GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 17, 2017

Power and Digital Order

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:26 am

Eric Gans has a compelling hypothesis regarding the form of our present disorder that I’d like to give more consideration than I have done thus far. Gans has been emphasizing the enormous economic gulf created by the digital economy run by those capable of sophisticated forms of symbolic manipulations, since the reduction of production processes to symbolic manipulation makes all those incapable of such intellectual work essentially economically obsolete. Gans has been connecting this development to the intensification of victimary cultural politics (wherein every “inequality” is reduced to the form of the Nazi-Jew binary), because such victimary politics becomes the only way of compelling some kind of moral reciprocity on the part of the elites. In his most recent Chronicle of Love & Resentment, “Common Sense,” he makes this connection even more forcefully:

To put the binary cultural hypothesis very simply, the more bytes required to organize the material economy, including the entertainment (thank you, Frankfurt School) that painlessly discharges our resentments and satisfies our appetites with fast food and eventually with self-driving cars and AI-enhanced sex robots (in the business section of the September 27 Los Angeles Times: “Silicone sex dolls get an AI makeover. These ‘girls’ will ‘have sensual conversations and tell naughty jokes’”), the fewer bytes needed to maintain cultural solidarity. The Internet is maintained with terabytes of know-how in order to allow people to Tweet the crudest obscenities.

Local versions of this dichotomy are everywhere. At the university, in the embarrassing contrast between highly sophisticated and theory-driven scientific research and near-universal ideological idiocy. Not to speak of GA’s difficulty in obtaining a hearing. For its complexity is based in ideas rather than algorithms, and it thereby falls between the cultural and technical stools. In a world run on big-data-based algorithms, when it comes to exercising the imagination enough to conceive an “originary hypothesis,” the response is one of intellectual panic: how can you speculate without data, on the basis of what you fancy to be our shared intuition? No one really “understands” particle physics or string theory, but these are not things to understand, merely equations to work out. “Cognitive theory” has equations; GA has only imagination, and there is no longer enough of a common symbolic world to allow sharing imaginary constructs as a mode of truth-seeking.

Once we have all become positivist creators and “trainers” of algorithms, we can no longer allow the kind of “gentlemen’s” criteria for success that still existed in my youth, which permitted the less favored both to resent the “caste system” yet be reassured by its authority. Today, all that counts is either knowing the right people, which is not the same as being part of a loosely aristocratic old-boy system, or getting a high score on an exam. For those who don’t know the right people, getting the score is all, whence the reign of disparate impact.

Economic productivity used to require a certain degree of cultural solidarity: bosses, managers and workers needed forms of extended cooperation; the educational and entertainment system had to enforce standardized cultural norms, so as to sustain cross generationally the models of behavior required for an advanced workforce and citizenry. Meanwhile, I just googled to discover the number of Google employees: 72, 053. (A much diminished Ford Motor Company still has 201,000.) The only cultural solidarity needed there is that of the graduates of the top dozen or so universities in the US, perhaps the world. As Gans notes, these elite workers will be able to produce substitutes for the satisfactions previously offered as inducements to participate in cultural reproduction: instead of a wife, increasingly realistic sex bots (will women want these as well?). Soon enough, people will forget what “wives” were. The often cited Morlock vs. Eloi dichotomy is being realized. What to do with all that surplus population?

I want to address Gans’s reference to the reception (not) granted to GA more specifically, but first of all to note (as Gans himself indicates) that this observation holds for social and cultural theory as a whole. Here’s an interesting way to think about this. The linguist Anna Wierzbicka has developed what she calls a “Natural Semantic Metalanguage” comprised of all the words that are common to all the languages in the world. Along with this metalanguage, she has developed a method of translation, using the metalanguage to translate the various otherwise untranslatable concepts constitutive of each language. So, for example, the word “emotion,” which does not translate out of English, can be translated by reducing it to the words “feel” and “think,” which are part of the NSM. Wierzbicka’s method involves composing a series of sentences that are aimed very precisely at bringing out the specific meaning of any word. Now, in describing her method, Wierzbicka says there are essentially two ways of talking about any event: first, one could speak of the outcome or intention as “good” or “bad” (both words in the NSM); second, one could speak of the event as similar to another event. The latter approach opens the way to identifying prototypical events that would distinguish one culture from another and enable us to account for its language as allowing for ever more complex events modeled on while being differentiated from those prototypical ones. So, it is as if what has happened now is the complete collapse of all events into certain prototypical ones, with all of them summarily labeled “bad.” It is really a kind of cultural lobotomy. It may be that for the socially autistic digital elites and their political proxies and protectors, social spaces (the Humanities, entertainment, more and more often sports…) are set aside for the sub-elites drawn from the under-classes to, in lieu of forming “cultural solidarity,” lead their charges in LARPing iconic events (the March on Selma, the liberation of Europe, the Algerian War, etc.) in real time.

