Category: Science and Technology Studies

How Big-Agri R&D Narratives Disguise Value Extraction

Industries do well insofar as they create value for consumers and producers (Mazzucato 2018). States celebrate businesses that grow and create wealth; sometimes states subsidise them and support them into continued success. For example, more global money still goes to uphold oil companies than goes to renewable firms (Mazzucato 2021). In states’ and companies’ industrial policy, research and development (R&D) is considered essential, and worth collaborative investment (Ha Joon Chang 1998). Because R&D allows for selling and buying to continue; businesses to keep ahead of competitors; and renewed employment opportunities (Griffith 2017). At least that is how the story goes. An instance of a state celebrating R&D—along with that pro R&D storyline—is the merger of Bayer and Monsonato in 2018. The White House brokered the merger whereby Bayer—a German big pharma and big farm company—bought Monsanto, an American agribusiness, on the condition that Bayer invest in American-soil R&D. The White House made Bayer commit to spending eight billion dollars on America-based R&D between 2018 and 2023 (Chazan 2017). The White House implied this condition had the benefit of high-skilled job creation and technical advancement.

This merger nevertheless exemplifies how the United States government stewarding value-creation (sometimes) gets it wrong. The amount of money invested into R&D in general has little guarantee in providing high-skilled employment, or creating value as the White House negotiators imagined. The allure in R&D and innovation and high-tech advance actually disguises how the business of Bayer is rent extraction rather than value creation. This is evident in unsustainable products and the enforceably unfree markets where a few companies control the industry, named an oligopoly in economics jargon. Bob Reith, head of R&D at Bayer, says Bayer spends on R&D “double that of our nearest competitor” and boasts “7800 R&D employees in 50 countries” (“Bayer AG – Annual Report 2019,”). Bayer made 51bn USD in 2021, and is the third-largest agribusiness on the planet (behind Cargill and ADM). If we take their R&D employees to be earning a median of 48,000 USD then the salary of global R&D employees constitutes an equivalent of 0.7% of their 51bn valuation. And that number is extrapolated from international numbers, with a US salary of 48k assumed, rather than the true sum of US employees’ wages from working in Bayer Crop Science R&D facilities.

Its valuation, moreover, does not rest on the reward for innovators per se, since the innovators are rewarded a decimal percentage in wages of the whole wealth that shareholders own. So one can conclude that the White House choice to broker Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto for the public interest, increased R&D, and high skilled jobs fails to fully deliver in practice. I argue that Bayer is rent extractive, so I will have to unpack that more than in a comparison between shareholders’ assets and its workers’ spendable wages. We must consider this: first, what does Bayer create? Second, what demand does Bayer serve? Third, is Bayer’s approach economically optimal, efficient, and justified compared to alternatives? 

First, Bayer Crop Science makes hybrids and varieties of corn, cotton, and other crops that are engineered to be compatible with its other products, namely herbicides, pesticides, and even tracking software. Bayer earns money through patents that allow it the right to own chemicals and precludes others from using the same — or provably similar — chemical formulation in their products. The Bayer Annual Report (2020) explains:

The term of a patent is normally 20 years from the date the application is filed. Since it takes an average of 11 to 13 years to develop a new medicine or crop protection active ingredient, only seven to nine years of patent protection remain following the product’s approval. The same applies to the development of new transgenic traits. To nevertheless provide an adequate incentive to make the necessary major investments in research and development, the European Union (E.U.) member states, the United States, Japan and some other countries extend patent terms or issue supplementary protection certificates to compensate for the shortening of the effective protection period for pharmaceutical and crop protection patents, but not for transgenic traits. 

Bayer Annual Reports 2019 and 2020

A major revenue stream for Bayer comes from Monsanto’s RoundUp weedkiller brand that was invented in 1974. The essential ingredient is glyphosate (“Glyphosate”, ScienceDirect). The patent protection for compensating Monsanto-now-Bayer for their innovation, therefore, fails to add up against a laidback innovation cycle. Because a major source of their profits comes from selling old goods rather than new. The patents, when void, also seldom permit farmers to choose among other products because their farm is locked into an intensively farmed cycle where Bayer-bought crops and Bayer-bought pesticides maintain yields (yields abundant enough to balance the books each harvest). In the case of the RoundUp weedkiller that was invented in 1974 for example, the RoundUpReady plants remain protected so farmers remain locked-in to a RoundUpReady purchase cycle. The economies of scale in Bayer prevents other agricultural companies from being able to undercut their prices or compete on quality for similar products. 

As Bob Reith explains: “While our patent coverage on the first-generation Roundup Ready™ trait for soybeans has expired, some varieties – for example in the United States – are still protected by variety patents. The patent coverage on our second-generation Roundup Ready 2 Yield™ trait for soybeans runs until at least the mid-2020s.” (“Bayer AG – Annual Report” 2019).

Note these words: variety patents and generations. 

Instead of inventing or innovating new products, therefore, older products are recombined with no change in the basic function the product serves—weed or pest killing, yield or crop raising.  As becomes clear in its 2019 R&D update celebrating “450 newly commercialized hybrids and varieties of corn, soybeans, cotton and vegetables.” (ibid). Bob Reith admits to would-be investors that Bayer’s in-house predicted 30 billion Euros in non-risk-adjusted peak sales depended on a few redevelopments or renovations: “Corn products and germplasm upgrades account for close to half of that value, with strong representation in the other relevant crops.” (ibid). As demonstrated in the persuasive turns of phrase in the Annual Report, Bayer creates more than genetically modified crops and chemically formulated chemical treatments: Bayer creates narratives about sustainable growth to gain support from investors, farmers, consumers, and policymakers. (ibid).

Reith and Bayer sell the idea that an innovation company like Bayer requires patents to recoup costs and then re-invest in further advances. But the majority of its expected returns never come from innovation. So, to answer the first question, Bayer does not create value or do as much innovation as it makes out. Bayer indeed innovates but not all that much. The inventions include a growers’ map, SeedAdviser, a website and farmer suggestions, FieldView, a cotton plant possibly resistant to Tarnish and Thrips insects, Thryv-On, and corn engineered to be short to mitigate weather disruption, Short Stature Corn. (“Bayer AG – Annual Report 2019,” n.d.). Shown in the promotional R&D pipeline below.

The idea that Bayer is commensurately compensated for its creative endeavours and that it then reinvests in the frontier is, therefore, misplaced. As a quantity it gains from reselling and distributing more than from making, and if we consider what Bayer takes in the process, the demands it meets become questionable. This leads to our second question. What demand does Bayer serve? Superficially and clearly the demand that Bayer supplies are the goods it makes to give the buyers that buy them. However, the origins for the demand for those goods is contingent and reveals how demand is artificially and conventionally shaped (Standing 2019; Federici 2004) through history rather than a dictate of economic laws playing out among economic actors as suggested in, for example, Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics.

In the 1970s farming became converted to intensified agriculture and there is a degree of lock-in to the demands that agriculture workers and managers want, a lock-in that stems from that time. Because the highest possible yields give the most profit, farmers embraced chemicals and mass-managed artificially selected crops; the government encouraged them to do so. But what gives the highest possible yield and the most bank profit actually extracts—and in some cases destroys—value (Helm 2019; Jackson 2020). While producing more with seemingly less makes a neat return, in the long-run, dependence on intensive farming is more expensive than organic or local agricultural practises. As weedkillers disrupt ally plants as well as competing plants, insecticides kill ally insects as well as competing insects, and plants that grew too much deplete the soil for future generations, thus leading to escalating and self-fulfilling dependence on weedkillers, pestkillers, and reconfigured crop lineages (Helm 2019). Yet the above video celebrates Bayer “doing even more with less”, thereby advertising a gain-for-nothing, a colloquial ‘free lunch‘.

Bayer, much like other big farm companies, extracts value from customers in exchange for a product there is no longer a tenable rationale behind. For an analogy, the Qwerty keyboard became the norm because that is how old typewriter keys were positioned. Alternative keyboard configurations that allow for quicker or more comfortable typing, given equivalent investment in time, exist, yet Qwerty keyboard sellers remain in business because consumer demand is ignorant of the rational, economical, and efficient alternatives, such as Dvorak (“Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould” 2019 p.13.). Remarkably, the eminent paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould first made the keyboard-path dependency comparison. And despite disputation that layout makes no difference and the layout is thereby arbitrary: that still vindicates arbitrary lock-in for QWERTY above alternatives. (Strangely no definitively huge sample study has been done; a fact that also attests to tinkered path dependency rather than selected optimality.) Path dependency is also commonplace such as in most in the world driving on the right despite right-sided ocular dominance suggesting driving on the left with cars therefore oncoming on-the-dominant eye, is marginally better. Another irrational path-dependency (again a computer example) is password rules that make passwords harder for humans to remember and, notwithstanding website demands, no more secure than a random but-memorable combination of words. Since words provide enough random combinations alone, without the need for numbers, special characters, and so on, that continue-to make password criteria annoying.

The same suboptimal lock-in behind qwerty, right-side-driving, and password rules is true of agriculture; agricultural companies’ formats, like keyboard companies’ formats, create the demand as well as serve it. Bayer provides crops and chemicals to help farmers produce food, but without the spending on crops and chemicals, and more sustainable farm practises, grasslands for instance, farmers would turn over a profit and make food whilst making value in the maintenance of natural capital, namely plants and biodiversity that sustains the planetary ecosystem and its sensitive cycles. Of course, a future without Bayer is antithetical to its mission, so its public relations portray a dedication to sustainability in principle but not sustainability in practice. Because sustainability in agriculture requires the de-corporatisation and de-intensification of farmland, and such decentralised growth is antithetical to Bayer’s present business model. So, this preempts the third question: is Bayer’s approach economically optimal, efficient and justified compared to alternatives?

The short answer is no. An economist like Frederik Hayek contends that a free market with people voluntarily making transactions and able to innovate and negotiate with bargaining power at the local level, without top-down interference or centralisation, works best (Hayek 1945). I agree with that argument in some circumstances and Bayer’s circumstances are an example of that agreement. The forms of knowledge available to all members of society such as ecologists and farmers themselves and their local contexts are dismissed in the current agriculture oligopoly, thus precluding the realisation of more precise prices, genuinely open innovation, and distributed value. A third party like Bayer enforces a form of innovation on their terms, rather than in the deliberated terms of all stakeholders, farmers, ecologists, community leaders, atmospheric scientists, and so on. Instead of the free flow of innovations, adjustment, trial-and-error tinkering in the field and lab, Bayer imposes a programme for the future and a monopoly on who gets a say in making that future. To a degree, all institutions promote their own vision and their place in it, but some institutions are more convivial and fairer than others, such as those that prioritise living within biodiversity limits. Bayer meanwhile precludes farmers’ and ecologists’ innovations and lobbies for monopoly rights to technologies that customers, being locked into an artificial ecosystem of scarcity, cannot exit and competitors cannot feasibly disrupt. Local distributed innovation with farm owners saving seeds, and even breeding their own from Bayer’s kind, is deemed illegal (Peschard 2019).

