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Monday, November 07, 2005

A Few Pitfalls of Dissing Progress (SPECIAL GUEST DISCUSSION)

The format of this discussion sort of sets me up as a believer in progress, but I should clarify that whatever views I have on the topic are quite morally neutral. My main ideological premise is that neither progress nor its opposite have ethical value in themselves. (Or at the very least, one is not ex ante more valuable than the other). I'm skeptical that Andean Chicha (a corn based alcoholic drink) is inherently a more moral drink for Latin Americans these days than Mountain Dew. Nor is there anything special about Salsa (with the exception of hormones) that American pop music lacks. Culture, tradition, Westernization, etc: all these, are, in my view, only of utilitarian importance-- only worthwhile insofar as they act to empower people and reaffirm their human dignity.

To decide either way on the issue without first considering the evidence is to beg a very big question. Nativist critiques of progress, I think, often suffer from the same ideological blindness, the same ethical myopia, of which they accuse proponents of progress. The dogma of progress might have been the war cry of imperialists, and it might have been used to justify or white-wash atrocity and domination. Many victims of colonialism have doubtless suffered much more under the yoke of externally imposed "civilization" than they ever did under the alleged oppressive obliviousness of "barbarism." Yet all things considered, it would Still be wrong to conclude that there is no such thing as progress, that any attempt to improve the lives of people living in poverty or living on the margins of modern society is ill-fated. Worst of all, it would be illogical to conclude that "community" and traditional living" are always and everywhere preferable. To boot: dissing progress or development because of its misuses make as little sense as it would for us to turn the US into a despotic monarchy because we disagree with the Bush administration's rhetoric of "democracy and freedom."(more in expanded post)

In that light, since I believe Damini will post on the fallacy of progress, I thought that, to start off the discussion, I could give a few thoughts on the pitfalls of dissing progress. My posts on Wednesday and Friday will follow up on this theme, and try to incorporate criticisms. In any case, please feel free to bash me all you want, even if you shouldn't bash development. :)

1) Progress is hegemony, defying it is a weapon of the underdog.

Critiques of development and progress have always had an uncomfortable resemblance for me. People always frame them as a bottom-up phenomenon, an organic and authentic voice from those who suffer under the yoke of cultural imperialism. But it is widely ignored that one of the most powerful and longlasting voices against progress came from a network of "good old boys," as privileged and status quo as we can conceive of in the American collective imaginations. These writers, the "Agrarians" were a group of white, male, upper-middle class, segregationist intellectuals. They became most prominent through their opposition to FDR's New Deal, and they saw progress as a Northern initiative to impinge upon Southern culture.

Consider the following statement from John Crowe Ransom, Southern poet from the 1920's. It is disturbing to realize how eerily it echoes critiques of progress:

"I have in mind here the core of unadulterated Europeanism, with its self-sufficient, backward-looking, intensely provincial communities. The human life of English provinces long ago came to terms with nature, fixed its roots somewhere in the spaces between the rocks and in the shade of trees, founded its comfortable institutions, secured its modern prosperity ...
For it is the character of a seasoned provincial life that it is realistic, or successfully adapted to its natural environment, and that as a consequence it is stable, or hereditable. But it is the character of our urbanized, anti-provincial,a and mobile American life that it is in a condition of eternal flux. Affections, and long memories, attach to the ancient bowers of life in the provinces; but they will not attach to what is always changing. Americans, however, are peculiar in being somewhat averse to these affections for natural objects, and to these memories."

To the contemporary reader, it is clear that Crowe is dead wrong. How in the world could he construe twentieth century England as "stable", "provincial", or "communal"? But the main issue is not whether he was right, but rather that he could make such an argument at all.

