Posts Tagged ‘value for life’

The Birds and the Bees of Living Meaning

November 22, 2010


How the New Renaissance Will be Conceived in and Midwifed from the Womb of Nature

Sex, Reproduction, and the Consumer Culture

Human sexuality is, of course, more than the sum of its biological parts. Many parents joke that human reproduction would halt and the species would go extinct were it not for the intense pleasure of sexual experience. Many social critics, for their part, have turned a jaded eye on the rampant use of sexual imagery in the consumer culture. The association of sexual prowess with anything from toothpaste to automobiles plays up an empty metaphor of immediate gratification that connotes shortchanged consumers, unfairly boosted profits, and no redeeming long term value.

We would, of course, be mistaken to make too much of a connection between the parents’ joke and the critics’ social commentary. A bit of humor can help release tension when the work of child rearing and homemaking becomes stressful, and it is unlikely that trade would come to a halt if hot dates were banned from TV commercials. Commerce, in the broad sense of the term, is an end in itself.

But perhaps there is more of a connection than is evident at first blush. Advertising is an extremely compressed form of communication. It competes with many other stimuli for fleeting seconds of attention and so has to get its message across quickly. What better, simpler, more genetically programmed message could there be than the promise of attracting a desirable mate?

This hint is the tip of the tip of an iceberg. The larger question is one that asks how the role of desire and its satisfaction in the procreation of the species might serve as a model for economic activity. Might sexual satisfaction and the resulting reproductive success be taken as a natural model for profit and the resulting economic success?

Though this model has been assumed or described to various extents in the domains of ecological, behavioral, and heterodox economics, what we might call its molecular genetics have not yet been described. At this level, the model functions as a positive-sum game, and not as the zero-sum game so often assumed in economics. Properly conceived and experienced, neither sexuality nor profit give one-sided results, with someone necessarily winning and someone else necessarily losing. Rather, in the optimal circumstances we presumably want to foster, both parties to the exchanges must get what they want and contribute to the overall product of the exchange.

In this scenario, profit has to be further defined as not mere gratification and conquest, but as long term reproductive viability and sustainability. The intensity of sexual desire and satisfaction would likely not have evolved without stakes as high as the continuity of the species. And, indeed, researchers are finding strong positive relationships between firms’ long term profitability and their relations with labor, their communities, and the natural environment. Broadly conceived, for commerce to continue, social intercourse can and ultimately must result in viable offspring situated in a supportive environment.

Living vs Dead Capital

All of this suggests that we might be onto something. But for the metaphor to work, we need to take it further. We find what we need in the language of ecological economics and natural capital, and in the distinction between economically alive and economically dead capital.

The ancient root metaphor hidden in the word “capital” derives from the Latin capitus, head. Some might locate scientific or intellectual capital in a calculating center, like the brain, but others might bring out a sense of capital as part of the natural order. The concept of capital likely emerged in early agricultural economies from a focus on head of livestock: cattle, sheep, horses, etc. We might also conjecture about an even earlier prehistorical sense of capital as naturally embodied in the herds of antelope, deer, elk, or bison that migratory hunters pursued. In both cases, given grazing and water resources supplied by nature, herds replenished themselves with the passing of the seasons, giving birth to new life of their own accord.

There is a sense then in which plant and animal life profits enough from naturally available resources to sustain itself. Though the occurrence of population booms and busts still parallels economic cycles, hunters, fishers, and farmers can be imagined as profiting from managing naturally self-restoring resources within the constraints of a sustainable ecology.

Living capital and the sustenance of ongoing ecologically sound profitability are not restricted, however, to forms of capital stock that walk, crawl, swim, or fly. De Soto (2000) makes a distinction between dead and living capital that explains why capitalism thrives in some countries, but has not yet in others. De Soto points out that the difference between successful and failing capitalist countries lies in the status of what he calls transferable representations within networks of legal and financial institutions. Transferable representations are nothing but the legally recognized and financially fungible titles and deeds that make it possible for the wealth locked up in land, buildings, and equipment to be made exchangeable for other forms of wealth. Titles, deeds, and the infrastructure they function within are, then, what comprise the difference between dead and living capital.

