January 14, 2011

A Sociology of Jack Vance IV - The Old Tradition of the Perdusz Region

The discussion, in Cugel's Saga between Cugel and the sinister magician Faucelme is classic Vancean baroque. Forewarned by inscriptions, Cugel takes the precaution of tying Faucelme up with a rope before entering his manse.

"And the ropes?" Faucelme looked down at the web of strands which bound him into the chair.

"I would not care to offend you with the explanation," said Cugel.

"Would the explanation offend me more than the ropes?"

Cugel frowned and tapped his chin. "Your question is more profound than it might seem, and verges into the ancient analyses of the Ideal versus the Real."

Faucelme sighed. "Tonight I have no zest for philosophy. You may answer my question in terms which proximate the Real."

"In all candour, I have forgotten the question," said Cugel.

"I will re-phrase it in words of simple structure. Why have you tied me to my chair, rather than entering by the door?"

"At your urging then, I will reveal an unpleasant truth. Your reputation is that of a sly and unpredictable villain with a penchant for morbid tricks."

Later, after Faucelme has freed himself, and an uneasy equilibrium has been established, the conversation turns on the power of social norms.

Faucelme stood back and held up his hands in the manner of one who dissembles nothing. "Is this the conduct of a 'sly and unpredictable villain?'"

"Decidedly so, if the villain, for the purposes of his joke, thinks to simulate the altruist."

"Then how will you know villain from altruist?"

Cugel shrugged. "It is not an important distinction."

Faucelme seemed to pay no heed; his mercurial intellect was already exploring a new topic. "I was trained in the old tradition! We found our strength in the basic verities, to which you, as a patrician, must surely subscribe. Am I right in this?"

"Absolutely, and in all respects" declared Cugel. "Recognizing, of course, that these fundamental verities vary from region to region, and even from person to person."

The sociological point about the malleability of purportedly universal norms is so obvious as scarcely merit further elaboration. What are interesting (and entirely typical of Vance) are the guiding assumptions of Faucelme and Cugel's discourse. Neither is at all interested in the other's actual motivations - Cugel admits his indifference as to whether Faucelme is an actual altruist or merely a villain simulating one. Instead, each seeks to rhetorically entrap the other while preserving an optimum of flexibility for himself. This logic of discourse is familiar - it is the strategic approach of the Breakness wizards, as presented in The Languages of Pao. What was depicted there as a pathology here becomes the guiding philosophy of Cugel and nearly everyone whom he comes into contact with. "Fundamental verities" - like everything else - become a way of seeking to constrain others while remaining free oneself.

Many of the rococo elaborations of Vance's prime work are prefigured in his early novels. The somewhat crudely depicted society of people seeking distinction so as to avoid early death in To Live Forever is a toy model of his baroque civilizations of strivers in novels such as Night Lamp, with its ludicrously entitled collectivities. However, The Languages of Pao is more than that - it openly reveals and discusses the machineries of conversation that Vance is at pains to conceal in his later, better novels. When Cugel and Faucelme vie to trap each other into conversational dead ends, they each carry out a version of Palafox's program. It is the interplay between these undercurrents of discourse, and the ornate sentences through which they are made flow that make Vance's dialogues so entertaining.

December 12, 2010

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.

November 03, 2010

A Sociology of Jack Vance II - The Columns at Tustvold

Again, discussed in the first part of Cugel's Saga. The villagers of Tustvold, sprung from the dubious stock of fugitives from the Rhab Faag, have a curious social structure in which the women do all the work, and the men spend their days at the tops of columns whence they "absorb a healthful flux from the sunlight."

"The higher the column the more pure and rich is the flux, as well as the prestige of place. The women, especially, are consumed with ambition for the altitude of their husbands."

In Vance's description, the innate virtues of the flux are less interesting to the villagers than the more earthly pleasures of superior social position.

"Dame Petish, for instance, is annoyed that Dame Gillincx's husband now sits on the same level as Petish himself. Dame Viberl fancies herself the leader of society, and insists that two segments separate Viberl from his social inferiors.

Access to the flux of the higher altitudes is a very nearly perfect example of what Fred Hirsch dubs a 'positional good.' The benefits of the good to its consumers depend on its limited availability. If all the columns were raised by magic far into the upper atmosphere, but their heights were equalized, Dame Petish would be very unhappy. Hirsch argues suggests increased supply of positional goods is self-defeating, since the more readily they are available to the vulgarity, the less valuable they are.

