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A Sociology of Jack Vance III - Robust Action among the Breakness Wizards

The Languages of Pao is occasionally discussed as an example (along with 1984) of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in fiction. The imagination of the people of Pao is limited by their language, which enforces a culture of passivity and fatalism under all except the most extraordinary of circumstances. When their Panarch (under the tutelage of the Breakness 'wizards,' none of whose powers are supernatural) introduces new, artificially crafted languages to selected groups within this population, he is able to create new dynamic warrior, mercantile and technocratic elites, to his ultimate undoing. None of this need detain us; the philosophical discussion is no more and no less than one might expect of a highly intelligent pulp writer in the 1950s. Far more interesting is the guiding wisdom of the Breakness wizards themselves.

The wizard Palafox's characteristic tactic is of "subtle diversion, the channeling of opposing energy into complicated paths." He never speaks as to his final goals, in part because he has no fixed objectives, in part because clearly outlining them might commit him to a definitive course of action, to his ultimate disadvantage. Instead, he maneuvers others to take actions for which they are liable to suffer the consequences should matters not dispose of themselves as hoped. When the frustrated hero of the book presses him on his motivations, his answers are telling.

"What are your interests, then?" cried Beran. "What do you hope to achieve?"

"On Breakness," said Palafox softly, those are questions which one never asks."

Beran was silent for a moment. Then he turned away, exclaiming bitterly, "Why did you bring me here? Why did you sponsor me at the Institute?"

Palafox, the basic conflict now defined, relaxed and sat at his ease. "Where is the mystery? The able strategist provides himself with as many tools and procedures as possible. Your function was to serve as a lever against Bustamonte, if the need should arise."

"And now I am no further use to you?"

Palafox shrugged. "I am no seer - I cannot read the future."

There is a startling resemblance between Palafox's particular approach to strategy, and Cosimo de Medici's "robust action," as described in John Padgett and Christopher Ansell's classic article. In Padgett and Ansell's description.

We use the term "robust action" to refer to Cosimo's style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo's sphinxlike character ... is multivocality - the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. ... The "only" point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism - maintaining discretionary options across unforseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of thers' successful "ecological control" over you. Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby.

Compare this with how another Breakness wizard, Palafox's son Finisterle, justifies his decision not to reveal that Beran is creating a hidden second identity so as to return to Pao.

"You must know I am here as a ward of Lord Palafox."

"Oh indeed. But I have no mandate to guard his interests. Even," he added delicately, "if I desired to do so."

Beran looked his surprise. Finisterle went on in a soft voice. "You are Paonese; you do not understand us of Breakness. We are total individuals - each has his own private goal. The Paonese word "cooperation" has no counterpart on Breakness. How would I advance myself by monitoring your case to Sire Palafox? Such an act is irreversible. I commit myself without perceptible advantage. If I say nothing, I have alternate channels always open.

It is worth noting that the particular egoism of the Breakness wizards cannot be maintained indefinitely. At a certain point they become 'emeritus' - they are no longer able to perceive the difference between their own schemes, and the world that they hope to impose those schemes upon, and are plunged into insanity.

Even so, there are societies that resemble the world of the Medicis and of the Breakness wizards. The Sicilian mafia (which is arguably a relict of once-common feudal social relations) provides several very nice illustrations (I draw here from the relevant chapter of my book on trust ). Just as among the Breakness wizards, one does not ask direct questions about goals and motivations. In the words of the prominent mafioso Tomasso Buscetta (my translation):

The family head informs, when he does it [at all], only those members of the family whom he considers worthy of receiving his confidences, and only to the extent that it seems appropriate. To give you an example, it is necessary to point out that one never asks questions of one's interlocutor in relationships between men of honor because this is seen as the sign of a regrettable curiosity and can be interpreted in unfortunate ways.

As pentito Salvatore Contorno puts it (also my translation):

This is neither an obligation to speak, nor to answer anything except questions from one's own bosses; on the other hand, it is necessary not to be curious, or to ask about things where one doesn't have an interest.

Here too, these are "questions one never asks" - information about individuals' goals can be used to trap them. The result is that the world of the mafioso is one, where as Diego Gambetta puts it, "mafiosi scrutinize every sentence uttered by other mafiosi, searching for potential ambiguities, oblique messages, or subtle traps."

Contorno, when he describes a funeral enconium by the Corleonesi boss Riina to Contorno's brother, whom Riina had ordered murdered, describes the consequences of all this simulation and dissimulation for those caught up in it.

It was difficult to tell whether ... his elevated and noble words were coming from sincere grief ... or from the base satisfaction of a victor who has just eliminated a dangerous enemy ... It was useless to try to dissect, understand, make sense of it. It's always like that in the Cosa Nostra: no fact ever has only one meaning.

"Mafia" (the cosa nostra se stesso rather than the occasional pastime of conference going tech-geeks), is considerably nastier than chess, than go, and even than Medici Florence. It is thus unsurprising that its players are particularly disinclined to forgo strategic advantage through any unseemly and unwise garrulity regarding their actual motivations.

Finally, it is worth noting that Padgett and Ansell's article was published in 1993. Vance's book first appeared in 1958. This appears, then, to be an example of Vance anticipating later developments in sociological thinking, rather than vice versa.

Further reading:

John F. Padgett and Christopher K. Ansell, "Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 98, No. 6. (May, 1993), pp. 1259-1319. Available here.


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