GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 21, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:49 am

Nick Land, at his Outside/Inside blog, strikes back against Reactionary Futures:

To ignore the historical association of power disintegration with the emergence of self-propelling techonomic competences also looks like a serious blindness. Capitalism hatched in Europe because Europe was broken. Keeping the world broken seems similarly indissociable from the survival of capitalistic historical momentum, and breaking it more profoundly is the route to capital intensification. Perhaps that’s the argument we’re having (not that such arguments matter much).

The issue here is whether sovereignty precedes and determines economic and technological power or vice versa: for Reactionary Futures, sovereignty is always conserved (someone, ultimately owns society), while for Land (along with most of his commenters), more materialistically, and seemingly more commonsensically, technological innovations from the printing press to “blockchain” (the subject of his next post) have driven upheavals in power. Land, as the the penultimate sentence suggests, looks forward to the complete technologization of power, as each man can become an island fortress. His final comment is meant, I think, as a death blow:

The Idea that unified power is the reliable principle of social competence is ethno-historically French. That is where it has worked its magic since the epoch of the Sun King. Under sufficiently dismal circumstances, the RF analysis might catch on there.

Touchè! (Keep in mind RF has been criticizing Land and others pretty vigorously lately.)

Land sets up the question properly, I think. There are three possibilities: first, and perhaps most likely, at least for a while, the continual out of control spiraling of technological and political disruptions of existing forms of techno-power; second the establishment of technologically impregnable forms of private property that will allow that least some to escape the first possibility (why should those driving and controlling automation even bother with victimary claims—why not just build businesses, residences and modes of exchange invulnerable to them?); third, the recovery of sovereignty, i.e., power that says what it does, does what it says, and does and says no more and no less than is necessary to ensure that saying and doing remain thus commensurable.

The materialist argument is that option three is simply impossible, because of the logic of the market, or of complex systems, of evolution, or of technological innovation, all of which cannot be controlled by any central government and, furthermore, will be destroyed by any real effort at exerting control. But the need to caricature reactionary future’s position here is telling. Reactionary future’s most effective argument regarding sovereignty and technological and economic complexity, is to point to the fact that some of the major success stories, according to free market criteria, such as Hong Kong, Dubai, and Thailand, have taken place under autocratic governments. The argument for the strongest form of sovereignty, which is to reduce all of a territorial society to the property of the sovereign, does not imply micromanagement of everything within that social order. It implies management of everything that needs to be managed, which the capable sovereign will seek to make as little as possible. Meanwhile, while Land can look forward to technological powers beyond the reach of any sovereign, the truth is we have never seen anything like that, and today’s new technological powers, despite some instances of resistance (like Microsoft’s original determination not to engage in lobbying, for which it paid dearly) are all too eager to converge with existing forms of (self-subverting) sovereignty. Forming their own armies and carving out territories of their own seems to be the furthest thing from the minds of Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, etc. More likely than Land’s utopia, I think, is that even a half-way competent sovereign will be able to bring into its service enough technological capability to counter the new techno-powers—new forms of encryption will always generate new forms of decryption and the state will always have an intense interest in preventing the un-decryptable.

But there’s something more important than these empirical analyses, which, of course, can always be wrong. Whenever we speak of political entities (nations, classes, interests, etc.) or extra-political entities (technologies, wealth, markets, knowledge, etc.) we, in fact, presuppose sovereignty. We presuppose sovereignty because we presuppose property and some originary distribution thereof (the nomos), and in presupposing property we presuppose property differentials and relations, and in presupposing property differentials and relations, we presuppose differentials in discipline. To be disciplined is to be sovereign—that is the origin of the concept, which implies ruling “over” something, first of all one’s own impulses, i.e., desires and resentments. If a budding literary scholar (to take a simple example) trains himself not to respond sympathetically and hostilely to characters in novels, for the sake of examining the means by which a novelist can induce sympathies and antipathies in readers, he becomes sovereign over that set of responses, which is embedded in the acquisition of literacy. If you ask such a budding scholar how Flaubert examines mimetic desire through the character of Madame Bovary, and he tells you how sorry he feels for her, you can know for sure (unless he is joking) that he has not gained sovereignty over his “natural” readerly responses.

