Thursday, November 10, 2005

Unfinished Ranting, Part I

I've got unfinished business all over this blog, so let's get to it.

First, S and I had a conversation about transactional versus transformational relationships a few weeks ago, and we were lucky enough to have some decent barbequed meat and cold fermented beverages in front of us at the time. I keep thinking about the subject, though, so this isn't a mere recap of that conversation. He, playing devil's advocate, pointed out that economists, especially economists from the University of Chicago, want to regard every interaction between or among humans as transactional. Game theory, with which I had to contend when I was in graduate school, makes a similar move. These approaches also tend to wildly oversimplify descriptions or interpretations of behavior--"modelling," they call it--in ways that remove all nuance from the discussion. The fundamental philosophical claims at the root of these analyses are that human behavior can best be described as a series of transactions and that simplifying explanations to what (they regard as) the heart of any given transaction will provide clarity in a way that a complex description will not. There are two fundamental flaws with this approach (okay, WAY more than two, but I have other fish to fry today).

First off, I disagree that human interactions can or should be described primarily as transactions, and I disagree that all humans think of their interactions that way. Economists and game theorists have a nasty habit of insisting that such transactional behavior is "really" what's going on, even if we say, think, feel, or believe that something else is going on. That is, economists claim to know and understand human behavior better than anyone else, and they tend to regard others' approaches to behavior as misguided. (Yes, I'm oversimplifying, and I'm sure there are many fine economists out there, as well as many fine problems that are best addressed using economists' models.)

Second, while it's true that we typically go back and forth between a model and reality (and that process is a whole other discussion, and one that involves Wittgenstein, which would only upset Larry)--and, again, I'm oversimplifying wildly here--I find that models work best if they retain a certain amount of complexity, nuance (there's that word again), and interpretation. Many economists' and game theorists' models suck all of the life and juice out of human behavior, by reducing it to numbers, often enough, and then claiming that this highly stylized version of the world is the real one, or, at least, the one that provides the most insight into what's "really" going on. To me, this is like dissecting an animal to see how it works and then trying to sew it back together, meanwhile wondering why it just lays there and, after awhile, starts to smell bad and bloat.

In any case, I think that this dichotomy is itself slightly false--it's a useful tool or model, but it enforces a binary split that probably isn't accurate. In addition, while there certainly are people who count the cost of every step they take, of every gesture they make, of everything they give, it is not necessarily the case that everyone is like that, or that this is a particularly laudable way to act. It is also not the case that everyone is "really" transacting all the time, no matter what they claim to be doing. As for me and the bus driver, well, it's not as though we have a deep, meaningful, I-Thou relationship, but I also don't think it's a purely transactional relationship, either. There are several regulars on this bus (at 4:58 am you tend to notice these things), but there's only one other person who talks to him regularly.

Today Chef Fred taught us how to make crepes and tarte tatin, neither of which were in our books and both of which were really quite spectacular. I can't take a picture of the crepes, because I ate them all. I'll take a picture of the tarte tatin later (caramelized apples arranged on a disk of puff pastry) and tell you why it's different from most of the tarte tatin recipes you're likely to find. I have other unfinished business, but I want to get out of here, so it'll have to wait.

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