Bayer even released a QR scanning app to identify “counterfeit” rivals’—independently produced—sprays that otherwise pass for Bayer. (“Bayer CapSeal & Bayer CapSeal App” n.d.). The social implication is that Bayer polices consumption as the standard in agriculture. The QR app is a smart innovation and a nice feat of technology transfer but perversely is an innovation aimed at limiting innovation that would actually best serve local entrepreneurs and farmers in ‘bottom up’ fashion. Compared to the centrally planned dictates of a corporation. (See for instance the extensive literature on innovation in societies with zero patents such as in Schiff (1971), Moser (2012), Mirowski (2011). Bayer nonetheless frames inauthenticity alongside danger and piracy; farmers may prefer a trusted name enough to verify with their QR app. But such Bayer strategy ensures that name recognition and oligopoly status stay intact, despite custom-made lifeforms and sprays passing for their products, and at a cheaper purchase price. Bayer’s efficiency, optimality, and fairness flounders against free-market theory such as Frederik Hayek’s, and fails on the grounds of practice, given the value extraction and destruction that Bayer practises, and the White House inadvertently promotes. 

Lest you think this argument is eccentric, or politically motivated, I invite you to consider an open letter written from the staff at the Agronomy Department at the University of Wisconsin (Jackson 2020) and the policy papers submitted in the UK Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs’ Committee on Natural Capital (Defra 2019). These both follow the evidence to advocate transition away from intensive and uneconomical farming. As the Secretary for State, Environment and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, affirmed in 2017 (van der Zee 2017):

If you have heavy machinery churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long-term undercut the future fertility of that soil you can increase yields year on year but you really are cutting away the ground from beneath your own feet. Farmers know that. 

Michael Gove Defra secretary in 2017

If natural capital like wildlife and natural flood defences are viewed as somehow external factors in our farm landscapes and national budget it is harder to imagine how we can afford to continue intensive farming rather than a transition to sustainable agriculture. As the Oxford economist and government adviser Dieter Helm laments, some soils have but 100 yields (one long human lifetime) left in them. That degradation is due to a political economy where transgenic crops, pestkillers, and weedkillers like Bayer’s glyphosate aggressively select for worse pests, worse weeds and no repopulating generations and zero-sum soil diversity. Bayer does create some value in R&D but most of its value is either taking or breaking, not making a brighter future for all. 

To conclude, then, we have considered how Bayer creates, takes, and destroys value; how Bayer creates the ostensibly organic demand it serves; how alternative methods of agriculture are precluded from possible future not because of technical feasibility but because of vested interests and an ideological commitment to economic models of growth that ignore nature, treating water, soil and so on as external to value creation and the economics of our lives. This exploration of Bayer, oligopolistic markets, theatrical R&D, and technological lock-in has implications for other big farm businesses and the industrial policy needed to steer them towards an economically sensible, and profitable, direction. 


“Bayer AG – Annual Report 2019.” n.d.

“Bayer CapSeal & Bayer CapSeal App.” n.d. Accessed February 10, 2021.

“Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould Pdf Read Online Free – Page 13.” n.d. Accessed January 22, 2022.

Chazan, Guy. 2017. “Bayer Offers $8bn R&D Spend to Win Trump Favour for Monsanto Deal.” Financial Times, January 17, 2017.

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. 2019. “Natural Capital Committee Advice on Soil Management.” GOV.UK. May 14, 2019.

Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.

“Glyphosate.” ScienceDirect. Accessed January 22, 2022.

Griffith, Rachel. n.d. “How Important Is Business R&d for Economic Growth and Should the Government Subsidise It?” Accessed January 22, 2022.

Hayek, F. A. 1945. “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” The American Economic Review 35 (4): 519–30.

Helm, Dieter. 2019. Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside. HarperCollins UK.

Jackson, Randall D. 2020. “Our Grasslands Have Been Poisoned by Intensive Farming – Randall D Jackson.” Aeon. March 17, 2020.

Mazzucato, Mariana. 2018. The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. Hachette UK.

———. 2021. “Financing the Green New Deal.” Nature Sustainability, December, 1–2.

Mirowski, Philip. 2011. Science-Mart. Harvard University Press.

Moser, Petra. 2012. “Innovation without Patents: Evidence from World’s Fairs.” The Journal of Law & Economics 55 (1): 43–74.

Peschard, Karine Eliane. 2019. “Monsanto Wins $7.7b Lawsuit in Brazil – but Farmers’ Fight to Stop Its ‘amoral’ Royalty System Will Continue.” The Conversation, October 31, 2019.

Schiff, Eric. 1971. Industrialisation Without Patents. Princeton University Press.

Standing, Guy. 2019. Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. Penguin UK.

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Ha Joon-Chang “The Political Economy of Industrial Policy.” 1998. SpringerLink. Accessed January 22, 2022.

Zee, Bibi van der. 2017. “UK Is 30-40 Years Away from ‘Eradication of Soil Fertility, Warns Gove.” The Guardian, October 24, 2017.

Over Complex and Under Empirical: What To Do About Finance?

The barbarous gold barons. They did not find the gold. They did not mine the gold. They did not mill the gold. But by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them. 

— Big Bill Heywood, an American industrial unionist

I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.

—  Isaac Newton in 1720, after losing his fortune in a market bubble 

The toughest books I have tried to read are The Road To Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, Godel, Escher, Bach: A Golden Braid, The Financial TimesGuide to Investing, and The Economist’s Guide To Markets. To be fair the first two do a good job of explaining what amounts to the astonishingly complex. Whereas these finance books barely use human language. In an ultimate test of how inhuman the language is, try reading them aloud or listening to them be read aloud; no one talks like that. Whereas some people do talk like Roger Penrose and Douglas Hofstadter. I lack the understanding in finance to readily grasp guides to finance. That makes me feel left out and attempts to translate these guides into human language give me an eccentric hobby. But this hobby got me asking bigger questions about artistic finance and scientific economics: why are finance and abstruse economics so hard to grasp? Is it because it just is complex, like mathematical physics or artificial intelligence are, or because it is made over-complex for political reasons? 

After all, corporate law that (mis)justified colonsing India was ‘complex’ (Stern, 2015) and ‘convoluted’, but corporate law and its rules were evidently complex to maintain colonialism rather than because it had to be, or had most justification in being so. For a neater and less fraught example, consider relativity. Relativity is complex, and people have managed to explain it in ways I somewhat understand. Bertrand Russell, for example, in the ABC of Relativity. Other complex topics like evolutionary biology, calculus, and physics fundamentals can actually be explained empirically and make sense, for instance in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Infinite Powers, and Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces selection and lineages, video animation, gravitational positioning systems, and fluid movements and energy exchange are explained in reference to what I can observe, challenge, and verify. But that is not so in finance. Why? The story goes that because financial knowledge requires massive amounts of maths, quantitative modeling, and super forecaster predictions, finance is just too hard to explain in simple terms. But relativity and AI and evolutionary biology somehow are.

I contend that finance is far from necessarily complex. On the contrary, people who benefit from finance and economics who constitute the financial world, benefit from maintaining that complexity and the aura of mathematically-armored authority and neutrality that accompanies it (R. Porter & Ross, 2003; T. M. Porter, 1996). The fact that finance and orthodox economics is anti-empirical and exclusive is, I uphold, to blame for finance and abstruse economics being, in communications anyway, more confusing than evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, or basic physics. 

On the one hand, financiers and economists make incredibly complex models for market behaviours and give names to those patterns down to the minutiae. And on the other hand, financiers and economists simplify the complex world and markets into a set of workable models they can apply again and again. And financiers and economists for the most part celebrate that. As the economist, Dani Rodrik claims “economic models are relevant and teach us about the world because they are simple”(Rodrik, 2015, p. 44). Rodrik goes on to say that simplifying away assumptions about smoothness and so on in physics allows for an experiment—like a ball rolling down a plank at a certain velocity—to work—and the same thing goes on, he says, in economics. The accumulation of models, he says, makes economics a science. 

But whereas in physics observations inspire theories that inspire observations, there are obviously more theories than empirically derived observations in economics. For some examples, consider the history of economic policies such as the disavowal of Keynesian spending, the embrace of the laffer curve, and widely and bizarrely held beliefs that minimum wages harm productivity (Bergin, 2021; Krugman, 2020) despite empirical studies and historic experience falsifying them time-and-again. A better albeit brief definition of science is not model-collecting, as Rodrik upholds, but suggesting-and-testing hypotheses and updating to fix mistakes (Popper, 1963). As economist William Lazonick writes, “I contend that the conventional economic perspective on how the capitalist economy functions and performs imbues the economist with a trained incapacity (to borrow a phrase from Thorstein Veblen) to comprehend the relation between resource allocation and economic performance in the actual economy” (Michael Jacobs & Mariana Mazzucato, 2016). As Upton Sinclair observed: “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. In some sense, getting financiers and orthodox economists on board with reform is a bit like getting coal miners to celebrate clean technology, despite reform and clean technology being good for everyone, such as breathing cleaner non-carcinogenic air when near cars, for example.

As it stands, finance makes the world too complex; economics makes the world too simple. Hence economics students are rebelling against the lack of evidence and utility in economics (Chang, 2011, 2014b) that struggles to even explain boom-and-bust. Neither overcomplicated nor oversimplified approach helps explain quality finance or quality economics, including the removal of bad ideas, bad policies, and bad products. For example, explaining all the financial products in circulation today would take too long, Cambridge economist Ha Joon Chang says—years even beyond their financial cycle (Chang, 2014a)—and many of the people trading them barely grasp what they are doing themselves. Some research has shown that traders perform worse than random in their dealings. As the economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (2011) contends in Thinking Fast and Slow:

For a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than like playing poker. Typically at least two out of three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year… The successful funds in any given year are mostly lucky; they have a good roll of the dice.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

A paper he cites shows that for most investors, the stocks they chose to replace did better than those they bought; implying that their work actually was counterproductive in gaining returns (Barber & Odean, 2000). In other words, to earn more it would have been better to have done nothing at all. So the idea that they merit the reward through skill or knowledge is questionable. 

