Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Zizek

It’s safe to say I only understood about a third of the information presented in this book.

Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher with a bit of a pop culture following given his penchant for framing philosophical concepts in pop culture tropes. And although The Sublime Object of Ideology does contain some pop culture references, it is not really a book written for the masses. Many, many times during my read I felt like the philosophy student who had failed to read the textbook or start attending classes until the second half of the semester.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. It stretched my mind in new and interesting ways. In the end, however, I really struggled to understand the essential points Zizek was making.

Here’s the best I can do.


Let’s start with ideology itself. Like a lot of terms in the book, I was left with the sense that Zizek’s use of it was predicated on a precise, philosophical (and perhaps communistic) definition of the term, which both differed from the vernacular one we may use in our everyday speech and was never explicitly stated. I mean, why define it for the student, right? He was supposed to read the textbook before even attending this class.

In Zizek’s formulation, ideology is not just a way of understanding reality, it is a way of ordering and structuring the social reality around you.

Ideology is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality; in its basic dimension it is a fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our ‘reality’ itself: an ‘illusion’ which structures our effective, real social relations and thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kernel (conceptualized by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe as ‘antagonism’: a traumatic social division which cannot be symbolized). The function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel.

Okay. Let’s stop there. Yes, two sentences into Zizek’s actual words, and I feel like I need to provide some explanatory context (for my benefit, at least, if not for yours).

First, I haven’t read any Ernesto Laclau or Chantal Mouffe (I don’t even know who they are), but Zizek clearly has. Laclau and Mouffe and a dozen other historical and contemporary figures. I can only assume that Zizek is doing more than name dropping. He is grounding his thoughts and opinions in the philosophical ideas of his comrades and critics. It’s a sign that Zizek is at least attempting a serious philosophical work -- regardless of how much is lost on simple neophytes like me.

Second, I don’t exactly know what a “kernel” is. It’s another term that Zizek has introduced somewhere along the way, again with little fanfare or definition. To the best of my lay understanding, it refers to something that concretely exists in the real world, independent of the social realities created by various ideologies.

And that, by extension, is a crucially important concept in Zizek’s larger work. Because ideology will do all that it can to absorb everything in the world into its defining symbology -- even facts that might otherwise seem to contradict it. To help explain this, Zizek uses the example of an anti-Semitic ideology.

Let us again take a typical individual in Germany in the late 1930s. He is bombarded by anti-Semitic propaganda depicting a Jew as a monstrous incarnation of Evil, the great wire-puller, and so on. But when he returns home he encounters Mr Stern, his neighbour, a good man to chat with in the evenings, whose children play with his. Does not this everyday experience offer an irreducible resistance to the ideological construction?

The answer is, of course, no. If everyday experience offers such a resistance, then the anti-Semitic ideology has not yet really grasped us. An ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality -- that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself. How then would our poor German, if he were a good anti-Semite, react to his gap between the ideological figure of the Jew (schemer, wire-puller, exploiting our brave men and so on) and the common everyday experience of his good neighbour, Mr Stern? His answer would be to turn this gap, this discrepancy itself, into an argument for anti-Semitism: ‘You see how dangerous they really are? It is difficult to recognize their real nature. They hide it behind the mask of everyday appearance -- and it is exactly this hiding of one’s real nature, this duplicity, that is a basic feature of the Jewish nature.’ An ideology really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradict it start to function as arguments in its favour.

But despite this tendency and this power, even the most successful ideologies encounter objects that resist their incorporation. These objects, however, are not the sublime objects of Zizek’s title.

Sublime Objects

Near as I can tell, there are two different kinds of objects described in Zizek’s work.

The first kind are the objects of the title, those of ideology itself. And these objects are sublime in the sense that they are both material and immaterial. They have physical presence, but have also been given symbolic meaning that survives the destruction of their physical aspects. A good example of this is money.

The easiest way to detect the effectivity of this postulate is to think of the way we behave towards the materiality of money: we know very well that money, like all other material objects, suffers the effects of use, that its material body changes through time, but in the social effectivity of the market we none the less treat coins as if they consist ‘of an immutable substance, a substance over which time has no power, and which stands in antithetic contrast to any matter found in nature’.

In other words, that dollar bill may be worn and tattered, but it is worth just as much in the market as one fresh out of the Federal Reserve.

Ideologies are rich with this kind of Sublime Object. Another great example is a king or, to be more precise, the knowledge of ‘being-a-king.’

‘Being-a-king’ is an effect of the network of social relations between a ‘king’ and his ‘subjects’; but -- and here is the fetishistic misrecognition -- to the participants of this social bond, the relationship appears necessarily in an inverse form: they think that they are subjects giving the king royal treatment because the king is already in himself, outside the relationship to his subjects, a king; as if the determination of ‘being-a-king’ were a ‘natural’ property of the person of a king. How can one not remind oneself here of the famous Lacanian affirmation that a madman who believes himself to be a king is no more mad that a king who believes himself to be a king -- who, that is, identifies immediately with the mandate ‘king’?

Zizek will say that most believe ideology relies on just this kind of illusion about its Sublime Objects -- that it needs the illusion of value in the case of money or the illusion of ‘being-a-king’ in the case of a monarchy -- in order to survive. But he will also argue that this is not necessarily true. To his way of thinking, knowledge that the illusion is an illusion does not always strip the ideology of its reality-ordering power.

If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today’s society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way -- one of many ways -- to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.