We can tell immediately that Crowe is only trying to defend the preservation of a system in which he stands to benefit. We know his statement stinks of shoddy rhetoric and false historical notions. We discern, moreover, that he only uses "progress" as a catch-all term, a punching bag, to symbolize a threat to the disturbing, inhumane society that he is a privileged part of. Who would dare consider Rowe an "advocate of indigenous culture" without fearing serious public denunciation? As it should be clear from the above quote, I am trying to argue that we should not, as Crowe does, conflate progress with CHANGE. Much more often than note, arguments for "stasis" and "preservation" will come from those in a society who stand to lose the most with such change. Whether they are women in indigenous cultures, ethnic minorities in the developing world, or even the party outside of power in a Third World nation, all marginal groups have their own underdog. Those people, and the way their condition will be affected, are the ones who merit our attention when we consider the ethics of "culturally disruptive" progress. These real, tangible, live individuals should be the focus of our discussion, and not some vacuous sense of "community." We cannot presume that bashing progress or development is virtuous by definition: that virtue has to be proven with evidence. The first pitfall, then, of dissing progress is letting romanticism have the best of our ethical sense.


At 10:07 PM, Blogger O said...

so I'm trying not to study for my psych midterm and I read Isa's post.

i think I need to read it a few more times but my thoughts after a cursory read over are:

The opening post-modern move-to say that your views are morally neutral-is belied by the value-laden judgements and terms you employ in the rest of the article i.e. "It is wrong to conclude," "improve," "atrocity," "human dignity," "empower people," etc.

Just as Crowe used "progress as a catch-all term, a punching pag," this piece sets up a straw man of opposition to progress and then easily burns it. I would like to see you take on the more serious and interesting critiques of so-called "progress."

Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "progress" and "development" in this piece. I think the real debate is about what these terms do and should mean-not affirming or rejecting everything that is so labeled (as you point out).

So insofar as I understand what you're saying, I agree with much of what is written here:

Opposition to what someone may call "progress" is not essentially good;

When critiquing "progress", don't be stupid

but I sense we do disagree on a few fundamental issues:
1) Salsa music has polyrhythms that Jessica Simpson can't dream of

2) Moral frameworks-
Unless you are attempting to arch-write like Derrida and Spivak (and even they fail at this), your writing contains moral frameworks.

It's consistent to describe a framework and analyse it:

wittgenstein said x follows y
X, then according to Wittgenstein, Y follows

But anytime we claim to take a morally neutral position, and assign values to things, our writing becomes inconsistent-which in my moral framework is a deficiency.

If and when these frameworks do come into the discussion- they should be well-defined such that readers know why X is better than Y in framework Z. So if you're going to use utilitarian reasoning-define your utiles!

check out the article that someone (i wonder who?) posted: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/04/science/04happ.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5088&en=a4c0250cf8730dca&ex=1286078400&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

At 1:24 AM, Blogger Isaias Chaves said...


I address part of your comments here, but so the readers know, i am copying a part of them on your post's comment section because they are most relevant to a critique of them than to the particular points you raised.

1) What I said about having a morally neutral view of prgress: I think you misunderstood. I am very, very, very far from being post-modern. I did not meant to say that I could make a morally neutral argument, or that I wanted to frame the discussion in amoral terms (I don't even think i implied that). What I did mean was a term I've used in conversations with you in the past, but that I didn't want to throw in right away: a sense of "social nihilism." I do not believe that there is real value in specific social arrangement other than what can be inferred from the living conditions of the people under those arrangements (and I do not only mean "material" conditions). That is to say, if progress makes people beter off, that's fine, and if "comunity" or whatever its opposite is ends up being a better option, then I am not one to quibble.

2) I think I should also restate the main motivation for my post: that we shouldn't think in terms of "progress" versus "preservation," assigning moral values to each according to our political stance. Rather, we should first understand the nature of historical change and how it impacts the human condition, and only then, based on that evidence, cast a moral judgment.

2) you accuse me of post-modernism and its shortcomings, but the first thing you do is launch into a critique of language. That sounds as though you are "deconstructing" my "ontology of power" or whatever Foucaultian jargon you want to use.