The idea, too, that all the complexity of models leads to rigour and more understanding is misplaced. Because even insider practitioners never know the mechanics at play and even have delusional beliefs in patterns of investment that are actually down to chaos rather than order; on the average of course. Some do better than random but likewise, some do worse. Orthodox economists meanwhile assume assumptions and models to make the world more manageable, such as assuming barter relationships and power-dynamics to be win-win, and economic efficiency to be a trade-off with inequality (Rodrik, 2015; Sowell, 2011). When in reality, the majority of human history had no markets as we know them; city-scale societies were financially and economically equal in some circumstances and relations of slavery and indebted labour flounders assumptions of non-zero sum games in voluntary transactions, as voluntary transactions for some are losses and involuntary for others—such as present-day slaves, disenfrenchesied women, or the misemployed (Federici, 2004; Graeber, 2012; Graeber & Wengrow, 2021) that in real-world numbers have more bearing on questions about human nature and humans’ societies than do financial or game-theory models that feature in economics textbooks.

No more is the lack of empiricist finance evident than in financial portfolios that profit from harming the environment simply because costs—such as environmental degradation—are not added to their financial equations because economics’ models simply omit aspects of the real world (Helm, 2019; Raworth, 2017). The work of environmental economists notwithstanding, green capital and natural capital are making slow inroads. As the Chicago-school economist Robert Coase, noted in a Harvard Business Review article named Saving Economics From The Economists:

In the 20th century, economics consolidated as a profession; economists could afford to write exclusively for one another. At the same time, the field experienced a paradigm shift, gradually identifying itself as a theoretical approach of economisation and giving up the real-world economy as its subject matter. Today, production is marginalised in economics, and the paradigmatic question is a rather static one of resource allocation. The tools used by economists to analyse business firms are too abstract and speculative to offer any guidance to entrepreneurs and managers in their constant struggle to bring novel products to consumers at low cost.

The real world economy features less in orthodox economics and is only comprehensively recognised among economists who are dedicated to how value is co-created through production and consumption. Marianna Mazzucato (Mazzucato, 2018) details how value is actually made, taken, and circulated through the economy: contrary to creating value, most of finance is orientated towards circulating and, in some cases, taking value from the real—meaning productive—economy. Until 1970, for instance, finance never featured in gross domestic product (GDP) accounts as those in power deemed finance an intermediary (Mazzucato, 2018). So, the value of the financial sector is disputable. Especially given the GDP growth leaps in the 1960s.

Moreover, the mega-star investor Warren Buffet—worth 110.5 billion USD in 2022—concedes how value is shared by saying he supports high-taxes. Because his success entirely depends on a fortunate and socially funded environment: “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” he said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.” Buffett thinks it wrong, and unjustified, that he pays less tax than his secretary who “works just as hard as me”. (There is even an odd video about his surprise over his secretary’s tax rate.) Herbert Simon meanwhile credited that most capital is social capital rather than personally or privately created, it is shared rather than owned per se. “On moral grounds,” he elaborated (UBI and the Flat Tax, 2014) “we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent”. As a matter of fact merit-based financialised reward actually misreads cause-and-effect, as Buffett’s counterfactual story about failing in another environment suggests, and the actual history of economic growth and transformation attests (Jacobs and Mazzucato 2017).

Arguably, the reason for finance being over-complex is simply because it is under-empirical: instead of representing or analysing the world, the mechanics of finance create maps for it that feed off the circulation, resells and repurchases of other maps. Rather than contributing to the real economy and changing the material conditions for citizens it, moreover, empowers 1-in-100 to own more than 99-in-100 (Raworth, 2017). The guardrails of finance and abstruse economies are not the product of hard science but of concerted politics whereby a few benefit at the loss of many, in the dominant narratives that pass for authoritative policy interventions for which the language of finance is required to be taken seriously. This disjuncture is strange since finance depends on the state. As is evident in how risks are socialised whilst rewards are privatised, in shareholders earning returns and banks risking failure on the premise that taxpayers’ purses and the authority vested in government will always bail them out; despite such banks seldom straightforwardly creating value in the indisputable manner that vaccines or drug makers or health services do.

So, what to do with finance? To best serve the creation of value, limiting finance and reprioritising manufacturer and jobs matters. On the path to that, removing quantitative products should be on the agenda. Whilst numbers have historically given an aura of authority, it is an authority handed to those who wield models, rather than authority stemming from the maths itself or even reliable predictions. The history of statistics makes clear how the trust we have been taught to place in numbers comes from a conflation between numbers and objectivity (T. M. Porter, 1996) or numbers and science. As we have explored here, that is but an illusion in finance and many of the assumptions and models of orthodox economics. Simplifying finance has the benefit of actually dedicating finance to meaningful endeavours rather than rent-extractive practises, see for example, (Mazzucato & Penna, 2015)) so is well worth the legislative endeavour. As the history of finance makes clear, in GDP not featuring the financial sector until 1970, and the over-complex products invented in the 2000s (before the crash) finance for all its complexity is far from immutable, and even requires simplification and empiricism to ensure it serves the aim of enriching, rather than taking from, the economy.


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Bergin, T. (2021). Free Lunch Thinking: 8 Economic Myths and Why Politicians Fall for Them. Random House.

Chang, H.-J. (2011, August 8). Global finance has dysfunction at its heart. The Guardian.

Chang, H.-J. (2014a). Economics: The User’s Guide: A Pelican Introduction. Penguin UK.

Chang, H.-J. (2014b, May 10). After the crash, we need a revolution in the way we teach economics. The Guardian.

Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.

Graeber, D. (2012). Debt: The First 5000 Years. Penguin UK.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Penguin UK.

Helm, D. (2019). Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside. HarperCollins UK.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Krugman, P. (2020). Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future. W. W. Norton & Company.

Mazzucato, M. (2018). The value of everything: Making and taking in the global economy. Hachette UK.

Mazzucato, M., & Penna, C. C. R. (2015). Mission-oriented Finance for Innovation: New Ideas for Investment-led Growth. Rowman & Littlefield International.

Michael Jacobs, & Mariana Mazzucato. (2016). Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Popper, K. R. (1963). Science as falsification. Conjectures and Refutations, 1, 33–39.

Porter, R., & Ross, D. (2003). The Cambridge history of science (Vol. 4). Cambridge University Press Cambridge.

Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton University Press.

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Rodrik, D. (2015). Economics rules: The rights and wrongs of the dismal science. WW Norton & Company.

Sowell, T. (2011). Economic Facts and Fallacies. Basic Books.

Stern, P. J. (2015). The English East India Company and the Modern Corporation: Legacies, Lessons, and Limitations. Seattle UL Rev. and the Flat Tax. (2014, July 17). Boston Review.

Change How We Vote – A Proposal

Voting well requires voting indirectly for desirable policies, so why not vote for policies directly? Policy-voting is just that idea. It proposes that voters elect manifesto policies rather than personalities or parties. The anonymous party that earns the most votes and highest ordinal ranks for its policies wins. Such policies include those touted in manifestos already such as how much to invest or what to cut in the NHS, how much to tax or cut for different income groups, and what renewable energies to invest in or divest from. This has the benefit of encouraging manifesto writers to switch from campaign bluster to societal targets. Targets that citizens vote for, rather than for any party or person. Granted, the idea of the woman-on-the street voting in parliament-level decisions can seem bizarre. As laypersons are bound to make so many mistakes.

Politicians themselves nonetheless policy-vote among themselves, and contrary to doing a better job than lay citizens do, politicians also make colossal mistakes on citizens’ behalf. Consider some examples. 

David Cameron voted for proposals from on the one hand his own party members, and on the other, rival party members, to orchestrate a UK independence referendum. Thereby one man chose for every Briton, that Britons must suddenly vote either for-remain or for-leave. Cameron’s individual ‘vote’ to orchestrate that referendum culminated in Brexit, and was a mistake by his own reckoning; he championed the Remain Campaign, and resigned after Team Leave won. 

The new prime minister, Theresa May, voted-for abiding by the referendum’s outcome and forestalled options to hold a referendum again. May and Cameron voted for policies that decided others’ livelihoods and right to live in the UK in the long-run. Their actually aristocratic choices – to hold a referendum, to not hold one, to ally with an under-elected party like the DUP – pre-decided democratic outcomes. 

The allure in taking back control – the slogan of the leave campaign – actually indicates how little internal control Britons feel they have over their communities and their governance. Arguably, high voter attendance at the referendum (compared to standard elections) shows that the electorate care, even foment, when they feel the election is momentous in offering change regarding who has control over them. General election attendance, meanwhile, has waned. Paradoxically, the role May and Cameron played demonstrates how undemocratic British politics is. Indeed, Britain is a representative democracy whereby representatives – those we elect, parliament members – represent our best interests and make decisions on our behalf in coordination with unelected high-achievers, technocrats, who have passed civil service exams.

If you doubt this reality I invite you to read Who Governs Britain And What Does Jeremy Think. The first concerns British governance and praises its Westminster centrism. The second outlines the biography of a high-powered civil servant, Jeremy Heywood, who served No.10 and five prime ministers—from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May.

I actually favoured the representative model in the past, because, well, elected members legalised homosexuality and repealed the death penalty, for instances, against the democratic majority of Britons’ wishes to the contrary at the time. So, the democratic ideal that more minds add up to better choices is not always and universally true. In Russian elections, for example, people actually vote for strongman Vladimir Putin. This is more amusingly and innocuously embodied in the BoatyMcBoatFace effect – whereby British public deliberation to name a ship led to populist joke names instead of wise consideration and reasonable suggestion.

Moreover, because one habitually trusts experts from pilots to plumbers to look after your needs, leaving politics to politicians who know best has a certain rational appeal. Concentrating on yourself while they take care of the political and economic side seems rational enough. But no, thinking about it, it is not: allowing politicians to make choices for us has not addressed persistent issues in the past, and governance innovation – at least experimentation with new ways – merits attention. Bottom-up innovation has historically led to the invention of good things like the National Health Service, and free days, and minimum income, namely nationalised healthcare and the weekend and holidays and minimum wages.

Hence I propose policy-voting. Policy voting, as I envision it, entails a digital ballot-sheet but instead of votes for people or parties there are anonymous votes for an arbitrarily capped number of policies (the trade off of not featuring all policies admits what ones are valued and feasible in an election cycle) such as, for example, how much funding for the NHS, votes for sixteen-year-olds, sectors that should be prioritised.