It is from this standpoint that we can account for the formula of cynical reason proposed by Sloterdijk: ‘they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.’ If the illusion were on the side of knowledge, then the cynical position would really be a post-ideological position, simply a position without illusions: ‘they know what they are doing, and they are doing it.’ But if the place of the illusion is in the reality of doing itself, then this formula can be read in quite another way: ‘they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it.’ For example, they know that their idea of Freedom is masking a particular form of exploitation, but they still continue to follow this idea of Freedom.

Real Objects

Powerful stuff, these Sublime Objects and the ideologies that are fueled by them. But there is a second kind of object that can successfully stand in opposition to ideology. They are pieces of the real world than cannot be absorbed into the symbology of an ideology’s Sublime Object.

To my way of thinking, the best pop culture example that Zizek offers of this second kind of object -- this Real Object -- is the alien in Ridley Scott’s film of the same name.

To take, as a final example, Ridley Scott’s film Alien: is not the disgusting parasite which jumps out of the body of poor John Hurt precisely such a symptom?

Here I should interject to say that by this point in the text Zizek has more or less defined ‘symptom’ in a psychoanalytical sense -- it is the cognitive dissonance that occurs when our ideologies cannot assimilate something that is real into its symbolic framework.

The cave on the desert planet into which the space travellers enter when the computer registers signs of life in it, and where the polyp-like parasite sticks on to Hurt’s face, has the status of the pre-symbolic Thing -- that is, of the maternal body, of the living substance of enjoyment. The utero-vaginal associations aroused by this cave are almost too intrusive. The parasite adhering to Hurt’s face is thus a kind of a ‘sprout of enjoyment,’ a leftover of the maternal Thing which then functions as a symptom -- the Real of enjoyment -- of the group marooned in the wandering spaceship: it threatens them and at the same time constitutes them as a closed group. The fact that this parasitical object incessantly changes its form merely confirms its anamorphic status: it is a pure being of semblance. The ‘alien’, the eighth, supplementary passenger, is an object which, being nothing at all in itself, must none the less be added, annexed as an anamorphic surplus. It is the Real at its purest: a semblance, something which on a strictly symbolic level does not exist at all but at the same time the only thing in the whole film which actually exists, the thing against which the whole reality is utterly defenceless. One has only to remember the spine-chilling scene when the liquid pouring from the polyp-like parasite after the doctor makes an incision with a scalpel dissolves the metal floor of the space ship.

The use of film as an example to explain the distinctions between the Sublime Objects of ideology and the Real Objects that confront them lends itself to a handy term, first popularized (I think) by Alfred Hitchcock. A Google search will define a “MacGuffin” as “an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot,” and the most famous MacGuffins in and out of Hitchcock’s work are certainly that. The Maltese Falcon. Rosebud in Citizen Kane. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But when taking Zizek’s point of view, it may be better to focus on the MacGuffins that exist more in their symbology than in their physicality. Like Ridley Scott’s anamorphic Alien, or perhaps the glowing contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or, if you really want a deep cut, the radioactive bodies of the aliens in J. Frank Parnell’s trunk in Repo Man. These MacGuffins are Real Objects, in the sense that solidly extrude as uncompromising rocks in the waves of ideology that are the characters in these films, but they are also Sublime Objects, in the sense that they come to be the central symbols that obsess them and drive them through the plot.

The best term of all might be the one that Zizek borrows from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan -- das Ding, or the objet petit a, the unattainable object of desire.

We must remember that there is nothing intrinsically sublime in a sublime object -- according to Lacan, a sublime object is an ordinary, everyday object which, quite by chance, finds itself occupying the place of what he calls das Ding, the impossible-real object of desire. The sublime object is ‘an object elevated to the level of das Ding’. It is its structural place -- the fact that it occupies the sacred/forbidden place of jouissance -- and not its intrinsic qualities that confers on it its sublimity.

That’s about all the sense I felt I could make out of this challenging and intriguing work. Ideologies are how we order our social realities, they are based on Sublime Objects that we imbue with symbolic meaning, and we experience cognitive dissonance only when Real Objects that resist our symbology intrude on our perceptions.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 24, 2018

Measuring Success Is Hard

Measuring success is hard. Case in point this week was something we call the "up-market capture ratio" in my association's investment policy.

Investopedia defines the up-market capture ratio as "the statistical measure of an investment manager's overall performance in up-markets. The up-market capture ratio is used to evaluate how well an investment manager performed relative to an index during periods when that index has risen. The ratio is calculated by dividing the manager's returns by the returns of the index during the up-market and multiplying that factor by 100."

Maybe that's more than you need to know. Point is, our policy says the up-market capture ratio is supposed to be X, and when we finally got around to measuring it this week, we discovered that it has been below X for as long as our current investment manager has been managing our portfolio.

Time for a new investment manager? You might think so, but let's slow down and take a closer look.

Truth is, the amount of return that an investment portfolio can earn -- in either up markets or down -- is tightly correlated with its overall investment strategy and its mix of assets. And guess what, the amount of risk that our investment manager can expose our portfolio to, and the amount of any particular asset class (measured as a percentage of the overall portfolio) that can held are also tightly regulated by our investment policy. In other words, our investment manager, in making his decisions about where to invest our money, has to abide by rules we've put in place to protect the association's assets from what we would consider to be undue risk and shady investment vehicles.

Are you still with me? Because with all of these rules in place, it is entirely possible that we have baked into our investment policy a measure of success that the other requirements of the same policy make impossible to achieve. It's a little like expecting the test pilot to break the sound barrier, and then giving him a Piper Cub to do it in.

