Friday, August 24, 2012

How To Do Things With Numbers

Even if you leave the Lance Armstrong news out of it, this has been a tough week for the truth. Newsweek was caught lying, or at least allowing writer and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson to use numbers in the news magazine’s cover story in such a way to make it appear that President Obama has failed in ways that he actually hasn’t. Senate candidate (and poor excuse for a human being) Todd Akin was also caught lying, or at least repeating biological hogwash in order to make it appear that women's bodies work in a way they categorically do not. Even Emory University officials were caught lying, or at least misreporting data about admissions in order to make it appear that their incoming classes have more impressive scores and grades than they actually do. 

Of course, it hasn’t only been this week. The Emory case follows that of similar scandals at colleges in California and New Jersey; the Newsweek case recalls other incidents of high profile journalistic fabrication, from Jonah Lehrer to Jayson Blair; and Akin is only the latest in a steadily growing stream of conservative politicians who “just make stuff up.” It looks like we've finally become Stephen Colbert's truthiness nation.

But are these just simple cases of lying? The linguist J.L. Austin in his 1962 book called How To Do Things With Words, identifies a particular kind of utterance that does not describe reality, but produces reality, which he called a performative speech act. Common examples of performative speech acts include such statements as “I bring this court to order” or “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I dub you Sir Elton John”—sentences that literally bring into being the condition they describe only in the course of actually pronouncing them. Of course, these are all rather benign examples that moreover work because the speaker (a judge, or minister, or the Queen of England) is invested with the proper social, religious, or political authority to do so. Other examples reveal more bluntly the extraordinary, even dangerous, power of performative speech acts, such as the admiral who, after jamming a flag into the soil of some strange island and speaking the words “I claim this land for the King and Queen of Spain,” blithely took complete possession of it. These days, in our truthiness nation, it seems just about anyone is willing to claim and perform this kind of linguistic authority, as if we've all become judges, Queens, conquistadors.

It seems doubtful that republican politicians have been reading Austin's linguistic theory in between their rereadings of Atlas Shrugged. But there is another realm in which the logic of performative speech acts has had a long history, and with which many conservatives have far greater knowledge: accounting. Accounting is a discipline of numbers rather than words, but it has for centuries been founded on the performative demonstration of the truth. Mary Poovey explains how this works in her book A History of the Modern Fact, where she discusses how early modern bookkeepers and businessmen regularly tried to produce a reality that did not yet exist:
It was necessary, in other words, for the merchant to represent himself as solvent even if he was not in order to establish the credit necessary to make himself so.
This is still how the world of finance and investment works, where the appearance of solvency or stability or creditworthiness can literally create the condition it describes; it's why we're continually being reassured that the economy is strong, that Wall Street is stable, and that we should all go shopping. It's this same performative logic that's on egregious display at Emory, at Newsweek, and among the radical right: like the early merchant, these institutions tell lies in an effort to make those lies become true. If Emory appears to be a more competitive institution than it actually is, it will attract higher caliber students whose admission will in time give Emory the elite status it sought in the first place (and the growth in their reported numbers from year to year suggest that this is exactly how it worked).

Austin's How to do Things with Words began as a series of lectures delivered in 1952 at Harvard University, an institution that hosted the recent performative speech acts of Adam Wheeler, who completely invented a set of unbelievable credentials that nevertheless got him into and most of the way through Harvard before getting caught and eventually sentenced to jail. Jim Newell's great piece in The Baffler perceptively recognizes that Wheeler is essentially an unauthorized mini-version of former Harvard President/former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, whose job in both cases might be seen to manufacture the illusion of reputation so that the institutions he presided over could continue to reap the rewards that reputation brings.
Wheeler’s crime, in the institution’s eyes, was that he saw Harvard degrees for what they are—items for purchase that cloak the owner with a manufactured prestige that, in our pretend meritocracy, automatically raises one’s market value upon the deal’s closing.
The bubble of Wheeler's performance popped before he could cash out and move on, and his market value plummeted. Summers' performance meanwhile continues: in the wake of the financial crisis his own deregulation policies helped to create, he has returned to his teaching post at Harvard, where he will instruct future leaders on how economic policy works.

It's been heartening to see Ferguson and Akin called out so swiftly and strongly, and to be reminded of the crucial regulatory accountability provided by fact-checking. It's also telling that these incidents involve the use of numbers (test scores and grade point averages, job growth figures, scientific data), for we tend to allow numbers to perform truth with even less interference and skepticism than we do words. Everyday life in a performative truth regime depends on citizens refusing to cede authority over the meaning of numbers to those who claim it: economists, financial planners, accountants, investment bankers. That doesn't mean learning how to do with numbers what those folks do; it means realizing that those folks do things with numbers that, in the process of creating so-called facts, often leads us away from truth.

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