GA, of course, has never had a particularly warm reception in the academy, and its emergence almost simultaneously with victimary thinking offers as good an explanation as any. GA is interested not primarily in labeling a particular social or cultural form good or bad, but in understanding it as modeled, however distantly, on an originary scene (the prototype of prototypes) defined by the deferral of collective violence. The implications of such an approach for making sense of inter-group and inter-sex relationships are simply too triggering—GA suppresses altogether the incredibly pleasurable retroactive accusation and self-congratulation that has driven most thinking in the Humanities and Social Sciences for quite a while.  But it also, as Gans points out in the excerpt above, resists the supposedly more sophisticated and objective data-driven approaches to social order, because they can never ask the question, why is there social order (and therefore “data”) in the first place? The practitioners of such approaches cannot understand the paradoxical question, what must language be in order to be what it is?, because they have no way or initiating a data search or devising an algorithm to address it. But there was language before there was “data,” and language couldn’t have emerged out of some primordial “data-generating” process on the part of exceptionally intelligent organisms that somehow became a collective process—accounting for that “somehow” implicates the sober scientist in silly “just-so stories” and B-movie quality creationist accounts of human origin.

Now, let’s take a look at Gans’s “final reflection”:

No one can dispute that making women wear veils or worse in public, let alone “honor-killing” them for speaking to strange men, does not rank very high on the scale of moral equality. But the White Guilt that tolerates it is not solely motivated by fear of “Islamophobia.” It reflects a guilty distortion of the healthy idea that women’s destiny, whatever else they elect to do, is to bear children; that, in other words, female biology, at least at the present stage of human technology, is still “in service” to the society as a whole. Women are not solely to blame for the West’s low birth rate, but in a world where women are not subordinate to men, ways must be found to encourage couples to reach a replacement level of population as we live ever longer as individuals, unless of course we would prefer to disappear.

However crude and barbaric these archaic customs may be, they are not simply “irrational.” Not everything that one dislikes can be understood as a variant of Nazism. The idea that the subordination of women, or slavery, or even human sacrifice, is simply “evil” does nothing to explain why it has existed, let alone why it has been abolished in societies that can afford to do so. And calling it “scapegoating” is just one more one-bit explanation.

Once you start along this line of thinking, there is no way of telling where it will end. If female biology is still “in service” to the society as a whole, we might discover that a lot of other things are as well. The reason for the virulence of victimary leftism is that they know if the male-female distinction can be institutionalized so as to maximize some social purpose, every other distinction can be as well. Some institutionalizations of these distinctions are abolished by “societies that can afford to do so.” But what is affordable at one point might turn out to be unaffordable after all at some later point; the judgment may even be made that it was never really affordable in the first place, but that reckless, wasteful people had gotten in charge of the social reserves. The “one-bit” thinking might go farther back than anyone thinks—was not liberalism, in fact, the first one-bit political theory (down with kings! Up with the people!)? In that case, maybe it’s not a question of more or less rapidly tearing down social distinctions but of calibrating the ones that exist along with the emergence of new ones. Here, in fact, we have the difference between conservative and reactionary social thought: the conservative wants to make equality safe for the world, whereas the reactionary wants all inequalities recognized and formalized through reciprocal obligations. All that matters is holding the center.

Gans never does propose a way of genuinely countering the victimary, other than a (maybe not so) ambivalent endorsement of Trump’s “common sense,” i.e., open, confrontational, undeterred approach. But more important is the other problem he, along with everyone else so far, leaves unsolved—what to about those who cannot be integrated into the digital order which, through automation, AI and algorithmic programming, is in the process of rendering virtually all means of acquiring virtue not merely degraded or abused but obsolete. At least Gans lays the problem down on the table, with all its moral and ethical perplexities. But maybe the two problems, as Gans seems to intuit, are one. In an overtly hierarchical order, the victimary, which depends upon the liberal’s sense that there’s always some unnoticed inequality he’s about to be called out for, would be impossible. In such an order, it would also be possible to ask, explicitly, what is the best way for humans to live, and how can we provide such a way? For example, what form of property ownership would promote self-sufficiency and authority in men, and devotion to family in women? Perhaps a return to homesteading would be best for some, and a case could be made for this on aesthetic as well as health grounds—a revival of craftsmanship and homegrown and hunted food. Maybe it’s hard for some to resist a smirk here, because homesteading as a “lifestyle choice” seems affected and “postmodern”—real homesteaders did it to survive, whereas this would have something of the Disney park to it. But if enough people turn to it, that would mean it is a question of survival, cultural and maybe physical, if the cities and suburbs become unlivable, or unaffordable for many. Maybe it will become the best way for those who are not rich to prevent obesity. Immigration can be essentially eliminated, and technological developments can be slowed down or even stopped or reversed for some purposes, in some areas—once we habituate ourselves to the sense that technology is a series of decisions, rather than an inexorable force, many things might be possible. There’s no reason to stand in a stupor and stare vacantly as millions of people are displaced by technology. Some as yet unanticipated technological and economic developments may take up some of the slack, but there’s no law saying how much.