We're having a call with our Investment Committee to help sort it all out next week (and maybe I'll have egg on may face then, because the members of that committee understand investments far better than I do), but for the purposes of this blog post we can actually forget about all of these investment details. I'm only using them as an example for an absolute truism when it comes to measuring the success of any initiative.

Make sure the metric is achievable.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Ode to the Lonely Trade Show Worker

I attended a trade show this past week. It's something I haven't done in a while, and I was surprised by how little things have changed. Aisle carpet, booth numbers, giant computer screens, shiny products on lucite display stands. And, of course, booth personnel.

Except booth personnel come in several varieties. Forget for a second about the suit-coated or polo-shirted legions that scramble across the big island spaces like ants on a picnic basket. They have corporate objectives and training, supervisors and schedules. Let's instead focus on the solo staffer working the anonymous ten by ten.

You've seen them. They're tired. They got there early and set-up the booth themselves, and they're going to tear it down by themselves at the end of the show. They've been on their feet all day, and their only breaks have been a few quick dashes to the bathroom. They have, in my humble opinion, the worst and most impossible of all jobs. Lost in the basement of some exhibition hall, squeezed into a row of fifty other booths just like theirs, they are there to sell, sell, sell.

Now, these personnel come in two basic varieties.

The first stands at the edge of their booth space. They smile, they make eye contact, they try to engage passersby in some kind of conversation. They know you don't want to talk to them, but they are there to talk to you, and they are not going to let something like a universe tilted against them stop them from doing that.

The second sits in the back of their booth space. Their legs are crossed, their backs are stooped, hunched as they are other their cell phones, their noses close enough to open apps. They don't want to be there. They're counting the minutes until they can leave. They have been treated unfairly and they have given up.

We've all seen this. We've all encountered both of these varieties in the wild. And we all know that the second kind far outnumbers the first.

Why? How many levels of broken must there be for this to be our reality? What is the point of having a booth at the trade show if the person staffing is not going to try? The big flashy island with the cappuccino machine at the front of the hall is going to get all the traffic it needs. The ten by ten under the leaky pipe in the basement is only going to have so many chances for a connection. And it is only the unsung person working that booth that can make them happen.

Hello! How are you doing today?

Bless you. You and you alone make my visit to this trade show worthwhile.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

On to Petersburg by Gordon C. Rhea

This is the fifth and final volume of the author’s meticulous study of Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864 during the American Civil War.

In 1994, he published The Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864); in 1997, he published The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern (May 7-12, 1864); in 2000, he published To the North Anna River (May 13-25, 1864); in 2002, he published Cold Harbor (May 26-June 3, 1864); and, finally, in 2017, he published On to Petersburg (June 4-15, 1864).

I read them in a slightly different order; the first in 1998, the next in 2003, then 2007, 2010, and, finally, now in 2018. With all but the last the books were published, purchased, and waiting on my shelf for me to read them. It was only with the last volume that I found myself waiting for its publication. And although that was only an eight-year wait when measured by the reading schedule, it was evidently a fifteen-year wait for anyone who was thirstily reading them as they were published.

I can’t say why there was such a gap in the publication of volumes four and five. What I can say is that there are few books that I found myself waiting for with more anticipation.

A Sickening, Harrowing Spectacle

Rhea, in my opinion, does three things really well.

First, he grounds his narrative in the experiences of individual soldiers, often capturing the true horror of their experiences in ways not otherwise felt.

Along Gibbon’s front, Confederate fire swept the ground, preventing soldiers caught between the lines from going back for food or water. Several troops survived by constructing a small fort. Ranald Mackenzie, heading the 2nd Corps’s engineering effort, decided to visit the outpost and invited fellow engineer Wesley Brainerd to join him in a two-hundred-foot dash to the isolated citadel. “Good bye, Brainerd!” Mackenzie shouted as he sprinted into the clearing. Bullets spit up puffs of dust, but the engineer made it to the fort, weaving around corpses that covered the ground.

Cursing, Brainerd followed his friend into the field -- “the wicked whistling of the wind about me forced home to my consciousness the fact that hundreds of unseen bullets, meant for me, were searching for their victim,” he later wrote -- and soon lay gasping for breath next to Mackenzie. Looking around, he saw thick dirt walls with holes for muskets a few feet from the top. Two ragged yellow scars of dirt, one in front of him and one in his rear -- the main Confederate and Union entrenchments -- stretched north and south into the distance. Smoke billowed from the earthworks, musketry rattled without interruption, but not a living soul was visible. “Groups of bodies lay scattered along to the far distance,” Brainerd remembered. “Silent and motionless they lay in all conceivable shapes and positions.” Nearby was a form that he identified as Colonel Peter A. Porter of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, shot down during the charge on June 3. “I knew him by his uniform and stout person, bloated and disfigured though he was, his arms uplifted, his legs stretched out, his blackened face with white foam oozing from his mouth, turned upward toward the blazing, scorching June sun,” Brainerd wrote. “Around him in different stages of decomposition lay the bodies of the brave men who had died in the vain effort to recover his dead body. It was indeed a sickening, harrowing spectacle.” Darting back, Brainerd and Mackenzie were greeted with cheers from their friends behind the main Union line.

Stories like these abound in Rhea’s narrative -- and not just in this latest and last volume. They provide an honest and often visceral lens on the reality of these situations. It is history, yes, but history experienced by real people, people not wholly unlike the people now reading about it.

