GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 27, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:05 pm

Eric Gans, in his most recent Chronicle, made an argument for considering Donald Trump a “metaconservative,” concerned, albeit perhaps not explicitly, with restoring the structure of compromise and deal-making between left and right by converting the left’s struggle for justice back into a defense of group interests. Until such a structure is restored, formulating the most brilliant conservative policies in the most prestigious think tanks will be irrelevant because, as conservatives themselves may have forgotten, such policy proposals are themselves merely opening bids in the negotiation, a negotiation that by definition requires a good faith partner.

If this is indeed what Trump is doing, and through “embodiment” more than “articulation,” how, exactly, is he doing it? The flip side of deal-making is tit-for-tat responses to attacks by others—in both cases, a kind of reciprocity is established. And if we follow the logic of Trump’s behavior, he seems to treat tit-for-tat responses to insults and offenses as a principle of virtually religious sanctity. Much of what seems bizarre in Trump’s actions can be explained in this way—as in the recent dust-up, completely ridiculous in any rational terms, over Trump’s and Cruz’s respective wives, makes perfect sense if Trump’s logic is, “ if you attack my wife I’ll attack yours.” Of course, what counts as an “attack” on Trump’s wife by Cruz is rather subjective—in this case, a photo from Melania Trump’s modeling days was tweeted by an anti-Trump (not, as I understand it, pro-Cruz) PAC, with the suggestion that voting for Cruz would be the best way of avoiding the presumed scandal of such a first lady. Perhaps this hurt Trump in Utah, but probably not much anywhere else—on balance, an attractive wife might be a plus for a Presidential candidate and Mrs. Trump comports herself with dignity. But all these are details—all that matters is that someone, according to some reasoning, wanted this to hurt Trump and help Cruz, so a response was necessary. What kind of response? Here as well, it seems the details get worked out on the fly—first, a threat to “spill the beans” about Mrs. Cruz and then a retweet of matching photos of the two wives, Melania at her sultry best and Heidi at her harried worst. (No beans have yet been spilt, to my knowledge.) How does this help Trump, who may already be fairly unpopular with normal women unlikely to appreciate being reminded of the disparity between them, after a day of work and chasing the kids around, and your average supermodel. But that doesn’t seem to enter Trump’s calculations either—he struck back, however scattershottedly, and that’s an end to it until the next attack. If there is no direct counter-attack, all seems to be forgotten, which may explain Trump’s penchant for denying he said things that he said very famously and is, of course, caught on video saying. What he said were not declaratives to be judged according to their truth value but performatives to be judged according to their “felicity” at each occasion.

The broader, meta-conservative effect of this honor system is to suggest powerfully to supporters that Trump will defend the interests of those supporters the same way he defends his own interests, and will defend the United States in that way as well—if someone screws us, we screw them right back. And the notions of payback and deterrence have taken thoroughly delegitimated under the Obama regime (even though that regime practices retaliation against its domestic enemies far more systematically than any other since Nixon’s), at least as an openly acknowledged principle of governmental and, indeed, human, behavior. What Obama’s supporters celebrate as “cerebral” and “non-reactive” is precisely an unwillingness to demand satisfaction from those who insult America, and therefore to give satisfaction to those who identify with American as an honor seeking entity in the world. Indeed, victimary thinking is predicated upon the suspense of honor as a reciprocal principle, demanding honor for the designated victim but guilt and shame for the oppressor.

Tit-for-tat in private and business life is inherently limited, but in public life it’s hard to see where the limits are. Hundreds of claims are made about a political candidate, let alone an office holder, every day that might easily be taken as “insults.” But more specific, formidable, and dangerous opponents emerge, opponents whom it is necessary that one be seen engaging and defeating. That seems to be Trump’s method—make a “provocative” statement, i.e., one that many people will find offensive, and let a hierarchy of enemies emerge in the course of a general taking of the bait. Nor are the provocations random—they generally involve some national point of honor, some instance or relationship in which America has been insulted or exploited by another nation. The enemies he attracts, then, are those interested in de-escalating conflicts with other countries (but, also, with others within this country who gravitate toward a transnational economic, political, and/or cultural sphere of activity) but, paradoxically, are willing to be drawn into an escalating antagonism with Trump himself. If my analysis is right, we can expect a kind of stabilization of the Trump phenomenon (assuming his continued success) as those heavily dependent upon transnational progressivism or transnational corporatism and/or finance line up against him with ever more intense paroxysms of denunciation while those more flexible in their affiliations and commitments find ways of coming to terms—either Trump will be swept away by the opposition or we will, as Gans suggests, find ourselves in a new, more unpredictable era as responsible agencies (e.g., corporations and other states) come to the table, and conflicts become more explicit but maybe also more manageable and transparent.

