GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 28, 2018

Money and Capital as Media and Power

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:06 am

Let’s begin with some of what we know about money from Richard Seaford’s Money and the Early Greek Mindand David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years: it doesn’t emerge out of barter, through a gradual selection of one particularly apt commodity to serve as a universally exchangeable object. Money is introduced by the state, or the ruler: according to Seaford, as a way of replacing a more archaic and egalitarian form of sacrifice, where all members of the community were present on the scene, to one in which sacrifice is organized by a warrior “Big Man” (although Seaford doesn’t use the term) who distributes the offering according to merit (as judged, of course, by the Big Man or chief); according to Graeber, in order to pay soldiers in wars of conquest where the soldiers are away from home and need to supply themselves where they are stationed—according to Graeber, this is also the origin of markets, which emerge in order to supply the soldiery. I would give Seaford’s account primacy, because he is further accounting for how the Greeks became the first fully monetized society, and he also shows how the Greeks systematically connected money to the instability of power relations. Of course, money could have been introduced both ways, and other ways, in differing times and places. What we could say at this point, though, is that money displaces the sacrificial scene, but without abolishing the center-margin configuration constitutive of that or any scene. Insofar as money is established and controlled by the ruler, and so is the market wherein money circulates, we could say that a sum of money represents access to a piece of the center, whatever that entails in a particular place and time. At the same time, we can see that money is certainly a significant factor in undermining sacral kingship, because it creates centers of power and competencies that a sacral king cannot control. Along with the circulation of money comes the circulation of power.

But Seaford and Graeber also show that money generates new ways of seeing and thinking, which is to say, it is a medium, every bit as much as writing or electronic communication—as has often been noted, money is a sign system. Seaford shows how the metaphysical binaries like ideal and material, mind and nature, universal and particular, individual and society, and others, are products of the form of money (he is of course dependent on the history of reflections on these matters within Marxist theory). Graeber, meanwhile, shows how debt, which comes into being along with money and markets, and is in fact central to their creation, generates entire theologies regarding the relation between humans and the gods, or God. This is a good time to point out that, as linguistic beings, we are always within some medium, so it’s not as if the media distort some natural, non-mediated perspective—in fact, one could say that the very notion of a natural, non-mediated perspective is a product of money, which creates the possibility of thinking about an individual directly confronted with “nature.” Within, or perhaps “tilted” towards one medium we can see and say something about our relation to others. Power, of course, would be another medium, with the central power a sign of the center. Money, we could say, clouds our view of the medium of power, because it represents power as something to be bought and sold and as a way of utilizing others and oneself for some immediate advantage. Power, meanwhile, interferes with the way money would “like” to “present itself”: rather than a representation of the intrinsic properties of its possessor, through the medium of power we can see money as commanding a certain “portion” of the center (and hence as reducing the center to “portions”).

Capital, at the very least is something that makes it possible to produce other things. But while it may be possible to project the concept back to early ages (the native’s spear is capital, etc.) the concept really has its meaning in a social order in which the “economy” has been removed from ritual and political control and is therefore governed by the power of money. Capital is most fundamentally mobile and therefore expressed through money—the most advanced technology is useless without the power of money to command labor, knowledge, resources, supply chains and end consumers. Within capital as a medium, all human activity is homogeneous and exchangeable, while any particular activity presents itself as subject to never-ending growth. I would say that if money represents power over a piece of the center, capital represents power over the disciplines. Once capital acquired the capacity to outlast labor in any class battle, it also acquired a power independent of either state established discipline or traditional social orders—indeed, the prerogatives of all such became impediments to this new power. And once capital acquired the power to remove itself from one community and move to another, and then from one country to another, it acquired powers that didn’t quite eliminate those of states but certainly penetrated deeply into state power. As theorists like Baudrillard (and many others) pointed out, everything must prove itself before capital, everything must show its usefulness and exchangeability. The sense of one’s own body as a set of parts that might be replaced, repaired, sold, or junked, which is implicit both in much “end of life” discussions and AI fantasies, come very easily within the medium of capital.

Capital is so all-embracing and all penetrating that it’s hard to imagine what it would mean to think outside of, or beyond it. For Marx, this is what the proletariat was for. The Italian Marxism pioneered by Antonio Negri, which has branched out and continues strongly in Europe, at least, also informed the anti-globalization and “Occupy” movements (look through a book list of Autonomedia or Semiotext[e]), transfers this revolutionary power to “social labor” exercised by an increasingly highly trained and intellectual working class. This collectivized, global social labor overcomes all attempts to confine itself with capital’s boundaries or those of the state—some future anarchistic order is more or less explicitly prophesied here, with “self-management” as the highest value. More important to me here than the political prospects here is the mediumistic claim, i.e., the claim to be able to see through capital and not fall prey to its machinations. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” here trains its vision on the way everything presented as a “value” by the capitalist order is in fact astratagem for disciplining, confining, controlling social labor. As Deleuze pointed out in his “Society of Control,” all this has also been autonomized, an argument that the algorithms of Google, Facebook and Twitter make very visible. There has been much news lately about how these companies have been manipulating these algorithms to suppress right wing perspectives; while obviously true, from the “autonomista” approach, this is beside the point and not really necessary. Once these companies overcome this momentary panic, the argument will go, they will see that letting the algorithms work on their own will provide all the social control necessary for capital.

