October 13, 2020

Scenic Design Practices

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:59 am

It seems to me that we’ve gotten to the point, with the emergence of computing as a “metamedia,” where there’s no basis for distinguishing between “media” and “technology.” All media, including the most basic, such as speech, gesture and writing, are implicated in the vast array of recording and monitoring technologies, and as subject to algorithmic governance or “planetary scale computation” as anything else; while all technology is now dependent on code (itself a form of literacy) and contributes to the spatial arrangement of human activity no less than media such as buildings and cinema. And we can include “infrastructure” in this as well. Drawing, then, upon the understanding of “media” I proposed in Anthropomorphics, as all the means of constituting scenes, and the understanding of “technology” I proposed, that is, as the articulation of desacralized and abstracted human practices, I would synthesize it all as “scenic design practices.” Every practice is designing a scene; or, really, redesigning a scene, or some portion of a scene, with the techno-media (this term to be revised presently) available. This would include all practices, large and small, carried out by the powerless as well as the powerful, obviously with different effects and constraints across the spectrum.

I’m a little, most indirectly, familiar with some of the more significant contemporary theorists of technology, such as Gilbert Simondon, Bernard Stiegler and Freidrich Kittler, each of whom reaches back into other traditions of thought, and I’ll be doing more reading here, but I’ve already got some sense of where anthropomorphics will differ from and offer something unthought by these other approaches, so I’ll lay down some of that thinking here. The first “medium,” of course, was the scene constructed and embodied as the originary scene, part and parcel of the emergence of the sign, which I would see expansively as the posture as well as gesture of an entire human body conforming itself in real time to the postures and gestures of an emergent community of other humans. (One could always draw the boundary between sign and scene/media differently.) The first tool, or implement, meanwhile, would have had to have been some ritual enhancing “device,” that is to say, something that would materialize the memory of the originary scene by drawing or enhancing the boundary between center and periphery. A circle of bones, perhaps, marking the ritual space, eventually something like an altar, and whatever materials might have gone into constructing a permanent likeness of the central figure. Maintaining the means of ritual would involve the development of “skills,” which is to say repeatable movements that can be transmitted to others and perfected, and the creation of increasingly differentiated and specialized “tools,” which would always be bound up with sacred purposes. The real “instructor” here would be the central figure itself, who teaches the community how to create and use the tools in accord with ritual prescriptions. And, of course, myths would be generated explaining how some sacred figure provided the community with these tools and prescriptions. Since each new element of ritual must have displaced a previous one, it makes sense that such myths are often associated with some kind of transgression, an aura which until modern times has always surrounded knowledge or technical innovation.

This would all hold true for the development of weapons used for hunting and war, all of which would involve the same intimate, imperative relation to the gods and ancestors and the prescriptions and tools for building altars and conducting rituals. I’m assuming that nothing can be outside of the ritual-mythic nexus, a very tightly bound up system of imperative exchange, until the emergence of the ancient empires and their serial destruction of local communities with the mass enslavement of their populations (of course, as Engels observed a long time ago, enslavement was an alternative to extermination, once the ruler became powerful enough to make use of subjugated populations). We now have vast populations excluded from the ritual center, which means that anything can be done to or with them. It is at this point, I’m hypothesizing, that we can start to speak of “technology,” as the direct, i.e., de-sacralized and de-ritualized aggregations of humans who can be combined in an orderly way for concentrated purposes involving the use and transformation of “nature.” As Nitzan and Bichler point out, referring to Mumford in Capital as Power, the very conception of technology is an effect of power: seeing all this “labor power” at your disposal would inflame the imagination.

This imaginative impulse is both constructive and pulverizing. Not only does it afford massive and complex structures, but also for continual grinding up into ever more minute particles. “Analysis” is a result of this. So, we can take any scene and treat it as a media apparatus which is simultaneously one small piece of much larger apparatuses, but can itself be broken down into any number of mini-apparatuses. I use the word “treat” here rather than, say, “view,” because to treat something is to change it in some very specific way, to prepare it for a particular use. Insofar as we treat the scenes we inhabit or infiltrate as an articulation of design practices, we are participating in those practices. We’re designing the scenic features that will more or less eventually go into the production of some utterance, or sample. If you’re rich and powerful, this might entail organizing a studio, hiring specific kinds of directors, getting certain performers under contract, hiring publicity people to create and maintain a brand, so that you get to the point where your design issues in a movie in which a particular actor stands in a particular way, on a particular scene, and says something, which a designed for audience will hear and pass on in various ways to secondary and tertiary audiences. Designing algorithmic orders that make it more probable that certain items turn up in a search is an even more obvious example. And this entire configuration can continually be redesigned.  If you’re essentially powerless, like most of us, the appropriation of design practices nevertheless gives you a way of thinking about how to spend your time and energy—in various ways, you’re contributing to the construction and maintenance of a range of scenes, and the more precise you get about the samples you’d most like to generate, the more effectively you can think where to replace certain scenic elements with others so as to bring about resonant attentional shifts. The powerless can do this because the mega-machines into whose service we have been pressed require the “pieces” to take some initiatives and assume some responsibilities.

The design of assignments for students in pedagogical situations provide as good an example of design practices as anything else I can think of. (I’ll issue my customary broadside against my academic colleagues and point out that, even though this is their main job, in my experience very, very few of them give this any disciplined thought at all. They ask students to do what they imagine themselves doing, thereby favoring the students best able to mimic their own gestures.) The purpose of an assignment is to have the students learn how to do something that they could only have learned how to do laboriously or even serendipitously without the assignment, with the thing they learn to do also being something they will not only have to do very often in other situations, but that will also be a condition for them to do a lot of other things. This is what makes an assignment, to use a little bit of contemporary pedagogical jargon, “high-impact.”

For one thing (I’m speaking about my own field, “freshman comp,” here), this requires breaking down “academic reading and writing,” i.e., a particular advanced form of literacy that is best defined in terms of the continuous production of nominalizations that function as subjects and objects of sentences in a hierarchical system of distributed citationality. (In “academic discourse,” “a hierarchal system of distributed citationality” readily becomes the subject of a sentence—so, what has to be learned, for example, is what does “a hierarchical system of distributed citationality” do; that is, what verbs does one put after it? What is it like, i.e., which adjectives modify it, etc.?) More simply, academic discourse is characterized by vast reserves of implicit references to disciplinary conversations in the abbreviated form of their stored conceptual innovations. You break this down by defining the practice you want rehearsed (say, distinguishing “distributed citationality” from something significantly other to it) against the “epistemological obstacles” that interfere with performing it. Those obstacles are located in the mythical language of everyday life, where “Big Scenic thinking” prevails, and one relies on the dictionary meaning of words and imagines oneself “agreeing” and “disagreeing” with discrete statements, and therefore having “opinions,” “viewpoints,” and so on, rather than working out the implications of a concept. So, the assignment stages confrontations between the epistemological obstacles of mythical everyday discourse, on the one hand, and the language of some disciplinary space, on the other. This produces an “inter-language,” where we find the learner using everyday vocabulary in the grammar of the disciplinary discourse and the vocabulary of disciplinary discourse in the grammar of everyday language. The inter-language now becomes the center of the disciplinary space, as the students construct a vocabulary and grammar to describe and analyze it, thereby preparing themselves to move self-reflexively into other disciplinary spaces.