The same is true of any field of human endeavor, and any social or economic category. To the extent that we could speak of a “nation,” we imagine a group of people that does or could establish laws and institutions over a territory it controls, thereby distinguishing its members from those of other nations. (At the same time we speak more of nations when sovereignty is weakened and we have to inquire into the “substance” of sovereignty—if the sovereign seems less capable of controlling the territory, we start to ask whether all of the people within that territory are really “under” the sovereign, which implies that some might be more so than others.) If we speak of the “interests” of a particular group, we imagine some political center that could address those interests, and favor or disfavor them in relation to other interests. New inventions only take place, are exploited, made profitable, and disseminated under conditions where factories and laboratories are not constantly attacked and raided, where there are schools producing literate and numerate individuals, where there is money that is not completely worthless, and much more. The inventor presupposes that he (whether it be the scientist himself or the company he works for) will be recognized as sovereign over his invention—even if we set aside copyrights and patents, even other inventors or manufacturers who take and benefit from his invention know what the source of that particular addition to the sum of human capacity is, or at the very least know that there had to be a source. They know that someone had to be sovereign over certain materials in a particular time and place, and other conditions, themselves guarded by some form of sovereignty, was necessary for that sovereignty to be exercised.

All these “local” forms of sovereignty (which multiply with the advance of civilization) either account for the totality of their sovereignty by themselves (the inventor is also guardian of his laboratory and factory, protector of supply chains and distribution networks, etc.) or defer the maintenance of such external conditions of sovereignty to someone who must, therefore, be sovereign over those conditions. The less we speak directly of this sovereignty over the condition of my own sovereignty, the more unquestioningly we presuppose it. (Microsoft’s refusal to lobby indicated, really, a highly admirable if incredibly naïve belief that if the US didn’t yet have undivided, certain sovereignty, interested in nothing more than sustaining civilizational advances that would redound to the reputation of the sovereign, the example of new companies like Microsoft that showed without question the benefits of providing a space for innovators to be sovereign in their one thing would move us closer to such a mode of sovereignty.) The question for companies like Google, in a time when rulers rule by undermining sovereignty, is whether it is best for them to support a mode of sovereignty that will let the company do what it does best (gather all of human knowledge, organize it and make it available according to increasingly powerful algorithms) while insisting upon (always yet to be determined) ultimate deference to the imperatives of a sovereignty that as much as possible wants to let Google be Google; or, to directly interfere with, participate in and further confuse sovereign powers by surrendering their own sovereignty as they curry favor with various interest groups, bribable politicians, demographic forecasts, and so on. I suspect that, if faced with the question in this form, Google would choose the former, and the fact that they are nevertheless well along the path to the latter (aligning itself with the victimary, with open immigration, with the political fashion statements of its Silicon Valley workforce, etc.) shows just how difficult the self-extrication of technological capacities from politics must be. In the end, the flourishing of technological capacities and healthy national and international marketplaces depend upon their seeming opposite: a state that makes marginal and decisive interventions in economic operations in order to preserve its own sovereignty. Can any state make merely marginal interventions, while at the same time making those interventions decisive? The materialist position, whether it be the libertarianism of Hayek or the communism of Marx, is “no”: the state can never be anything more than meaningless aggrandizement of power, in the interest of a ruling class or the state apparatus and its remora themselves. The reactionary position is “yes,” given sufficient discipline at least among those power centers most capable or interfering and confusing sovereignty and, therefore, most capable of contributing to the restoration of sovereignty by refraining from such interference and deferring to a competent sovereign (perhaps from among their own ranks).

