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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (19)—Code Cracking

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
[a] Codes RF
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
Kramer is a social savant, even a kind of urban shaman. He shows it here in a brief little scene that has George sweating. There are at least two themes to be explored today—George as code-keeper and Kramer as code-cracker. Jerry is just along for the ride today. Take a look at the scene before we proceed.

"No numbers for're a word man." Kramer's shark begins to circle, and then spots vulnerability: "You're a portly fellow...a bit long in the waistband..." From there, George begins to crack, especially once the "sweet snacks" angle hits home.

[b]コド  RF
What is it about codes and secrecy that gets human beings worked up in social situations? We are usually inclined to show deference, a theme we explored briefly in a Round and Square post a few weeks ago. There seems to be (at least occasionally, and in certain situations) an equally persistent line of human behavior that focuses on breaking codes. Movies, novels, and television shows all display this theme as a minor thread in the broad sweep of human action.

Are some people better at code-cracking than others? Undeniably, and Kramer is an example of a personality type that sees through façades, right down to the naked number or word image used on secure websites and ATM machines. Are some people particularly bad at making and keeping codes? Yup, undeniably. George seems to be somewhere in the middle (he wouldn't use a birthday, for example), but he cannot stray too far from the needs that drive him. Sweet, chocolatey needs.

[c] Pentagonal  RF
Think about it. Can you recognize this type of interaction in the social life around you? I'll bet you can, and it plays out (if you think broadly enough) in everything from test-taking to first dates. Indeed, the strange dynamic in this minute-plus episode works its way into almost every human interaction that takes place. Ever. We are constantly trying to "read" a situation and decipher (correctly or incorrectly) what is "exterior" and what is integral to a person's actions. We look—in what might be called an "essentializing" fashion—for the core of a person's character. Is this even possible? Theorists today argue that it is not, but almost all of our daily actions seem to show that we still think it does. This is an "essential" problem that just won't go away, and we'll return to it several times in the next few months on Round and Square.

For now, let's move on to the readings (since I have already begun to dull the excitement of the episode with ideas about psychology and "essentializing" rhetoric(s). Today, we'll examine three diverse thinkers, each of whom deals with a different angle of today's episode. On the face of it, the selections may not seem to address the "code-cracking" theme. Remember, that the whole point of these readings on Seinfeld Ethnography is to juxtapose the ideas in the Seinfeld clip with other themes that hover in its general universe. In today's case, we have Aristotle on the nature of deliberation (to what extent does Kramer v.s. Costanza fit the theme of "deliberation"?), Paul Ricoeur on individuality and individuation (what could be more "individualized" than a secret code?), and, finally, a very fine reflection by Charles Taylor on ways we come to understandings in different contexts. One might wonder what Aristotle, Ricoeur, and Taylor would think of Kramer and George this week.

The Art of Deliberation
[d] Deliberation
First, then, we must grasp what sort of advantages or disadvantages it is that are the subject of the deliberator's deliberation, given that they are not all things, but only such as admit of being or not being the case, while those that either are or will be of necessity or incapable of existing or coming to be are not subjects of deliberation. Nor even, indeed, are all contingencies. There are certain advantages of nature or luck among things that can either be or not, and it is no part of the task to deliberate about them. Rather, the subjects of deliberation are clearly such things as are naturally traced back to us and the cause of whose coming to be lies with us, since our consideration continues until we discover whether or not the proposed course can or cannot be carried out.

The accurate enumeration and assignment to species of the customary subjects of debate and, as far as this is possible, their precise definition we need not at the moment pursue. They do not, indeed, come within the ambit of rhetorical skill, belonging rather to a more intellectual and veridical competence. In fact, we have even now assigned to rhetoric many more than its proper subjects of interest. For what we had occasion to remark above is true—that rhetoric is a compound of the science of dialectic and the deliberative study of morality and is akin both to dialectic and sophistry. And in so far as it might be attempted to establish either of the latter not as capacities but as sciences, this would be a surreptitious obfuscation of their true nature by a slide to the foundation of the sciences of the given subjects, not merely of arguments.[1]

Paul Ricoeur
"Person" and Identifying Reference
[e] Individuation
I want to establish here that the person is, to begin with, one of the things that we distinguish by means of identifying reference. To do this, I shall undertake a preliminary inquiry into the procedures by which we individualize "something" in general and consider it as an indivisible example within a species. Language, indeed, is constituted in such a way that it does not condemn us to the choice, as Bergson long maintained, between the conceptual or the ineffable. Language contains specific connecting units that allow us to designate individuals. In speaking of individuation rather than of individual, I highlight the fact that the ascription of individualities can be based, depending on the various lexical resources of natural languages, on widely varying degrees of specification. One language may make finer distinctions than another in some particular area, and this corresponds to the respective features of each natural language; what is common to all is individualization, the operation rather than the result.