This has beneficial reasons behind it:

  1. Policy voting abolishes partisanship: as voters learn they align with agendas of parties to different percentage points, without the tribal affiliation having as much priority. There is also a cost-saving in avoiding wasting campaign money on defeating the opposition through fake news or personal-attack smear campaigns
  2. Policy voting bypasses human fallibility: vote outcomes are predictable from superficial concerns like the height, gender, and jawline of leaders, stage charisma, sheer screen-time exposure. These biases are averted if appearances and affiliation are screened-out from relevance. 
  3. Policy voting energises voters’ participation: voters will decide on the policies that matter to them and so will by necessity have to take a stance on political issues that are otherwise absent from the big picture. This, by-design, ensures that voters know what they are actually voting for, and if they do not know (as some do not know already and nonetheless vote in the status-quo system) it discourages them from holding forthright opinions about ‘who is better’ in power
  4. Policy voting reveals true or sincere outcomes: some parties may better align with a voter than others and, in a policy-voting system, if a majority aligns with policies of a non establishment party, that party stands a decent chance at victory 
  5. Policy voting ensures long-termist concerns gain a high-standing into subsequent election cycles. So, issues like funding the NHS and funding a Green New Deal, that have popular support from citizens on both sides of the political spectrum, cannot be derailed by lobbying power or vested interests wielding power within or against any one particular party in any one particular cycle
  6. More votes cast. Using digital interface voting has security risks, but the net gain in ease of voting outweighs risk; there is already digital vote corruption with social media influence swaying preferences further up the pipeline, like pro-brexit Twitter bots. Yet enough people accept the results. Digital votes can still be counted by address and identity matched through an app, and any corruption in one postcode or county can be detected and accounted for, without risk beyond the risk already accepted in, for instance, banking transactions. Nonetheless, a smartphone application vote is risky compared to just using paper ballots with the efficiency of supervised machines reading them; a pragmatic compromise between machine efficiency on the one hand and human security on the other.

Another way to ensure voters vote is to charge them money to opt out from voting each time. If voters do not wish to contribute even a spoiled vote to the society they rely on, charging them for the privilege makes sense. Making votes obligatory is liable to generate more participation and more money for public service for those who pay to opt-out. Compulsory voting is already a law in Australia, and has been since 1915. If voters are subject to laws of the land regardless of their wish, then, a law whereby they pay to not contribute to deciding such laws’ makers is still rational, consistent, and fair in a society where those same laws take tax money from them.

This proposal for a revised policy voting system, does not propose we switch overnight nor that voting this way is better in every way. Every voting method has problems, but some have more problems than others.

A Princton study into voting shows that ordinary voters’ preferences have near zero predictive power on policy making in the USA. So, experimenting with alternative methods need not be perfect: it just has to be an improvement on status-quo alternatives, not a high bar to reach. A vote by election experts, at The London School of Economics and Political Science, in 2011 voted the current voting method (plurality voting) the worst, at the bottom of the list. Policy voting meanwhile offers new opportunities. Opportunities worthy of testing with public groups in terms of interface-design, simulated elections, and debating the least-bad choice in light of deliberated objections.

A less radical alternative, approval voting, already has currency in voting methods literature and has the virtue of simplicity. Instead of one box on the ballot instructions, one can tick one-or-more candidates and thereby a. select optimal candidates b. signal what candidates and priorities also have non-binary, compromise, appeal. This is a step in the right direction, and I believe the UK and USA should trial such a system. But arguably it does not go far enough — policy voting exactly because it is radical has more potential for making a society fairer, more representative. As it walks the road between entrusting in politicians too much (like the UK) or entrusting in citizens too much (like California), by having voters decide the agenda after politicians offer targets. 

Approval voting candidates is the beginning; approval voting policies, one hopes, is the end.

Film As Philosophy: Epistemology In Memento

Philosophers Noel Carrol, Paisley Livingstone, Bruce Russell, and Murray Smith, have strong views about film. Russell and Livingstone consider film anathema to philosophy because film is about visual entertainment and philosophy about verbal argument. Smith fences film from wise study because film is vague where philosophy is rigorous. These claims are frankly silly. Visuals and words work together; workaday film and philosophy is rigorous and vague. Their claims against film and for words reveal biases: a “prejudice against the nonlinguistic” to quote Noel Carrol. Biases that mislead people who wish to learn useful wisdom about ‘life’ or ‘reality’. Arguably, philosophy nowadays is defined around ventured arguments and points. Yet philosophers talking about taking film from the table ironically demonstrates the reach of film as philosophy; were it factually out of the question that philosophy be film, then no philosophers would be arguing against it. Historically and geographically, too, images and epiphanic realisation have been granted philosophical status. Think of philosophers like Lao Zi or Albert Camus. And public citizens offer diverse definitions of philosophy, ones evoked through film more than journal arguments. I want to make an example of this clear. I choose Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) because the plot, script, shots, and genre techniques are cerebral, and if one film can count as philosophical, then film-as-medium definitely can be philosophic. We will look at narrative frames, open-ended interpretation, and the quest for truth in Memento. First, though, I should, with several spoilers, summarise the movie.

Memento is about a man, Leonard, with retrograde amnesia. Leonard can form no new memories. He can contain thoughts for minutes but nothing ever sticks. He is on a quest to avenge his assaulted dead wife. He lives to kill her killer, a killer vaguely named John G. To make things yet more complicated, scenes are cut-and-pasted in partially reversed order, so instead of going from A to B, scenes run B-A,B-A,B-A in the present-tense story, colour, with Cs thrown in that show his long term memory in black-white, past-tense, and occasional flashbacks, that merit no big-letter, where present tense and past tense divisions collapse on screen. So, as Leonard makes sense of what is happening, we do the same, piecing together the plot and second-guessing characters’ intentions. Characters include a drug dealer Leonard kills at the start (Jimmy), Jimmy’s girlfriend who misleads Leonard (Natalie), a former cop corruptor-or-friend to Leonard (Teddy), a drug dealer associate who chases after Natalie and Leonard (Dodd), and a hotel clerk who cheats Leonard out of money, at the anonymous Discount Inn (Burt). Let us return to philosophic themes.

Narrative Frames 

Geoff McGregor claims Memento in chronological and inverted order “is the same narrative, but different narration”. McGregor assumes narration separable from “the narrative”. Yet, narration in word-plot is inseparable from picture narrative in practice. Memento invites viewers to believe, for example, that Natalie manipulates Leonard to avenge her murdered boyfriend, Jimmy. Katherine Weese tested this. Weese tested her students’ viewing experiences; her students believed, wanted to believe, that Natalie acted to avenge Jimmy’s murder. Weese calls this “(mis)reading Natalie” because the fact that Natalie caused Leonard to kill Teddy is a plausible coincidence. Memento offers no evidence for viewers to attribute vengeance to Natalie. Instead, viewers bring the reading and construct their narrative in co-construction of the signifiers from films, plays, and scripts viewers have read before.

Howard Suber, a film professor at UCLA, concurs that intentionality is foremost in drama with viewers attributing goals to characters and linking cause-and-effect more rigidly than in the chaotic real world. Memento invites viewers to attribute vengeful intent to Natalie through sequence, the ’how’, instead of words, the ’what’. Presenting Natalie as abrasive early-on primes readers to attribute malevolent intentions to her later. Nevertheless, if the sequence were altered with kind-Natalie preceding deceitful-Natalie then viewers’ narratives would change as well. Sequence alters facts. Narration affecting narrative is no cinematic or poetic licence alone, but is a commonplace. A surgery outcome study, for instance, found that framing affects what facts are concluded. Doctors informed that “the one month survival rate is 90%” or “there is 10% mortality in the first month” resulted in 84% agreeing to the first and 50% to the second, despite logical equivalence. In court-cases too, the sequence information is shown in colour guilt perceptions. That study finding is analogous to how viewers discern guilt perception in Memento on shifting ground. Therefore Memento engages with questions about how-we-know that generalise to real-world problems. Problems about ventured verbal arguments and facts. Memento is philosophical then at least to the degree that knowing about how perceptions shape what we know is philosophical – a central tenet in epistemiology. A more workaday example, however, shows how viewers’ epistemics change from the film. The actor who played Natalie, Carrie-Anne Moss, says “I’ve seen [Memento] five times, […] and I’ve seen it differently each time now’”. Her pluralist interpretation is rendered through its framed design. Interpretation and object are thrown into question since there are as many Natalies as there are interpretations of her—Natalie afterall is fictional. Memento itself has a plurality in different versions – chronological and original – that suggest different readings. Readings that change with each watch. Guy Pearce, who plays Leonard, recounts how Memento changed his epistemology as well: “I think back to experiences in my life where I look at something, like I look at a photo and base a memory around that, and go, I actually don’t really know if that memory’s really true. Is it?”.

Memento therefore persuasively demonstrates fallibility in inferring and attributing given partial evidence. More evidence never clears epistemic ambiguity in Memento.

Despite first-hand acquaintance with script, character, and film, both Moss and Pearce have never concluded reconstructing Natalie and Leonard from cues like memories, notes, and photographs. And as Pearce makes clear, that altered his epistemology—how he thinks, doubts, and evaluates his world in, and from, pictures—in a manner Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason presumably has not.   

Psychiatry evidence also supports a thesis in Memento; a thesis that autobiographical memories, for example, are framed through pictures instead of words. So Memento is epistemological about how we know, in surpassing linguistics. The confines of verbal argument moreover never constitutes Leonard’s epistemics. His knowledge is improvised from assertions, ‘facts’, he assumes to be true from polaroids and tattoos. The whole film shown with no moment without Leonard is also a character-frame built for the audience. As Nolan explains, Leonard:

He’s a wonderful means for examining our own process of memory. Research gave me a grounding in memory and the way it works. Then I just looked at  myself,  and  the  way  I  store  things  in  my  mind.  Once  you  start  examin-ing the process, you rapidly realise how inefficient that system is, and how interpretation  is  involved;  how  many  different  devices  you  use,  such  as notes and photographs. It’s one of the things that people who enjoy the film tap  into,  because  it  makes  them  think  about  that  in  themselves.

Leonard himself is a fictional device, a “means”, to illustrate how making sense is system bound, device mediated, and subjective. Leonard may be considered an extreme case for making sense of framed time and experience, being unable to consolidate memory but his extreme case illustrates just how frame-relative time and experience are: for a whole swathe of experience to be wiped by brain injury demonstrates how partial and subjective and framed interpretations become.