And the people in question often did extraordinary things. Battlefield heroism is commonplace, but so are feats of unrivaled engineering and expertise.

The floating bridge was completed by midnight, seven hours after work on it had commenced. It was two thousand feet long, ten feet wide, and rested on 101 wooden pontoons spaced twenty feet apart, from center to center, and anchored in place. “The flooring system provided a wearing surface of chess, wooden planks 12 inches wide by 1 1/2 inches thick, laid on 5 ‘balks’ (stringers) 5 inches square,” an engineer reported. A newsman estimated that the bridge’s floor floated two feet above the water and was sufficiently wide for twelve men or five horses to cross abreast. It was the longest bridge of its type built to date. Assistant War Secretary Dana considered the bridge “unprecedented in military annals, except, perhaps, by that of Xerxes, being nearly seven hundred yards long.” Lyman surmised that “in civil life, if a bridge of this length were to be built over a river with a swift current and having a maximum depth of eighty-five feet, they would allow two or three months for the making of plans and collecting of material. Then not less than a year to build it.”

And the Union Army built it in seven hours.

A Desperate Undertaking

The second thing that Rhea does really well is reveal the slow game of cat and mouse that was infantry tactics in the American Civil War. As much as this series of books are focused on the battles, they are just as much focused on the time between the battles, the constant and relentless jockeying for position that both armies endured as they danced with one another over the Virginia countryside.

Nowhere is the dependence on hour-by-hour reconnaissance and decision-making more apparent than in Grant’s final sweep across the James River and to the south of Richmond.

Near noon Lee received copies of the various dispatches Beauregard had sent to Bragg. The appearance of Federal troops in front of Petersburg was disturbing, although the source of the invaders was still not evident from these communications. Since Beauregard’s reports neglected to identify the units missing in front of the Dimmock Line, Lee had no way of knowing whether they belonged to the Army of the Potomac or if Butler was simply reprising his failed offensive of June 9. In any event, Lee informed Bragg, he had directed Hoke that morning to report to Beauregard and recommended that Ransom be sent forward as well.

Lots of names and references in that short excerpt, but know that the situation it briefly describes is a dangerous one. Numerically inferior Confederate forces are scattered over a large area, trying to keep at least three larger Union armies at bay -- Grant’s Army of the Potomac, which has just quietly disengaged itself from its trenches at Cold Harbor, Butler’s Army of the James, which was more or less bottlenecked in the Bermuda Hundred just south of Richmond, and Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah, which was trying to rip up that Valley and keep it from serving as a breadbasket for Lee’s Confederates. In the midst of this danger and uncertainty, Lee has to make a decision.

Lacking definitive information, Lee saw no choice but to stay put and bar Grant’s access to Richmond. The disparity between Grant’s and Lee’s numbers was daunting. Reduced now to two corps -- Anderson’s and Hill’s -- and one cavalry division, the Army of Northern Virginia could marshal at most 30,000 soldiers. If the offensive against Petersburg involved Butler and Smith alone, Grant retained the capacity to hurl four army corps, numbering at least 100,000 troops, against Richmond. For Lee to hold them at bay, he had to remain firmly entrenched in his present line from White Oak Swamp to Malvern Hill. Indeed, even if Grant sent an army corps across the James to assist Butler, Lee’s calculus could not change.

They way Rhea tells it, there was nothing else Lee could do. And that, in of itself, is fascinating. So often us moderns look a piece of history and wonder why things had to be the way they were. Couldn’t the figure in question have done something different? Why didn’t they simply do this? Or that? The truth, of course, is often that things happened one way because they had to happen that way. Any of us, placed in the same place at the same time, would have done exactly the same thing.

But not always. Because while Lee is making this choice in his trenches outside of Richmond, Grant is trying to concentrate his forces against Petersburg. And here, it seems very much like nothing was foreordained.

Let’s look first at the Union reconnaissance of the scanty Confederate forces around Petersburg.

But the personal reconnaissance also revealed a fatal weakness in the enemy lines. While Confederate artillery appeared formidable, the entrenchments were thinly manned. The threat to an attacking force came from cannon fire, not from musketry. A densely packed body of assaulting troops would take severe losses, but troops loosely arrayed in a skirmish line stood a fair chance of success. Artillery would pass harmlessly through their formation, and the scant rebel defenders would be unable to generate sheets of musketry that were so destructive of an attacking force. So [Union General William F.] Smith decided to concentrate his artillery near [Union General William T. H.] Brooks’s center, open a heavy bombardment to suppress rebel fire, and attack with a double line of skirmishers. Once these men had overrun the works, the rest of his troops were to follow and consolidate the gains. As Smith later articulated his reasoning, “my best chance of success was to trust to a very heavy skirmish line which would not of itself attract much artillery fire and which yet would be sufficient to do the work if the enemy was not very strong in infantry.”

It was an opportunity to shatter the Confederate line around Petersburg and take the city itself, which would have dramatically changed Lee’s calculus up near Richmond. To be successful, it would be necessary for Smith to receive immediate support from one of the Union Army’s other infantry corps. General Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps had, in the mind of the army’s commanding general, been given that very task, but, through miscommunication and battlefield confusion, that order never actually reached Hancock. While Smith was laying his plans, Hancock was, in fact, moving his corps in the wrong direction.

