The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Practical problems

September 5, 2008

Last night I walked into my house after my usual commute home to find that the house was much warmer than I expected. A quick glance at the thermostat showed that something was wrong, since the room temperature was about 10 or 15 degrees warmer than the thermostat setting. Further investigation revealed that there was no air coming out of any of the vents in the house. Behold, a practical problem.

President Bush’s approval ratings are in the toilet. The war in Iraq continues to be a divisive issue, and the presumptive Republican candidate stood and stands with Bush on that issue, as on several other emotive positions. The vice-presidential candidate’s background takes “experience” out of the race as an issue, since it’s now completely unclear which ticket has more of the relevant professional preparation to be in charge of the government. Behold, a practical problem.

What fascinates me is that the solution — or part of the solution — presently being proposed for each of these problems involves an essentializing strategy: a way of apprehending objects in the world as though they had relatively fixed, mind-independent essences. Of course, proponents of this strategy would probably not say “as though”; they would likely say that they were simply apprehending the essences of objects. I’d like to let the jury remain out on that question for a moment, and simply focus on the strategy itself. What is essentialized varies in each case; the Republican party seems to be essentializing “country,” while last night I was essentializing “my air conditioner.” Despite this variation of objects, the strategy is quite similar, even though the practical context within which the strategy occurs is quite different.

Let’s think first about my air temperature problem. No air was coming out of the vents, despite the fan running (I could hear it running, and also visually confirm that at least the outside unit fan was turning). After verifying that the ducts were not closed off, and that no vent in the entire house was receiving any airflow, I turned to an investigation of the central unit itself in the basement. The box containing the compressor coils was very cold to the touch, condensation had accumulated on the outside, and there was some water on the ground. It felt frozen . . . Hmm. Speculation: the coils froze. I turned off the air conditioner but left the fan on, and in a couple of minutes the water-flow from one of the pipes leading to a drain on the floor increased from some drops to a steady trickle, and a distinct crackling noise was heard emanating from the coils. Looks like I was right. Now, I wonder how that happened. it’s been hot and we’ve been running the AC a lot, but that shouldn’t matter . . . hey, I wonder if the air flow from outside is impeded somehow. Maybe I’d better look at the air filter — which, when I pulled it out, was very caked with dust and grime. Further speculation: the dirty air filter impeded the flow of air, and this caused the coils to freeze. Solution: change air filter, run the fan but not the AC for a while until the ice melts, then turn the AC back on. This was reinforced by a phone-call to an HVAC tech, who agreed with my diagnosis. And sure enough, a few hours later we were able to turn the AC back on and cool down the house.

What happened here? What I did was to participate in a practical problem-solving situation, one with a clear goal (get the house cooled down) and some parameters (use the AC to cool the house, since it was hot and windless outside; avoid a service-call and the accompanying charge if possible). I noted a problem, shifted into observer-mode to gather data, speculated about the situation, checked some of the likely consequences of that speculation, and then repeated the process until I arrived at a possible solution — a solution that was itself put to a practical evaluative test by being tried out. And in the end the problem was solved, in part by a strategy of looking to the unit as though it had a dispositional essence that was unknown and that I had to grasp. My supposition that the (unobserved, since I did not want to rip open the enclosure housing the coils!) unit was frozen arose in the context of solving a practical problem, and should be evaluated based on its contribution to the eventual solution of that problem. The AC is working again, so apparently my essentializing of the unit was practically efficacious — and, apparently, not out of line with what an experienced technician also would have done (this based on a phone conversataion).

Note: it is not necessary that my supposition have been in some transcendental, absolute sense “right” in order for it to have been practically efficacious. I still don’t know that the coils froze, if by “know” we mean “have an absolutely secure grasp on the nature of the coils at given points in time.” But if by “know” we mean “are able to work with the coils and produce a desired outcome,” then yes, I know that they were frozen, and probably that they were frozen because of a dirty air-filter impeding air flow. So the issue is not that my speculation “really” corresponded to the way that things really were in the world — maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, maybe that’s a meaningless notion to begin with — but that it was a useful instrument in the context of solving a practical problem.