The problem for the autonomistas is that without the arbitrary assumption of some inherently free laboring subject, it would be hard for them to say what, exactly, is wrong with the algorithmic order. Not that it’s so much easier for anyone else, once all naturalistic conceptions of freedom are set aside. A good ruler would want as much information as possible about his people; he would want such information gathered, compiled and analyzed by competent and trustworthy sources; and he would want such information to be put to use to anticipate future possibilities and pre-empt potential problems. Why wouldn’t he want this, and why wouldn’t his subjects want this, other, again, than in the name of some fetishized notion of freedom? The algorithm is the best way of doing this right now. But rather than some temporary, subjectivizing distortion of the algorithmic medium, the jiggering of algorithms by the big tech companies demonstrates that the setting of the algorithms is never automatic or neutral. That good ruler would have to determine, or have determined, what counts as “information.” Within the algorithmic medium each individual is thinking about how one action or even thought serves as an indicator of the relative probabilities of other actions and thoughts. The main source of income for the social media corporations is advertising, and what advertisers want is knowledge of how likely someone interested in one thing is to buy another thing—a detailed profile of consumer habits is immensely valuable. So, that’s going to be one vector of algorithmism. The question for the algorithms constructed by the social media companies, though, is a bit different—they want to keep you within their system, and the way to do that is to make the system consistent on the terms on which you enter it. Even when we’re obsessed with buying things, we don’t really see ourselves as “consumers”—rather, we see ourselves as interested in certain things—sports, and specific kinds of sports, specific discussions about sports; books and intellectual “ideas” and “topics,” and specific discussions within these spheres; family, friends, members of our social group; and so on. The social media company wants to help us find our way from something we are interested in to something we might be interested in, and out of that network can be carved various consumer profiles useful to other companies.

So, the algorithmic is the way this “stage” of capital leverages the disciplines for its own purposes. But, to use another Marxist term (it’s not my fault if no one has given capital as a whole way of life, a medium, as much thought as the Marxists), capital must grant the disciplines some “relative autonomy” in doing so. It must allow us to pursue our interests if only in order to capitalize on those interests; within the more paranoiac streams of “oppositional” thought we could imagine that capital has “always already” channeled those interests in ways guaranteed to flow back to capital in full, but how could capital know how to do that without granting its knowers some leeway in the first place. Someone must plug the variables in the algorithm. Now, liberalism can only accelerate capital’s “logic” by trying to access some level of freedom yet unpenetrated by capital. If the medium of capital can be interfered with, it will be through the power medium, first of all by pointing to capital as a power, or a network of powers, rather than an amorphous monster. Power is more of a retardant than an accelerant. Working to see every decision you make as commanded might seem terribly constraining and oppressive, but you’re the one working to see it that way, and it is at least more truthful than seeing everything you do as a result of your unconstrained will. Capital really does attempt the ultimate decentering, but it cannot accomplish it—if it were to “succeed,” it would produce catastrophe, requiring the re-establishment of order (if still possible) from the remains.

If I say something, I mean what I say, but what I say has a meaning beyond what I myself mean. The modern subject, or subject of capital wants to control the meaning of what he says by making it correspond to what he means. We still see this all the time—as soon as something one says gets out of that person’s control there is a furious reaction, whether it be denouncing those who “distorted” what he “really” said (taking it “out of context”) or apologizing, reframing, “walking back,” etc., so that what I mean can be revised to conform to what I turned out to have meant. It’s incredibly hard to let go of one’s meaning, because that is all that protects one from complete subsumption in the machinery of capital. But the very idea of a meaning fully intended by the speaker or writer is itself a product of money and capital—it is within their media (one is thinking in terms of copyright). Self-control, or discipline, is central, but desperate attempts to claim one’s own meaning subvert it. The distinction between what David Olson calls “speaker’s meaning,” on the one hand, and “sentence’s meaning,” on the other (drawing upon Frege’s distinction between “meaning” and “sense”), can be played out otherwise. My “own” meaning is in fact the probabilistic range of all the meanings my sentences, my discourse, might have in one “context” or medium after another, with some of the contexts and media registering meanings constructed in previous contexts and media, and so on; and, it iterates previous sentences and discourses (said by others as well as myself), with theirentire “range.” What “I” want is not so much others to hear from me as for all of us to hear from the center. We could imagine an “average” of all the possible meanings of what one has said, but we can also imagine a centering of them: if we’re all focused on the “same” meaning, then that meaning has been detached from any of us and we’re trying to figure out what the center is saying through us; we are obeying the imperative to derive further meaning from the center. We keep showing differences between speaker meaning and sentence meaning, between the speaker meaning and the sentence meaning of the one who shows the difference, and so on. The center speaks through these differences: the more what any “I” says generates a range of meaning different than that “I”’s, the more what that “I” says is the discourse of the center. The disciplinary space that can singularize any speaker’s meaning while treating it as product of all the ways it has been taken up is the discipline training itself to listen to the center. The discipline of the discourse of the center sustains a medium irreducible to capital, and it is within this medium that the power medium can be seen as distinguished from capital as well.