In North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, property can be divided into shares and sold, or accumulated across properties into an expression of total wealth and leveraged as collateral for further investment, all with no need to modify the property itself in any way. De Soto’s point is that this is often not so in the Third World and former communist countries, where it commonly takes more than 10 years of full time work to obtain legal title, and then similar degrees of effort to maintain it. The process requires so much labor that few have the endurance or resources to complete it. They then must deny themselves the benefits of having an address, and cannot receive mail, electrical service, or take out a mortgage. The economy is then encumbered by the dead weight of the inefficiencies and frictions of frozen capital markets.

In the same way that the mass migration of settlers to the American West forced the resolution of conflicting property claims in the nineteenth century via the Preemption Act, so, too, are the contemporary mass migrations of rural people to megacities around the globe forcing the creation of a new way of legitimating property ownership. DeSoto’s research shows that Third World and former communist countries harbor trillions of dollars of unleverageable dead capital. Individual countries have more wealth tied up as dead capital locked in their impoverished citizens’ homes than in their entire stock markets and GDPs.

So dead capital can be clearly and decisively distinguished from living capital. Living capital is represented by a title or deed legally sanctioned by society as a generally accepted demonstration of ownership. Capital is dead, or, better, not yet brought to life, when its general value (any value it may have beyond its utilitarian function) cannot be represented so as to be leveragable or transferable across time, space, applications, enterprises, etc.

An essential point is this: Human, social, and natural forms of capital are dead in the same way that Third World property is dead capital. We lack a means of representing the value of these forms of capital that is transferable across individuals and contexts. The sense of scientific capital as mobile, additive, and divisible, and as deployed via networks of metrological (measurement science) laboratories, is especially helpful here, as it provides a root definition of what capital is. The geometry of the geodetic survey information incorporated into titles and deeds provides a fundamental insight into capitalism and living capital. But an even better understanding can be found by looking more deeply into the metaphor equating sexual and economic success.

The Birds and the Bees

We all learn as children where babies come from. Spontaneous questions from curious kids can be simultaneously intimidating and hilarious. Discovering that we each came into existence at a certain point in time raises many questions. Children are usually interested, however, in a short answer to a specific question. They go about their processes of creating meaningful stories about the world slowly, bit by bit. Contrary to many parents’ fears, children are less interested in the big picture than they are in knowing something immediately relevant.

Today we are engaged in a similar process that involves both self-discovery and its extension into a model of the world. In the last 100 years, we have endured one crisis of alienation, war, and terrorism after another. So many different stresses are pulling life in so many different directions that it has become difficult to fit our lives into meaningful stories about the world. Anxiety about our roles and places relative to one another has led many of us to be either increasingly lax or increasingly rigid about where we stand. Being simultaneously intelligent and compassionate is more difficult than ever.

But perhaps we know more than we are aware of. Perhaps it would help for us to consider more closely where we as a people, with our modern, global culture, come from. Where did the ideas that shape our world come from? Where do new ideas in general come from? What happens when an idea comes alive with meaning and spreads with such rapidity that it seems to spring forth fully formed in many widely distant places? How does a meme become viral and spread like an epidemic? Questions like these have often been raised in recent years. It seems to me, though, that explorations of them to date have not focused as closely as they could have on what is most important.

For when we understand the reproductive biology of living meaning, and when we see how different species of conceptual life interrelate in larger ecologies, then we will be in the position we need to be in to newly harmonize nature and culture, male and female, black and white, capitalism and socialism, north and south, and east and west.

What is most important about knowing where modern life comes from? What is most important is often that which is most obvious, and the most taken for granted. Given the question, it is interesting that rich metaphors of biological reproduction are everywhere in our thinking about ideas and meaning. Ideas are conceived, for instance, and verbs are conjugated.

These metaphors are not just poetic, emotionally soothing, or apt in a locally specific way. Rather, they hold within themselves some very practical systematic consequences for the stories we tell about ourselves, others, our communities, and our world. That is to say, if we think clearly enough about where ideas come from, we may learn something important about how to create and tell better stories about ourselves, and we may improve the quality of our lives in the process.