Now, all this is on a small scale—a class with one teacher and 15-20 students occupying the same space. But the practice of staging confrontations between Big Scenic, mythical thinking and emergent disciplinary spaces which expose the limits of Big Scenic thinking can be scaled up as large as one likes. This is the way to think about tweeting, blogging, constructing websites, publishing, even the creation of new currencies, political organization, or anything else we might be doing. Everything is the staging of pedagogical hypotheses that will in turn generate resonant, ramified hypotheses of and against the Big Scene. This entails hypothesizing the vast range of possible responses to what you might do, and how you might interfere with that field of possible responses so as to facilitate more encounters between the Big Scene and disciplinary practices. This is no doubt why trolling has become such a prominent, almost all-inclusive feature of social media and more traditional practices that have been transformed by the social media ecology—trolling is aimed at generating responses you can then use so as to compose an utterance that will generate more responses you can use… The problem with trolling is that it locks everyone into their initial positions, whereas it is better to open up new positions.

You can then, imagine yourself not so much giving an assignment across the techno-media or field of scenic design practices (after all, who are you to give others assignments?) but as performing some assignment that provides an example for others. This is the only way through the “technological world picture,” and through Capital, for that matter, which also depends upon Big Scenic mythology. The iterative center assigns to each of us the practice that will distinguish it from the sacrificial remnants chewed over in Big Scenic thinking insofar as you specifically complete the practice. And that practice is some scenic design practice that will translate that same assignment into some other institutionally, infrastructurally mediated scene.  The translation will be the creation of the scene, the transference of some vocabulary within some grammar to another technological idiom. You do this by translating the constraints and affordances of platforms into imperatives and questions to be redesigned as assignments. Such practices entail inquiring into the scenic design practices that have produced each and every one of us. A constant pulverizing has been going on since the ancient empires—the Axial Age was a limited response to that, but we still haven’t seen anything better. What would be better is not trying to pick up all the pieces and put them back together again, but treating the pieces (habits that program us to try and get our rightful slice of the central object) as materials for scenic design that will have us all looking to help one another find our respective name and place. We all have some place we should be, and some name we should inhabit, and we can only find our name and place within a social order designed to produce scenes that afford such findings.

Maybe we could call the “techno-media” the field of “mimological impressments” upon which scenic design practices operate. “Mimological” derives from Marcel Jousse’s “mimisms,” which is a concept that enables us to identify any human action as an articulation of infinitesimal gestures rooted in imitation; the word “impressment” means coerced recruitment into some military or industrial mega-machine, but property can also be impressed, and therefore so can anything in the natural world, all of which is pressed into service; but, even more, if we abstract the word “impress” from impressment, we have the (admittedly secondary) meaning of making a mark on something, with the something being the resources of the world subject to (transformed into resources by) the operations of the sciences, and the mark being made by some mimological arrangement. All of “nature” is made to imitate the forms of human activity, and that activity is further pulverized into new mimisms in imitation of the new impressments. Drawing on my previous post, I’ll suggest that the “assignment” here is to treat our entanglements with mimological impressments as both liminally obsolete and still under construction. This allows us to defer the demands of imperative exchanges mimological impressments impose on us—it provides a space for studying what it means to be “on” Twitter, or Facebook, or Google, or a blog and turning the demands of these spaces into platforms for staging pedagogical scenes that show where the boundaries between one scene and others lie. (The same holds, even if more indirectly, and through a different kind of operational chain, for building bridges and roads, or weapons, or buildings—it’s all scenic constitution through mimological impressments.) Once you identify a boundary, you can imaginatively, thought-experimentally, place some thing in an oscillatory relation to the respective sides of the boundary. So you take the same sample (utterance, statement, meme, icon, imperative…) and treat it as belonging to different spaces. (The simplest example: some statement or action that would be sign of madness on one scene but of genius on another—this allows you to assess the statement, and the respective scenes, and to respond to the statement or one “similar” to it so as to further test the hypothesis.) Ultimately, if you do enough of this, and bring enough and the right others into doing enough of this, you’ve established a discovery procedure for fulfilling the imperative of the center. Everyone would just be interested in compiling sample utterances in such a way that all participants find themselves maximally addressed by them.

October 4, 2020

The Aesthetic as Liminally Scenic

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:26 am

The “classical” understanding of the aesthetic in GA is that it derives from the oscillation on the originary scene between attention paid to the sign pointing to the central object, on the one hand, and the object itself, on the other. I’ve addressed some of the implications of this understanding in various places (including Anthropomorphics), but what I’d like to focus on here is the fact that the aesthetic is located prior to the establishment of the sacred center—the aesthetic, that is, is pre-sacral, or perhaps preliminarily sacral. Moreover, while the aesthetic, up until the displacement of the shared sacred center, would have been assimilated to the sacred (amplifying it, contributing to the intentionality of sacred being, providing access to it by congregants, etc.) the aesthetic, in the form of art, only emerges after the sacred center has lost its monopoly on the community’s attention. The aesthetic, in that case, supplements the center, first of all by providing something “like” a rite both in its own structure and for those participating as spectators (the purgative effect of tragedy, with its own sacrificial conclusion, is the obvious example here)—while at the same time enacting the transition out of a ritualistic order.

So, we could say that the aesthetic uses the study of the practices that might culminate in the construction of a shared center to demonstrate the provisionality of that center. This allows us to follow up on the periodization of artistic practices laid out by Eric Gans in his Originary Thinking, along with my own revisions of it in a way that might help us think about aesthetics and artistic possibilities today. Gans first of all distinguishes between the “classical” and the “neo-classical” aesthetic. In the classic aesthetic (associated with Greek tragedy), the audience is essentially an extension of the theatrical scene, responding directly to the central figure, who is unquestionably “central.” We don’t need to be reminded why Oedipus or Agamemnon is worthy of our undivided attention—it’s a cultural given presupposed by the performance. (Of course, ancient comedy, which placed an “unworthy” figure at the center, would presumably have already reminded theatergoers of the “de-sacralizable” nature of the scene.) In neoclassical Shakespearean tragedy, for example, the scene itself is represented within the work, in the sense that ruling is seen to take place on a kind of stage of which the “actors” are aware, which also means the occupancy of the center by this particular individual is always questionable. This also means (although I don’t think this is part of Gans’s point) that, although the audience is not directly responsive to the scene, it is represented within the scene, as we see in the various kinds of explicit and implicit commentaries on the central scene in Shakespeare’s plays.

We can already see the possibility of discussing the history of aesthetics as the history of revisions of the boundary between art work and audience or public. And this history parallels the history of the increasing uncertainty regarding who and what can be placed at the center. If art is a practice of deritualization by exposing the preliminary practices of ritualization (showing what leads or inclines us to put something in the center, and then aborting that effort), then it makes sense that the boundary between art work and public would itself become more visible and permeable. The relation between artist, work and public becomes a shared inquiry into the consequences of placing this or that object or figure at the center in this or that way, under these or those conditions. The resistance to figural art and straightforward representations of beauty—the reason such representations get denounced as “kitsch”—is that they are cynical attempts to simulate the sacral scene, which is precisely what art does not and cannot do.