August 21, 2018

Fraud and Force

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:24 pm

We can consider the emergence of the Big Man out of the primitive egalitarian community as the beginning of civilization. With civilization comes the placing of some individual at the center of the community, as the source of power (this could just as easily be described as some individual appropriating the center). A new moral order is thereby initiated. With the central object, prey animal, ancestor/icon at the center, the overriding moral principle is precisely preventing anyone from seizing the center—the ritual means of distributing food, mates and other goods follows from that imperative. Once a human occupies the center, that human can be held responsible for everything attributed to the center, which is everything required for the well-being of the community. Sacrificial morality involves adhering to the rules surrounding the worship and eventual sacrifice of the central figure. These rules are already a deferral of the immediate killing of the central figure as soon as some failure in his mediation of the cosmos for his people is revealed. The most moral one can be in the sacrificial community is to increase this space of deferral, by attributing as much of the responsibility as possible to the ruler for actions one might imagine he could actually have carried out otherwise, or left undone. But under sacrificial conditions there is no way of consistently isolating which actions might fall into this category.

Post-sacrificial civilization (accomplished via the Judaic, Biblical, and Christian revelations in the West and otherwise—via Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc., elsewhere) is the ongoing effort to bring that category into focus. Once the individual occupying the center can be blamed for anything that goes wrong (because everything, good or bad, comes from the center), then any individual, occupying any central position, can also be blamed equally indiscriminately. And the erection of one center leads to the proliferation of other, orbiting centers, so the resistance to potentially unlimited scapegoating becomes the moral problem. How is such resistance possible, and how could the “immunity” in question be built up? There are two ways, which are not mutually exclusive and can even support each other, but one of which will nevertheless be dominant in a given case. The first way is the insight gathered by rulers that perpetual scapegoating, as well as its more organized form in the vendetta, is socially destructive and a threat to the sovereign itself, and must be suppressed. Part of the suppression involves the inculcation of self-control, which means refraining from acting upon your resentment in other than social approved of ways, and also means constructing the means of social approval, i.e., some kind of justice system, that will ensure such restraint has the desired effect. Here we get, I assume, the Confucian (for example) model of the wise man, who respects authority, doesn’t act upon impulse, pursues moderation, places the family and tradition first, and so on. Such a man will defer to the authorities and not act out vengefully. But there is some question as to whether such resistance to scapegoating is more than just “pragmatic,” with the resentment being enacted in some ritual or aesthetic manner.

The other way, which is more transformative but also leads to more vulnerabilities, is modeled by what Gans, following Girard fairly closely here, calls the “Christian revelation.” The Christian revelation confronts each one of us with the bad faith implicit in our impulse to scapegoat, to pile unlimited responsibility on some other placed at the center. Jesus proclaims a universal moral reciprocity, retrieving the symmetry of the originary scene, but this time in a way that forces constant confrontation with sacrificial institutions, even the more deferred, mediated and “symbolic” sacrificial culture of Rabbinic Judaism from which Jesus emerged, and from which he adopted and adapted the call for reciprocity. The center demands, first of all, refraining from violence, including revenge, against your neighbor; but sacrificial religions and polities displace this violence by establishing the proper form and rationale of sacrificial violence, and they can’t tolerate the exposure of the emptiness of those rationales. It is for this reason that Jesus is sacrificed, i.e., in the name of preserving sacrificial violence and the institutions and resentments predicated upon it. Since Jesus has done nothing wrong, and in a sense nothing at all other than expose these institutions and resentments, our universal complicity in his murder reveals our own implication in sacrificial violence. Any time we find ourselves starting to put someone at the center, then, a move which always implies the possibility of a violent outcome, we are to question our sacrificial investments in doing so. Since we must put individuals in the center, we must continually disinvest our resentments in the process, and reduce centrality to the barest necessity; the construction of institutions and culture is all directed towards identifying, tagging, studying those sacrificial investments and building regulated forms of interaction that systematize this moral imperative. This moral form is more transformative, because it is reflected back to us in all our engagements with the other, and not just in our acknowledgement of authority; it is more vulnerable because, while not incompatible with authority, the particular form that our restraint before our tendency to centralize, violently, the other, takes can never be set once and for all. We can always identify yet a further, previously unnoticed, incitement to sacrificial resentment and, even more important, can always find grounds for condemning authorities for not protecting the victims of that resentment.