[Hancock] still had no inkling that he was expected to move into position to support Smith’s assault on the Dimmock Line [protecting Petersburg]. Indeed, the 2nd Corps, now divided into two segments, was veering northwestward, heading more toward City Point than toward Petersburg. “Sent wrong [by his initial orders],” Hancock’s aide Francis Walker later observed, “his line of march increased by several miles, after his time of starting had been delayed several hours, Hancock led forward the corps without an intimation that his presence was to be imperatively required at Petersburg. So far as he had any reason to think, it would be sufficient if he brought up his corps, in good condition, in season to go fairly into camp by nightfall.”

And to complicate matters even further, Grant himself, viewing the field of operations around Petersburg from the bluffs around City Point, attempted to send fresh orders to Hancock’s lead division commander, General John Gibbon, urging him and the rest of Hancock’s corps forward to support Smith’s assault. These orders were intercepted by Smith himself, who added his encouragement for the opportunity that presented itself and then, believing that Hancock’s corps was nearby, decided to delay his assault until Hancock could move into position.

Smith was anxious to attack, but Grant’s letter alerting him to Hancock’s proximity induced him to wait. His troops had been deployed in front of the Dimmock Line for six hours now, pelted by continuous artillery fire. Waiting another hour or two would be excruciating, but the gain could be enormous. If the 2nd Corps joined him in time for the assault, victory would be certain. And so Smith decided to bide his time.

But, of course, Hancock was not an hour or two away. Although Hancock, upon finally receiving Grant’s order to support Smith, did everything he could do to comply, the fact was that this was the first he had heard of this need, and his divisions were scattered and very nearly lost, armed with faulty maps of the unfamiliar Virginia countryside.

At this juncture, [General Francis C.] Barlow [, commander of Hancock’s first division,] was entirely in the dark, relying on oral instructions that [Captain Charles] Bird had received from [Lt. Colonel Charles H.] Morgan. His troops were exhausted -- they had “pushed on as rapidly as possible, making only one short halt” -- and he was lost. “I had no means, whatsoever, of knowing where were the ‘outer works,’ which Gen. Smith had captured, or where Smith’s lines were,’ he later wrote.

Eventually, with nightfall approaching, Smith would launch his assault on the Dimmock Line without knowing where Hancock’s corps was or if it would be in a position to support him.

Soon after 7:00 P.M. Smith’s division and brigade heads sprang into action. “Don’t be afraid,” [Brigadier General Gilman] Marston assured his troops. “We are ten to one of the enemy.” [Brigadier General Hiram] Burnham gathered his regimental commanders behind the skirmish line and gave directions for the impending assault. During the conference, a cannonball ricocheted into Major Charles E. Pruyn of the 118th New York, tearing a hole through his chest and killing him instantly. Bringing the conference to an abrupt close, the officers returned to their units. The division’s skirmish line was to spearhead the attack, each man five paces from his closest companion, while the remainder of the brigades followed close behind. “It was a dare-devil piece of work at best,” an officer recalled. “It seemed like a desperate undertaking,” admitted another.

Desperate it might have been, but two hours later the Union forces had overrun and taken possession of more than a mile and a half of the fortified Confederate line. At least some of the Confederates in question were not even regular soldiers, they were civilians desperately pulled out of nearby Petersburg to man the line. Although Smith received reports that Confederate regulars were hastily being sent down from Richmond, at that moment there were no Confederate forces or even fortifications between him and Petersburg. Still, it was now full dark, Hancock still had not appeared, and he was unfamiliar with the ground in front of him. Rather than move into Petersburg, Smith decided to entrench on the line his troops had just taken from the Confederates.

It would prove to be a fateful decision, as during the night the Confederates would entrench themselves, along a new line a half mile or so in from of the Federals. And those two sets of trenches, apparently, would become part of the massive entrenchments that would practically surround Petersburg, and which would be occupied by the two armies for the next nine months.

Smith’s men were relieved that their ordeal was over. “The moon, nearly at its full, cast a mellow light over the scene,” a Massachusetts soldier recalled, “while the early evening dews and the cooler night air was refreshing to men who had been prostrated all day under the burning rays of a hot June sun.” A warrior in the 118th New York later remembered the “lovely moonlight night. The roofs and spires of Petersburg could be plainly seen a couple of miles away, and to our right and rear the lights of the Bermuda Hundred camps were visible.” Another New Yorker recalled how on the “evening of the 15th of June, we stood on the heights, and, by the light of a brilliant moon, contemplated the silent valley, and beheld the nearly defenceless city. Why we did not then go down and possess them, is the question which occurred and recurred times innumerable, during the months of carnage which followed on that line.”

On such decisions the fate of nations turn. Sometimes the poor hand is dealt to you. Sometimes luck, good or bad, affects the outcome. And other times, the winning cards are in your hand, and still you cannot take all the tricks.

His Most Significant Lapse

The third thing that Rhea does really well is put all of this detail into context. Following the meticulous descriptions of the cat and mouse dancing with each other, swapping roles from time to time, and waltzing together down the Virginia countryside, Rhea switches his rhetorical position and becomes the not just the military historian but the military instructor, assessing the strengths of weaknesses of these particular movements.

In doing so, he bases his assessment on Grant’s stated objective or turning Lee out of his Cold Harbor entrenchments, seizing the Confederate capital at Richmond, and confronting Lee on an open field of battle. And from that perspective, he says the the feint towards Petersburg -- whatever its particulate successes and failures -- was unnecessary. The same objective could have been better and more easily achieved by sending Smith and Hancock not across the James and south to Petersburg, but as reinforcements to Butler on the Bermuda Hundred in order to smash through Beauregard's thinly-held entrenchments and sever the single railroad line connecting Petersburg and Richmond and providing Lee all of his supplies.