His aberrant experience of not-time and not-memory are as valid as anyone else’s; his experiences demonstrate how framed all experiences turn out to be. Although in workaday life we take it for granted, Memento challenges us to question our interpretations from partial evidence by taking the familiar and given and making them unfamiliar and strange. As is evident in Leonard’s reliance on photography as an extension of memory. Leonard uses a representation system to get by, yet so does everyone. Making his index of facts and knowledge ephemeral draws attention to how our own more stable representations are still just that, representations rather than read-outs of facts wholescale. 

The authority we accord to memory is actually just as subject-relative a signifying process as an external system; I take the opposite lesson from Joseph Levine’s argument that the mind being a computational processor summing inputs gives reason for drawing a line to privilege the interior mind above external inputs. Without object input, there would be no mind at all! Moreover, the lines between objects and thoughts are versatile. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, for instance, uses literal paper labels—signs—on patients’ bodies, carried notes, and movements incongruous to ‘voice’, to reconstitute self-knowledge. This technique of mind reconstitution is an embodied process reliant on input objects, a representational system of the same kind, but never extent, as Leonard’s representation system. Leonard trusts photos, tattoos, and notes as thoughts, whereas therapy subjects alter their thoughts with labels. Therefore Leonard, in his extreme condition, demonstrates further how label-representations play a constitutive, even prescriptive, role rather than a descriptive one. Whereas therapy subjects presumably like to think the labels are tools for them, for Leonard his tools in a sense constitute him. His representation system is a substitute for his long-term memory.

Leonard relies on conditioned behaviours (subconscious habits) and physical cues (notes, photographs, tattoos) to substitute for his amnesia. Audiences are deliberately placed in these peculiar “epistemic shoes”. Conditioning, cues, and search for answers are ready analogues for audiences making sense of Memento. Note the participatory verb, making sense. Audiences are literally processing and reasoning, in becoming rather than collecting or piecing together Memento objectively, they do so with a share in the partiality and difficulty suffered by Leonard, and by his extreme extension, to a degree by everyone. Such as the endless forum members who discuss the ‘real’, ‘true’, or ‘final’ meanings of Memento. 

I see the virtue in this ambivalent epistemology, so I disagree with Weese’s claim that her students misread Natalie. On the contrary, attributing vengeance to Natalie could be correct because no criteria falsifies either way. Just like Leonard is stuck between both John and James G without ever knowing either way. Weese’s belief is akin to a visual illusion, where she sees a rabbit and her students see a duck; yet she wishes to correct that it is really the rabbit’ agnostically seeing both is most accurate.

Granted, there definitely are misreadings. Memento is no different. Consider for an absurd example a proposition like ‘Teddy is an alien’ or that ‘Leonard has no tattoos’. Memento however never offers such low-hanging fruit. Instead it boasts an ambivalent epistemology where final answers and resolution are averted with indeterminacy—leaving many options and vacillation between possibilities—open in its design.

Open-ended Re-interpretation 

At the end, Memento comes full-circle. Leonard asks “where was I?”. The quest for answers is infinite like a “mobius strip”, says Jonathan Nolan, a co-creator. Christopher Nolan nonetheless maintains that he knows who is good and what happens for real in the film. He describes Memento as “linear but in reverse order”, presupposing Memento viewers see, or should accept, the same model as him. Memento is linear in that each frame follows exquisitely from the former. Yet Memento’s narrative is not linear in experience. On the contrary, an attentive viewing shows how linear thinking misleads as a direction-biased model for understanding. The fact that both Nolans, who collaborated on the script concept, disagree about the model for Memento demonstrates how diverse and open-ended interpretations can be.

Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Memento as linear is a choice rather than a read-out of the film. This is demonstrated by what does and does not get, typically, modelled as linear. Consider a Taijiquan performance for comparison, with set-moves, beginning, and end. Seldom do these get described as linear. The movements are dynamic and each iteration unique. Despite having an end the experience is more than just a sequence but an embodied cognition; the same physicality holds in watching a film. Eyes dance over screen, a tummy rumbles, a film scene evokes another scene onto the internal projector, a hand flinches in empathy. As the philosopher Henri Bergson says, instead of seeing orange independently as a composite of colours, a viewer sees—is ‘in’ or ‘becomes’ orange—with only second thought for the composite parts that we come to learn form orange. As philosophical and abstruse as it sounds, viewers in a sense are Leonard, and the mind experiencing Memento extends its repertoire about what we know and how we known. A suitable criterion for philosophy. It is rewarding to puzzle over why we consider a film static and linear whereas we never do a tajichuan performance or a dance; perhaps it is to do with perceptions in real-life dimensions versus those played out within a screen with digital tape allowing one to run metaphorically ‘forward’ and ‘back’.

Memento’s sequences demonstrate how extrapolation from space to time goes awry. Past and present alternate and the past bursts into an all-encompassing present in pseudo-flashbacks on screen. Memento represents our knowledge as more contingent than the literalised metaphor of linear, or arrow, times. Indeed I estimate that Memento has thirty-two segments at 2-10 minutes; with each segment viewers begin again like Leonard. The segments alternate between “objective” black-and-white and “subjective” colour, past and present. Yet separation between past and present lapses, with elements of present entering past, like Leonard in Sammy’s chair, and past entering present like his wife’s murder occupying our shared mind’s eye (the screen). Colour eventually bleeds from a polaroid across the screen, subtly eliminating the black-and-white; subjectivity and objectivity converge. Leonard speculates about whether Sammy recognises him, and Sammy’s wife’s intentions. Narration is past-tense but Leonard and watching, remember, is present; words are past and images present; tenses exposed as verbal constructions.

Leonard identifies with Sammy or Leonard is Sammy, or Sammy is Leonard?

Audiences reason about Leonard from present images and words, sometimes in conflict. Teddy claims Sammy was real but fraudulent. Sammy “never had a wife” and Leonard lives “a dream” where Leonard would continue his quest “even if I wasn’t in the picture”—note The Picture pun! Leonard does continue his quest with Teddy taken out of the picture—killed and un-developing on a polaroid. Re-interpretations however compete between characters and within characters. For example, Leonard confabulates his past with verbal and non-verbal sometimes in confrontation.

The Leonard who judges isn’t accurate but instead weighed brain firings none of which are definitively ‘his’ all-time judgement, depending on firings not performed and prior social elication. His judgment depends on what Natalie gives or doesn’t give; that knowledge is contingent is a common-place philosophical claim; Memento embodies an experiment to show it. For example, after Natalie manipulates Leonard into hitting her and after losing his memory of hitting, Natalie performs a damsel-in-distress role to evoke Leonard’s sympathy and righteous anger. Leonard however looks at his hand for a moment before dismissing his knuckles’ intuition that his hand hurts because his hand hit her. She says she told Dodd about Lenny’s jaguar, rousing suspicion. Leonard asks why, consults his hand, and shakes his head in internal disbelief.

His brain, therefore, weighs in favour of her fabricated story rather than objective events hinted at by his body—his brain confabulates by dismissing subjectivity. He, therefore ‘chooses’ to believe the narrative which favours his conscious bias. Notably and ironically it is such touch certainties as his knuckles hurting—“I know what that’s going to feel like when I pick it [a glass ashtray] up. See? Certainties.”—that he uses to defend certainties against Natalie’s claim that “you can never know anything for sure”. His faith in mechanical objectivity of notes, and even conditioned gender expectations, betray him when Natalie takes pencil and pen away and plays his expectations to her advantage; he would fare better to genuinely trust subjective, embodied, judgement above notes or social cues here. 

Leonard’s gestures also suggest a ‘dialogue’ within his character. Leonard’s hand ‘speaks’ to him and the rest of him doesn’t ‘listen’ per his head signifying ‘no’. Such internal dialogue indicates how reasoning is more than verbal argument—choosing the logical spoken argument actually misleads him where attending to his knuckles would rightly lead him. Some philosophers argue Memento is philosophic because it offers explicit arguments. On the contrary, Memento is philosophic because it goes beyond offering verbal arguments; demonstrating embodied emotive reasoning. 

Part of Leonard cherishes belief in “mechanical objectivity” (objects and records being objective where mind and thoughts are subjective) despite it leading him astray. His photos and written facts provide him direction but he nonetheless follows them or discounts them when it suits him. To get by, one must forget and compress, just as Natalie pleads Leonard to do: “Trust yourself, trust your own judgement, you can question everything; never know anything for sure!“ We have however the burden of short-term memory whereas Leonard outsources his. Leonard forgets Natalie whereas we remain caught in indeterminacy whether Natalie lies to manipulate Leonard, to save herself, or tells white lies for Leonard, or all of these. There is, moreover, irony in Natalie’s message for Lenny to trust his own judgment because she manipulates her judgment into such advice. Instead of the pristine epistemology most philosophers and scientists aspire to, Memento actually represents messy epistemology in embodied life with its uncertainty and ever-moving epistemic aims.

The Failed Detective’s Quest

One can say Leonard’s choice is mechanically subjective in relying on objects or tools above his skin, since all rests on a knower, “the precondition to knowledge”. The choice to notate “do not believe his lies”, and burn away the polaroid of Jimmy is not mechanical objectivity but mechanical subjectivity. Leonard chooses to lie to himself and seldom considers his mind worthy of the distrustful scrutiny he demands and investigates in others. Teddy says, “yeah you’re an investigator. Maybe you should start investigating yourself” to counterbalance Leonard’s fixation on finding ‘the truth’ he cannot remember for longer than 10 minutes. Yet Leonard once again puts faith in technology rather than ‘memory’: he cites how detectives “make notes and they draw conclusions” ignoring that note-taking in the first instance is subjective. 

Lenny’s confident air in the lunch scene where he debates Teddy on the veracity of memory has dramatic irony, because by believing naively in objectivity Leonard is especially subjective. Dramatic irony because we come to know who Teddy is more than Leonard himself. Lenny lectures Teddy about how unreliable memory is, how tenuous eyewitness accounts are, how he ought to “ask the police” how they conduct an investigation. But his notes and photos never tell him what to do—Leonard does that. For example, in interpretively assuming “his lies” to mean everything Teddy says. In this very scene, Lenny’s signifiers don’t tell him the facts. Teddy is really (once at time?) Officer John Edward Gamel whereas Leonard is a brain damaged former insurance investigator. Who has more claim to know how detectives work? Leonard sophistically omits facts to persuade, as well, such as his belief the cops failed him in their adherence to fact: “I was the only guy who disagreed with the cops, and I had brain damage.” The appeal for Teddy to “ask the police” has, again, dramatic irony because Leonard appeals to their competence here but laments their incompetence both earlier and later; their incompetence is even the supposed prime-mover behind his quest.