So what better place to start than with one of the oldest and most often repeated stories about the first bite from the apple of knowledge? The Western cultural imagery associated with erotic sexuality and knowledgeable experience goes back at least to Eve, the apple, the Tree of Knowledge, and the serpent, in the Garden of Eden. This imagery is complemented by the self-described role of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, as a midwife of ideas. Students still give apples to their teachers as symbols of knowledge, and a popular line of computers originally targeting the education market is named for the fruit of knowledge. The Socratic method is still taught, and charges teachers with helping students to give birth to fully formed ideas able take on lives of their own.

Socrates went further and said that we are enthralled with meaning in the same way a lover is captivated by the beloved. By definition, attention focuses on what is meaningful, as we ignore 99.99% of incoming sensory data. Recognition, by definition, is re-cognition, a seeing-again of something already known, usually something that has a name. Things that don’t have names are very difficult to see, so things come into language in special ways, via science or poetry. And the names of things focus our attention in very specific ways. Just as “weed” becomes a generic name for unwanted wild plants that might have very desirable properties, so, too, does “man” as a generic name for humans restrict thinking about people to males. The words we use very subtly condition our perceptions and behaviors, since, as Socrates put it, we are captivated by them.

The vital importance of sexuality to the reproductive potential of the species is evident in the extent to which it has subliminally been incorporated into the syntax, semantics, and grammar of language. Metaphoric images of procreation and reproduction so thoroughly permeate culture and language that the verb “to be” is referred to as the copula. New ideas brought into being via a copulative relation of subject and object accordingly are said to have been conceived, and are called concepts. One is said to be pregnant with an idea, or to have the seed or germ of an idea. Questions are probing, penetrating, or seminal. Productive minds are fertile or receptive. The back-and-forth give-and-take of conversation is referred to as social intercourse, and intercourse is the second definition in the dictionary for commerce. Dramatic expositions of events are said to climax, or to result in an anti-climax. Ideas and the narrative recounting of them are often called alluring, captivating, enchanting, spellbinding, or mesmerizing, and so it is that one can in fact be in love with an idea.

Philosophers, feminists, and social theorists have gone to great lengths in exploring the erotic in knowing, and vice versa. Luce Irigaray’s meditations on the fecund and Alfred Schutz’s reflections on our common birth from women both resonate with Paul Ricoeur’s examination of the choice between discourse and violence, which hinges on caring enough to try to create shared meaning. In all of these, we begin from love. Such a hopeful focus on nurturing new life stands in the starkest contrast with the existentialist elevation of death as our shared end.

Cultural inhibitions concerning sexuality can be interpreted as regulating it for the greater good. But Western moral proscriptions typically take a form in which sexuality is regarded as a kind of animal nature that must be subjugated in favor of a higher cultural or spiritual nature. In this world view, just as the natural environment is to be dominated and controlled via science and industry, sexual impulses are controlled, with the feminine relegated to a secondary and dangerous status.

Though promiscuity continues to have destructive effects on society and personal relationships, significant strides have been taken toward making sexual relations better balanced, with sex itself considered an essential part of health and well-being. Puritanical attitudes reject sexual expression and refuse to experience fully this most ecstatic way in which we exist, naturally. But accepting our nature, especially that part of it through which we ensure the continuity of the species, is essential to reintegrating nature and culture.

Finding that sexuality permeates every relationship and all communication is a part of that process. The continuity of the species is no longer restricted to concern with biological reproduction. We must learn to apply what we know from generations of experience with sexual, family, and social relationships in new ways, at new levels of complexity. In the same way that lovemaking is an unhurried letting-be that lingers in caring caresses mutually defining each lover to the other, so must we learn to see analogous, though less intense, ways of being together in every form of communion characteristic of communication and community. Love does indeed make the world go round.