3) It is also funny that you criticize my "postmodernism" because, as you must know, the debunking of "development" has been carried out in large part by anthropologists steeped in Foucault and Derrida. They argue that development is a "western construct", part of a coherent discourse of domination. This is exactly what you wrote in your piece: that development-speak is a tool to make the oppressed into "the other." But not only that, post-modern critiques of development (and yours) seem to dismiss entirely the real basis of poverty altogether! For anthropologists like Arturo Escobar, for instance, poverty is not so much an objective condition but a social construction, divorced from material reality. "Everything is discourse" is the post-modernist lemma-- the obvious rebuttal seems to be: really!!?? I'd be interested to see how "subjective" famine can be, or how much language and discourse can do away with public health problems.

You seem to take an alternative, view, and agree with parts of it. The part I agree with is that of complicating our understanding history. As you put it, history is not linear. So far so good. State capacity ebbs and flows, societies get more or less violent depending on historical contingencies, etc. I'm all for a more intricate view of "progress" and a questioning of the general direction (if there is one) of economic history. In fact, if I protest ex ante presumptions of value in the dsicussion it is because I think that they obscure historical realities.

But you then conclude that progress entails a progressive worsening of human conditions. Now, that is a LINEAR conception of history! You make the exact opposite moral judgment on the process of "progress," as you strip it of any glorifying air, but your oblique call for "community" or culture does not refute, but actually endorses, that linear understanding. that is to say, the way I see it, your argument could be summed up as follows: with time, things have gotten worse and worse, and if we continue to move forward they'll get even worse. How is that different in nature from the claim that things are getting better and better, and the way to make them even better is to continue to move forward?

Maybe I am misunderstanding your point, too, but we'll ahver a chance to address this more.

At 1:26 PM, Blogger O said...

yo Isa
I think I better understand what you mean by moral neurtrality now.

As for the post-modern ish-let's meet up sometime and I'll explain what I mean better.

I would still like to see your utilatarian reasoning in action (the Reconstruction South example seemed to be more about power and hegemony)

A couple of people have made the same leap you did in thinking that my piece is saying that thiings are getting worse and worse and that the past was always better than the present.

Basically all my piece says is:
"There is no linear trajectory of development, with Africa on one end and the United States on the other. This illusion of progress and American superiority has been maintained by rewriting history to make the past look worse than the present, and associating present-day non-American societies with this dark past."


"Every society has its own dynamic history of progress or regress that must be considered on its own terms"

I have yet to make the argument (and probably won't here) that the past was better than the present.

my point is to take apart these foolish notions of primitiveness, backwardsness, and "progress" that create the Hegelian timeline that I'm trying to expose.

I think the bulk of your comment was directed at or against stances whose only relation to mine is that they both question progress-Where do I say famine is subjective?

For the next round, i'd like to see you Engage my piece more, not setting up and attacking more straw men of arguments that I haven't made in my piece.

Salsa is objectively superior to Ashlee simpson

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Isaias Chaves said...

First, on your PS:

Let me change the example a little. What if you compare, not Jessica Simpson and Celia Cruz, but Celia Cruz with Beethoven? Is she still objectively better? I am not saying she is or isn't; all I'm saying is that it is faulty to assume that the more "authentic" is "moral," especially considering how deeply our notions of authenticity are completely socially constructed. The only immediate difference in terms of the choice for Latin America today is that one is "local and authentic", whereas the other is "globalized and prostituted." More on this on my post tomorrow, I don't want to overkill it all at once.

Now, in terms of
On "engaging your piece directly":

I agree with part of what you said. I am addressing more general critiques of development because I thought that would be more helpful to the readers, for I'm making a general point about the ideological premises of that whole family of arguments.

But more concretely, here is how I infer the things I said from your piece. You quote that,

""There is no linear trajectory of development, with Africa on one end and the United States on the other. This illusion of progress and American superiority has been maintained by rewriting history to make the past look worse than the present, and associating present-day non-American societies with this dark past."

What I am arguing is that your argument is self-defeating: an implicit assumption in your argument above is that the past was in fact better-- that is to say, the claim rests on rewriting history to make the past look better than the present, and associating American societies with a gloomy dehumanized future. Just switch the culprit, and you're left with the exact same understanding of history

Also, you say that,

"It’s no accident that many Americans have turned to Buddhist meditation, African dance classes, yoga, and soul-searching service-vacations in Latin America. Perhaps without realizing it, they’re turning Hegel’s continuum on its head, suggesting that the “developed” world, in some ways, should be progressing towards the Third World."

