Muddling Through

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 muddling as an exceptional measure.  When Chairman Deng Xiaoping endorsed liberalism on his Southern Tour, his slogan was “cross the river by feeling the stones” (莫石過河)  This is  a model of collective transformation that seems to have emerged in 18th century aesthetics, in the writings of Adam Smith or 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.

One muddles through when a process is not written as a program, and this could refer to a broad range of activities. This might include mundane processes, like idle taxi drivers muttering along with the radio as they make it through their day, or kids muddling their way to school. But this is also a process for elite professionals, like when stock traders leave the business news channel playing very quietly so they can sense the “mood of the markets” as they sift through their data. During the recent financial 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. Muddling is associated with corruption, languishing, luke-warmth, tiptoeing, torture, and the accidental 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, muddling is a clandestine practice of robber barons.

Perhaps muddling is also an essential liberty of modern publics, a privilege absent from the existent charters of rights.  Language can be oppressively territorial and legalistic, and without resistant muddling populations are easily forced into the tyranny of compulsive sense. Muddling is antithetical  to bureaucratic formality, where instinctual life can be expressed seperately from the law. This is a concept for the dark illiterate soveregnty of the librral populace. This is the sublime ugliness of business reports, and the despicable behavior of trading nations. The illicit sovereignty and sea-sickness of muddling is related to muttering, mumbling, muffling, muzzling, mulling and meddling. Perhaps the misfortune of the masses is their susceptibility to the candid letter, and poverty is their failure to embrace noise as a medium of communicative chaos. Industrial power rests upon a bed of turbulent matter, where vague proportion is the virtue of grace.

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One Response to Muddling Through

  1. Ben Brucato says:

    On this matter (and many others), I’ll recommend Mudding Through: Pursuing Science and Truths in the Twenty-First Century, by Mike Fortun and Herbert J Bernstein. It’s considering many things OOO and SR have considered, yet outside their discourses.

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