Commerce and Science

There are many encouraging signs suggesting that new possibilities may yet be born of old, even ancient, ideas and philosophies. Many have observed over the last several decades that a new age is upon us, that the modern world’s metaphor of a clockwork universe is giving way to something less deterministic and warmer, less alien and more homey. In many respects, what the paradigm shift comes down to is a recognition that the universe is not an inanimate machine but an intelligent living system. Cold, hard, facts are being replaced with warm, resilient ones that are no less objective in the way they assert themselves as independent entities in the world.

In tune with this shift, increasing numbers of businesses and governments are realizing that long term profitability depends on good relationships with an educated and healthy workforce in a stable sociopolitical context, and with respect to the irreplacable environmental services provided by forests, watersheds, estuaries, fisheries, and ecological biodiversity. As Senge (in de Geus, 1997, p. xi) points out,

In Swedish, the oldest term for ‘business’ is narings liv, literally ‘nourishment for life.’ The ancient Chinese characters for ‘business,’ [are] at least 3,000 years old. The first of these characters translates as ‘life’ or ‘live.’ It can also be translated as ‘survive’ and ‘birth.’ The second translates as ‘meaning.’

Ready counterparts for these themes are deeply rooted in the English language. Without being aware of it, without having made any scholarly inquiry into Socrates’ maieutic arts, virtually every one of us already knows everything we need to know about the birth of living meaning. In any everyday assertion that something is such and so, in linking any subject with a predicate, we re-enact a metaphor of reproductive success in the creation of new meaning.

And here, at the very center of language and communication, the reproduction of meaning in conversation requires a copulative act, a conjugal relation, a coupling of subjects and objects via predicates. The back and forth movement of social intercourse is the deep structure that justifies and brings out its full discursive meaning as a pleasurable and productive process that involves probing, seminal questions; conceiving, being pregnant with, and Socratically midwifing ideas; dramatic climaxes; and a state of enchantment, hypnosis, or rapture that focuses attention and provokes passionate engagement.

When has an idea been successfully midwifed and come to life? We know an idea has come to life when we can restate it in our own words and obtain the same result. We know an idea has come to life when we can communicate it to someone else and they too can apply it in their own terms in new situations.

In his book on resolving the mystery of capital, De Soto points out that living capital can be acted on in banks and courts because it is represented abstractly in instruments like titles and deeds. Dead capital, in contrast, for which legal title does not exist, cannot be used as the basis for a mortgage or a small business loan, nor can one claim a right to the property in court.

Similarly, electrical appliances and machinery are living capital because they work the same way everywhere they can be connected to a standardized power grid by trained operators who have access to the right tool sets. Before the advent of widely shared standards, however, something as simple as different sized hoses and connections on hydrants allowed minor disasters to become catastrophes when fire trucks from different districts responding to an alarm were unable to put their available tools to use.

The distinction between dead and living capital is ultimately scientific, metrological, and mathematical. In ancient Greece, geometrical and arithmetical conversations were the first to be referred to as mathematical because they regularly arrive at the same conclusions no matter who the teacher and student are, and no matter which particular graphical or numerical figures are involved. That is, living meaning is objective; it stays the same, within a range of error, independent of the circumstances in which it is produced.

We can illustrate the conception, gestation, and birth of meaning in terms that lead directly to powerful methods of measurement using tests, assessments, and surveys. In yet another instance of linguistic biomimicry, the mathematical word “matrix” is derived from the ancient Greek word for womb. The matrix of observations recorded from the interaction of questions and answers is the fertile womb in which new ideals are conceived and gestated, and from which they are midwifed.

How? The monotony of the repeated questions and answers in the dialogue reveals the inner logic of the way the subject matter develops. By constantly connecting and reconnecting with the partner in dialogue, Socrates ensures that they stay together, attending to the same object. The reiterated yesses allow the object of the conversation to play itself out through what is said.

Conversational objects can exhibit strongly, and even strikingly, constant patterns of responses across different sets of similar questions posed at different times and places to different people by different interviewers, teachers, or surveyers. We create an increased likelihood of conceiving and birthing living meaning when questions are written in a way that enables them all to attend to the same thing, when they are asked of people also able to attend to that conversational object, and when we score the responses consistently as indicating right or wrong, agree or disagree, frequent or rare, etc.