Lenny says “memories are just interpretation, not a record and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts”. On a first watch, we may infer Leonard is correct because he makes claims to facts and Team-Nolan frames Teddy to appear ingratiating, misleading him off his trail. On the contrary, after another watch, Teddy might well be out to help Leonard, because without memory in an adversary, Teddy could just as well steal the $200,000 and skip town than buy Leonard lunch and solicit a new lifestyle. There is moreover a piquant parallel between Leonard believing what he sees above what he hears. Film is uniquely placed to put this truism into practice in a philosophic way that journal articles and conventional philosophy cannot achieve. So, again Memento is quite philosophical in its epistemiology and reflexivity about such epistemiology.

Despite what Natalie, Teddy, and Leonard say to the contrary, it is what viewers see, and visual signs which persuade us to weigh competing timelines as more-or-less plausible. (Seeing Leonard in Sammy’s chair for a split second, say.) Nolan remarks that he is always surprised viewers assume Teddy is John (or James) G, for instance, because there is no reason to disbelieve what Teddy says. But this case illustrates what Nolan says elsewhere—people believe what they see above what they hear. Weese and Nolan nevertheless seem to subscribe to correct interpretations of events in the film. Because to be surprised by viewers’ insistence of another version of events and to label other readings mis-readings suggests some interpretations are true and alternatives false, or at least more correct. But that is simplistic: instead the film elicits plural interpretations through deliberate obfuscation and misdirection. There may be no reason to disbelieve Teddy, as Nolan says, but there is no evidence to definitely believe Teddy either. For the duration of a first watch the misreading of Natalie, identified by Weese, is for many, the correct reading, valid until another watch suggests doubts to otherwise. That lack of conclusion or a correct answer is arguably pertinent to why Memento predicates itself, subversively, on the detective mystery genre, on noir. We turn there next.

Detective Noir and The Quest For Answers

Leonard is an investigator on a quest to discover a rapist murderer. In the beginning the motel telephone provides a stand-in for an interior monologue, through which he narrates his hardboiled bitter experience, quest, discoveries. Instead of a solipsistic monologue he speaks to someone. By talking to the phone, Nolan persuades audiences to adopt the interlocutor role—inferring what is said and why. The black-and-white images paired with the transitory motel setting clues-in the audience—if they recognise the signs—that Memento is a murder mystery; it begins with a murder handily framing and priming genre expectations. The noir genre is pertinent because genre perceptions alter the narration and interpretation of what audiences assume and infer. Nolan is definitively schooled in how genre works, and subversion; as a literature graduate whose book choice, for desertion on a desert-island, is the labyrinthine stories of Jorge Luis Borges. Borges notably plays with signs and signifiers in his labyrinthine works, per an infinite library. Nolan appears similarly to play a labyrinthine ploy with signs; Memento is irresolvable and iteratively infinite. You may initially think this a far-reach but Leonard’s wife, Catherine, repetitively reads the same text presumably finding new significance. She reads a tattered white book with words out-of-focus; finding a titleless book and editing words always out-of-focus suggests deliberate prop use to invite inter-text readings. Leonard counters her that “I always thought the pleasure of a book is not knowing what happens next” which is ironic given Leonard’s life becomes a ‘text’ suffering too much from just that. Memento toying with infinite signification is also evident in its para-text: a mental-institution-styled DVD with dead-end menu options plus obscure website material. And, I note, an infinite regress DVD cover picture.

Nolan makes a labyrinthine plot with distrust characteristic of noir. Yet Memento novelly subverts generic epistemic plotting: admitting no solution to the mystery. Borges, Deborah Knight and George McKnight notably define detective fiction as formulaic with two basic properties: a. Murder b. Solved investigation. Borges showed how interesting the genre becomes, however, in disrupting perfect question-answer, problem-solution structure. (Borges honoured its tight structure with geometry in Death and The Compass, a story in Nolan’s book-choice.) Nolan identifies Memento’s question-answer dynamic as “dialectic”. Dialectic is a philosophy term for question and answer coming to a conclusive final synthesis, a synthesis ostensibly closer to truth. Memento achieves the same disruption of genre as Borges does. For example, in answering the whoddunit question at the beginning with the main character killing and working back from there to have the audience guess why. The neatness of dialectic historically prized in philosophy and detective fiction alike is disrupted in Memento. Because it starts with the answer to ‘whodunnit?’ and leaves it to audiences to fabricate questions for why. Instead of a line from mystery-to-solution Nolan criss-crosses the timelines of inquiry so they become confused. The simplicity of whodunnit lapses with epistemic confidence in a solution shattered: for example, that Leonard killed his wife (per flashes of memory where he injects insulin rather than Sammy Jankis) and thereby never achieves revenge. Leond might not even conceive of revenge accurately since there is no one else to avenge against and her death accidental on his part or orchestrated by her.

Memento illustrates how epistemic systems of representation are embodied and subjective with knowledge, answers, and truth quests pertinent to real life. For example, Leonard’s condition is real. Some people do live without the ability to consolidate memory so the contingency of their minds precludes universalist statements about what is true or false to them. No truth or falsifying claim about Memento can be true for them for long. Just like Leonard.

You may object that this is a broad, sweeping, interpretation but the movie invites broad swept interpretations. For example, in reading Natalie, audience members believe in a contingent truth that other evidence contradicts but because of the temporal limitations of sequencing that truth is constructed and lasts. The blank open book motif is also a blatant sign. Yet my point is firmer, per the bias for linguistic evidence, with debated epistemic certainties. Leonard appeals to the same material certainties that philosophers, like Bertrand Russell, consider doubt worthy yet tangible. Admittedly, however, some timelines and certainties in Memento are more plausible than others. For example, I guessed at Teddy’s good intentions taking Leonard to lunch by considering that he could alternatively leave town, steal from, or kill Leonard; if he were the real John G or cared just about the money and Jaguar. As Gerald Graff explains, “we can usually at least distinguish between relatively more defensible and less defensible guesses about contexts, and that is all we need to do in the practice of interpretation”. That Teddy is the real John G is less plausible than someone else being John G, but there is no criterion to falsify one interpretation false and another true. 

After all, there is no real world for truths about the characters to correspond with, except the worlds created in watching. Hence the synecdoche use of a vague name like John (or James?) G and grammatical determiners ‘a’ and ‘my’ which implies John G is no person but a type, category, class. Indeed Leonard kills Teddy because Teddy reveals “I’m a fucking John G!” rather than because Lenny discovers Teddy is the Jonathan Gammel. Leonard affirms this to himself in amending a photograph of Teddy to deceive his future self:

I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted to make things right. Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve told me? Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve made me do. You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G. to look for? You’re John G. So you can be my John G. Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy, yes I will.

His account has inconsistencies but inconsistency is not mutually exclusive with epistemology: reinterpretation and subjectivity are integral. For example, his view as no killer when deciding to kill, the belief he wants a puzzle to solve being wrong whilst making another puzzle, and confirming what Teddy claims that “You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth”, by amending Teddy’s photograph. Epistemology may seem a grand word, but Memento illustrates how visual ‘how’ influences knowledge of what, how embodied and subjective knowledge is, and how subject to quasi-infinite inquiry, reinterpretation, and limits is the project of epistemic philosophy.In conclusion, Memento does philosophy, in its play with narrative framing, open-ended interpretation, and a perennial detective quest for truth. Memento has implications for epistemic interpretation and viewers’ sense of philosophy. Such philosophy may be reduced ironically to a list of assertive, verbal, points: its epistemology relies on multisensory systems of representation that are signified, embodied, and subjective; the form of presentation alters ‘the facts’ or propositions themselves as the sequence in which scenes are arranged changes how audiences’ read characters and intentions; the medium can constitute message; constant re-interpretation of Leonard’s world exemplifies how subject-relative and contingent is epistemology; and subversion of detective genre with its neat problem and solution into the mobius strip quest of Leonard pursuing truth, answers, objectivity in particular holds analogue for the epistemological quest in general. Nevertheless, such points do not do justice to the experience of Memento. Seeing and experiencing Memento in each iteration amounts to more than words can explain; the embodied process of epistemological interpretation surpasses mere linguistic words. Such (re)discovery is at the heart of Memento’s epistemic philosophy.

A Quick History of The Pill

Yasmin, Cilique, Cerazette, Loestrin 20, Microgynon, Dianette, and pure Progesterone: there are many contraceptive pills today but the name remains ‘The Pill’ for all. The Pill is given the definite noun—’the’—like no other drug. The Pill had a star role on the historical stage; it changed the lives of millions. In Britain today, even, 9-in-10 women in need of prescribed contraception have swallowed a variant.  That amounts to 3.1 million women. Intuitively one may jump to credit its quirky definite noun-centred name to its significance. But the name ‘The Pill’ arguably lingers from 1957 because of the taboo around its inception. Lara Marks reminds us that “contraception itself was a dirty word and only mentioned in many households in hushed whispers”. Referring to chemical birth prevention by euphemism or implication therefore may have just stuck with us. The anonymous phrase The Pill, then, may be a medicalised example of what Beth Bailey calls “framing justifications in terms that avoided a language of morality”. After all, the surprising name, importance, and justifications of The Pill are contingent upon technological, social, and temporal factors. In Japan, for instance, The Pill has been barely used and only gained legal prescription status in 1999 amid a furore against men being granted access to the more recently discovered Viagra.

To speak of a single, global, history of The Pill and to universalise its importance, then, would be a big mistake. Universalised narratives of technology liberating women are vocal nonetheless, especially in British and American media from The Guardian to The New York Times. Some articles claim even that a single man invented The Pill and gifted it to women. Others suggest The Pill was synonymous with the swinging sixties’ sexual revolution whereby women demand The Pill for the control of their bodies. Some claim that The Pill is bad for women with nefarious side-effects downplayed by the medical establishment. And still others, in a pertinent example of fake news, consider ovulation-on-the-pill an example of a male conspiracy to keep women down and to court Papal approval. This messy network of narratives reveals a remarkable continuity between recent history and its contemporary manifestation; the above claims deserve exploration. The Pill had precursors antecedent to it, and was invented by groups of people; the sexual revolution was underway before The Pill; population control policies implemented The Pill; and the medicalised entrenchment of ovulation cycles makes sense from a status-quo bias rather than from a nefarious program.