So, the Romantic artist sets himself off against the community, mimicking the scapegoated Jesus, while also inviting other “rebels” to cross over that boundary and join in rediscovering the forms of natural and transcendent beauty occluded by the market, which reduces everything to its price. For various reasons, Romantic poetry became central to the literary criticism branch of deconstruction, and one of the important contributions of critics like Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller was to show that the Romantic “quest” contradicted and undermined itself—its discourse of authenticity, self-centrality, and unmediated relation to a pre-social nature was undermined by the inability of “expressive” language to do anything more than reiterate the fraudulent centrality it tried to define itself against. Gans refers to the “constituent hypocrisy” of Romanticism in this connection, as self-aggrandizement (and market value) is enabled by a performance of self-expulsion from the community. The later work of some important Romantics like Wordsworth and Byron is aware of this. The Romantic individual is finally ground up once and for all in literary realism, which almost invariably centers on some Romantic individual having his or her dreams contradicted at every point by the institutions and disciplines of the modern world to the point of an essentially meaningless destruction or death. We could see realism as mimicking human sacrifice, as we derive meaning from the immolation of the figure placed at the center, but, since that figure has been exposed as alienated from his own intentions, the sacred has been emptied out, making it more of an anti-sacrifice.

We could see much of artistic modernism as an intensification of this struggle against the community, with the fantasy of a new mass revolutionary subject (or, for the modernist reactionaries, the restoration of some version of antiquity) that would abolish the boundary between art work and public once and for all. One could say this made modern art far more esoteric and exclusive than Romantic art, which didn’t really question traditional genres, modes of representation, or the autonomy of art. But modernist antagonism to social institutions included an antagonism to the institutions of art themselves, which in turn facilitated the more radical questioning of the boundary between art and non-art. Duchamp’s “Fountain” stunt is the convenient starting point for those narrating this line of development. This makes art explicitly social and historical, as art has to address the question of what is to count as art under contemporary conditions. Postmodernism’s destabilizing of boundaries between genres, between artist and audience, between “mass culture” and “art” is all part of this bringing to the center the boundary between what is art and what is not art. I think that Joseph Beuy’s notion of “social sculpture,” in which art openly models the remaking social reality and, especially, Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings,” which introduce subtle modifications into everyday practices so as reveal boundaries between habit and innovation, mimisms and modeling, represent the endpoints of explicitly formalizing the boundary between art and non-art: art becomes a question of drawing attention to shifts in attention.

I have previously developed this argument in the direction of what I’ve called “originary satire,” which would be aimed at identifying and enacting a minimal difference with established centering practices so as to reveal unthought layers of mimesis (“mimisms”) implicit in disciplinary practices of centering—for example, the very notion of “modeling,” with its ambiguity between using another practice to shape your own, on the one hand, and shaping other practices so as install your own, is generative of originary satire. Whoever you claim to be is how you are enacting yourself so as draw others into the projection of a world that ensures that you are who you are. The practice of exposing these paradoxes draws us into the paradox of the center, which produces us as we construct spaces conducive to our production.

I’d like to explore another aesthetic possibility here, though. The pre- and extra-,  or, let’s say, liminally scenic dimension of the aesthetic, once separated from increasingly desperate attempts to sacralize mundane centers, suggests the aesthetic power of forms of incompletion, obsolescence and ruin. What is aesthetically compelling, that is, what places and keeps us in an oscillatory relation to the center, are incomplete gestures and gestures that linger after the object they pointed to is no longer there. An abandoned construction site, for example; or an abandoned old mill. In these abandoned, left aside buildings, we see concentrated purposes that collided with other, ultimately even more concentrated purposes: in the case of the construction site, perhaps a transfer of investment funds to other projects midway, or conflicts with regulatory bodies; with the mill, new modes of production that could find no further use for this structure, perhaps because it was too perfectly fitted for its own purposes.

Now, the abandoned mill is already a romantic cliché, and the removal of a useful object from its context of use and turning it into an object of contemplation already a well-worn artistic exercise. The construction site much less so, though. Completed purposes that have been left off much better fit the Kantian aesthetic ideal of “purposeful purposelessness”—the abandoned construction site might be purposeless, but not very purposeful. So, let’s say that instead of the abandoned mill, or, more generally, identifiable ruins, we pair the construction site with indeterminate ruins, in which possible patterns could be detected and various possible former uses hypothesized. In this case, we can’t imaginatively complete or supplement the original intention in any way that could compel consensus. The point is not a work of art before which you stand, stupefied, but which helps you sustain the oscillation necessary for the further generation of hypotheses.

I’m going to suggest that an effectively oscillatory aesthetic should articulate the incomplete and the indeterminate ruins in one. I suppose that originary satire applies more to the verbal, dramatic and narrative arts, while what maybe we could call “archi-texture” applies to the plastic arts, but more especially architecture itself. When we build something, we are aware of all the unfinished construction sites that made it possible, that were negated or incorporated in revised form in the finished product; we can also be aware that sometime, in the future, whatever we build will be in ruins, with some future archaeologist left to figure out what it might have been, and how it might have fit into a form of life that can now only be hypothetically reconstructed. The artistic principle here is that the structure must include its proleptic “remainsness” along with its negated false starts. And, for that matter, this principle can apply to linguistically based arts as well.

This would incorporate oscillation around the present in what we build and implicate the participants in such structures in the now visible choices that have been made, and future ruinous states now to be deferred. If you can think in terms of how what you have built might be made intelligible, even in fragments, to some future civilization, it might help you to think of how to delay that eventuality, because it requires you to accentuate what is meaningful in everything you do. Similarly, incorporating the false starts keeps faith with the workers and thinkers of the past, recognizing intentions and efforts that, through no fault of their own, couldn’t be fulfilled—also a helpful way to think of your relation to some future inquirer. Participation and pedagogy are thereby maximized.

What, exactly, would such structures look like? We don’t want grotesques, after all. First of all, I imagine buildings would leave in place some of its scaffolding, including scaffolding that ended up scaffolding something that didn’t end up being part of the building. The leftover scaffolding itself would be become an object of attention, as it gets in the way and ends up getting used in unanticipated ways. It could even get, inevitably ironically, “beautified.” And buildings should incorporate elements, not necessarily completely integrated, that point to structures or land uses that preceded their construction, and others which refer to its surroundings—clues for future archaeologists. It should include, not too ostentatiously, what will be taken to be “futuristic” elements, so the archaeologists of the future can see what the future looked like back then. But there should be enough proleptic remainsness to “sufficiently” increase the possibility that there will be heterogeneous pieces for that future archaeologist to assemble, and to prevent too easy conclusions from being drawn. Perhaps this can all be compressed in futuristic scaffolding. None of this need interfere with the functions of the building, and might even suggest new functions.

A contemporary artist, then, or, we could even say, a contemporary ethical aestheticist, would be interested, first of all, in whatever his contemporaries desire to put at the center, to worship or to simply forget regarding the practices by which things are placed at centers. He would then be interested in revealing those practices of centering, and enhancing the hesitations and oscillations that defer the completion of the “installation” of that object (which could be a social or political narrative or fantasy) indefinitely. This involves, third, creating new practices in which versions of prospective centers are shown to be products of the imaginary input to them by the spectators (who become participants) of the work itself. There is already enough of a history of internet and internet-dependent art, along with critical and theoretical discussions of such art, to think in terms of deploying contemporary media for these purposes. Ultimately, art of all kinds would best be free of mediators like museums, galleries and publishers. Warhol’s dictum that “art is what you can get away with” would be realized in less trivializing (or smug) terms insofar as aesthetic practices would involve disguising yourself as who you are and infiltrating where you are so as to make more explicit the centralizing expectations of the “who” and the “where”—to turn your fellow participants in whatever discipline into “oscillators” between what you are doing and what you “should” or “might” be doing.