Within the context of the plan against Petersburg, however, Rhea’s strongest condemnation is levelled against Grant.

Grant’s apparent lack of concern about developments on the ground is difficult to fathom. June 15 represented the culmination of his grand maneuver from Cold Harbor and offered an excellent opportunity to strike a blow calculated to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. The Union general in chief, however, spent much of the morning watching wagon trains cross the pontoon bridge over the James, then hitchhiked a steamboat ride to City Point, where he settled in. He had relegated oversight of Smith to Butler, though not until the afternoon did he attempt to learn what progress he was making. Butler, however, had no idea where things stood, as Smith had not yet communicated with him, and the James commander had sent no one to find out. Coordination from the top -- once again, Grant’s responsibility -- was nonexistent.

Clearly the most important Union command role on June 15 was ensuring that Smith had at his disposal the resources necessary to achieve his objective and that the disparate elements of the offensive were meshing as planned. Astoundingly Grant neither assumed that role himself -- he was, after all, only a few miles from the front -- nor assigned anyone else to coordinate Smith and Hancock. In hindsight his detachment on June 15, compounded by his failure to designate someone to oversee the offensive on the ground, stands as his most significant lapse during the entire campaign from the Rapidan to Petersburg. And it was a lapse that came at the campaign’s culmination, literally denying Union arms the objective they had fought so mightily to achieve during the previous forty-five days.

Read those last two sentences again. His most significant lapse during the entire campaign. This from an author who is wrapping up more than 2,400 pages of historical description and analysis. If someone is to blame for the ten additional months of Civil War conflict and carnage that followed June 15, 1864, it has to be none other than Ulysses S. Grant.

But Rhea is not reflexively attacking Grant because that’s the axe he has to grind. One of the things that makes Rhea so interesting to read is the way -- like an umpire -- he is simply calling balls and strikes as he sees them. There have been numerous times over this five-book journey that I have encountered Rhea’s reasoned and well-supported judgment that flies in the face of the majority of Civil War conventional thinking.

The best example in On to Petersburg of this is his treatment of the protocol-ridden stalemate between Lee and Grant after the fighting at Cold Harbor that resulted in wounded and dying men being left for days in the no-man’s land between the fortified positions of the two armies.

In later years writers criticized Grant as heartless and Lee as too formal. Hancock’s aide Charles Morgan recollected that “it was understood at the time that the delay was caused by something akin to points of etiquette, General Grant proposing a flag as a mutual accommodation, and General Lee replying that he had no dead or wounded not attended to, but offering to Grant a truce if General Grant desired it to attend to his own.” Grant’s aide Adam Badeau blamed the holdup on Lee and sarcastically inquired in his Military History of Ulysses S. Grant whether the Confederate commander’s “military reputation gained sufficiently to compensate for the sufferings he deliberately and unnecessarily prolonged.” The debate also rocked the staid halls of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, where historian John C. Ropes chastised Grant for the “horrible neglect of our wounded men,” and Colonel Thomas L. Livermore took up Grant’s defense, maintaining that the general had negotiated in good faith and that delays in transmitting correspondence “must be laid to the inevitable difficulties incident to the passage of hostile lines, the long distances, the movements of the commanders, and the barrier which darkness raises.” Accusations against Grant more recently surfaced in Shelby Foote’s historical novel The Civil War -- A Narrative, in which Foote accused the general of making a “sacrifice of brave men for no apparent purpose except to salve his rankled pride.” Reviewing the novelist’s work, a student of the campaign pronounced it “an example of the limited scholarship and misrepresentation on this subject that has gone unchallenged and should not be allowed to continue.”

So much for the conventional thinking. What say Rhea?

Grant’s modern biographer, Brooks D. Simpson, probably got it right when he concluded that “neither general deliberately sought to prolong the human suffering between the lines, and confusion, misunderstanding, and delays in communication contributed to the tragedy.” There was certainly ample blame to go around. It was the Confederates, after all, who were ruthlessly killing wounded soldiers and anyone who tried to save them, and Lee made no effort to stop the wanton slaughter. Of all the generals involved in the affair, Grant looks best. As soon as Meade alerted him to the problem, he immediately offered Lee a plan and announced his readiness to accept a reasonable counter-proposal. He and Lee consumed June 6 with a flurry of exchanges that were unduly protracted, not because of stubbornness, but because of honest misunderstandings and the difficulties of sending messages across active battle lines. Lee wrote a response that was genuinely ambiguous, and Grant misunderstood the letter as requiring only that a white flag accompany each localized truce. Lee set the Union commander straight, apologized for his imprecise language, and explained more clearly his concern that the ceasefire be army-wide. Grant again readily accepted this proposal, but impediments in transmission cost another day. Most of June 7 was frittered away finding an acceptable time for recovery parties to begin their grisly work.

I imagine it is hard to write Civil War history without being accused of bias for one side or the other. And although Rhea himself makes a special apology in On to Petersburg for its sometimes lopsided analysis of Union vs. Confederate movements (a remnant, Rhea claims, of a differential in surviving sources from the Confederate and Federal sides of the conflict), I’d have to say I’ve found him to be about as level-headed and fair as they can conceivably come.

