Discourse on Intercourse

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Myths and legends of the market

The JC’s guide to the foundational mythology of the markets.™

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Discourse on Intercourse is a well-meant though basically wrong-headed philosophical tract formulated by delusional librettist Otto Büchstein in the depths of dengue fever delirium in 1769. It immediately preceded — and some say influenced — his last, great unfinished play Die Schweizer Heulsuse.

Conference call epistemology

Outraged by René Descartes suggestion in 1637 that the only indubitable thing in the universe was one’s own existence, Büchstein set out to deduce an entire multi-personal epistemology from the commercial inevitability of conference calls.

Büchstein’s logic was this: all-hands conference calls must exist, since no-one in her right mind would make up such a horrendous idea if she didn’t have to. So, since someone has had such an idea, conference calls must therefore exist as a necessary, indubitable, fact of corporate life.

On that predicate, it follows as an a priori fact that since a conference call must comprise more than one person (“a man cannot meet alone”, Büchstein was fond of quipping), for conference calls to be possible one’s most basic irreducible ontology implies that universe must contain not just one but multiple individuals.

At least three, thought Büchstein: the “meetor” (which he regarded as an analog of Descartes’ “thinking thing”, or res cogitans), one “meetee” (which Büchstein characterised primarily as a “talking thing” (res verbositans) and since, transparently neither of these homunculi would willingly meet without there being some kind of compulsion to do so, a third person (a management consultant or project manager of some kind) to ensure the meeting happens, that minutes are taken, actions assigned and timelines “agreed” for “action closure” (this third person Büchstein called an “action-assigning thing” or res bossitans).

In any case, since they were all engaged on a conference call, none of them needed to be, or indeed could be, God. Buchstein arrived at this conclusion with the following reasoning:

“God is omniscient,” Büchstein said. “Therefore, God doesn’t do conference calls. What would be the point? God already knows everything. And, come to think of it, God is also omnipotent. It is, as I have said, axiomatic that no one goes on a conference call that she is not obliged to. Since there is no way of forcing an omnipotent being onto a conference call it follows that omnipotent beings will never do conference calls, even if there was a reason for them to do so, which there isn’t.

This led Büchstein to a dark place. Rather than simply rebutting Descartes’ assertion that there must be a God, by illustrating one was not necessary, Büchstein went further: “a universe in which conference calls necessarily exist,” he contended, “is logically inconsistent with the continued presence of an omniscient, benign, omnipotent deity”. He took this as an a priori proof of the non-existence of God.

There is no new paradox under the sun

As he fell deeper into his Dengue-inflected hallucinations, Büchstein went the other way, skirting dangerously close to a sort of high-modernist nihilism.

“If determinism is true,” he reasoned, “then everything is already known — or may be extrapolated from what is already known — and is therefore, is constructively known. Now since all as-yet undeliberated outcomes can be deduced without having to go through the bother of actually deliberating them, and as a conference call is in its very essence a “deliberating thing” — a res deliberans[1] — and only a “deliberating thing”, it has no ontologically essential purpose and can be safely dispensed with.”

This, for a moment, brought the delusional librettist great joy, notwithstanding the self-contradiction within the confines of a single, laboured, sentence.

Therein, a paradox, because by Büchstein’s own calculations, the deliberated outcomes that he inferred would produced by conference calls if they were held — were different from the outcomes that would be produced if the call was not actually held. The holding, or not, of the conference call itself determines the outcome.

That is, the information content of a deliberated outcome is path-dependent. If the conference call happens, it has one value. If it does not, but is merely modelled, it has another value. This is a sort of Schrödinger’s cat paradox of business meetings. Büchstein dubbed this the “substrate-ambivalence” of the conference call. It remained a genuine mystery until the impish German jurist Havid Dilbert proved experimentally that, whether you hold them or not, the informational value of any conference call — whether judged from the frame of reference of participants, observers, or that remainder of the outside world who remains blessedly oblivious to them — is the same: zero.

Thus, along with his sanity in that mosquito-infested Mandalayan asylum, Büchstein’s paradox melted away, only to be replaced by a deeper conundrum, with which Dilbert wrestled fecklessly for the rest of his life:

Why are there conference calls at all?

In popular culture

Buchstein’s theosophical musings, wanting as they were, found expression in the developed drafts of his final, unfinished play, Die Schweizer Heulsuse.

TRIAGO: Good colleagues: there are but twenty minutes left.
Wouldst you thy precious time reclaim;
Or may we keep afoot our infinite game
With more, or any other, business? Search anew,
What items canst be tabled without ado?
GLOUCESTER: Nothing sire.
KENT: Nor from I.

A period of silence around the table.

QUEEN (aside): That irksome twerp.
A world of richness awaits this piffling parley.
TRIAGO: How say you, brave Herculio?
What agenda fodder doth the gods portend?
HERCULIO: The gods? The gods? Methinks you jest.
Th’almighty has no use for paltry conference.
TRIAGO: I think he does, sirrah!
QUEEN: Oh, ho! How so?
What matters lie upon thy parchèd record
That be yet unbeknownst to sacred mind?
Whose cogs and toothèd gears
Whose immaculate escapements
All history — gone and yet to come — defined?
What need hath she, or he
Who bid the lion lay with lamb
For this dismal convention?
FOOL: Thou maketh me to meet —
Therefore I am.
TRIAGO: How should I know, my Queen?
How should I know?
QUEEN: Quite so, good sir, quite so. I must away.
Maketh thou the time-ball drop.


HERCULIO: With all my heart, my Liege —
One has to hop.


See also


  1. Büchstein seems, ad hoc, to have assigned conference calls their own a priori ontology or even personhood here. There is no plausible justification for this, other than that he was very, very ill.
  2. Büchstein, Die Schweizer Heulsuse III, i.