The approach I’m proposing displaces any intention to use art for sacralizing purposes—to restore old or create new sacred centers. Only an uncontested sacred center would make that possible. The real power of aesthetics today lies in the revelation of the mimetic contagions that are systematically disavowed in the most frenzied attempts at resacralization. For the foreseeable future, anyone not performing rage at this or that “tyranny” will be “undercover” in some sense, so the cover should be designed so as to introduce new patterns into the environment. Such aesthetic practices can be ennobling insofar as they demonstrate what might be done with what we have—while you’re busy putting these unworthy figures at the center, such art might say, here’s what the present level of your mediated mimetic practices would make possible. Here is where there might be a practice while you’re stuck in ritual and myth. Any move toward the center reminiscent of a direct appropriation of a shared sacrifice needs to be aborted by deflecting that move toward possible and provisional signs across the media and at all layers of the Stack—you can show how a particular demand for justice or remediation gets registered across bureaucracies and technologies and thereby becomes something completely different than what it purports to be. Such a practice is deritualizing and demythicizing and reminds us of the occupied center liberals are so desperate to forget, while at the same time reminding us of how our perceptions and attentions might change if all of the powers not exactly at our disposal were to be deployed coherently.

Every practice reveals a boundary—first of all between what are the means and expected effect of the practice and what are not—and so if we’re thinking in terms of practices we assume that all boundaries are the results of practices. Reality produces itself by constructing and revising boundaries distinguishing parts of itself, and we are parts of reality. In any thing you say or do you can locate a whole series of boundaries that you had to presuppose or hold constant in order to say or do that thing. The distinction between yourself and others presupposes a boundary, as does the distinction between yourself now and yourself a moment ago. You don’t construct these boundaries yourself—indeed, you play very little part in their construction. That you are the “same” person you are now a year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago and so one could be attributed to some immaterial entity projected onto the continuity of practices that keep you the same you—a “soul,” a “self,” a “personality,” a “character,” a set of “beliefs” or “principles,” and so on. All these are products of disciplines, from theology to psychology, and these and other disciplines are now data-driven and you can find proof of your “identity” in your credit-rating, your on-line presence and the mountain of data you generate just by being you. Here is where the boundaries between yourself and others, and between your various selves lie. We could conduct a similar discussion of boundaries between what is human and what is not human.

The point of aesthetico-ethical and aesthetic-moral practices is not to undo boundaries—which, like their construction, is mostly out of our control—but to help make them the materials and results of practices. Articulated boundaries are signs of a post-sacral, what we might call an “ex-orbital” (“other-worldly” in a new sense) center—a center that takes the most perfected practices as the means for organizing the rest of them. Distinguishing more from less perfected practices is the aesthetic-ethical and moral practice of government. The more perfected the practice, the more it presupposes and posits a center that provides for the perpetuation of other practices that could intersect with and supply the perfected one. We don’t need to project a “backstory” with an array of “qualities” to identify practitioners—we can let the romantic individual and his modernist successor wither on the vine. By our practices we shall know each other. The perfection of aesthetic practices is the shared inquiry into the constitution of boundaries between possible centers and possible congregants.

September 24, 2020

Power and Capital

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:12 am

I have always operated as if, since the originary hypothesis founds a new form of thinking that is essentially indigestible by the existing disciplines, and therefore necessarily at odds with those disciplines, it should be aligned with other marginal indigestibles in the field of knowledge. Hence, my attraction to thinkers like Wierzbicka who, if respected within the field of linguistics, does not seem to me to have had much impact on it; or Marcel Jousse, who takes the notion of mimesis too literally and thoroughly even for the mimetic theorists. Clearly, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, of whose Capital as Power: A Study of Order and CreorderI was previously aware, but which I actually sat down to read at the urging of Joel Davis, fits into this category. So, this post will “welcome” Nitzan and Bichler (perhaps without their consent, were they to be asked) into the anthropomorphics “fold,” and I would expect them to be a regular feature from here on in. Like Wierzbicka and Jousse and, of course, the originary hypothesis itself, Nitzan and Bichler have a very simple hypothesis with ramifications that cut down forests of disciplinary obfuscation. I don’t remember when or how I first came across their work, because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t from any website or publication, whether on the left or right, since as far as I can tell Capital as Powerhas had almost no impact on any discussions anywhere. If I were to try and prove myself wrong on this point, I would look to the kind of anarchist spaces where one might find discussions of the work of the recently and far too soon departed David Graeber, with whose work (and, I suspect, with whose politics) Nitzan’s and Bichler’s has affinities.

As the title of their book indicates, Nitzan and Bichler eliminate the politics/economic distinction by arguing that capital is simply a mode of power. What is power? Power is “confidence in obedience” (17). With such confidence those with power reshape the social order in accord with the principle of its own power. Nitzan and Bichler draw upon Lewis Mumford’s notion of the “mega-machine” here, understanding power as circular and self-perpetuating—the ancient emperors impressed millions of slaves into vast infrastructural projects, not primarily because they wanted giant infrastructure built and wars fought, but because it impressed their own intentionality on the world and increased their confidence in the submission of the ruled. This means that there must be some “other” to power, a positive to power’s negative pole: that other is “industry,” which they see, following Thorstein Veblen, as a “hologrammic” system in which all the productive activities in society contribute, governed by what Veblen called “the instinct of workmanship,” and are irreducible to price or any other measure. Bichler and Nitzan very convincingly show that all attempts within the field of economics to quantify such “factors of production” as labor, capital and machinery are arbitrary and intellectually dishonest. This in itself makes them thinkers of the “iterative center” rather of the anarchic, quasi-sacrificial “big scene.”

Here is their definition of capital as power:

The capitalist mode of power is counted in prices, and capitalization, working through the ever more encompassing price system, is the algorithm that constantly restructures and reshapes this order. Capitalization discounts a particular trajectory of expected future earnings. For any group of capitalists—typically a corporation—the relative level and pattern of earnings denote differential power: the higher and more predictable these earnings are relative to other groups of companies, the greater the differential power of the corporation’s owners. (9)

I would like to single out in particular the discounting of a particular trajectory of expected future earnings. If the ownership of a particular piece of land, for example, can be expected to be worth ten million dollars in ten years, then that determines the value of the land to me now-how much am I, or anyone, willing to spend now in expectation of that 10 million in 10 years? But I think it would be better to say that it is not so much the expected value of that land as what its owner will be able to ensure its value will be. The valuation of the land is from the start an exercise of power: the owner will be able to carry out the actions or create the conditions that will yield those earnings. That might include access to governing powers that allow the land to be used in certain ways, and it might include preventing others from using surrounding properties in certain ways. Securing the obedience of members of the city council is necessary for the land to be capitalized in this way, but this doesn’t mean that the capitalization is an economic activity that depends upon an autonomous, political power—it means that the members of the city council are themselves capitalized, and, say, donating to their campaigns or establishing a local media to exalt them and demonize their rivals are part of the same process of capitalization, as investing in the media outlet or the politician is also part of the discounting of a particular trajectory of expected future earnings. The fact that everything in the world and every human activity can be capitalized in this way is the source of capital’s unique and very flexible and effective mode of power.