But I doubt very much that this will be the case with the left. The American left has apparently decided that they are going to try and shut Trump down, as if he were a conservative speaker invited to a college campus—staging riots at his events with the explicit purpose of making it impossible to hold them. A smaller scale version of this practice—sending protestors to Trump rallies and having them disrupt the event—has led to the manifestation of Trumpism that has perhaps made some of his potential supporters most uneasy: the encouragement of physical violence, by both the security and police, and by attendees at the rallies themselves, encouragement which has already yielded some more or less serious scuffling. This is bound to continue, as it’s hard to imagine Trump allowing such a provocation to go unanswered. And the left must, as Vox Day in his analysis of SJWs contends, continue to “double down,” and drag the official Democratic party along with it—already, to use Gans’s terms, Democrats treat Trump’s campaign as a blatant instance of injustice, rather than the representation of a legitimate, competing interest. It’s hard to see how they can do otherwise: can they really allow themselves to get into an argument with Trump about the proclivity of Mexican immigrants to rape and murder, or about how severely to restrict Muslim immigration? We will see a real crystallization of forces around the question of American sovereignty (tit-for-tat/deal-making on the national level), in all its dimensions. This is a showdown that Trump is initiating and propelling forward through a subjective dynamic all his own, but that Trumpism will continue, without him if necessary.

March 25, 2016

Playing the Odds

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:29 am

The world presents itself to us, through our signs, as an array of probabilities and thresholds. If there is a genuinely postmodern mode of thought, that is, one that comes after modernity, and is qualitatively different than modern thought, it is a radical probabilism that is incompatible with thinking in terms of rights, justice, progress and good vs. evil. Probabilism is deeply embedded in the information technologies that now govern our lives, and it may very well be that much of the victimary hysteria we see today is a panic over the irreversible consequences of more readily available probabilities regarding more areas of life. Here is a tweet by someone named John Rivers (which I came across in blog post by Steve Sailer on VDare):

I dream of a world where a mid-level manager in a mid-level company can accurately quote FBI crime statistics on Facebook and not be fired.

Ultimately, the SJWs must try to get the people in the middle fired for transmitting information about probabilities, because such information is devastating in its implications for the anti-discrimination ideology upon which they are parasitic. At a certain point, you’d have to demand that the FBI stop compiling statistics, and then you’d have to demand that police not ask victims and witnesses for identifying information on assailants, because someone would be able to gather such descriptions and create statistics out of them. But, then, you’d have to demand that victims and witnesses not report on crimes at all, even to other agencies than the police, in which case you’d have to focus all your attention on retaliating against those who report crimes, meaning, of course, that you’d have to name and describe them and thereby produce a kind of negative image of the statistics you wanted to suppress in the first place.

Left unhindered, employers, bankers, schools and other institutions would rely even more heavily on probabilities that they already do. How do you decide to whom you should loan money, whom you should employ, whom you should admit, other than by markers reliably (statistically) associated with paying back loans, competence in the work place, and academic achievement. We all operate this way individually as well: when we meet someone, we do a rough calculation of dangers and advantages, usefulness, interest, etc., associated with markers such as dress, manner, speech, and, to varying extents, demography. These calculations are continuously refined based on new information, information itself elicited by further, more precisely targeted “searches” we perform in our interactions with people. They are, furthermore, guided by risk thresholds: the guy I’m talking to might seem very likely to insult me, but I’ll get over that quickly and if he seems otherwise interesting I’ll have a fairly high risk threshold; much less so for walking through a high crime neighborhood during high crime hours.

It may be that the most radical thing one can do today is act, and proclaim that one acts, upon probabilistic reasoning. On the simplest level it seems one would be stereotyping all the time, but probabilities resulting from more refined searches are highly context-dependent: a member of a group statistically associated with astronomically higher crime rates may be only marginally, if at all, more dangerous in an office or academic setting than anyone else. In that case, it is rather improbable that that individual matches the stereotype one might construct based on mega-data (although one might leave open the possibility that local probabilities skew towards the global ones). But for a probabilistic reasoner, it would be impossible to speak about broader social questions without speaking in group terms, however qualified. One would thereby be generating resentments all the time, and, then, one might ask how the generation of resentments flows into the pools of information we draw upon. Victimary thinking tries to strangle such questions in their cradle: that members of an especially vulnerable group might be well-advised to take added precautions, that members of an especially dangerous and therefore feared group might take measures to advertise their own, individual, harmlessness, is anathema.

