildly eccentric…. even when it is acknowledged, the research more often than not cannibalizes its own insights by trying to demonstrate that play must have some long-term survival or reproductive function.
…Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?
So Graeber paints play as being inherently purposeless, or at least, with no purpose outside of itself. Although he doesn՚t quite say this explicitly, it՚s as if rational, calculating action has an inherently slavish quality to it, since it is always driven by external goals; while play is autotelic, existing and acting for its own sake. It՚s easy to see why an anarchist would be drawn to the latter. Play is autonomous and spontaneous, the opposite of the drab and calculated work of rationality.

Does fun have a function?

This is an extremely problematical stance in about a zillion ways:
  • If play truly has no evolutionary function, then why does it exist and persist ?
  • Since certainly some action is rational and calculated, do we need two completely separate systems for explaining action, one grounded in the utilitarian rationality, and another in just-because?
  • If so, how do they interact?
  • The view of play as purposeless carries within it an explicit refusal to be analytical.
Worse of all, “Just for pleasure” simply doesn՚t fly as an explanation in science or really in any kind of serious thought. Assuming that it՚s an accurate description of animal motivation, the question of why certain actions are pleasurable, why action x is fun and action y isn՚t, doesn՚t go away. To refuse to entertain explanations is anti-science and anti-intellectual.

If play is pleasurable there have to be reasons for it, and knowing those reasons doesn՚t have to subtract anything from the experience of play We assume that many pleasurable sensations (such as those generated by fatty foods or sex) have a grounding in natural selection, and acknowledging that doesn՚t ruin our enjoyment of them If play is by its nature apurposive in some narrow sense, that doesn՚t mean there aren՚t broader rational justifications for why people and animals play.

If I try to steelman Graeberism, the best version I can come up with (and I don՚t know if it՚s still properly Graeberian any more) is that it is not so much a theory of actual animal behavior, but a critique of certain impoverished modes of scientific explanation. It՚s not that even playful behavior doesn՚t have a purpose, it՚s that dumb and greedy theories of rationality fail to be rich enough to capture the actional logic that drives any kind of complicated behavior. Playful behavior doesn՚t have a simpleminded purpose, which puts it perhaps outside the grasp of current science but not of science in principle.


Natural selection can indeed seem like a brutal and merciless engine. But this doesn՚t mean that the products of evolution must reflect this brutality. Evolution, despite the relentless competition at its root, it somehow manages to generate beauty, community, compassion, and other things we prize and praise. If the function of play seems inexplicable under the logic of evolution, take the more easily explicable quality of maternal care. It clearly has a purpose, in the natural selection sense of enhancing reproductive fitness, but we don;՚t think of it as brutal or greedy, even if it was produced by a process with no mercy in it whatsoever. By analogy, lay, if it is really a widespread and important and coherent trait, is likely to be adaptive as well, even if the underlying universe is not particularly playful,

I think Graeber is tripping over a very common confusion, roughly, a failure to understand emergence and to acknowledge that phenomena at one level might have characteristics and qualities that are not the same as those of the underlying level that supports it. Tables are made of wood but can have qualities (such as seating capacity or esthetic style) that are not properties of wood, and organisms, even if they are made of mechanisms that evolved through ruthless competition do not have to be ruthless themselves. In the latter case, of course, the metaphors used to describe genes and the evolutionary basis of behavior adds to the confusion. The “ruthlessness” and “selfishness” of genes is a purely mechanical causal consequence of natural selection without any moral or cognitive content whatsoever.

Play in the foundations of the cosmos

For whatever reason Graeber is not interested in any explanatory theories of play, whether reductionist or emergentist. Instead he urges us to think of play and freedom as foundational qualities, to be found in some form not only in living organisms but perfused through all things down to the subatomic:
Unlike a DNA molecule, which we can at least pretend is pursuing some gangster-like project of ruthless self-aggrandizement, an electron simply does not have a material interest to pursue, not even survival. It is in no sense competing with other electrons. If an electron is acting freely—if it, as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, “does anything it likes”—it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake—which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.
I՚ll give Graeber credit for fairly clearly stating the political/metaphysical principles that are at stake in his argument:
I don’t deny that what I’ve presented so far is a savage simplification of very complicated issues. I’m not even saying that the position I’m suggesting here—that there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality—is necessarily true. I would just insist that such a perspective is at least as plausible as the weirdly inconsistent speculations that currently pass for orthodoxy, in which a mindless, robotic universe suddenly produces poets and philosophers out of nowhere.
It is a real enough question: how can various high-level phenomena, from consciousness to kindness, be supported on a mechanical infrastructure that doesn՚t seem to have any of those things baked into it? There are people trying to answer that, and others who believe that the very effort is misguided and there must be Something Else Going On. So the real issue doesn՚t have much to do with play, it՚s more to do with the supposed limits of materialism as a foundation for human existence. Graeber is adding his voice to the large and diverse set of thinkers who can՚t accept the purely mechanical reductionism of science, especially of human behavior. God or élan vital or something is needed, something that can՚t be reduced to crude machinery. Otherwise the universe belongs to Thomas Gradgrind and his ilk.