But let’s return to Gans’s essay “On the One Medium,” which I discussed a couple of posts back, and which concludes as follows:

We may tentatively conclude that so far, at least, under the reign of the One Medium, if the periphery appears to be doing fine, the center seems to be increasingly less figurable, either as a god or as an artwork. This might be thought to signal the decline of the sacred, with as a result perhaps the impending end of humanity itself. But let us avoid apocalypse. A world where rocks and old furniture have taken the place of the works of the masters as the cultural “replacement” for traditional religion may just find that traditional religion does a better job. Certainly, as David P. Goldman (aka “Spengler”) likes to point out, religious people are greatly overrepresented among those who produce children beyond the replacement level, and who therefore guarantee their participation in future generations.


Religion too may be found on the Internet, and not only serving its more pernicious functions, such as the recruitment of jihadists. Do there exist the equivalent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in religious services? Or should we rather learn to look at the Internet itself at a given moment as a MOO religious service, where virtual human togetherness replaces the central godhead with the figure of global humanity itself, nameless and figureless, existing by right of its ubiquity alone?


No, I rather think not. But our massive dissolution in the crowd may have for effect our enhanced attraction to the Subject, real or constructed, that we experience in its center: the One God, I AM WHO I AM.


Why would our massive dissolution in the crowd enhance our attraction to the Subject at its center? Because this dissolution presupposes the emergence of a new center. Similarly, the invention and dissemination of alphabetic writing can be causally linked to the emergence of ancient Hebrew monotheism and Greek metaphysics: in abstracting the word from any voice, the word is “anonymized,” seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. This process is itself bound up with both imperial power and the resistance to it, with both the Greek city-states and the Jewish Commonwealth situated on the margins of, and threatened with assimilation to, the great empires of antiquity. Perhaps this too is a high-low vs the middle strategy, with God about as high as one can go, and the realization of justice on earth an open-ended project that can never be considered defeated once and for all. The development of writing from its origins as a bookkeeping device to the broader purposes of cultural transmission also follows the trajectory of the establishment of those empires, with alphabetic writing in particular—writing based on the analysis of speech down to the most elementary individual sounds—making available to the “low” (the general population, or much of it) a technology previously controlled exclusively by the specialized scribes of the empire, who monopolized the very intricate technique of hieroglyphic or syllabic writing.

The internet is not God, and we have become far more aware in recent months of the very direct control the quite visible and well-known masters of the supposedly ultra-liberal technologies exercise over their platforms. But if the invention of monotheism was an imagined high-low alliance, it certainly exceeded whatever political function it never actually performed anyway, at least not for the Jews. The revelation of the one God, I AM WHO (or THAT) I AM, is, we could say, an iteration of the originary scene: God gathers all his people together and speaks to them directly, providing moral dictates that render human sacrifices and God-Emperors irrelevant. Now, this has often been parlayed into various kinds of high-low alliances, rallying one “people” or another against those pretending to mediate between the people and the divine. That won’t stop, but no one can simply invent a new God either. We can counter the more earthly high-low alliance with the permanent one, though, insofar as the monotheistic iteration of the originary scene need mean nothing more than the general possibility of forming congregations around central objects, i.e., disciplines—even organized around rocks and old furniture, which have displaced the works of the masters precisely because the forms and terms of the congregation are more important than the pretext for it. The monotheistic God issued what Philip Rieff called the “absolute imperative,” and we can hear this imperative (to not usurp the center) renewed in the “one medium”: sacral kingship is replaced once and for all by the sovereign restoring the “middle” as the guarantor of the differentiated disciplinary social order for which the one medium is perfectly suited. One doesn’t need to be a believer in anything other than a center that will outlast any other center and will do so because we keep creating and obeying centers in the world that help pare down the sovereign center to its bare minimum while removing all obstructions to its operation.

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