Vance's book discusses a less-widely noted corollary of the concept. To the extent that the benefits of these goods are purely positional, they are likely to involve considerable waste. In Veblen's terms, they are a kind of conspicuous consumption. People's dynamic pursuit of relative status will likely compel them towards ever more costly extravagances as they try to catch up to their social superiors, or alternatively to accentuate their distinction at the expense of social inferiors. Cugel proposes to mitigate some of this waste (and, more to the point, fill his purse) by abstracting the lowest segments from all the pillars at once, and then selling them back again as purported new segments.

"I have watched the men climbing their columns. They come out blinking and half asleep. They trouble to look at nothing but the state of the weather and the rungs of their ladders.'

Nisbet pulled dubiously at his beard. "Tomorrow, when Fidix climbs his column, he will find himself unaccountably lower by a segment."

"That is why we must remove the 'One' from every column. So now to work! There are many segments to remove."

Unfortunately for Cugel and Nisbet, the scheme is discovered, and the women of Tustvold,being unacquainted with the niceties of social theory, fail to appreciate its efficiencies. As is often the case in these books, Cugel is forced to flee precipitately, with a crowd of outraged villagers in pursuit.

Further sociological readings.

Fred Hirsch (1977), Social Limits to Growth . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

October 08, 2010

A Sociology of Jack Vance I: Master Twango's Establishment at Flutic

Described in the early chapters of Cugel's Saga, Master Twango's manse is a study-in-miniature of society as a web of contractual relations and power asymmetries - Ronald Dore's market capitalism without a hint of the spirit of goodwill. When Cugel takes up the role of 'overseer' for Master Twango, he is informed by his predecessor that "[a]t Flutic all is exact, and every jot balances against a corresponding tittle." This description is misleading; the subsequent suggestion that "[c]onditions at Flutic are always optimum[sic] and at worst meticulous" is more apt in its sly hint that the books are jiggered.

"At Flutic," said Weamish, "nothing is left to chance. Twango carefully distinguishes sentiment from business. If Twango owned the air, we would pay over coins for every gasp."

In much of Vance's work, rococo social practices and rhetorical flourishes of false sentiment gild over the most debased kinds of self-interest. At Flutic, the veneer is nearly completely worn through. There is not even the pretense of an appeal to goodwill. Instead, Flutic emphasizes the mutual benefits of contractual relations.

Yet as Cugel soon discovers, any ambiguities in the contracts governing his new responsibilities are swiftly resolved in favor of Master Twango, and enforced through swift and thorough beatings by the repulsive Gark and Gookin, or other available. The accounting system through which employees' wages are tallied against expenses incurred may err by the odd misplaced decimal point, again to the advantage of Master Twango. Contractual relations serve Twango as a rhetorical shield. When Master Soldinck discovers that he has been mulcted of several valuable crates of scales, Twango points out that he had inspected the crates and handed over a receipted invoice, and hence cannot be held responsible. Despite the suspicious circumstances, Twango cannot conceive that one of his employees might have abstracted the scales for his personal benefit. Were he to find enlightenment, it might plausibly render him legally responsible for reimbursing his counterparty. Hence, he obdurately insists on the benign motives of his employee and his own observation of the appropriate contractual forms.

An ungenerous reader might suggest that the description of Flutic has some internal inconsistencies. It is odd and remarkable that Master Twango would offer a lavish buffet of expensive food every night in the hope that his employees would partake of it and hence increase their indebtedness to him. His employees being fully aware of the ploy, invariably confine their appetites to stewed kale, hunks of raw onion, and small dishes of boiled burdock leaves. This renders Twango's tactic both inept and expensive. Yet such a manifest display of irrational behavior must surely be intended by the author for some subtle rhetorical purpose.[^1]

To compare: The Giant Throop in Lyonesse III: Madouc

Further sociological readings.

Ronald Dore, "Goodwill and the Spirit of Market Capitalism," British Journal of Sociology (1983). Available here.

[^1]: So too, it is inconceivable that Vance errs in his description of the unfortunate imbroglio at the lavatory trough behind the Inn of Blue Lamps, where Master Chernitz is invited to retract his suggestion that Cugel is a "moral leper," even though no such suggestion is recorded in the written text. Still, I must admit that the distinct literary conventions of the omniscient and of the unreliable narrator are only rarely combined to advantage. To what purpose they are combined in this particular instance, I cannot readily discover.