Capital is articulated with industry, but in an essentially parasitical way—capitalists achieve their differential power relative to other capitalists primarily through sabotage—that is, by preventing industry from performing to its full potential. There are many means of accomplishing this—patent and copyright, price fixing, control of the regulation process and so on. Bichler and Nitzan acknowledge that industry does need to perform—an auto company does need to draw upon a part of the broader hologrammic industry and produce millions of cars—but if industry is given too much free reign, the source of capital’s profit and therefore power will evaporate, so what is ultimately more important is preventing others from producing cars, or better cars, or means of transportation other than cars. They also implicitly acknowledge that some forms of capitalist power are less dysfunctional, that is less destructive of industry than others—there are times when capital needs to invest, expand production and hire workers, and other times when they focus primarily on mergers that serve no one other than capital’s power, or price manipulation (inflation), which always threatens to bring about social disorder or even disaster. This would be true of any form of power. Now, Bichler and Nitzan acknowledge that “industry” is not self-determining and involves choices that can only be made by humans and, therefore, as part of the entire complex of human activity and interaction, must be subject to some broader vision of human good. It is that this point that they trail off into ritual invocations of “democratic” control, without every raising the question of what “democracy” could have to do with their Veblenian notion of industry—what kind of democracy could make decisions about transportation, medical, educational, scientific, systems, much less the articulation of and “resonances” across these systems, all of which must be done on the terms of the systems themselves. I will also mention here that a remedy for this defect lies in distinguishing power from sabotage, and acknowledging that industry itself in a form of power—at the very least, pedagogical power, as new generations are brought into industry and within industry initiative and intelligence will be deferred to in the name of sharing these capacities.

Since the power of capital depends upon defining and measuring, and then reducing, risk (at least risk to oneself), it also relies upon the science of probabilities. In a brief discussion of “Probability and Statistics” (199-201), Nitzan and Bichler trace this science back to Renaissance thinkers like Blaise Pascal and William Petty, who studied the laws of “chance.” Capital seizes upon this science not to bet on events in the world in a more informed manner, but to control it. But it is also the case that “industry” was dramatically transformed by this science as well, and without it would not have the nearly unlimited capacities Nitzan and Bichler attribute to it. It would seem, then, that capital and industry share a common origin. Charles Sanders Peirce’s assertion that “we are each of us an insurance company” captures this common origin of the new mode of inquiry animating industry and capital. There can hardly be a better example of “capitalization” than insurance, which attributes a current value to the insured’s life (or well-being, or as Bichler and Nitzan point out, to some particular part of the anatomy—a leg for a model, an arm for a quarterback, etc.) based on expected future earnings; while, at the same time, is modern science, which is really applied math, anything more that the determination of probable future outcomes in accord with the data collected regarding some current state of affairs? Was Peirce, unknowingly, a kind of proto-capitalist, or, to use Marxist phraseology, “objectively” pro-capitalist? Is seeing oneself as an insurance company the most abject self-capitalization or a transformation of oneself into a mode of inquiry, inspired by the highest instinct of workmanship?

Nitzan and Bichler seem to me unconvincing in one area—their discussion of the state. Their insistence that capital is power—not dependent on power, not an influence on power, not even just powerful, but a specific mode of power—means that the state cannot be conceptually separated from capital. Nitzan and Bichler make this case by contending that the state is capitalized through the national debt, and we could even push this further by pointing out how the logic of capitalization comes to pervade all manner of state activity, from welfare policy, to crime, to foreign policy and education. Everywhere there is talk of “investment,” and “return” on it; policy alternatives are framed in cost-benefit terms. And yet—even the most gigantic corporations don’t possess armies or nukes. That there must be some distinction between state and capital is in fact consistent with their insistence that some understanding of the good life, irreducible to industry, would have to inform the ends of industry. I can call that articulation of industry “power,” because “power” holds no pejorative connotation for me. Nitzan and Bichler’s analysis makes clear that capital could never really establish anything like a model of the good life, as it is nothing more than capitalizing more and more of the planet. In fact, whatever is good would be good because it has not yet been capitalized, or insofar as it has not been completely capitalized, but that good thing would then immediately become a target of capitalization.

There is a kind of trap here which reactionaries and revolutionaries alike have fallen into, of seeking out supposedly non-commodifiable and therefore non-capitalizable forms of life. All that can do is paint targets on the backs of those forms of life, serving as a kind of advance guard for capital. There is no alternative to entering the algorithm of capital and power and separating out the competing and entwined modes of algorithmic order. Peirce concludes his discussion of the self as an insurance company by pointing out that, in the long run (the same long run in which we would all have to agree on reality, I suppose) all insurance companies must go bankrupt—all the calculations, all the precautions, all the hedging, will ultimately come up against the black swan which could not have been anticipated. At that point, for Peirce, we would have recourse only to the old Christian virtues of love, hope and charity, which, regardless of whether we rely on those particular (non-capitalizable?) virtues, suggests that whatever mode of transcendence or presencing enabled us to defer the answers to such pressing questions to the long run will be what succors us in the long run. But what of deferral? Is it not the quintessential capitalist value—the deferral of gratification? It’s not quite the same thing. The good bourgeois subject defers gratification out of a fear of consequences, or out of competition with rivals. This is the kind of deferral capital relies upon and exploits. The deferral of mimetic violence precedes the figuration of the violent consequences it defers, and is therefore more like the deferral “industry” elicits, and is never satisfied—it is commemorated in the building of the world. Still, the more localized form of deferral must derive from the more originary one, and so here as well we can see a common origin to industry and capital, in the diverging paths of deferral.

A site of expected earnings can be treated (imagined aesthetically) as a site of eventual bankruptcy and abandon. Single out all the markers of eventual bankruptcy: what would remain of the capitalized practice once all conceivable forms of sabotage have run their course? In a way, it’s a very simple approach: what would, say, a workplace look like if it simply maximized everyone’s ability to do an important job well? Of course, many workplaces, those mostly performing Graeber’s “bullshit jobs,” wouldn’t even exist. The instinct of workmanship itself would be the “motivation” of activity, which we can’t imagine now in any great detail, but which remain in the wake of eventual bankruptcy and abandon. Capitalization is running the practice through the maw of the Big Scene, with the ever growing and yet divisible central matter and an even more rapidly accelerating sacrificial community. Projecting expected earnings incites mimetic struggles spread across institutions which one plans to have already won: “industrial” practices which defer such struggles indefinitely cannot, then, be fully capitalized—this requires that we construct the counter-algorithms of capital. The calculations of industrial improvements would have to be run parallel to and entangled with so as to redirect the calculations of expected earnings. We can at least hypothesize indefinitely deferred future earnings eventually converging with the practices of industry. Right now, this can only be a way of inhabiting disciplinary spaces and infiltrating institutions, but it is simultaneously an implicit model of transformation.

Bichler and Nitzan certainly intend for the “hologrammatic resonance” I discussed in my previous post to serve as a model for the abolition of capital. I think this helps to explain their neglect by the left—they don’t provide an “agency” for such transformation that can become a target of political “investment,” i.e., that can be capitalized. Thinking in terms of privileged agencies is sacrificial, Big Scenic thinking—it relies upon the imaginary redistribution of the social product and social power in a more “equal” way that can never be determined outside of the mimetic struggles it incites and depends on. But this also means that the hypothesized practices that would promote “industry” must “resonate” across the entire social order. I think that the most concentrated way of approaching this, and one that might actually become fairly realistic even under the rule of capital is a post-sacrificial reconstruction of kinship structures. This will be the subject of a future post.

September 15, 2020

A Single Sample is Enough to Hypothesize the All

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:52 am

The title of this post was actually the thought that got me started on the “hypothesizing the present” post, which, however, ended up going in a different direction. Coming across the following formulation, attributed to Yitzhak Bentov (previously unknown to me), who himself developed the notion of the “hologram” invented by (the also previously unknown to me) Dennis Gabor, in Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s Capital as Powersent me back to it:


Technically, the hologram is a photographic method that uses a laser beam to record and then read and project the interference pattern of incidental waves. But it is much more than a mere technical gadget. Seen as a conceptual approach, the hologram has immense potential implications that go far beyond photography.