This passage is exactly what I set out to refute: you are, however ambiguously, "turning Hegel's continuum on its head." But maybe your point is simply that "Americans" are doing it, not you, in which case your argument would be reduced to what already said. That is, according to you I claimed that, "when critiquing progress, don't be stupid," whereas your mild adaptation would be "when 'thinking generally about' progress, don't be stupid." My post on Wednesday will expoun on why, even though we both "complicate" the notion of progress, we're coming from very different perspectives.

I don't think we agree as much as that explanation would suggest. In order to support your claim about the undesirability of progress in general, there must be something about the past that is jsut plain better. This, as I've said, begs the question. But to be even more specific, you are arguing not quite that the past in general is better, but that there is plenty of things to value in the "authentic" culture of communities that get developed. These valuable things get lost in the process of development, whatever that might mean. Am I getting that right?

In regard to that more nuanced argument, first, I'd argue that those "authentic" things we are supposed to value are pretty artificial. On the one hand , the cultural expressions of the oppressed arise from multiple cultural infusions, including, of course, those of the oppressor. But even the culture of the oppressor, however one puts it, si deeply influenced by the colonial encounter. this in itself should lead us to question the dichotomy you set up between "cultural imperialism" and cultural authenticity. Second, the notion that those authentic expressions are really indigenous has in large part been constructed for political purposes, especially to support the interests of people you would be wont to detest. African dictators relish in quoting "anticolonial" catch phrases-- Mugabe these days is one fo the post-colonial advocates with the most media space. :) Or take Mobutu and his "Zairization" of the Congo to make it more "indigenous," Houphouet Boigny and his cultural project of consturing the nation as ahappy family with him as the pater familias ... I have to go soon, but I will write more on "the invention of tradition" in later posts.

Also, on "the subjectivity of underdevelopment": I did not pull that claim out my *ss. You write the following two statements:

1)" But we can only really help the poor and destitute of the world after we’ve rid ourselves of the ideology that makes them destitute and poor."

2)"residents of many so-called “developing” nations such as Nigeria consistently score higher on polls of happiness, contentedness, and optimism than citizens of the US, Canada, and even the Scandanavian socialist wonderlands"

It is not outrageous to infer from the above that you see a strong--if not solely--subjective element in poverty. That poverty, as it were, is not such a big deal because people in the Third World are happy (i.e., the condition we want to fix only "looks" bad to people in the US). On that point, let me just say that interpersonal comparisons of happiness are absurd for a number of reasons. Mainly, they completely ignore the fact that people get used to, and rationalize away, tragedy and suffering of all sorts. Sure, having a fancy house is not everything there is to life, but surely you are made worse off when it burns down,a nd most probably, years down the road, when people take poor-ly designed polls, you will tell them that "it really didn't matter that much." People are extremely adept at coping with pain by fooling themselves. Colombia was also at the top of those rankings a couple of years ago. But do you honestly think that this proves that living amidst poverty and civil war and massacre are not negatively related to their material and spiritual well-being?

I keep on, as you describe it, "burning a straw man" only because I do think that your argument can be reduced to those straw men.

Let me know if you think that now I actually am addressing your argument.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger O said...

You have yet to address my argument

I reiterate that I have not yet said that the past was better than the present. In fact I say that "there is no linear trajectory of development."

Even if I were to say that the past was better than the present, that would not be an equivalent framework, nor would it be self-defeating if I defined what i meant by good and bad and gave evidence. but since I didn't do that and am not going to do that let's let that one rest.

In bringing up the cases of Nigeria and other "materially impoverished" societies I'm merely suggesting that we broaden our definition of wealth (go look at that NYtimes article) and well-being to include objective measures of constructs that may be harder to access such as happiness, contentment, and stress.

My argument is really about exposing a trend in thinking and questioning it and I don't think it needs to be reduced to straw men to be engaged.

the salsa/jessica simpson thing was a joke


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