Contrary to a narrative of a miracle drug developed by a few American men in 1957, it was a more piecemeal and incremental affair. Consider that seventeen years earlier, in 1930, Edouard Haberlant, a hormone research pioneer, registered a contraceptive pill named Infecundin in Hungary. An Austrian hospital, Innsbruck, then tested Infecundin by 1933. The Shoshone tribe in Nevada meanwhile had already discovered and used contraceptive plant extract—the concentrated purified form of which passes for a drug—long before the inception of The Pill. Unlike other folk medicine attempts, it consistently worked. The Shoshone’s plant extract was tested at The University of London in 1948, and the extract successfully inhibited the ovulation of four housewife test subjects. And in India circa 1949 a contraceptive pill was tested with a fifty-to-seventy per cent efficacy in a Calcutta maternity hospital; the report published in the medical press mentioned no bad side effects at all.

There were therefore three proto-pills before the usually credited inventors, Gregory Pinicus and John Rock, got to work. And their records make no mention of any rival pill. Historian Beth Bailey paints an American-centric picture of The Pill in Kansas, the uptake of which depended on social conditions and uniquely American legislative support. While Bailey’s account is flawed in leaving out the other proto pills, her logic of contingent support holds. The concerted effort in America to control births allowed for the development and diffusion of The Pill in a way that was impossible in more remote (tribe nation Nevada) or hostile (1930s Europe) environments. Although, a history where Haberlandt lived beyond 1932 may have been a different (hi)story. The Pill did not burst onto the scene all by itself, but was funded and supported into being in a culture where other forms of contraception had already gained credence. American women used more birth control, like diaphragms, than European women. And some had the financial means and gumption to advocate for a pill contraceptive.

Planned Parenthood clinic leader, Margaret Sanger, and rich heiress and MIT Biology graduate, Catherine McCormick, collaborated to solicit the project in, physiologist and obstetrician respectively, Gregory Pincus and John Rock. In cursory accounts, these four made The Pill happen but in fact the Worcester Institute they founded relied on a team effort: Anne Merrill, Mary Ellen Fitts Johnson, Min Chueh Chang included. The trials for The Pill required clinicians like Miriam Menkin, Herbert Home, Angeliki Tsacona, Luigi Mastroianni, Celso Ramno Garcia and Edris Rice-Wray. Women and ethnic minorities, then, were part and parcel of developing The Pill. The essential women who were the clinical trials’ test subjects, in countries with permissive laws like Puerto RIco and Mexico make this even clearer; no benevolent lone genius or US-only enterprise made The Pill.

Historians, including Lara Marks, take issue with the idea that The Pill caused the sexual revolution, because premartial and promiscuous sex were already upward trends amid women working, urbanisation, and the motorcar. The environments women were in, their economic freedom, and mobility fostered a more sexually liberal environment already. By one frame, The Pill didn’t allow women to have sex because, if they wanted to, they mostly already did. Instead, “it allowed them to worry less about it.” The Pill was more incremental a change than swift transformation. 

Nevertheless, that The Pill didn’t cause the revolution does not exclude that it catalysed or further fueled the revolution. Sex and reproduction has always been a heated topic and The Pill exacerbated that. Some husbands poured pills down the toilet, sailors took their wives’ contraception with them to sea, and paranoias about deceitful women abounded since they had the power to say they were on The Pill when they were not and that they were not on The Pill when they were. Thus an inevitably coupled decision—whether to reproduce—prior to The Pill veered to an individualist one with choice-orientated bargaining where before the issue was deemed biologised, if not ‘God given’.

The Pill added fuel to the fire in the battle of the sexes although generalisations from extreme cases are epistemically fraught – they are nonetheless revealing, especially since what made it into the records and archives isn’t the sum of what went on around contraception. Marks quotes one wife whose husband would rip an IUD out of her “for a joke”, a trend she was familiar with as a social worker. This may be the tip of an iceberg: an example of an anecdote hinting at tacit histories which exactly because they were so taboo seldom make it into print: archives: the history books. First-person accounts of The Pill in the sixties from the sixties are surprisingly scarce; only in the 1970s did women’s liberation magazines such as Shrew, Red Rag, and Spare Rib platform first-person viewpoints, whether of lament or of accolade. Hence for my next essay I will explore sixties’ youth reminscening in the nineties and radical women’s magazines from the seventies. 

Arguably, a good mark of the sexual revolution is how much the discourse about sex and debating contraception as lifestyle options became regnant rather than aberrant. Women bearing the choice to reject or to embrace The Pill as an individual is more of a liberation, arguably, than a sex-wide embrace or rejection. The Pill in that sense can be construed as a liberating tool even when it is being refused as it “messes with our bodies”, because it gives material to discourse of choice for women, and female transsexuals, informed by their exclusively female epistemies. 

The retellings of the story of The Pill, today, which place choice and wild-times foremost may be a legacy of the seventies when The Pill became overt as contested matter of discussion alongside free sex. Of course there was no overnight change and second wave feminists, such as Germaine Greer, were the vocal minority, but the way the sixties are remembered may be an historical analogy of the psychological peak-end rule: events characterised by how they end and by their salient icons more than by mundane average life across those years. The Pill was not demanded into being en-masse for women to have the freedom to use their bodies; The Pill was demanded into being by a few for women to have the freedom from their pregnant bodies. More often, however, the impetus of birth control was for others to be protected from the perceived threat of resource hungry progeny. As Bailey asserts:

“Clearly, the federal government’s decisions to spend taxpayers’ money on public family planning programs were not justified by concern about women’s reproduc-tive health or sexual freedom, but rather by the confluence of alarm about the “population problem” and increased federal involvement in programs intended to alleviate the effects of poverty.”

Margaret Sanger celebrated the control women have of their bodies, true, but predicated on the needs of population control and even eugenics; the implementation of The Pill uniquely in America (whereas its prototypes hadn’t taken off elsewhere) similarly relied on a government receptive-enough to population control amid a perceived Malthusian threat to world peace. Hence, as Marks outlines, some saw The (Contraceptive) Pill as more momentous than The (Atomic) Bomb. Protecting women from want was to protect poorer peoples from the scarlet allure of socialism. Or more bluntly than Marks implies—to protect red-scared Americans from the thought. The Pill therefore may have come to be identified with individual choice but came about through the narrative of collective necessity, which given the exponent agriculture advancements had in feeding the masses, proved illusory. Curiously the originator of big population modelling—Nicolas de Condorcet—did factor in scientific advancement allowing economic growth to cater to the population; it was Malthus’s outsize influence which led both policy-wonks and public-participants astray.

Second-wave feminists in the 1970s and some third-wave feminists in the 2010s are suspicious of The Pill. Indeed thrombosis, cancer, and mood altering effects are good reasons for women to be suspicious. As with most technology The Pill has better and worse consequences depending on the context. Some accounts have women celebrating The Pill even amidst cancer scares and moral panics: one says she would choose The Pill and cancer over a baby without The Pill. Other women rejected The Pill from the start because it made sex less intimate, made them sick, or altered moods terribly. Women today lament side-effects still, with fewer women (accounting for population inflation especially) taking The Pill; some narratives claim malfeasance behind The Pill and a concerted effort to keep women bound to a monthly clock. In 2019, the NHS updated its guidelines to say there is no medical benefit to a monthly bleed whilst on The Pill; the outcry as to why The Pill continued to be prescribed with instructions which deemed periods necessary for sixty years before then, was palpable. Family Planning and Reproductive Health Professor John Guiellard claimed that “The gynaecologist John Rock devised [the ovulatory break] because he hoped that the pope would accept The Pill and make it acceptable for Catholics to use. Rock thought if it did imitate the natural cycle then the pope would accept it.” Catholics indeed were key actors in The Pill development, both in creating and stifling, as both Rock and The Pope were Catholic adherents. 

The ability of historical actors to foresee entirely new arrangements like fertile ovulation-less women, however, is inevitably limited. To guess at malesfance is to read into the past, then, rather than from the past; no mention of intent to limit women to ovulation exists in either figureheads’ correspondence, quite the contrary. Marks clarifies that its promoters did appeal to nature, but on the grounds that the hormone interventions were just as ‘natural’ because they extended the infertile part of the ovulatory cycle, complementing nature. The Pill, moreover, became patterned into having breaks to please women, who were subjects in the incipient clinical trials, and who worried that they were pregnant without period evidence they were not.

Haworth, however, claims the medical establishment committed neglect by omitting to reduce the pain of women who ovulate. Plentiful evidence indeed shows bias against women and their bodies. There may be something to Howarth’s neglect claim then—early doctors may have brought intuitive and often tacit definitions, understandings, and assumptions of identity and nature to bear on ovulation which limited their visions of interest in mitigating pain. Just as funding bodies were reluctant to change ‘part of life’ by investing in the taboo pill, changing the social practice of taking The Pill and investing money in how it could be taken permanently are likely more taboo and counterintuitive to those trained to treat obvious maladies, rather than sex-specific reproductive pains. Nonetheless, to ascribe agency here is too grand a narrative. Instead I propose that The Pill is an example of technological lock-in or entrenchment. Even though taking more pills through the month would be more profitable for companies—and ergo different drug companies had vested interest in labelling theirs safe for constant use—the idea of lobbying for that may simply have never emerged. At least, not enough to make a mark on historical records. Meanwhile placebo contraceptive pills, for the bleed part of the cycle, became ordinary practice. 

Other sexual health priorities and research programs arguably took the priority over mitigating periods: deaths and disabilities from cancer and thrombosis rendered by high-dose pills; sexually transmitted diseases, especially during the AIDS crisis, eliciting support for other contraceptive methods; amenable studies of positive pill effects on ovarian cancer. Given these, projects into taking The Pill to prevent ovulation were far-fetched and thereby never garnered credence nor normalisation—until now when the women taking The Pill, remember, are different to their predecessors. The NHS guidelines, also, while authoritative are revisable by the medical authorities. Elsewhere in the world national authorities offer differing advice from near-identical evidence. 

The histories of The Pill shadow health, reproduction, sex, mental life, and family planning as conceived today. As with all eras, ours contains fake news and contested narratives. Here I have gone some way to tell counter-narratives so as to remedy fake news: an international group fostered The Pill, The Pill was facilitated from permissive top-down policies, The Pill was synonymous more with modest life regulation than a swinging-sixties liberation, side-effects are inevitable, progressive, and mixed, and per-month ovulation endured due to status-quo bias and drug-use entrenchment rather than incipient malefesance. I have also explained why the Histories of The Pill are interesting and relevant to ongoing narratives about contraception and sex, and exemplified how the adaptive social, cultural, and political landscape affects the reception and diffusion of technologies, radical foetus-preventing drugs included, and those technologies affect the social, cultural, and political landscape in return. The Pill in the right context, at the right time, in the right body, has been, and can be, positive for feminist social change.