It is certainly something I will miss. Sadly, there are apparently no more works coming anytime soon from Rhea’s masterful pen. But he does leave this reader with some kind of hope for the future.

The executive director of Pamplin Historical Park, A. Wilson Greene, is the leading historian of the Petersburg Campaign. He has recently completed the first book of a multivolume study that when finished will stand as the authoritative word on the campaign.

It’s already on my "Books to Get" list.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 10, 2018

Growth for Growth's Sake

A shout out this week to Jeffrey Cufaude at the Idea Architects blog, who recently offered this piece of wisdom regarding the growth goals set by many an association board in many a strategic planning session:

Double our membership. Increase conference attendance by 50%. Triple non-dues revenue in five years.

These are a few of the growth goals I have heard tossed about in strategy conversations over the years. If there is one common interest or goal of organizations it is getting more people or more money.

But to what end? And at what potential cost? Amazingly, organizations often fail to explore the short- and long-term consequences (positive and negative) of having more.

People often have strong mental models about growth. Mine is simple: growth should enable accelerated progress on an organization’s mission and vision. Simply getting bigger to be bigger is not strategic enough in my eyes.

I agree. And I've tried to defend that point of view at my association's last two strategic planning sessions. I use the word defend because in both cases there were voices on our Board who seemed to advocate a "getting bigger to be bigger" strategy.

Part of me gets it. The people on my Board are smart and entrepreneurial. They lead successful businesses in a highly competitive market, and growth is one of the core underlying strategies for that success. Those that are publicly-traded have to keep growing or the Street will turn against them. Those that are privately-held have to keep growing to maintain their value and competitive position. And in their world, growth is always technically possible. There are always more customers to get and more products to sell them.

But another part of me doesn't get it. Our association is not a company selling products to a hungry marketplace -- and any analogy to the day-to-day decisions that my Board members would make for their companies will be an imprecise one and will, if stretched, ultimately fail. Recruiting and retaining members is of critical importance to the association, but there is a place where the law of diminishing returns takes over.

Let's take a look at an extreme example. Say we're the National Monopoly Board Properties Association, and right now, everyone is a member except Marvin Gardens. Honestly, all the other properties, from Mediterranean Avenue all the way around to Boardwalk, are members -- and most of them come to our Annual Conference and buy our real estate reports. Furthermore, member satisfaction is high and our retention rate is near 100%.

In this situation, how much time, energy, and resource should we spend on recruiting Marvin Gardens into our membership?

There are those on the NMBPA Board who say that we won't really represent the Monopoly Board until everyone eligible for membership is a member, but that's not really true is it? The existing members are satisfied and there is no other association out there claiming to represent them. When we go to Washington to advocate on behalf of our members, we're not met with any skepticism because we only have 96% of the industry in our membership.

There are others on the NMBPA Board who say that we're not trying hard enough to recruit Marvin Gardens into the membership, but that's not really true, either, is it? We've talked with their President many times (he sometimes attends our Annual Conference as a non-member) and he consistently rebuffs our recruitment efforts. He's not a joiner. He doesn't support many of the things our organization does. He doesn't want his people fraternizing with their competitors at Atlantic or Ventnor Avenue.

This, I think, is a situation, where there is no value in continuing to pursue Marvin Gardens, especially if that pursuit takes needed resources away from delivering the best possible services to the existing members. For the imaginary NMBPA, member retention, not recruitment, is its compelling strategic need.

And for those NMBPA Board members who are still thinking about growth for growth's sake, the best strategy may be to turn that vision inward, and define growth not as acquiring new members, but as increasing participation and satisfaction rates among existing members.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, September 3, 2018

When Decisions Get Made, Part 2

Last week, in When Decisions Get Made, I talked about when a member's decision to renew or not to renew their membership in an association gets made. Using a cautionary tale of my own experience as an association member, I confirmed that the timing of this decision typically occurs well in advance of the delivery of the association renewal invoice in the member's mailbox. In my own situation, I had made the decision not to renew about four months ahead of the dues invoice -- but, of course, the association in question didn't know that.

I didn't call the organization and tell them I had made this decision. As far as they knew, I was one of their most engaged new members. Look at my track record of participation! The fact that I hadn't found enough value was unknown to them. So, when the renewal notice came, and I did tell them I would be dropping my membership, they were understandably surprised.

I've been thinking more about this in the intervening week. I said that this same dynamic plays out in every association, so what should an association do about it?

Many associations, and hopefully most, track the number and type of programs and services their members engage in. Some associations have fully-integrated CRM systems that produce colorful dashboards with a click of the mouse, and some, like mine, have an Excel spreadsheet with numbers in certain columns representing member participation and totals calculating member participation scores. However an association does it, tracking participation like this is a powerful tool. It allows an association to see who is engaged and who isn't, and to intervene when a member is scoring low on the dashboard or on the spreadsheet.

Or does it?

From the point of view of the association that had me as a member, I was a very engaged member. As I described last week, I had participated in their webinars, I had spoken to their staff, I had attended their annual conference. I must have had a very high participation score in whatever system they used. Why then, did I drop my membership?

I dropped because I didn't find enough value in these activities. And there's no way for a traditional participation tracking system to capture that. Instead of measuring attendance, we should be measuring the value our programs deliver to our members.

I recently started calling each new member that joins my association. A kind of welcome message from the CEO. Hello. I'm glad you've joined. I'm the President/CEO. We offer a lot of programs and services, and I want to make sure that you plug into something valuable for you and your company. Please call me at any time if you ever have questions.