To illustrate the underlying principle, think of a pond into which three pebbles are dropped simultaneously. These three incidental ‘events’ create a structure of evenly spreading – and intersecting – waves throughout the pond. Now, suppose that we were to freeze the pond instantaneously, pick up the top sheet of ice containing the wave pattern, and then drop it to the ground so that it shatters to pieces. Because of the curvature of the waves, each piece, no matter how small or from which part of the pond, will contain enough information, a bit fuzzy but nonetheless complete, to trace the three events. All we need to do is to ‘extend’ the partial arcs on the piece into complete circles and then find their centres. Our ability to do so turns each piece into a holo gramma– the ancient Greek for the ‘whole picture.’ (224)

So, one sample—a single utterance, or even a single sentence from a single utterance, provides all one needs to start hypothesizing the all. It contains enough “information” to “trace” all the “events” which produced it back to their center. As I often do, I will make the point that this is already what we do, in making meaning, not something I am claiming we should do—what we should do is be aware of and “own” this necessary intellectual move. Now, of course, upon hearing a second utterance, the hypothesis formed regarding the first one is revised; perhaps even rethinking the original utterance itself, or having it juxtaposed to another utterance, would lead to such a revision. We are always revising our hypotheses of the all as we engage with and become one sample after another. We can think of this as always revising our search terms within an algorithmic mediascape. The only test is kind of scene would materialize your hypothesis.

The truth, according to Peirce, is what we would all have to agree upon in the long run—but the long run never gets here (as Peirce knew). So, there’s no point getting bogged down in trying to “prove” or “falsify” a given hypothesis, except upon very carefully controlled conditions (in which case the implications will be limited), especially when the hypothesizer is part of the hypothesis itself. (Evoking the necessary conditions to “prove” what someone claims to know—what would have to be “controlled”?—is itself a fruitful source of hypotheses.) What makes for a good hypothesis is that it generates events in which a community of inquirers—a disciplinary space—into and of that event is created. The utterance, or sample, and the discourse on the sample, becomes an origin and model, and comes to position potentially everyone in relation to it—as someone addressed, or not addressed, or addressed under certain conditions, in a particular way, by the utterance; and therefore as someone responding to, resituating, repurposing, re-embedding, and so on, that utterance. For these purposes, sometimes it will be the “wild” hypothesis that is best, because it seeds the most possible scenes. This is what became the notion of “hypothesizing the present,” insofar as a single utterance is made the center of a system of reverberations and resonances that spreads across the entire field that has constituted the utterance in the first place.

There is a practice here that can always get us started, one I take from Gertrude Stein: treat every word in a sentence as equally important (which would further imply treating every event as equally important, every “component” of every event as equally important, etc.). This doesn’t entail a claim that they are all equally important: it’s a hypothetical move to counter the ingrained assumptions regarding hierarchies of importance we bring to any “sample.” It’s ultimately unsustainable: you can read a sentence as if the “a,” the “the,” and the “of,” are just as important as the noun and verb, and sometimes, under some conditions, for some purposes, they will, in fact, be—but the more a disciplinary space forms around the sample the more some hierarchy of importance will take shape. But it will be a different one than that with which you started, precisely because it had to “re-form” out of its “elements.” This is why I started Anthropomorphicsby referencing Gertrude Stein’s dictum (maxim? Aphorism?) to “act so that there is no use in a center.” This is a discovery procedure—the more you resist any center that seems to be taking shape in orienting your actions the more the center that will ultimately be revealed as having done so will have resonance and “anti-fragility.” The center will be iterative, insofar as, however it ultimately is structured, it contains within itself all these other possibilities. A model for thinking in these terms is Richard Feynman’s proposal for dealing the paradoxes of measurement in quantum physics which, as I understand it, entails positing that particles take or “try out” all the possible paths from origin until endpoint, any one of which might be captured in a particular measurement.

Any “element” of an event or model, in that case, can be extrapolated and presented as being always what it is within that event or model and, furthermore, to be fully determinative of that event or model. “A tall man killed a short man on Main Street last night” becomes “tall men always kill short men”; “tall men are inveterate killers”; “short men are perpetual defenseless victims”; “Main Street is a killing field”; “last night was the most violent night in the history of the town”; etc. Such wild hypotheses are always in the background as we work our way back to the more moderate conclusions that height probably had nothing to do with it, Main Street is not all that dangerous, etc.—it’s the only way of really bringing all the different features of the event or model into focus. If a part of your thinking holds on to all these wild hypotheses the relative significance of size, location, time, and so on will be composed. At the same time, these wild hypotheses are your transitions to other events and other models, which you seek to anchor in this one, as you seek to determine the “curvature of the wave” of this fragment as an effect and sign of all the killings, all the size differentials, all the Main Streets, all the night times, as differentiated from, say weight differentials, side streets, peaceful interactions, day and evening times, etc.

So, any utterance contains or indicates the entire social order, and so do you in taking up that utterance—how so, of course, is what is to be determined, or deferred. You can single out an especially odd and contemporary utterance (no shortage of those) but you can also defamiliarize an apparently unexceptional one: where could this have come from, is the initial question? Who would say this, in what media, in response to what problem or provocation, to what interlocutor or audience, within which field of possible effects, with what set of conceivable intentions? (We have to accept, I think, that curiosity and inquisitiveness, once viewed with suspicion at best, and for some good reasons, have become virtues.) You populate the field of the present around the utterance, and then keep repopulating it as you go. The utterance can be repeated in various contexts; indeed, in working with it, you are creating some of those contexts. Each repetition would reveal something new about the utterance. Each question opens up a field of others, which can be reviewed without prejudice, until a new “prejudice” takes shape: how do the various media work, what are the various audiences and sub-audiences and cross-over audiences; the institutions through which an utterance can circulate; under what conditions would the utterance be impossible or unthinkable; what are the observations, the confirmation of those observations, the transmission of the summaries of those observations that go into making up the referents in your sample utterance—all these become the origin of hypotheses as well.

The practice of explicitly hypothesizing the all from the single sample is a form of training in identifying what is peculiar to our present. One is placed on alert to the “signs of the times.” In doing so one knows oneself to be a sign of the times, and thereby comes to signify more. The practice also converts others into such signs, in a form of public pedagogy. And I will here remind you of the Natural Semantic Primes, which encourage us to translate all utterances into someone saying something to someone else, someone doing something, something happening to someone and so on, with the boundaries between doing and happening, saying and thinking, wanting and doing, and so on, being an endless source of hypotheses. As is attention to what David Olson calls (and I have called many times after him) the “metalanguage of literacy,” in which we can reduce, for example, “assumptions,” into something “many people say before they say this thing,” “belief” into something people say when they will also say “you can do bad things to me if I don’t do this thing,” and so on—and so generate scenes and histories of scenes out of every word. For example, I knew from the first time I heard of it the Trump-Russia collusion story was nonsense for the simple reason that no one could give it the form of an event one could imagine: Trump says_____; Putin replies_______; Trump responds_______; they shake hands, the election in the bag. Try and fill in the blanks to construct a coherent event without laughing out loud. (Of course, this also means its satiric possibilities are immense—how would all of Trump’s actions as president appear if we were to believe he really was remotely controlled by Moscow? Moscow would become very interesting!) And in the single sample of the Russia collusion hoax, we have the means to hypothesize the all—all those who pushed it, who constructed bits and pieces of pseudo-evidence to “corroborate” it, all those who actually believed it, everything they had to train themselves to ignore and everyone they had to train themselves to hate in order to continue believing it—this chain of hypotheses leads us to everything.

