The Sociology of Jack Vance III: Robust Action Among the Breakness Wizards

by Henry Farrell on July 17, 2013

_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 anticipated. When the frustrated hero of the book presses him to reveal 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._



Anderson 07.17.13 at 3:45 pm

I note also that “Pao” rhymes with “Tao.” If there were Taoist gangsters, they might have an ideology like that of the Breakness wizards.

(Been re-reading Vance since his death … will have to put “Pao” next on the list.)


Rich Puchalsky 07.17.13 at 3:46 pm

Compare this article, under the section “The Superior Power of Opportunism”. It discusses how the two-layer organizational structure of Bolshevism allowed them to have internal coordination among multiple people on goals and solidarity while successfully being able to be outwardly opportunistic.


Anarcissie 07.17.13 at 5:10 pm

In go, chess, Renaissance Florence, Mafia, and other such games, the player is bound, not to a particular tactic, but to an encompassing, dominating motive: to maintain and increase his power. An observed move which cannot be related to this motive must be thought to be a mistake. An astute player, by displaying an apparent mistake, may be able to deceive and trap a less astute opponent, who is compelled by the framework of the game to try to exploit his opponent’s mistakes. It is not clear from the description above that the Breakness Wizards are playing such a game; they seem rather to be amusing themselves aesthetically, if not randomly. If so we have the complex situation where two different games are being played on the same field. Of course one game could be metagame, a parasite as it were of the other, for example, the game of commodities trading, and the game of cheating at commodities trading. But I am think more of two different games with unrelated goals.

One might look on the curious years of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union as such a situation. Whereas most of the ‘men of honor’ in the field were playing Mafia, some seem to have been playing some other game, as a result of which the game(s) of Soviet Union came to an end, along with its state namesake. There are not many instances in history of such a mighty power disassembling and terminating itself.


blavag 07.17.13 at 5:53 pm

Mirowski makes an interesting case that this dual organizational form—and a multiplicity of meanings–can be fond in the long term neoliberal economics project in his latest, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown


Anderson 07.17.13 at 7:49 pm

“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 anticipated.”

That also sounds a lot like Bismarck. And in diplomacy, it’s not so much that one doesn’t ask about goals and motivations, so much as one takes for granted not getting an honest answer … which itself has a sort of Vancian elegance.


JimV 07.17.13 at 8:03 pm

This is what I mean when I tell people that science-fiction (at its best) is the literature of ideas. As a teenager, you could feel your mind stretching. What if … what if there are other intelligent creatures in the universe? What if some of them are more intelligent than us? What if there were intelligent robots? What if the robots were more intelligent than their creators?

All these ideas are old hat now, of course. A nephew was very disappointed in a novel by Isaac Asimov that I remember fondly, because there was nothing new in it. It was new at the time (1950’s).

Thanks for this interesting series of posts.


PJW 07.18.13 at 4:37 am

Great connections. The Robust Action paper is also terrific. Complexity and chaos theories come to mind. Thank you.


Steven J Fromm 07.18.13 at 12:53 pm

Very interesting parallels. Very thought provoking post. Thanks for the insights and looking above my computer is an old college book I read called Foundation by Isaac Asimov.


Teena Lyons 07.18.13 at 1:07 pm

Despite being written in the 1950s it is impressive how a science fiction novel is able to raise questions about our current sociological thinking. It is refreshing to see how you have taken the far less egotistical route of Vance anticipating what we now consider to be highly developed sociological thinking, rather than the other way round.
Thank you for an excellent, thought provoking article.


brythain 07.18.13 at 2:24 pm

I don’t think this is a case of Vance anticipating sociological thinking, but of sociology forgetting its roots in the dance of society as performed by past masters. Nice read, though.


LFC 07.18.13 at 4:28 pm

Anderson @5
And in diplomacy, it’s not so much that one doesn’t ask about goals and motivations, so much as one takes for granted not getting an honest answer … which itself has a sort of Vancian elegance.

I think this description is a bit anachronistic (and too monochromatic) — a lot of 18th and 19th c. cabinet diplomacy was like this, and to some extent of course it continued into 20th c. and today. But some writers on diplomacy, and perhaps in a more limited way some practitioners, are stretching the bounds of what is usu. found under the label. The title of a recent article, “Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and Its Forms of Knowledge” (Intl Studies Rev., June 2013) is suggestive in this respect.


Anderson 07.18.13 at 4:30 pm

“and perhaps in a more limited way some practitioners”

I confess that I was thinking more of diplomats, i.e. practitioners.


Kalkaino 07.19.13 at 12:52 pm

At the risk of being obvious isn’t thisa eprfect despcription of the contemporary Republican:

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 anticipated.

The Republican claims to have a goal — “small government,” “free markets,” “fair taxation” etc — but these aren’t even nebulous formulae; they’re just squid ink that absolves him from espousing or committing to anything meaningful, the better to sabotage people moving predictably towards a defined end. Like the Pao, apparently, the professional Republicans are sociopaths whose only real goal in life is the pleasure of manipulating others — especially if that manipulation can be spiced with torment.


RSA 07.22.13 at 1:42 pm

I’m out of my league in this discussion, but I’ll mention a connection to humans playing computers in chess (at least the most basic chess-playing computer programs–and I’m not an expert in this area).

A basic chess program will examine the current board position, determine its possible moves, determine your moves in response, and repeat. This is a search process, in which the number of possible boards increases exponentially with each move considered. The program can only search so far in the enormous space of possible games, and so it evaluates the intermediate boards it comes across, pruning the unpromising ones, and choosing the best of what remains.

One human strategy for playing a computer is to force it into situations where it must do a lot of search. In conventional chess, this might mean choosing an unusual opening that the program can’t look up in a database, so it must search through possible outcomes. There’s a chess variant that involves playing on a stretched board (with, say, 16 ranks instead of 8) in which human players are better than chess programs in general (or so I’ve heard); a program needs to search through a large number of intermediate boards before the two sides even engage, most of which human players can abstract away.

So what’s interesting about all this? Unlike the Breakness wizards, human players are following a strategy of overloading their computer opponent with too many options among which it’s hard to choose. The Breakness wizards must have very good ways of evaluating whatever position they’re in, given that they’re trying to maintain as much discretion as possible.

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