But now I'm realizing that this is not enough. If I don't want my association to be as clueless as the one I just quit, I should be calling each new member after they participate in their first activity and asking about the value, if any, that they found there.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

This is a book that richly deserves a re-read. In the introduction written by A. S. Byatt, that English novelist, poet and Booker Prize winner says:

To say that The Bell is a novel of ideas is to misdescribe it. One of Murdoch’s abiding preoccupations was with the complicated, not wholly describable “thinginess” of the physical and moral world, which could be represented in art in a more complex way than it could be analysed in discourse. It is better to say that The Bell is a novel about people who have ideas, people who think, people whose thoughts change their lives just as much as their impulses and feelings do.

That, indeed, describes the book that I read, but I fear that in my casual and often amateurish approach to text, to any text, I may not have plumbed the depths of its true complexity.

It is a novel rich in the interior lives of its characters, and therefore the experience of reading it can provide a satisfying escapism. At the same time, however, it doesn’t lend itself easily to quotation. There aren’t short paragraphs or crisp exchanges of dialogue that embody the deeper themes and meanings the author wants to explore. Instead, dark and foreboding shapes of the “not wholly describable thinginess of the physical and moral world” emerge slowly out of the fog of character thought and action.

My first dogear occurs on page 142.

Michael shook his head as if to clear away a slight haze which was buzzing round him. He began to realize that he had a headache. He really must control his imagination. He was surprised that it could play him such a trick. He was blessed, or cursed, with a strong power of visualizing, but the snapshots which it produced were not usually so startling. Michael felt solemn now.

Michael is Michael Meade, a former schoolmaster and now leader of a lay religious community aligned with an order of Anglican nuns. He is a mostly-closeted gay man, and in this scene he is driving back to his community of Imber Court with Toby, a young man about to enter college and spending a summer at Imber, asleep on the seat next to him.

Michael felt solemn now, responsible, still protective and still joyful, with a joy which, since he had taken a more conscious hold of himself, seemed deeper and more pure. He felt within him an infinite power to protect Toby from harm. Quietly he conjured up the vision of Toby the undergraduate, Toby the young man. Somehow, it might be possible to go on knowing him, it might be possible to watch over him and help him. Michael felt a deep need to build, to retain, his friendship with Toby; there was no reason why such a friendship should not be fruitful for both of them; and he felt a serene confidence on his own most scrupulous discretion. So it would be that this moment of joy would not be something strange and isolated, but rather something which pointed forward to a long and profound responsibility, a task. There would be no moment like this again. But something of its sweetness would linger, in a way that Toby would never know, in humble services obscurely performed at future times. He was conscious of such a fund of love and goodwill for the young creature beside him. It could not be that God intended such a spring of love to be quenched utterly. There must, there must be a way in which it could be made a power for good. Michael did not in that instant feel that it would be difficult to make it so.

Michael, of course, is physically attracted to Toby, and in this passage the reader can see the way he has come to grapple with that reality. It is, in its own way, an almost pure religious ideal, the hope, the demand, that everything within him must be there for something good, for some higher purpose.

Moments later, overcome with these thoughts of protection and shepherding, Michael unexpectedly kisses Toby, and immediately regrets and apologizes for it. The experience shatters Toby’s understanding of the world and his place in it, summarized beautifully in the following sentences from Murdoch:

Toby had received, though not yet digested, one of the earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure. At any moment one can be removed from a state of guileless serenity and plunged into its opposite, without any intermediate condition, so high about us do the waters rise of our own and other people’s imperfection.

It is a feeling that numerous other characters in Murdoch’s compelling narrative will experience -- the shifting of the ground under their feet, the realization that what they once thought was real is not what actually is, that there exists some other reality, traditionally hidden from all but the most artistic contemplatives.

There are many surrogates for that reality in the novel -- none perhaps more obvious than the bell itself. The bell in question belongs to the order of Anglican nuns and there are, in fact, two of them. One from the twelfth century which, legend has it, flew out of the bell tower and plunged into the lake after a nun broke her vows by receiving a lover in the Abbey. And a second from the modern day which is to be installed in the bell tower with great ceremony as a long overdue replacement.

Swimming in the lake one day, Toby discovers the ancient bell half buried in the bottom mud, and he, with a young woman named Dora Greenfield, conspire to salvage it and secretly substitute it for the new one as some kind of divine miracle. That plan goes awry, but the juxtaposition of the two bells provides a handy symbol for the novel’s key thematic element. Which, after all, is the real bell? The one that has lain buried in its watery grave for centuries, or the one newly minted and received with much expectation and ceremony. And who, in the end, can tell the difference?

As mentioned in the introduction, it is art that can play a key role in helping us decide. Dora Greenfield is, in fact, a former art student, and now the disillusioned wife of one Paul Greenfield, an art historian spending a summer at Imber Court in order to study some of the 14th-century manuscripts belonging to the Abbey. At one point in the narrative, she flees from her husband and from the lay community at Imber and visits the National Gallery in London, a place she had been in “a thousand times,” where “the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face.”

Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way. She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. Who had said that, about perfection and reality being in the same place? Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. Even Paul, she thought, only existed now as someone she dreamt about; or else as a vague external menace never really encountered and understood. But the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or values. But now there was something else in it after all.

That, in the end, may be the most important aspect of art, be it paintings in the National Gallery, or interior novels by Iris Murdoch. It provides an objective rock in the sea of subjectivity we otherwise find ourselves swimming in.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at