In hypothesizing the all from the single sample you transform the entire world into fellow inquirers as well as objects of inquiry, and you can treat all of their utterances as hypotheses of the all out of the single sample whether they like it or not. The practice overlaps with more conventional practices of “fact checking,” “context providing” and other elements of “critical thinking, but without claiming to saturate the field. If you think fact checking is a meaningful activity, you must believe you can gather and confirm all the “relevant” facts in a way all “reasonable” beings would agree on. This is nonsensical, because what counts as “relevant” is always institutionally and historically dependent, but, at the same time, the fact checker, in checking one fact in the way he does, in fact hypothesizes the all from the single sample because he’s hypothesizing the historical and institutional setting that makes the fact relevant—and the institutionalized “chain of custody” that makes it a “fact” in the first place. That’s the way to address the fact checker, not by pointing to some fact he left out (unless in doing so you are explicitly hypothesizing the all from a single sample). Similarly, nothing can be more obvious that we can never have, once and for all, the “whole” or “proper” context, which would really have to be the entire history of the human race. But in making a bid to close off the context, the context provider hypothesizes the all from a single sample, and can therefore be treated as a fellow inquirer, even if not in quite the way he might have wished. The same is true of logical fallacy detectors, who wish to institute rules regulating discourse which no one could follow consistently while actually generating any discourse. But chasing down any utterance into the definitions and if… then sequences that would make it acceptable to the exacting logician is a way of creating algorithms and mock algorithms.

The hypothesizing of the all out of the single sample (and as the single sample) is a form of self-appification, or turning yourself into an interface between other users and the Cloud. This is the way to install the iterative center into the stack. As all the practices I propose, it can operate on various levels—the advanced academic discussion no less than the Twitter ratioing. It can be mastered at a very high level of proficiency, but it can also be broken down into little techniques anyone can use. It’s a way of moving very quickly to broader frames, and also of sticking tenaciously to a single demand: no, tell how it was possible for this person to say this thing, and what follows from him having said it? Every utterance “calls for” translation, and every translation is a “transfer translation,” which resolves some inconsistency or anomaly between overlapping discourses (for our purposes here, we can say that a “transfer translation” is when one needs to reconcile the differences between equivalent utterances in the same discourse). My own hypothesis here is that the most important and generative translations will be those of statements uttered under the presumed rule of the Big Scene into statements intelligible within the scenes of scenes authorized by the iterative center. Each hypothesis of the all from the single sample creates such a scene and the revelation of a further iteration of the center.

A final practice to suggest here. All of us, as “selves,” which is to say, as the “same” as we were previously, are comprised of what has been deposited in us by previous incarnations of the center, on the one hand, and by our ongoing engagements with the center, wherein we are deputized, so to speak, to exercise those deposited capacities. Where is that line between what has been deposited, and what one currently exercises? (This bears some family resemblance to the free will vs. determinism problem. But also to Marx’s distinction between constant and variable capital.) No one can really say, but we are always hypothesizing by virtue of our construction of practices, which presuppose the possibility of exercising upon what has been deposited—on doing something with what has happened. This line can be hypothesized in the transfer translation of any utterance; it can be drawn up very close, so as to suggest almost nothing is exercised; or it can be pushed way back, so as to suggest that only bare remnants of what has been deposited remain—and we can identify practices where, depending upon the practice and disciplinary space being enacted, it can seem that either one or the other is the case. And such hypothesizing and thought experimenting is itself an exercise on the deposits.

September 6, 2020

Hypothesis/Practice Vs. Narrative: The Iterative Center

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:38 am

In my previous post I found myself in possession of a neat and very promising distinction between the ritual/myth nexus, on the one hand, and the practice/hypothesis nexus, on the other. This means that the hypothesis, or, more precisely, hypothesizing the present, has the same relation to practice as myth does to ritual. Myth provides a narrative explanation for the vagaries of the imperative exchange that is ritual: the community gives what is prescribed to the central being, who, in return, ensures that the community will have more of the sustenance out of which a portion is returned to the central being. This exchange is, of course, not 100% predictable and successful, and if the central being doesn’t provide what it has promised, some accounting needs to be provided: perhaps the community didn’t, or didn’t “really,” conform to divine instructions; perhaps the divine being has some lesson to teach, or some longer game in mind. These possibilities provide a rich source of narrative possibilities, all of which must ultimately reconstruct an origin of the ritual itself—and therefore of the exchange arrangement which is constantly being revised and examined. This can work for a very long time because what the ritual and myth actually does is produce communal coherence along with a set of practices and discursive rules for negotiating differences and sustaining coherence. Along the way, we can assume ritual and myth reciprocally inform and transform each the other. All this presupposes, though, that at the end there is a central object to be divided and consumed equally, in the sense of including all members.

A practice, meanwhile, is stripped of any pretensions to imperative exchange: its relation to the center involves a higher form of reciprocity.  A practice iterates the originary scene as a whole—the possibility of refining and perfecting our scenic aptitude is itself the gift from the center, and the commitment to refinement and perfection is the return. A practice aims at producing an ostensive sign: as a result of the practice we can all see something that is there only because of the practice, and we see insofar as we participate in the practice—even as an observer, which is a role many practices provide for. We can speak of scientific practices, or ludic practices (games, sports), or artistic practices, but every time we try to clarify or agree upon the meaning of a word we construct a practice. Let’s say we want to define “courage,” which is really to say we want a model of courage. But we must want a model of what courage means here and now, an example of a contemporary possibility of courageousness. We can then construct a practice which treats other practices, whatever their aims, as exemplifying either courage or cowardice. If we want the best example, we would seek out one where the boundary between courage and cowardice is thinnest—where some action that seems like cowardice from the outside, or to those with undeveloped practices of discrimination, is in fact the most courageous for this very reason. We are practicing seeing and hearing, and directing attention to what normally goes undetected. If we turn out to be wrong in a particular case, the results of the study remain applicable; indeed, realizing our mistake would be a result of the further perfection of the practice. Getting clearer about what you’re looking for is more important than finding it in any instant.

Such a practice contains and generates within itself the hypotheses which it also tests. The hypothesis is the generation of minimal possible differences in the course of conducting the practice. “I thought that guy was courageous but then he goes ahead and does X.” Here, one’s practice of courage detection has produced evidence of imperfection. Something I took to signify courage must have signified cowardice; or, something I’m taking now to signify cowardice in fact signifies courage. There’s your hypothesis: what does this action, or word, or gesture, actually mean? If he now does Y, it means cowardice; if Z, courage. And then he does something that’s not quite Y or Z, and you refine the hypothesis. The analogy with the articulation of myth and ritual is very precise. For the sake of the hypotheses, the whole world becomes nothing but possible signs of courage and cowardice—that’s the practice of transformation, one which can, of course, carry over into your interactions, as you test this or that individual in order to elicit such signs. Any argument can be reframed this way: should we “take action” now or lay the groundwork for when “conditions are ripe”? Here’s a hypothetical approach: what could you be doing right now that would be equally meaningful—more meaningful than anything else, even—whether the possibility of contributing directly to the kind of transformation you want arises 5 days or 50 years from now?