All of this is really by way of review. The further analytical step I want to take here is to explore a substantive ethical account to supplement these post-sacrificial moral forms. Morality involves the “thou shall nots,” open-ended imperatives, what Gans in The Origin of Languagecalls the “operator of interdiction.” Ethics concerns self-shaping, bringing one’s actions, and therefore one’s intellectual and emotional prompts to action, into a hierarchical order directed towards a center. No sustainable ethics can be immoral, but morality can’t dictate the content of ethics. There are a lot of different ways, corresponding to different historical situations and individual capacities, of restraining one’s sacrificial resentments. For some people basic self-control, the reminder that they will be “bad people” if they commit certain transgressions, may be enough. For others, the imperative to refrain from sacrifice includes nothing less than world-building. It is also the case that ethical failures, the confirmed sense that one has fallen short of the model one has generated or adopted for oneself, that is, the inescapable feeling of being a fraud, is a prominent, I am even tempted to say the only, source of lapses into immorality.

In a ritualistic culture, one cannot be a fraud—one fulfills or violates what is required. Before we can speak of fraud, we have to have disciplines. Someone purporting to be a doctor, lawyer, banker, investor, soldier, teacher, etc., can be a fraud. All these professions are products of literacy (even soldiers who can’t read and write are part of a literate culture, which makes their discipline and method possible). The authenticity of one’s professionalism, or participation in a discipline, then, depends upon one’s relation to the metalinguistics of literacy. To review: writing, presenting itself as reported speech, supplements the elements of the speech act that are lexically inaccessible (tone, body language, etc.). The proliferation of metalinguistic terms supplementing primes like “think,” “say,” “see,” “feel,” “know,” “want,” and “do” follows. And then the nominalization of those supplementing terms. The imperative of the written text, codified in “classic prose,” is to “saturate” the speech scene, to place the reader there with the writer in his imagination. This imperative to saturate the scene is the source of the easily ridiculed and despised “jargon” so prevalent in the disciplines—the psychologist can’t simply say his patient “thinks” and “feels” certain things—those feelings and thoughts need to be made more precise (their scenic preconditions made explicit) and they need to be given a location (e.g., in the “unconscious”).

The question for the disciplines, then, is what particular thoughts, feelings, etc. (even to nominalize “think” and “feel” is to situate us within a discipline) mean. To say what something means is to refer it to something else, which is to make it less than “prime” and auto-intelligible. Wierzbicka doesn’t find “mean” or “meaning” among the primes; Olson does, interestingly, locate it in the pre-literate English vocabulary he compiles, along with a list of post-literacy equivalents and supplements, in his The World on Paper. “Mean” is a borderline word/concept, then (the Online Etymological Dictionary seems to give it virtually “prime” status, as it doesn’t present It as emerging from a metaphorical transformation of another word). Olson himself may provide the explanation for this in The Mind on Paper, when he points out that literacy introduces the distinction between “speaker’s meaning” and “sentence’s meaning,” which itself rooted in an older distinction between “say” and “mean.” Once language, through writing, becomes an object of inquiry, words, sentences and the grammatical rules that get us from one to the other are objectified and standardized, which means that we can judge what an individual speaker says against those standards. So, “meaning,” which first marks the observation that something is concealed by the speaker comes to refer to what is concealed from the speaker in his own speaking. There’s no reason both senses of the word couldn’t be represented by different words, so “mean” might be more “elemental” in some languages than others. “Mean” as metalinguistic concept refers to the always existing discrepancy between speaker’s meaning and sentence’s meaning—there is always something in the words and sentences we utter that is irreducible to whatever we thought we were doing with them.

The imperative to saturate the scene constitutive of classic prose, then, is also an imperative to abolish the distance between speaker’s meaning and sentence’s meaning. Think about how much effort is put into avoiding misunderstandings, fending off misinterpretations, attacking “distortions” and “de-contextualizations” of one’s words. All this is an attempt to fold sentence meaning back into speaker meaning. This is the central ethical problem, because all sustainable self-shaping depends upon accepting and living within that distance: what you are for yourself can never be quite what you are to others, and we all need to find ways to have our representations of ourselves to ourselves be complementary to all the representations we “give off” to others. To refuse to accept that, whether by completely identifying oneself with the successive representations we give off, or (far more commonly) by trying to control one’s self-representations so as to rule out meanings other than one’s own, is to be a fraud. On the one hand, one is a Don Juan or con man; on the other hand, one is a bureaucrat of the self, or hypocrite. Either way, one is likely to assuage the sense of shame by assuming everyone else falls into the same category, in which case suspending all moral obligations to others is the sensible course. Violent resentment and projecting accusation is directed towards whoever re-opens the difference within meaning.

A sustainable ethics would have to place speaker’s meaning in the midst of the multitude of actual and possible sentence meanings. We have a definition of “competence” and “virtue” (and perhaps “phronesis”) here—neither competence nor virtue is about who you “really” are, or about what you can induce others to believe about you. Both involve a kind of constant interplay in which one keeps refining one’s meaning by soliciting feedback from the ramifications of the meanings of one’s sentences. The first thing one is inclined to do upon being called, implicitly or explicitly, a fraud, at least if one suspects some truth the accusation is to lash out at, centralize the accuser, and prep him for a symbolic lynch mob. Here is where the ethical problem slides into the moral one. In order to violently centralize the other you will have to “saturate” yourself—the other is “that” because you are “this.” Building and shaping oneself while and by refraining from such violence involves creating spaces that bring other speakers’ meaning into proximity with your sentence’s meaning. As others repeat, in different contexts, for differing purposes, your sentences (and you can of course join in as well), they keep exposing the distance between the two meanings, for themselves as well as for you. With this in mind, you would already write and therefore think differently, more hypothetically—if writing is always implicitly a record of speech (even speech one has with oneself), it makes more sense to explore the various settings in which that speech could have been uttered than to try to reproduce a full, present speech situation that is by definition absent. In that case, the distance is addressed from the beginning, not “patched up” afterwards. That distance, and the imperative to make it oscillatory and therefore a disciplinary space of inquiry, resisting the imperative to shut it down and resolve the discrepancy antagonistically, is the articulation of the moral and the ethical.