The originary scene itself should be understood as an array of probabilities, differentially grasped by those in the process of introducing the very data they are simultaneously processing. We can speak about the originary sign as creating reciprocity, and it might sound cynical to suggest that each member of the group engages in a cost-benefit analysis predicated upon an assessment of the respective physical attributes of the members, proximity to the object, likelihood of getting a larger chunk of the object post-sign than in a direct struggle sans sign, and all of this as the sign spreads through the group (affecting the probable results of abstention), but the “cynical” approach has certain advantages, both analytical and moral: after all, as a “sign-maker,” we are better off knowing where we are within the circulation of signs, which means having a sense of the differing degrees of deferral and discipline likely to result from the iteration of the sign by varying members. You can at least take responsibility for your own contribution to the information pool, in that case.

Political arguments would, in a more probabilistic world, concern refinements of search terms rather than sterile foot stamping over principles. The extension of rights-talk can probably be directly correlated with the increasing precision and availability of data: no one would make bizarre claims about limiting immigration for specified groups being some kind of human rights violation if we didn’t all know which groups an honest disclosure of risk thresholds and assessment of probabilities would dictate we exclude. In a sense the same is true for, say, gun ownership advocates in the US, who insist upon said ownership as a fundamental right in the face of comparative statistics of gun violence in the US and other equivalent countries. There is a powerful argument for gun ownership as a self-evident extension of the self-evident right to self-defense, and as long as that argument is the one most likely to succeed, it’s hard to fault it. But against arguments, bolstered by the statistics just referred to, to the effect that we all concede some of rights in the name of social order (an argument with the same natural rights pedigree as the pro-gun one), it might be better to counter with more sophisticated search terms: probabilities of guns being used for criminal violence in some areas, among some demographics, under specific legal regimes, as opposed to others. It might very well be that the information generated by such targeted searches flows nicely into larger pools of information generated by crime statistics, statistics regarding family breakdown, regarding resentment towards the inculcation of civilized behavior, and so on. Maybe it will turn out that the most fundamental right, from which all others flow, is the right to note the differences that make the acquisition of knowledge of probabilities possible.

It is possible to see not only “PC,” and not only liberal democratic anti-discrimination ideology, but the entire edifice of civilized behavior as designed to guard against unrestrained probabilistic reasoning in social life (even if liberal democracy and then victimary thinking involve first an incremental and then an exponential increase in that restraint). Imagine what it would mean to interact constantly on explicitly probabilistic premises: it wouldn’t involve the kind of crude stereotyping I referred to above, but it would involve assuming, acting upon, and announcing the assumption that person A is x% more likely than person B to act in ways detrimental to a particular project. Of course there are already performance reviews and other assessment procedures that gather such information—but always in ways that separate it from the direct interaction of individuals. And with good reason, because at a certain micro level such assessments come to rely upon tacit information that cannot be made explicit, much less defended publicly. Part of the discipline of civilization is the ability to become aware of and suspend such tacit assessments where they would interfere with a project and hence with the gathering of information that would enable the refinement and sharing of those assessments. (In a sense, then, the suspension of tacit assessments simply involves a higher order mode of probabilistic reasoning.) But an equally essential component of civilized discipline lies in refraining from the demand that others disavow their tacit judgments even though we are all aware of being, at times, their targets. The totalitarianism of “social justice” is in its demand for such a disavowal, for the complete replacement of the density, fragility and extensiveness of tacit judgment for ideologically approved and implanted doxa. It is a demand that we not think or even notice things. Which, I suppose, makes it fairly easy to be a revolutionary in these times: just keep noticing things, and give others, however minimally, to notice them as well.

March 7, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:20 pm

Rituals are reproductions of the originary scene, at first aimed at reinhabiting the remembered scene to defer new instances of violence, and then to make the deity appear and bless and strengthen the community. Myth emerges to explain the ritual, and in doing so constructs accounts of the originary scene that devolve more and more responsibility onto the participants on that scene. The more individuals can be responsible, the more likely that differences between individuals will widen, creating the asymmetrical relation of the Big Man, in sole possession of “producer’s desire” (conferring meaning upon the scene) at the antipodes of the rest of the community and its aggregation of “consumer desires” (benefiting from the distribution controlled by the “producer”). This asymmetry expands to grotesque lengths, investing new but sharply restricted ethical possibilities in astonishingly brutal social orders (mass slavery and extermination, human sacrifice). The invention of the God whose name is the declarative sentence begins the long reversal of this process, by directing resentment towards the Big Man and Big Man tendencies in everyone. Responsibility again devolves upon everyone, but it is a responsibility both enhanced and truncated: enhanced, because a far wider range of human intentions can now be comprehended and therefore demand recognition (while inspiring caution); truncated, because the resentment toward the Big Man (in all of us) locates morality in the consumer’s desire of the vast majority, leading to the stigmatization of the producer’s desire that is more necessary than ever for the consumer’s desire to be satisfied. As far as I know, American society is the only one that has been able to fully value the “producer,” or entrepreneur (where else can billionaires become folk heroes?), and even that idealization is always tenuous, in competition with perhaps more powerful resentments than are found elsewhere as well. This dynamic, perhaps at one time a source of creative tension, has become sterile.