And if you need to enliven the cold machinery of reality with an animating spirit, why not play? I՚d rather have that be foundational than god or consciousness or any of the other dreary abstractions that are usually proposed for that role.


Unknown said...

It's too dichotomous a framing. I'd like to see what Graeber would come up with if presented with the idea, common in machine learning, with real importance to engineering, of a spectrum of tradeoffs between exploration and exploitation.

Nathaniel Eliot said...

There are several problems with Graeber's formulation, the largest of which is the assumption that science-minded folks don't attempt to understand fun. http://www.theoryoffun.com/ is a seminal work on the subject, and has been around for many years.

Basically, things are fun when they let us learn without dangerous consequences. Play is thus a learning behavior, motivated by the common biochemical pathways for enjoyment (namely, opioids).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps of interest:


Hal Morris said...

I think you're onto something w.r.t. play as foundational, or (I'm adding this probably) part of a fundamental dichotomy. I'm not as sure about what Graeber is adding to it. It seems to me a very basic dichotomy with many manifestations. BTW I found Debt: The first 5000 years compelling and refreshing though I'll take your word for the faults you point out. I think maybe it's an impressionistic rather than carefully constructed argument. A way in which I might sympathize with the article (which has IMO something of a quality of postmodernish vamping for academic titillation to coin a possibly too awkward phrase) ... I might identify your "Gradgrindism" with what for many people (and many whole ideological communities) seems to be an overwhelming impulse make everything into a min/max problem. I suspect the biggest allure of this is that it makes the statement of the problem so easy. What is intelligence/learning/SR-conditioning? It is how the machine continually improves itself w.r.t. some pleasure principal and/or survival. What is economics? Just another optimization problem. An efficient market makes everything more and more efficient, the end of which may be putting most people out of work at a time when humankind hasn't a clue about any better organizing principal for our lives. Fun? Yeah maybe, although those who eschew fun and stick to economic optimization might while we're playing steal all the power.

Maybe play is doing whatever isn't an obvious or automatic response to some signal in the environment. It is the anti-SR impulse, or Piaget's idea of children being "polymorphously perverse" a wonderful phrase.

In early childhood, my impression is we have a loose grab bag of facilities which only living in a natural human environment will knit into something coherent. If a child isn't yet conditioned to do much, then maybe everything is play. A baby in a crib may be trying out every sort of movement he/she is capable of; over time, some are found to be useful and so cease to be play.

Brainstorming is a kind of play; distilling it into a plan is the other thing. The 1982 book In Search of Excellence said the best companies had simultaneous loose/tight structures but gave little indication of when or how to be loose and when or how to be tight.

There is a a wonderful resource, open-mind.net. Maybe you know of it, but if not, clicking on the contributers tab should go a long way to convincing you it is worthwhile.

I found open-mind.net because I found this paper: http://open-mind.net/papers/the-avatars-in-the-machine-dreaming-as-a-simulation-of-social-reality "The Avatars in the Machine
Dreaming as a Simulation of Social Reality" and it was just what I happened to be looking for; someone exploring the idea of dreaming as the running of a simulation engine in which you and models within your brain of people you know (or exemplars of types) interact, and this I believe is part of how we hone our ways of reacting to people, places, and situations; probably on a continuum with the tendency to rerun difficult conversations, making up what you should have said (and then what the other person would have said to *that*, and on and on).

It might interest you because, like Ainsley and Jay Earley and the "Internal Family Systems" people, it's a model of multiple autonomous or semi-autonomous personalities running around in one skull.

mtraven said...

Yes Gradgrindism is very closely related to the compulsion to frame everything as an optimization problem of a single variable. It՚s an intellectually powerful a move; I can see why it is hard to resist. Actual human desire is messy and self-contradictory and irrational, but if everything can be expressed in terms of utiliions then we can make mathematically elegant theories about it!

I think it was Freud not Piaget who used the term “polymorphic perversity”, which meant something like a chaotic and pre-socially-conditioned sexuality. That does seem closely related to play if not synonymous. Both are targets of repression by social conditioning, both have their ways of escaping.

open-mind is an interesting looking resource, thanks! The form is an interesting variation on traditional academic format, as well as whatever interest the content has. Metzinger has been on my to-read list for a long time.

Hal Morris said...

Somehow I got a complete misconception. Given I thought Piaget had said it, and his emphasis on cognitive development, I didn't take it as sexual at all. Just that a child might pick up a hammer by its head and bang on a table with its handle, or in general use things in arbitrary ways, and in imagination make anything into anything else.

I'm disappointed, as I liked my concept.

mtraven said...

Well the nice thing about this kind of philosophizing/psychologizing is you should feel free to coin your own grand abstractions if they make sense to you.