Europe’s emergence from the “Dark Ages” involved a general enhancement of discipline across the board: political, moral, economic-technological, and intellectual. This is why all of Europe gravitated toward absolute monarchy during this period. So, what happened beginning 1300, or 1400, or 1500, to set off the spiral of reciprocally subversive powers we call “modernity”? Reactionary futures has a narrative similar to Eric Voegelin’s, beginning with medieval nominalism, through the various schisms of Christianity along individualist, anti-social lines, through Protestantism, of which liberalism is just a secularized version—Voegelin’s claim that modernity is Gnosticism would fit RF’s analysis very well. What RF adds is the primacy of power, that is, competing powers supporting these new ideas so as to render power more uncertain and hence aid their own bids for power. But how do competing power centers become powerful enough to advance their subversive ideas, and why these ideas in particular?

I think that if we stay focused on the question of discipline we can approach the problem in a more productive and comprehensive way. Differentials in discipline in a steadily disciplining social order creates power imbalances: between the more and less disciplined, of course, but also between elites that succeed in exemplifying and conveying their own discipline to their dependents and charges, and those that don’t. The latter are likely to try to leverage the indiscipline for which they have become responsible so as to counter-balance the lagging of their own institutions behind the more thoroughly disciplined sectors. The way to leverage indiscipline is to replace the charisma of self-discipline with the (anti) charisma of transgression. The (anti) charisma of transgression describes well the post-nominalist schisms in Western Christendom: arbitrary will replaces virtue, which is to say the discipline of resisting dominant (center-acknowledging) habits of thought replaces the discipline of acquiring fluency in and contributing to those habits of thought. The former discipline may very well require courage and ingenuity unneeded by, even inimical to, the latter. As long as transgressive charisma works from the margins of a social order still set into a long term disciplining process, it subverts that order, but not fatally, and may even be harnessed for innovative purposes—I would disagree with RF’s insistence that liberalism had no significance, and certainly no positive significance, for scientific and technological culture in the West. Anti-social defiance of norms can inspire generative modes of inquiry that yield fruit before the social effects of that defiance become evident. Transgressive charisma did not decisively break the virtuous circle whereby the discipline of the elites depended upon and saw to the discipline of the emergent middle and lower classes until recently, when the convergence of mass production, mass media, information technologies and socialist welfare state expectations (all, no doubt, representing new and interlocking power centers) converted increases in elite discipline into degeneration of popular discipline. Industrialization required disciplined masses, and so, despite centuries of inroads made by transgressive ideas of individualism, democracy, and liberalism, diluted notions of virtue like “respectability,” “morality,” “decency” and “normalcy” still prevailed. Up until the 1960s, no one would have wondered whether the triumph of democracy now meant that individuals no longer needed to be responsible for their behavior, even though no one had ever voted on those norms of behavior to which they were held responsible. We have reached a breaking point because automation and algorithmic economics and culture require a specific kind of very enhanced discipline by a small minority, but openly encourages and, at least in the short run benefits from, the relaxed discipline of the majority. If not a majority, a very impactful minority can now participate with little consequence in the culture of transgression, which in turn need no longer present itself as a reform of normative culture—it can openly declare war on normative culture. It may very well be that, along with self-disciplining movements within communities by those terrified by social collapse, a reactionary restoration of sovereignty will require that the major technopowers first actually assume and formalize their actual power, and then deliver that power to sovereigns who will integrate the disciplinary structure and vocation of those corporate giants back into a renewed social disciplinary project. Google and the others may have to realize that they don’t really want to rule, but are the only ones capable of seeing to it that someone does. That the giants and the new sovereigns will accept the need (and find a way) to replace the high-low war against the middle with an ordered hierarchy of powers that confers formal recognition upon differentials in discipline may not be overwhelmingly likely, but it is possible and, probably the only way of preserving civilization—that is, the only alternative to the more extreme exigency of more desperate and marginalized civilizational reboots.

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