In the 1950′s, American technocrats introduced “muddling through” as a progressive approach to institutional transformation. Instead of careful planning and micromanagement, the idea was to give staff the liberty to fumble around and figure out what worked. There is something universal about this idea which recurs throughout the centuries, and it seems the challenge of managing institutional transformation necessitates the licensing of muddling as a contingency measure. When Deng Xiaoping announced the great opening of China on his Southern Tour, his slogan was “cross the river by feeling the stones”. (莫石過河) This model of collective transformation emerged in 18th century aesthetics, in the writings of Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Muddling is a managerial analogue for what Kant called the “free play of the faculties”, a notion that was reformulated by modernists like Paul Klee and Max Weber. This has reflected the experimental ethos of the Enlightenment in a way that becomes opaque.
One muddles-through when a process is not written as a program, and we might expand the concept to include situations where the purpose is not clearly ascertainable. This might include mundane processes, like idle workers muttering along with the radio to keep themselves awake, or kids bumbling their way to school. But this is also a process for elite professionals, like when stock traders leave the financial reports playing very quietly so they can sense the “mood of the markets” as they sift through their data.
During the recent banking crises, there was vocal opposition to elite muddling. The financial historian Michael Hudson said “quick bankruptcies and liquidations” were needed to restore market confidence, and that muddling would leave “heightened risks and looming suspicions”. This associates muddling with corruption, languishing, luke-warmth, tiptoeing, and the indirect violence of collateral damage. In 2003 the Financial Times reported that the insurance giant AIG was “too-big-to-fail”, and as this became accepted fact the banking world apparently muddled through the process of blackmailing the public. It took five years to muddle through the high-jacking of financial authority, an extortion loosely coordinated between armies of accountants and lawyers. By virtue of its illiteracy, and even unspoken and unconscious nature, muddling would be a somnambulant crowd-crime, and therefore not prosecutable because without conscious agency.
But perhaps muddling should also be considered as a political liberty missing from existent charters of rights. Language can be oppressively territorial and legalistic, and without resistant muddling populations are easily forced into the tyranny of bureaucratic orders. Muddling is antithetical to institutional formality so that it can be a mode for the expression of an instinctual life seperate from the law. This antinomian muddling would be a sovereign illiteracy of the people.
But this liberty would remain associated with the carelessness and nonsense of business reports, and the intimidating behavior of trading nations. The pirate sovereignty and sea-sickness of muddling is related to muttering, mumbling, muffling, muzzling, mulling and meddling. Perhaps the essence of servitude in this age is susceptibility to the candid letter – getting identified with the subject of the statement – and the inability to process noise as a medium of oblique communication. Industrial power rests upon a bed of turbulent matter, where the virtuality of grace is transmitted through vague proportions.