When test, assessment, and survey instruments are properly designed, they bring meaning to life. They do so by making it possible to arrive at the same measure (the same numeric value, within a small range) for a given amount (of literacy, numeracy, health, motivation, innovation, trustworthiness, etc.) no matter who possesses it and no matter which particular collection of items or instrument is used to measure it. For numbers to be meaningful, they have to represent something that stays the same across particular expressions of the thing measured, and across particular persons measured.

We typically think of comparability in survey or testing research as requiring all respondents or examinees to answer the same questions, but this has not been true in actual measurement practice for decades. The power grid, electrical outlets, and appliances are all constructed so as to work together seamlessly across the vast majority of variations in who is using them, when and where they are used, what they are used for, and why they are used. In parallel fashion, educators are increasingly working to ensure that books, reading tests, and instructional curricula also work together no matter who publishes or administers them, or who reads them or who is measured by them.

The advantages of living literacy capital, for instance, go far beyond what can be accomplished with dead literacy capital. When each teacher matches books to readers using her or his personal knowledge, opportunities for uncontrolled variation emerge, and many opportunities for teachers to learn from each other are closed off. When each teacher’s tests are scored in terms of test-dependent counts of correct answers, knowing where any given child stands relative to the educational objectives is made unnecessarily difficult.

In contrast with these dead capital metrics, living literacy capital, such as is made available by the Lexile Framework for Reading and Writing (, facilitates systematic comparisons of reading abilities with text reading difficulties, relative to different rates of reading comprehension. Instruction can be individualized, which acknowledges and addresses the fact that any given elementary school classroom typically incorporates at least four different grade levels of reading ability.

Reading is thereby made more enjoyable, both for students who are bored by the easiness of the standard classroom text and for those who find it incomprehensible. Testing is transformed from a pure accountability exercise irrelevant to instruction into a means of determining what a child knows and what can optimally be taught next. Growth in reading can be plotted, not only within school years but across them. Students can move from one school to another, or from grade to grade, without losing track of where they stand on the continuum of reading ability, and without unnecessarily making teachers’ lives more difficult.

In the context of living literacy capital, publishers can better gauge the appropriateness of their books for the intended audiences. Teachers can begin the school year knowing where their students stand relative to the end-of-year proficiency standard, can track progress toward it as time passes, and can better ensure that standards are met. Parents can go online, with their children, to pick out books at appropriate reading levels for birthday and holiday gifts, and for summer reading.

Plainly, what we have achieved with living literacy capital is a capacity to act on the thing itself, literacy, in a manner that adheres to the Golden Rule, justly and fairly treating each reader the way any other reader would want to be treated. In this system of universally uniform and ubiquitously accessible metrics, we can act on literacy itself, instead of confusing it with the reading difficulty of any particular text, the reading ability of any particular student, or any interaction between them. In the same way that titles and deeds make it possible to represent owned property in banks and courts abstractly, so, too, does a properly conceived, calibrated, and distributed literacy metric enable every member of the species of literate humans to thrive in ecological niches requiring an ability to read as a survival skill.

The technical means by which literacy capital has been brought to life should be applied to all forms of human, social, and natural capital. Hospital, employment, community, governance, and environmental quality, and individual numeracy, health, functionality, motivation, etc. are all assessed using rating systems that largely have not yet been calibrated, much less brought together into frameworks of shared uniform metric standards. The body of research presenting instrument calibration studies is growing, but much remains to be done. All of the prior posts in this blog and all of my publications, from the most technical to the most philosophical, bear on the challenging problems we face in becoming stewards of living meaning.

The issues are all of a piece. We have to be the change we want to make happen. It won’t work if we mechanically separate what is organically whole. There’s nothing to do but to keep buzzing those beautiful flowers blooming in the fields, pollinating them and bringing back the bits of nourishment that feed the hive. In this way, this season’s fruit ripens, the seeds of new life take shape, and may yet be planted to grow in fertile fields.

Creative Commons License
LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at