August 14, 2018


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:09 am

Like other formerly arcane theories that have now become part of everyday political discourse (e.g., the multiplicity of gender, the pervasiveness of implicit racism), “narratology” had a long incubation period in the academy. In this case, the “breakout” is a good thing, and the current “framing” of political rhetoric in terms of “narrative” has more promise than cruder concepts like “ideology,” “propaganda,” “manufacturing consensus,” and so on. The assertion that some event has to “fit the narrative” to be made visible recognizes both that all events are framed narratively and that narratives have “laws,” or at least constraints, governing them. There is still some room for improvement here, as the concept of “narrative” tends to be used fairly loosely—for example, “Republicans are racists” is not a narrative. It is, though, a character description, and character descriptions imply a range of narrative options. You can then go on to shape events in such a way that, at the end of the narrative, the “moral” will be that “Republicans are racist.” But there are more and less effective ways of doing this and there are more and less effective ways of constructing counter-narratives and infiltrating the dominant narrative with the counter ones.

Narratives, by definition, have beginnings, middles and ends. They have characters, or agents—usually in some hierarchy of importance (main character, supporting character, etc.). They have events: things happen. The things that happen propel the narrative forward. Narratives are generally set in motion by some problem, or conflict, and what keeps the narrative going are the attempts to solve the problem or resolve the conflict. The end of a narrative generally involves a solution or resolution; ongoing narratives sustained by the media posit, explicitly or implicitly, some resolution to which events are tending. If you want the narrative to sustain interest you introduce counter-agents who prevent the main agent from solving the problem—the closer the main agent comes to solving the problem, without quite doing so until the end, which is to say the more evenly matched the antagonists, the more compelling the narrative. Simplistic narratives are set up in terms of a good vs. evil conflict: we root for the good guy against a powerful bad guy—to keep things interesting, the bad guy has an advantage precisely because he is bad and is willing to do things the good guy won’t. The interest in such a narrative is in the revelation of the resources of goodness—being good must, in the end, provide some advantage that makes a successful resolution possible. Meanwhile, more complex narratives make the evaluation of the antagonists subtler and ambiguous—the good guy carries out actions that make him not so unequivocally good, while we are shown things about the bad guy that qualify our condemnation. Good and evil might switch sides, or the distinction be completely blurred.

This is all simple and obvious enough but it’s simple and obvious enough because narrative is the primary way of exploring and representing mimetic desire. Whatever kinds of “communication” can be attributed to animals, what is certain is that they don’t tell each other stories. Hitchcock’s dismissive reference to the goal sought by the protagonist as the “MacGuffin” is correct, because the object is less important than the structure of rivalry itself. I think everyone has had the experience of choosing a side, in politics or any other form of competition, for what seems like a good, justifiable, limited, reason, and then finding that the act of choosing sides and engaging in the competition itself generated goals that seem urgent but would not have even seemed important without that initial act of taking sides. A narrative “hooks” us by getting us to take sides, to see the agent’s actions and goals as our own. But, looked at this way, narratives generate delusions by inflaming and providing new pretexts for our mimetic desires and resentments. We can easily see how this is the case with political narratives, where people can find themselves convinced that the future of the republic depends on whether some tax bill passes, or an executive order is overturned.

If we don’t want to just get jerked around, then, that is, become bit players in someone else’s narrative (someone much richer, more powerful and in the know than us), we need to be able to resist the narrative structures imposed on us. Hopefully, no one who has read a few of my posts will be surprised when I reject what might seem the obvious solution: don’t think narratively; think “logically,” or “analytically” instead. There are, indeed, on some authoritative accounts, these two kinds of thinking: narrative vs. abstract. So, if I’m thinking abstractly and probabilistically, I can see that this tax bill or executive action will have specific effects, some of which I can anticipate within a certain range of predictability, others within a wider range, others not at all—on fact, it will probably have all kinds of effects I can’t even imagine. And they may be very small and irrelevant ones. This is all fine, but when we think abstractly we’re not really doing anything more than widening the narrative field upon which we work. The one who takes the apocalyptic view of the tax bill does so because he sees the possibility of some evil agent (“the rich” or “the bureaucracy”) being dealt a fatal blow (or sees the “little guy” or “private initiative” as the one being dealt that blow). The more abstract approach just means we get more discerning about whom we designate agents—there are lots of different rich people, and some of them might be dealt blows while others might find new opportunities to get richer as a result of the bill; indeed, if we back up and take a wider view of the protagonists in our narrative, perhaps some of those initiating the bill are quite rich. When we think abstractly, the one big narrative is broken down into lots of little narratives, all of them interfering with the others—in narrative terms, a main character in one narrative is a sidekick in another, the good character in one narrative is evil in another, there are narratives within narratives, and so on. (Even if we try to work with “pure data,” how do we determine what we are to gather data on, if not the figures in some narrative we are constructing?)