It is now clear to me that the conversion of ritual/myth into practice/hypothesis implies the opposition to narrative, which is really the continuation of myth. Narrative is always sacrificial, regardless of the best efforts of its most sophisticated practitioners. Proof of this is not only in the invariance with which the moral truth of narrative can still only be proven through the trial of the protagonist, but in the very fact that there is a protagonist along with other, dispensable characters who are essentially props, butts of jokes, and so on. A narrative in which all the characters are equally important, and in which actions and events are so open-ended as to make it impossible to draw “repeatable” conclusions from the consequences of those actions and events would not be recognizable as a narrative. This is no less true of high cultural than of popular or mass cultural narratives. The point is not that the sacrificial character of narratives makes them “bad,” or not worth preserving and enjoying—I’m not interested in that question at all. The point is that in a post-sacrificial order and for a post-sacrificial practice, such narratives suffer a credibility defect—like myths do, once the rituals to which they are adjunct fall into disuse. We no longer have a sacrificial center which can be shared and devoured, and about the distribution of whose parts we can therefore argue meaningfully. But we do have a center, which is occupied, which cannot be sacrificed, and through which we also cannot sacrifice ourselves by opposing it. The center we have can only be perfected through the perfection of our practices, by iterating the originary scene in the creation of ostensives—which is to say, names. The center we have abolishes sacrifice along with the vendetta, and replaces them with an articulation of practices that can be entered into through other practices. A world of disciplines and practices cannot be interested in narrative.

But wait! How can we do without narratives? I mean, things happen, and we have to recount them, don’t we? First A happened, then as a resultB, and then as a result of that, C, etc. Yes, but what makes a narrative a narrative is the skeleton it provides for hanging “attributes” to characters, fleshing them out in order to produce the sacrificial moral lesson. We can recount events without that. And it’s true that causality will get thinned out along the way—indeed, causality is reduced to those charged with specific responsibilities and allotted specific powers with doing what they can and should, or not, through some imperfection in their practices. But those occupying delegated centers and sustaining or derogating them in some manner is really nothing more than the iteration of the scene itself. Everything that happens answers to a particular hypothesis regarding the constitution of the scene. An instance of violent centralization directs our attention to a lapse in responsibility or a misallocation of power somewhere on the scene, not to the trials and agony of the victim. So, if someone in a position of authority delegates power to a subordinate because that subordinate has displayed the requisite mode and degree of courage in previous assignments, the hypothesis constructed above regarding the meaning of “courage” finds its place within a practice. We can become students of courage in order to formulate and test such hypotheses as effectively as possible, but we will never exhaust all the causes of courage and cowardice and so we will always have to restrict our hypotheses to the fitness of this person for this task. Maybe, in fact, his relation to his father (for example), or some childhood trauma, is relevant here; but, maybe not, and, at any rate, no possible “causes” can become independently interesting in relation to determining the meaning of “courage” in this case. (Of course, as a kind of data, it can be preserved and might become relevant for later hypothesis formation.)

So, what was once narrative becomes scenic intelligence. As we come to know that we are intrinsically scenic beings, we aim at making our scenicity more overt and subject to practices—which counters the reliance on narrative formulas. I’ve drawn before on a model of scenic temporality drawn from Charles Sanders Peirce, and this seems helpful here. How can you determine the borderline between the inside and outside of an object, or between two objects? Everyplace you try to draw it, some of the outside is inside and some of the inside outside. So, Peirce says, the border is where there are an equal number of particles of both objects, or inside and outside. We look toward a distribution rather than an ontologically replete object. The equivalent of this for time, Peirce says, and the way we can therefore distinguish when one event is over, and another has begun, is as follows. The beginning of any event is the middle of another event and the end of yet another (to just stick to the strict, narrative, which is also to say, scenic, beginning-middle-end parameters). So, the end of one event is identified as the beginning of another and the middle of a third event—all within the same space. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s death coincides with his sister’s rebirth, and marks the resumption of his parents’ normal middle class life, once they’ve cleaned up Gregor’s room. Kafka’s novella is certainly a narrative, but perhaps it contains something anti-narrative as well, and that’s something we can learn to look for.

So, our hypothetical lapse in the exercise of authority is a kind of end, as the authority becomes no longer authoritative; but we can locate in it the beginning, somewhere on the scene, of a more adequate form of authority (maybe even the same person in a different incarnation), in the midst of more and less adequate exercises of authority in adjacent practices distributed across the scene—the beginning and middle “measure” the end. In this scenic auto-generation, the scene reconfiguring itself out of its own (a)symmetries, we have the source of our hypotheses. Whether or not the authority in question has in fact become less authoritative, if what looked like courage is in fact cowardice, is going to be measured by the middles and beginnings stretched out across this end. We have the elements of a narrative but we stay in the present as those middles are supporting and auxiliary practices of the supposed end, and the beginnings are its continuations, refoundings, sproutings, or repudiations. Our focus is not narrative, even if it’s temporal, invoking overlapping temporalities—our only interest is in perfecting our practices of inquiry by introducing hypotheses into the practices we examine.

Narrative, with its mythical, sacrificial roots, is a kind of addiction. Everyone speaks of “The Narrative,” and the need to have a counter-narrative. The practice/hypothesis nexus will prove to be more powerful than narrative. Narratives make people hysterical and it pumps them up like a drug because they don’t really believe it, because has no ritual grounding—and attempts to provide, e.g., demonstrations with a ritual form are just as pathetic as the narratives themselves. Large scale, “big scenic” narratives that have generalized agents (unified groups with coherent motivations) are just preparations for lynch mobs, whether the agent in question represents potential perpetrators or victims. Rather than counter-narratives, hypotheses should be used to dismantle narratives and to show that people are capable of things no one has yet seen. And we actually have a model of this in President Trump, whose presidency continues to astonish despite all the carping by people who supplement dubious news stories with the narrative fleshing out they crave. Whatever happens in what remains of his presidency, whether it’s 5 months or 5 years, will continue to be a rich source of models for hypothetical interventions in practices. A practice of studying Trump under the assumption that he knows what he’s doing better than you do would yield far more than turning Trump into a prop in your own narrative. It’s amazing how few people with even the most marginal public persona are capable of admitting that they are learning from someone else.

So, instead of narratives, we have the generation of scenes out of scenes, as a beginning is treated as a middle, a middle as an end, and so on. If the originary scene must have taken a while to pervade all human activities, once it did, it’s only possible to think about one scene from within another scene, and that other scene must more and more come to be just the foregrounding of the scenicity of the scene itself. But we could have only arrived at this point through the emergence of expanded scenes that completely absorbed and demolished local scenes. I’m referring to the ancient empires, which no doubt destroyed thousands of little worlds, a process that has continued in various forms since then. Without the imperial scene of demolition, there would be no “meta” scene. The meta derives from the imperial external position. It also derives from the “minor” scenes that preserved their scenic memory and posited a “meta” that transcended the imperial. From the Axial Age moral acquisitions, in other words.

The meta is only fully accomplished once the fantasy of installing a “genuine” center to monitor and control the occupied center has been relinquished. (Perhaps there are various layers of trauma that are being worked through in this connection.) At that point, and in a sense this is that point, we can speak of the “iterative center,” and not merely the “post-sacrificial.” Instead of trying to institute a global scene modeled on the originary one, with the inevitably apocalyptic consequences, we can accept the imperative to iterate the originary scene in practices where new ostensives can be affirmed, and practices named. Such practices don’t stand alone—they overlap with each other, and report upward and downward in other, pedagogical practices. We accept the center acting at a distance, because the ostensives it allows us to generate also replenish the center in ways we can hypothesize as samples. The point, again, is not to think small, but to ask the biggest questions of the center in a way commensurate with our practices at a certain level of perfection.

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