I just concluded that the pill in the right body, time, and context has been a boon to feminist social change based on a review of secondary work by Beth Bailey and Lara Marks. However, a review of Women’s liberation course Women and Their Bodies and British magazine Spare Rib, render my conclusions of positive feminist change problematic. Because the pill has been good for some women does not mean that women or feminists of the day embraced the pill wholesale. The uptake of the pill, in prescription numbers, may be misconstrued as enthusiasm for the pill. Both Women and Their Bodies and Spare Rib articles in editions 104 and 105 are unenthusiastic about the pill: both consider the pill as an instrument of oppression. Granted, the persistent opposition to the pill and the medical establishment still attests to its influence. But use and interpretation of it are more complicated in the primary sources’ account. Here I will explore how interpretations and pill use were affected by a. Feminist sexuality re-claiming sex with celibacy and clitcentric sex and b. Queer sexuality decoupling intimacy from pill-required penetrative sex c. Collectivist womens’ movements’ antagonism against the medical establishment and patriarchal state deciding birth control methods for women. These strands provide a more complete narrative to the prevailing rhetoric surrounding womens’ uptake of the pill. And challenges the 2010s journalistic picture of the pill as a positive disruptor; instead the uptake of the pill was mixed, diffuse, and its impact(s) alongside nonuse, other contraceptive alternatives, always dependent on local milieu customs.

A Feminist Sexuality

A trend in Hamblin’s magazine contributors is a redefining of sex away from a male-centric defined sex, by penetration and its precusors. “For many of us the first step in breaking out of these conditioned patterns and responses was to refuse penetration.” Hamblin claims “We found it took considerable time and struggle to reform our sexuality from sex-as-penetration to a more female-centred sexuality”. With sex redefined as non-penetrative comes a reduction in the need for contraception. Many meanwhile took up celibacy. As one woman explains, “I see celibacy in a very positive light. It’s about finding out who I am and where I’m at — and it’s very important to me”. Hamblin generalises that irrespective of genders, “periods of celibacy were necessary”. Thus celibacy was practiced for psychological reasons. And the initiative for sex predicated more on the choice to not have sex or to not masturbate at all. Penetrative intercourse became in their practice but “one option”. Women and Their Bodies, too, attests “that celibacy has helped a lot of women we know get closer in touch with themselves because it cleared away the sexual distraction.” By this feminist light, the pill as a positive disruptor is questionable, and it’s nonuse is as much part of the story as its prescription.

Questioning Bias In Liberation Texts

Women’s liberation literature is informed yet biased since it’s reasonable to assume non feminists negotiated less vociferously with men. Nonetheless Womens’ Liberation is representative and informative exactly because it’s biased towards the progressive perspectives of women. To assess how the times are changing, the cutting edge is a good place to look; especially where the debates are less progressive than secondary sources’ retrospect may lead one to believe. One Spare Rib founder, Marsha Rowe, claims in 2013, “When we founded Spare Rib in 1972, the women’s liberation movement was still very small – a couple of hundred women, at most”, let alone many queer or transex women; although the movement grew by leaps and bounds. Hamblin speaks for ‘we’ that non-penetration became preferable but that might be coloured by her perspective. The proportion of women who took up non-penetrative sex also remains vague. The fact most women derive ultimate pleasure from clitoral stimulation does not mean all women do either. Consider how a 2018 anonymous survey of 2000 women found that eighteen per cent—360—orgasm from penetration alone. For whom therefore non-penetrative sex would have less appeal than Hamblin’s narrative asserts about casually universal ‘female centered sexuality’. A low percentage, however, actually supports her overall argument against penetrative sex being the norm, since the majority of women never derive ultimate pleasure from penetration alone. This begs the question of the influence of gay relationships on heterodox sex. 

Queer Sexuality

Angela Hamblin details how many liberation movement women had moved from heterosexual relationships to lesbian and bisexual ones where contraception is seldom requiste. For transgender women and for bisexuals, of course, contraception might remain pertinent. The focus of the article is predicated not on the anxiety of birth or approaches to preventing conception however, but rather on sex itself. Arguably a mark of changing times: that women could focus happily on how best to have sex or to not, rather than on avoiding sex or experiencing displeasure for fear of pregnancy. These feminist publications in 1970 and 1981, consider birth control more diffuse and contextual than in mainstream accounts from 2010s journalism or even a preeminent 1969 debate.

Nevertheless outside of this queer and feminist commentary, reproductive-risk sex would have continued perhaps more in alignment with the expectations of nonfeminist and non queer women magazines. We can however only estimate; extrapolating numbers from a survey is imprecise. Queer sexuality is perhaps overplayed in liberation documents: lesbians and bisexuals who identify as lesbian in 2017 count as 2 per cent of the UK population, and a 4.5 per cent who are unsure or refuse to identity with a given category. The extent to which queer sexuality and femenist sexuality therefore problematises the importance of the pill from the sixties to eighties may be tenuous, a too trusting generalisation from prominent, rather than population representative, primary sources. The implication of queer and feminist sexuality, however, does bear representative merit since sparse credence is given in the secondary literature to the impact of queer and feminist sexuality not to numbers but to discourse, relationship bonds, and sexual practices; especially given how heterosexuality is defined comparably by non-heternormative sex. As Sue O’Sullivan, claims in 1981 “As more women became lesbians I think it brought it home even more sharply to heterosexual women that they were taking risks with their bodies for the men they related to, and they felt angry at the casual assumption that it was OK for women to pump themselves with pills for years on end”. The decoupling of reproduction and sex with the movement away from phallocentric or malecentric sex, could evidently be influenced by the interactions among womens’ groups of lesbian, bisexual, or other queer identities for whom contraception is seldom a precondition to sex. The sepratist lesbians The DC Furies, for example, were ambitious and influential in their message to create rival societies without heteronormative and patriarchial assumptions. These liberation texts are remarkable for their decentralised and anarchic sympathies towards clinics, yet in partisanship tend to overgeneralise what individual women or sisters really want—and even have wanted. 

Decentralised Contraception and What Different Women Want

O’Sullivan’s assumption that women took pills ‘for’ the men in their life, and with displeasure, is a crude interpretation which might espouse higher standards in author’s retrospect than women expected back then. Many interviewees expressed sheer gratitude for a contraception that was so reliable. Remember the interviewee who said she would choose the pill and cancer over no pill and a baby. Or recall begging letters sent to John Pinicus asking for the pill regardless of risks. Cancer and thrombosis scares did, however, proliferate alongside prescriptions for the pill, which makes sense of these liberation sources’ suspicion of the pill and the system distributing it. Instead of a prescribed pill, Spare Rib sympathised with decentralised contraception clinics and older methods. O’Sullivan argues for the cervical cap. On the one hand she presents a view of barrier contraception as risk-free, “without side-effects”, and on the other presents a good case that women administering contraception for themselves provides a more feminist arrangement for communities to own and solve their problems. In that respect the ongoing enthusiasm for barrier methods shows the distrust for the medical establishment as women movements claimed management of their bodies, including their chosen contraception even in 1981. Contrary to the sympathetic doctor and statist narratives of Lara Marks and Beth Bailey, primary sources consider the state and doctors oppressive.

The definition ‘oppression’ is relative to time and whom is asked: these second-wave Feminist groups considered default contraceptive methods like the pill an imposed means of individual control because of their manufacturer, production, distribution, and biological risks. In a way that present-day minds can struggle to apprehend without adopting the grassroots Feminist perspective of these, unique, sources. For example, in outright banning and restricting shipments of barrier method contraception from Britain to the USA. And in continuing to prescribe the pill with its reported cancerous and thrombotic side effects, and the risk of sexually transmitted disease, rather than prescribe condoms. Any contraceptive alternatives met with top-down crackdowns, against bottom-up enthusiastic choices by  30-40,000 women fitted with cervical caps by 1981. 

In O’Sullivan’s account, too, men engineered the pill and clinical trials, for The State, against communism, out of Malthusian anxiety. Exposés indeed showed victimised “black”, “poor”, “third world” and “United States” women. The development and instrumentation was fostered by these factors but victimisation of women is exaggerated. Women and minorities helped make the pill; most participants were eager volunteers. That such misrepresentation remained credible in 1981 though is revealing. Because it demonstrates how antagonistic the relationships between womens’ movements and the medical profession and The State remained.

Indeed, comparing the emblematic televised debate of three doctors, Celso-Ramon Garcia, Sheldon Segal, Louis Lasagna, in 1969—to Women and Their Bodies “written for women by women” in 1970 makes mistreatment and misinformation pertinent for social reasons beyond biological effects. The Boston Womens’ Liberation authors blamed doctors’ “MD priesthood mystique” for leaving out side effects (omission), and ignoring patients’ requests (commission). As the text claims, taking the sequential pill is “Russian roulette” and doctors “treat us as patients, not people”. Instead of prioritising the optimal choice the onus in Women and Their Bodies is on individual choice of contraceptive, as a woman, rather than take the method proffered by doctor and authorities. The statistical efficacy of contraception is seconded to a woman deciding her method.

We don’t want contraception to become one more area in which we are intimidated and frightened into doing things we’re not sure of or don’t want to do. Each of us has the right to choose a method which is best for us and to understand that method in terms of application, effectiveness, safety, etc. For we alone best know what our needs are.

The pill in 2010s journalism meanwhile is celebrated for its use in mitigating periods and freeing women. Alice Howarth accuses doctors of negligence in never eliminating pill menstruation. Yet ‘fixing’ menstruation never made the agenda nor the pages of these sources. Given the onus of reclaiming menstruation as a shameless natural process, a medical movement to eliminate it would be anathema. Improving the basic health standards and assuring women, took priority over any venture to cure ‘menstruation’. Seeking a male pill similarly flew against “social convention”. Whilst many today consider the pill liberating, back then, liberation groups thought the opposite. 

I have examined how complicated the reception and practise of contraception was in the eyes of womens’ movement members in Spare Rib and Women and Their Bodies. In doing so, I have argued for the contributions of hetero-disrupting queer sexuality, feminist clitcentric sexuality, and collectivist womens’ movements in antangonisim with men doctors and The State in sources as late as 1981. These sources are politically radical enough to make generalising about contraception and the pill dubious. But that difficulty is actually representative of how mixed its uptake and the discourse around it was from 1969-1981. My previous essay demonstrated how the right pill in the right time and body has offered a mechanism for female empowerment. That remains true. This essay however demonstrates the circumstances and attitudes whereby women experienced the instrumentation of the pill to be oppressive. Contrary to my first essay sources, the medical establishment and state played a more aggressive role than hitherto interpreted. The effects of womens’ movements, queer sexuality, and clitcentric sex, are also worthy of further histories about contraception.

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