All of which means that the way to resist narrative, or disable the delusional investments in narrative that help make one a dispensable extra (like those guys who get vaporized in the first scene of the old Star Trek show), is not to try and get out of the narrative but to have other ways of getting into it. (Indeed, trying to get out of it immediately generates a narrative logic of its own—trying to escape the clutches of the evil dominant ideology, etc.) As I’ve been doing in recent posts, I’m, to some extent, giving a more abstract formulation to what lots of people are already doing. So, for example, the writers on the Power Lineblog have a kind of running gag where they point out references in the Minnesota media to “Minnesota men” who commit some kind of crime or are arrested for some terrorist plot. Invariably, the “Minnesota man” is a Somali Muslim immigrant, who, indeed, most likely has a Minnesota address, driver’s license, etc.—but that’s not what the headline means to suggest. Similarly, the website VDAREplays a similar kind of “find the hidden immigrant” game in media references to criminal activities. What they are doing is interfering with the narrative by looking a little more carefully at how the main character is constructed. The mainstream media outlets want to control who gets to be the good guys and the bad guys by proxy. The point of having a more general formulation of these practices is, of course, to make them more readily replicable.

Self-referential narrative strategies have been more widely exploited in modernist and postmodernist literature than previously, but such strategies go way back (e.g., the 18thcentury British novel Tristram Shandy), probably back to the beginnings of narrative itself, because it exploits such an obvious feature of narrative—the fact that telling a story, and, even more, creating a story, takes on a narrative structure itself. Such metafictional strategies provide what is probably the most comprehensive way of engaging politics narratively within simply accepting the terms of another’s narrative. Again, part of what I’m doing here is bringing more abstract theory to bear on what has become a fairly common memeing strategy. To point out that reporter X is referring to the criminal as, say, a “Texan” rather than a “Mexican” in order to manipulate the reader is to compose a meta-narrative in which the reporter is playing a part. It’s better to have your enemy in your narrative than them having you in theirs. And once they are in your narrative, all kinds of narrative and “generic” possibilities open up: you can provide a hypothetical “back story” to the “moves” you show X to be making. You can suggest possible satiric outcomes, point to various dead ends this storyline “typically” leads to, “intercut” other popular narratives and narrative clichés, and so on. You can get more abstract and stretch out further narrative lines in the past and projected into the future—X is really a “puppet” in some larger historical narrative. And you are yourself now in the narrative, giving you a kind of pedagogical responsibility—you are showing your reader, here’s how you do this, and then you might try that, and you can invite your reader to join you in some new storylines as well. You may even start to think about ways to turn your narratives into edifying performance art, like Pax Dickinson’s spectacular trolling of reporter Amanda Robb. We could even say that the winning side, politically, is the one that keeps the other side in its narrative.

We all have, at some level of generality and provisionality, what we take to be an “end game” of our own practices—if pressed, each of us could say, more or less vaguely or hesitantly, “this is where I want things to end up.” Of course, the ending up would be the beginning of a new narrative. But the point here is that even if abstract thinking and meta-narrative interference tend to multiply the narrative lines we still have “grand narratives” we see working themselves out historically. So, what is the relation between the two narrative levels? It’s really a question of the relation between probability and reality—we can identify a series of possible paths from A to B and give each of them a probability—path 1=15%, path 2=30%, path 3=1% and so on. We do this regularly even without attaching numerical values—there’s a slight chance that this idea will get me fired but I feel really good about the possibility that it will get me a promotion, etc. One of the paths will become the real one, of course, and sometimes it is a very “unlikely” one—maybe the guy will get canned (of course, we might have been wrong about it being unlikely—but does the fact that it happened prove that it wasn’t, in fact, unlikely?). (Point B could be the same end point—e.g., lots of different ways one side in the war will win—or a set endpoint we are trying to predict, like what will US demographics look like in 2040?) All the micro-narratives we generate by acting meta-narratively are the “paths,” and enacting the various paths as richly as possible, while also allowing the narrative materials to crystallize into highly unlikely paths, ones you couldn’t have imagined without opening things up meta-narratively—that’s the way we surface, test and refine the “grand” or “master” narrative that we always have going, that is always guiding us, even if tacitly, in the way it points us toward designating certain agents, noticing certain actions, being alert to certain conflicts, etc.