That was an extremely compact, one-sided, somewhat modified and no doubt inadequate summary of Eric Gan’s history of cultural forms, especially as articulated in his The End of Culture (which I happen to be rereading now). It has always seemed to me that we had never really left the reign of the Big Man behind us, regardless of democratic and liberal pretensions; it has also seemed to me for a long time that the democratic and egalitarian principles that emerged from the monotheistic revelation has never been able to resist dwelling obsessively on every manifestation of the Big Man, or alphadom, with acceleratingly destructive consequences. That focus has remained because it is the original one—although one finds in Jewish, and I would imagine Christian, theology, the notion that the tremendous creativity of God flows through those created in His image, I think that the far more consequential reading of the Moasic revelation has been to set God’s creativity in opposition to the creativity of the Alpha, to whittle the alpha down to size. Modern consumer society is the reign of Big Corporations that stay big by inciting our consumer resentment against all forms of bigness. Gans locates the separation of the esthetic from ritual in the emergence of the Big Man, upon which the artist to whom we willingly subordinate our attention is modeled: hence the masterpiece as the highest form of art, dependent upon a passive and awestruck audience. All forms of bigness today—corporations, the political parties, the state, the media, the educational system and academy—all function according to the same logic of the disavowal and denunciation of the producer’s desire that nevertheless is increasingly monopolized and calcified within those very institutions.

A counter-tendency has been emergent for a few decades now, and has been accelerated by the internet and social media. Paradoxically, the antidote to the decaying and self-disavowing culture of anonymous bigness has been the emergence of new, smaller, more mobile, unstable, and readily replaced alphas, epitomized by the self-publishing blogger. The Republican party “elders” are concerned about the future of their party—but maybe we should be looking forward to the obsolescence of all “major” parties. Political parties in the liberal democracies have been means of packaging money, platforms for governing, and voters, but why do we need such gigantic, clumsy and unresponsive institutions to do that anymore? Today’s “insurgency” campaigns already circumvent and take over (“hostilely”) the parties, but maybe soon they will dispense with the parties altogether. The participatory tendency in the arts goes back to the 60s, at least, with forms of theater, music and literature that could only be completed through audience participation, in stark contrast with the masterpiece that presumably remains identical through the ages. The most advanced form of participatory art, which I have mentioned quite a few times, and the one most capable of spilling over into everyday life, was Allan Kaprow’s “happenings,” which involved creating an actual scene in the midst of everyday life. Everyone caught up in the scene becomes actor and audience simultaneously. The happening is a ritual insofar as the ritual is a reproduction of the originary scene: by introducing unpredictability into the routines of everyday life the happening makes it incumbent upon the participants to discover the semiotic means of defusing the violent potential in that scene. The esthetic is thereby reabsorbed back into ritual and elicits the millennia long suppressed producer’s desire of all the people. Responsibility can be further expanded, insofar as everyone comes to recognize their unique responsibility, as a sign, to sustain the scene at hand, while the truncation has been abolished.

The reason this revolution has proceeded in fits and starts is that it is, frankly, terrifying, for virtually everyone. There is the existential fear of taking responsibility for one’s own successes and failures, with no more Big Man (the “system,” “elites,” “ruling class,” “establishment,” etc.) to blame for one’s own indiscipline. But there is also the fear of the conflicts that will be unleashed once the established channels for expressing resentment and desire are removed. There are plenty of people who think that the conflicts between right and left (Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street) are really artificial products of the “system,” which stays in power by turning us against one another. That seems to me a transparent anti-Big Man platitude. There will be no single unified “people” once the “corporate state” has been disabled or marginalized—there will be war, which we can aim at making more virtual than material, but which we will not be able to avoid. Everyone is now positioning themselves for that war, which might be a many-sided affair, Balkanizing us while polarizing us globally. The producer’s desire can be an implacable one, demanding and rigorous, not easily pacified and diverted like the consumer’s desire. But the Empty Big Men cannot be propped up anymore—even the most recently established giants, like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, seem to be approaching senility, as they invest in traditional ideologies and ally with existing forms of political power. The best side to take, at this point, is whatever side can bear and even embrace the proliferation of differences that the demise of anti-alpha anonymous alphadom will release. With no settled rights, and no shared inclination to submit to majority rule, what will matter is who can create performative, participatory disciplines and defend those disciplines against rearguard attacks of anti-discimination SJWs—but also, perhaps, of the race-obsessed who might arise in the vacuum left by the rout of the SJWs. I wouldn’t want to be the bookie taking bets on the results—I would have no idea how to set the odds.

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