Power, Media, and Counter-Algorithmic Praxis

Eric Gans published an essay titled “On the One Medium” in a book on Girard’s mimetic theory and media (Mimesis, Movies and Media, 2015) that I just had a chance to read and is worth discussing here. Gans argues here that the internet is becoming the one medium that will subsume all others: text, video, cinema, music, etc. Other media may continue to exist for reasons of convenience, but everything will be convertible into the one medium, and will therefore be thought of and composed as convertible. This implies the erosion of the integrity of the other media, and their current modes of presentation: Gans gives the example of downloading and binge-watching a TV series, which makes it indistinguishable, other than in terms of time, from watching a movie. This erosion is furthered by the capacity, within the one medium, to modify and mix different products of different media—Gans alludes to the implications of this capacity indirectly by discussing an effort at UCLA to impose a licensing agreement on university journals allowing “users of those materials, once the original source is referenced, to ‘tweak, remix, and build upon’ the materials they contain.” It’s easy enough to imagine what might be done by integrating text or “performances” of scholarly articles into music videos—just remember that Hayek vs. Keynes rap contest that was current a couple of years ago. Gans also points out the fragility of the medium, based as it is upon advertising revenue and, even more importantly, like all markets, “on political systems, with peace enforced by arms.”

Nevertheless:

There remain two sets of phenomena that cannot be reduced to the One Medium because they depend upon an immediate relationship to their public: performances on the one hand, and art-objects on the other. Students of GA will recognize the two essential components of the human (cultural-representational) scene: the sacred central object and its sacrificial/alimentary substitutes, and the peripheral human group that surrounds the center, celebrates and consecrates it, and eventually, in a typical rite, takes nourishment from it.

Performances can be recorded, of course, and events can be hosted on the internet, but the point is that they can be recorded and are therefore “always already” recorded and therefore no longer dependent for their reality upon an original set of witnesses. But all of these recorded performances are still dependent upon an original live performance, or at least the existence of individuals capable of giving live performances—and if there are people capable of giving live performances, there will be a demand for such performances. So, there is something irreducible about performance, as we can see even more forcefully in the sphere of ritual. Could a baptism be performed online, with the priest in one place and the infant in another? Some actions, to become real, require something like the laying on of hands. Since we are mimetic beings, human interaction grounds our world in a way simulation can’t—Gans uses the example of chess, pointing out that we now have computers that can defeat any human in the game, and yet we still hold human tournaments while no one would have the slightest interest in a chess match between computer programs.

In his discussion of the art-object, Gans notes that the existence of the One Medium places a premium on work that takes up physical space—in economic terms, “real things,” made simply to be displayed in front of a live audience, become “scarce.” It seems to me a similar argument would hold for performance, although Gans doesn’t pursue this—that is, those performances that are likely to become the most privileged, the most esthetically pleasing, are those which are most resistant to reproduction. Going to a live concert and watching it later on the internet are not the same thing, but the performer may not do anything different in the live performance than he does in a performance directly recorded to be shown on the internet—and if the performers know that the concert is destined to end up online, they are likely to minimize the “liveness” of the performance. Unless they don’t, and decide to maximize the difference of each performance, and make the performance as dependent as possible on the live audience. Of course, the best way to do that is to erase the boundary between performer and audience, as in some forms of experimental theater. But in that case, why have a bounded, formal event in the first place—the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is for performers to create scenes and events out of the material of everyday life, in the midst of everyday life, the purest example of which is the “happening,” a form of art developed by Allan Kaprow. These would be events that no one would know to record in the first place.

Now, to push things a little further, if “happenings” become the most valued performative esthetic, physical interactions between people, unrepeatable and unreproduceable events, are going to more and more approximate happenings. In other words, we will more and more strive to give them a ritual character, by introducing constraints that operate as notes of deferral that are explicitly marked as such. The individual who disrupts a scene, however gently, implicitly makes himself a potential sacrifice or scapegoat—anything that goes wrong from here on in can easily be blamed on the disruptor. Your reason for wanting to attempt this, nevertheless, is that you detect some “imbalance” or latent and dangerous set of resentments in the scene; making yourself a potential target of those resentments is a way of defusing them. The risk may be worth it, because if you become a skilled “happener,” you can become a very valued person. You might be able to parlay such a skill and such a(n initially minor) celebrity into YouTube fame, thereby creating a dialectic between the simulacral internet and the irreducibly performative. The former tries to capture the latter, which develops new strategies of evasion and in turn informs new meming strategies.