Narrative does have its limit, even if that limit isn’t abstract thinking. That limit is the present. Everything that has happened in the past is past because it has led up to now, where its meaning is revealed to us in a certain way; everything that is going to happen in the future will happen in now’s future, and every future we project narratively is a construct of the narrator’s relation to everyone else now. We see, or imagine we see, things finishing up, things gaining momentum, things slowing down, things starting to emerge, right now. We can see this vast, sprawling tableau of the present insofar as we carry out acts of deferral, stepping outside of whatever narrative commands us to take a role right now. The beginning of one narrative is the middle of another and the end of yet another—in situating ourselves at that point we exempt ourselves, presently at least, from all of them. It’s like removing yourself from the force of a vortex by placing yourself at its center. Such presenting eventually gives way to resistance to the most malignant narrative one is able to resist, the one with the too-convenient bad guy, the too-predictable plot, the too-heroic good guy, the too-satisfying payoff, etc. Then you can work on constructing narratives that include the narrative of you placing your finger on the scales, which can itself be converted into you constructing and enacting the narrative of the center, which is the narrative of the ongoing exposure of all resentments that interfere with the order issuing from the center.

August 8, 2018

A few thoughts on reciprocity

Filed under: GA — Q @ 8:30 am

One of GA’s important insights is that a conversation, as an exchange of words, is analogous to other forms of exchange including market transactions. And that such exchanges function to defer violence when they include a degree of reciprocity. What makes an exchange “reciprocal”? In a conversation, that means that I am willing to hear what others say (seriously hear, take into consideration in my responses) in exchange for the same from them. In an economic transaction, that means that the transaction is accepted by both parties as mutually beneficial. In general, we can say that an exchange is reciprocal when it is freely entered into (and it can be exited at any time), and it is perceived as “fair,” or mutually beneficial. To some extent, such exchange is its own goal. But in the public sphere, say the letters section of a newspaper, people exchange words for a definite purpose, which is to convince others of one’s point of view.

In the classroom, the student exchanges money, time, and attention for specific goals: knowledge and skills which may be valuable in various ways. The teacher provides students the opportunity to learn knowledge and skills. The benefit may be economic or not. Knowledge and skills can be intrinsically valuable apart from their economic exchange value.

The ideal of “student-centered learning” is valid, in my view, because student engagement is the sine quo non of learning. As the saying goes, I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. As Socrates demonstrated long ago, dialogue is productive of knowledge. Socrates’s “teaching” was based on his desire to learn. He asked his interlocuters to teach him. His teaching was open to learning. Socrates can be said to have invented the idea of student-centered learning. Some professors take the Socratic ideal to mean that knowledge is “constructed” and lacks any objectivity, but I’m not in that camp; although I agree that ultimately everything is up for debate, if the interlocuters make that choice. We can make more progress, however, by agreeing on some basic premises, just as Socrates established agreement on basic facts or claims, then moved on to further questions and logical consequences.

GA also tells us that all human interactions are subject to resentment, and this includes classroom interactions. People tend to generalize about their experiences with authority figures, so that resentment for teachers may reflect their experience with prior authority figures more that any particular teacher. Teachers need to remember this sometimes.

Open-ended learning is one goal of education, but there are also knowledge and skills which have been refined and tested over thousands of years, the value of which find wide acceptance in a variety of spheres, including economic. Students pay for time with a teacher because of his/her expertise in accepted knowledge and skills.

The point I want to make here is that reciprocity is relative to the goal of a particular exchange. Reciprocity in the classroom is not achieved by accepting the student’s opinions as equal to the professor’s knowledge. Reciprocity is achieved when the exchange (of student’s time, money, and attention for the learning opportunities provided by a teacher) is entered into freely and perceived as fair.

The goal of education, for students, is learning, in the form of knowledge and skills. The problem arises when the goals are not well-defined. In schools, there are a multitude of pressures for lowering the standards of knowledge. Acquiring knowledge and skills is extremely difficult, and not every student is willing to make the sacrifice. The value of the targeted knowledge and skills is not accepted by many students and, now, professors too. This situation leads to a lot of resentment and the perception of unfairness. The problem, in my view, comes down to assessing the students’ knowledge and skills. And we can’t do this without some kind of standard. Learning goals in education are generally defined very vaguely. Students often perceive the assessment of their learning as completely subjective: “the professor didn’t like my paper.” As if the grade was given on purely subjective grounds. For now, this is an insoluble problem, because professors can’t agree on what specific knowledge and skills are necessary and valuable, or what the standards should be; students, of course, follow suit. There are larger social and economic pressures which foster this situation. However, having clearly defined and transparent goals for a particular class, and applying those standards impartially, will help defer resentment. Professors can do this now, despite the larger social situation. Professors, however, need the support of colleagues and administrators in order to maintain high standards. The general trend is towards the lowering of standards, for a variety of reasons.

August 7, 2018

Hypothetically Speaking

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:29 am

It’s interesting to see people get offended and angry in online discussions—they curse each other, threaten each other, try to demean and humiliate each other. In other words, they act according to codes of an honor society in a medium that renders those codes completely irrelevant. That irrelevance has long been the case with print, as well, but online communication seems to revive the remnants of oral cultures because the exchanges take place in the present. The culture of meme-ing, meanwhile, makes it clear that online communication favors brief, memorable “detournements” of powerful images and clichés, frame-switching of opponents’ arguments, and casual taboo breaking. Such memes can travel nearly instantaneously, are immediately intelligible, and force responses that reveal something about the responder we might not have known otherwise.