As a process, individualization may be broadly characterized as the inverse of classification, which eliminates the singular under the name of the concept. But if we simply stress the adjective "inverse," we then underscore two purely negative features of the individual, namely that it is a type that is neither repeatable nor divisible without alteration. These negation do indeed carry us to the side of the ineffable. But just because this is an inverse movement does not mean that language is without resources, as though it were limited to classification and predication. The individualizing intention begins where classification and predication leave off but draws support from these operations and, as we shall see, gives them new impetus. We individualize only if we have conceptualized. And we individualize with a view to describing more. It is because we think and speak in concepts that language has to repair, as it were, the loss caused by conceptualization...[2]

Charles Taylor
Understanding the Other
[f] Interlocuters
In Wahrheit und Methode, Gadamer shows how understanding a text or event that comes from our history has to be construed no on the model of the "scientific" grasp of an object but rather on that of speech partners who come to an understanding (Verständigung). Following Gadamer's argument here, we come to see that this is probably true of human science as such. It is not simply knowledge of our own past that needs to be understood on the "conversation" model, but knowledge of the other as such, including disciplines like anthropology, where student and studied often belong to quite different civilizations. This view has come to be widely accepted today, and it is one of the great contributions that Gadamer has made to the philosophy of this and succeeding centuries. I would like to lay out here why this is so.

First, I want to contrast two kinds of operation: knowing an object and coming to an understanding with an interlocuter. The first is unilateral, the second bilateral. I know the rock, the solar system; I don't have to deal with its view of me or of my knowing activity. But beyond this, the goal is different. I conceive the goal of knowledge as attaining some finally adequate explanatory language, which can make sense of the object and will exclude all future surprises. However much this may elude us in practice, it is what we often seek in science: we look for the ultimate theory in microphysics, where we will finally have charted all the particles and forces, and we do not have to face future revisions.

Second, coming to an understanding can never have this finality. For one thing, we come to understandings with certain definite interlocutors. These will not necessarily serve when we come to deal with others. Understandings are party-dependent. And then, frequently more worrying, even our present partners may not remain the same. Their life situations or goals may change and the understanding may be put in question. True, we try to control for this by binding agreements and contracts, but this is precisely because we see that what constitutes perfect and unconstrained mutual understanding at one time may no longer hold good later.

Third, the unilateral nature of knowledge emerges in the fact that my goal is to attain a full intellectual control over the object, such that it can no longer "talk back" and surprise me. Now this may require that I make some quite considerable changes in my outlook. My whole conceptual scheme may be inadequate when I begin my inquiry. I may have to undergo the destruction and remaking of my framework of understanding to attain the knowledge that I seek. But all this serves the aim of full intellectual control. What does not alter the process is my goal. I define my aims throughout in the same way.

By contrast, coming to an understanding may require that I give some ground on my objectives. The end of the operation is not control, or else I am engaging in a sham designed to manipulate my partner while pretending to negotiate. The end is being able in some way to function together with the partner, and this means listening as well as talking, and hence may require that I redefine what I am aiming at.[3]

[1] Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric [Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred] (New York: Penguin Classics, 2004), 83-84.
[2] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another [Translated by Kathleen Blamey] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 27-28.
[3] Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 24-26.

Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric [Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred]. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.
Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another [Translated by Kathleen Blamey]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Taylor, Charles. Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Wednesday, August 10th
Non-fat Yogurt
Newman is enveloped in desire for non-fat frozen yogurt ("I've been waiting for this my whole life"). Jerry and Elaine are skeptical. Is there ever a free lunch, or even snack? We'll explore economics, frozen treats, and mail/male aggression next week on Seinfeld Ethnography.

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