We have a good reason to theorize such a dialectic. No one can be unaware now of the irrelevance of the supposed liberal freedoms such as speech, religion and assembly. Power is becoming more naked, and seemingly more desperate. It has always been the case that you’re not really allowed to be illiberal in a liberal order—a more secure liberalism could choose not to press the point, though. But the simulacral nature of liberalism itself has caught up with it—liberalism makes no sense outside of the liberal/illiberal binary. What is illiberal is centrality; what is liberal is resistance to centrality. There must be some law of acceleration determining the speed with which new modes of centrality and resistance to them are discovered. There must also be some way of predicting what will come next. “Lookism” as Nazism, with a ban on any reference to a person’s physical attractiveness that could even implicitly suggest the lesser attractiveness of others? Borders as apartheid? Both ideas have been floating around—maybe it’s time for one or both to catch fire. Does anyone dare laugh, or claim to foresee the limits of new victimary offensives? Liberalism has become compulsive: it must generate new offenses.

The internet and social media have accelerated the process by creating, as Gans pointed out not too long ago, a new and devastatingly effective mode of scapegoating; at the same time, the absolute binaries generated by victimary politics are fodder for the creation of new algorithms, which is the manifestation of power by the internet monopolies. Developing an algorithm for identifying “white supremacist” websites, blogs, videos, etc., is precisely the kind of task Silicon Valley is prepared for. You need input from organizations like the SPLC and ADL—they will help you develop keywords, phrases, verbal patterns and other markers to look for. But the smarter the computers get the dumber the people get. There have already been leftist websites complaining that they have gotten caught up in the censorious sweeps for heretical material by the Inquisition. The computers can’t distinguish between articles written by “white supremacists” and those written about “white supremacists” by their enemies. And, increasingly, neither can people. It is becoming less and less possible to depend upon people distinguishing between you saying something, and you saying that someone else says that. If it’s coming out of your mouth it’s all the same. I’ve noticed the same kind of intellectual collapse in related areas: if you ask people about the legality or constitutionality of things like giving legal status to illegal aliens or legalizing gay marriage or transgender rights, they increasingly talk about how they care about illegal alien children, have gay friends, and think the transgender don’t bother anyone. In other words, admittedly counter-intuitive distinctions between what you are formally allowed to do and what you should do are becoming unintelligible. Just like if the words come from you, they are your words, you can only mention an individual, practice or situation in order to approve or disapprove.

This massive devastation, a kind of wiping out of volumes of mental “programs” which must end up leaving much of our cultural inheritance unintelligible, actually provides an opening for realist/formalist politics. We have no problem with simplicities: the media talks about Russia because they want to destroy Trump; the Democrats promote immigration because they hate white people; feminists talk about “rape culture” because they want revenge against men; blacks commit more crimes because there are more criminals among them, etc. If the media gets their way, it’s because they are more powerful than those who didn’t get their way; if some part of the US government subverts some institution or country it’s because they are screwing some other part of the government, or some other agency. We can hack away at all the vaporous talk of equality, democracy, freedom, etc., identify the workings of power, and presuppose the real binary of order vs. disorder. But it would be a very good idea to learn how to do all this under the radar of the algorithms of the Inquisition. We make texts and events say what needs to be said by introducing disruptions and interruptions into them. Some familiarity with Twitter makes it clear that lots of people are already getting very good at this kind of thing. It would be very hard to police all the variations of the “guy checking out girl”/”distracted boyfriend” meme. Steve Sailer is a masterful, subtle reader of mainstream texts, even if he himself is already too well known to fly under the radar.

The simplest way to develop such an algorithm-resistant praxis is to speak and write as if you are doing nothing more than taking orders from those in power, and explicitly pointing out that you are doing so. “In such a case, as we have been repeatedly warned, we should look out for someone who might notice…” A lot will depend on how you have described the “case.”  Of course, we want to theorize openly and have more straightforward discussions, and we’re probably not all going to rounded up right away, once and for all. But we can have these back-up, “happening” discourses, predicated on an analysis of what would subtly disrupt or interrupt a power approved event, on or off line. Simply indicating, regularly and casually, that the instructions, while universally felt, are not all that clear, will have a powerful and cumulative effect. In this way we prepare the transition from mock (but actual) obedience to chaos generating sovereigns to real obedience to a patron capable of assessing value, and, finally, to a genuine sovereign. And in the process we will do our part to reintroduce humor, irony, complexity, self-reflexivity and distance back into the culture.

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