Shift over to the Republican Party. As the incumbent party, they’d usually want to run by identifying themselves with the great successes of the status quo and promising to continue them, but with Bush’s approval ratings so low and such widespread dissatisfaction with the present state of things in the US (including the usual batch of things people are annoyed about that the President can’t do anything to address in the short-term, such as funding for public schools and the like), that’s not an available option. Pick a female vice-presidential candidate: good, allows the Republicans to portray themselves as change agents, maybe depresses turnout among Democrats (especially disgruntled Clinton supporters) a bit. But what might electrify the electorate even more? Speculation: we need a new tag-line, a slogan . . . how about “Country First”? That allows the Republicans to claim the rhetorical high ground/trump card of representing the WHOLE instead of just some of its parts, the “unum” part of “e pluribus unum,” and also to characterize their opponents as more interested in the parts and the pluribus than in the over-riding interests of the WHOLE. Insert “War on Terror(ism)” appeal here, and reinforce that old notion dating at least back to Machiavelli that dangerous worlds outside the city/polis/state demand extraordinary political actions and a logic that privileges survival above all else — the survival of the WHOLE. Country First.

This is essentializing a strategy as my working with my air conditioner. In both cases, the actors utilizing the strategy have to be attuned to the situation, gather information, and then put forth a speculative account of an essence such that that account can inform what they do next. And in neither case are the speculators completely free to speculate on whatever they want and in whatever direction they want; political operatives listened to their constituents as attentively as I “listened” to my air conditioner. The proposed solution arises not from some transcendental heaven, but from a concrete set of practical experiences and an ongoing effort to solve a problem.

But there’s a major difference, and it’s not that my air conditioner has an essence while the country does not. I reject that kind of dichotomy, because the statement about my air conditioner having an essence is only meaningful within a practical context of trying to cool my house down, and that’s no warrant for concluding that my air conditioner “really” has an essence that I accurately grasped. Instead, I think that the difference here is that the practical context is aiming at different kinds of outcome. My essentializing efforts vis-a-vis my air conditioner were intended — they were part of a program designed to — control the object of analysis. I wanted to make my air conditioner do something different from what it was doing, and as part of the means of doing that I essentialized it, contingently and contextually, and did so to great practical effect.

But the Republican strategists are not, I submit, seeking to control their essentialized object; rather, they are seeking to shape social action, and in particular the action of voters. That requires them to engage in a contest of public rhetoric; those are the rules of the game, so outright coercion and fraud and other techniques are outside of the zone of legitimate options (which doesn’t mean that they aren’t done, just that they aren’t done openly, and that they can be challenged if exposed). So they listen attentively to the voters, and to what those voters say and do with respect to a notion like ‘country’. It’s a tricky business, because if they go too far away from what people are already saying and doing then the message falls flat. So coining a political slogan is in many ways the fine art of explicitly articulating tacit understandings and practices, and the important thing about tacit understandings and practices is that the articulator has some wiggle-room in concretizing them and making them explicit. And essentialism, especially the essentialising of the political community, has a long and distinguished history of working pretty well at shaping social action.

But just like with my air conditioner, the relative success of an essentialising strategy tells us nothing whatsoever about the “real” essence of the object in question. If the Republicans succeed with this slogan, it will not be because they have accurately grasped the essence of ‘country’. Instead, it will be (in part) because they have promulgated a strategic essentialism that met with some social and political resonance among the electorate. And resonance is not a one-way street; the recipient can react to the message, and negotiations can ensue — negotiations that can sometimes shift the essentialized notion. But they won’t be be negotiations with the object; they’ll be negotiations with other social actors. When I dealt with my air conditioner, I had to negotiate with it directly; other social actors were involved, but so was the object more or less directly. Not so with political strategies, where the object not need even be addressed directly. And that’s an important difference — not in the least because of the pervasive academic error of importing a successful essentializing strategy into our analytical framework as though it had succeeded in actually grasping the essence of the object in question. Essentializing strategies, whether in politics or in my basement, don’t work that way, and we do ourselves a grave disservice by evaluating them as if they did.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.