This is to make the obvious point that meaning depends upon medium. But there are some less obvious consequences to this observation. Relying upon David Olson’s analysis of the metalanguage of literacy and classic prose, I’ve proposed that we can see writing, in relation to speech, in mimetic terms, as seeking to “saturate” the assumed speech situation represented in writing. In an oral situation, constituted by physical presence, you can shake your fist at your interlocutor—undoubtedly that once has a real meaning, showing that one was refraining from violence for the moment, but was making no guarantees should things escalate. It’s hard to imagine someone doing that now, even in the most heated argument. This doesn’t mean that the written text needs the equivalent of shaking one’s hand in anger—the fact of widespread literacy transforms social order, or entails a transformed social order, such that a certain distance from violence can be assumed, rather than having the line at which we pass into violence represented regularly. This is the first problem with classical prose, then—it simulates a speech situation—the reader and writer as interlocutors made present on a shared scene by the writer’s prose—that is really an ersatz one.

Marshall McLuhan was at least partially right to say that the content of a new medium is the older medium it is replacing or supplementing. Certainly, radio tries to reproduce the intimacy of a one on one conversation, and, for a long time, TV shows were basically filmed theatrical productions and extended vaudeville skits. And they try to saturate the space they purport to merely reproduce: in radio it might be the cultivation of (not necessarily “authentic”) regional idiosyncrasies, or an avuncular, reassuring vocal presence; in the TV shows of the 50s and 60s, a kind of artificial national idiom was created, probably based on some variant of Midwestern speech. Not surprisingly, these are the features of older samples of these media that both evoke nostalgia and are easiest to parody (which makes them a great source of memes). If we are committed to submitting all of the concepts and categories presented to us by the liberal order to painstaking, unrestrained interrogation, we should accept the modernist aesthetic dictum that the capabilities and possibilities of the media as media should be explored, rather than thinking in terms of representing the same content in one form or another. The concept of a “disciplinary space” is meant to help us do that—if there is a universal across all media, it is not content or ideas, but that any medium is a distinctive way of organizing attention.

The problem with classical prose, and, more generally, the imperative to saturate the scene of one media with terms and tropes from another is that a lot of material that hasn’t been properly “inspected” finds its way into your representations. It’s easiest to reach for the familiar in filling in the gaps left in trying out new media. One of the most revelatory effects of Goggle’s Ngram reader is the realization that concepts, words, that seem so natural as to be permanent features of the social landscape are quite recent creations and, in fact, deliberately created artifacts of the propaganda needs of World War II and then the Cold War. “Liberal democracy,” “Judeo-Christian,” “separation of Church and state,” “free market,” “nation of immigrants,” “racism,” and much more—none of them pre-date, in any significant way, World War II. The problem (well, one problem) with contemporary conservatives is that they’re still fighting the wars against the Nazis and the Soviets, like the proverbial Japanese solider lost on a Pacific island and never hearing about his country’s defeat. These terms are in turn embedded in larger networks of terms, which are in turn rooted in the disciplines upon which we rely in order to say pretty much anything. (The “separation of Church and state” becomes a serious topic in political science.) All of our thinking apparatuses need to be thoroughly overhauled.

These concepts, which weigh down our thinking in ways that require continuous effort to notice, are in turn only the visible feature of habits, gestures, reactions and reflexes and that just as grounded in media, histories, and power struggles as the concepts themselves. Part of the purpose of the “originary grammar” I keep returning to, that is, the attempt to reduce all discourse to some relation between ostensive, imperative and declarative signs, is to help us in stripping all discourse and all disciplines of everything “unvetted,” everything bearing liberal assumptions or implications, precisely in the most take for granted places. Part of contemporary reactionary thought, of course, is the return to “old books” and therefore old and discarded concepts, and nothing I say here counters that practice at all, since retrieving, for example, the distinction between warriors, craftsmen and priests in the ordering of communities serves the same corrosive effect upon liberal concepts. But, of course, maybe society can no longer or should no longer be ordered in that way—these older concepts also need to be tested against what I think is the one criterion all post-liberals and anti-liberals can share: a privileging of order over freedom, however defined. We want to make order where we see disorder, and I think order can only mean defense of a center. If in fact, no social order can now be reduced to warrior/craftsman/priest that by no means invalidates the concepts (in general, we can be in much less of a rush to invalidate concepts—why not keep them around in case they prove useful at some point?); rather it renders that trichotomy a source of hypotheses and thought experiments.

We could spend all of our time (I don’t say that we should) studying the discourses around us, including those of our fellow reactionaries, in search of concepts, words, phrases, even stylistic tics that have previously unnoticed tendrils reaching into the dense network of liberal power concepts. This would be time very well spent. It need not be antagonistic at all—quite to the contrary, it’s a kind of civil hygiene we would be performing for each other. Some of the most pioneering work done along these lines has been by the proprietor of the now defunct blog Reactionary Future, with its most important result to date being his Patron Theory of Politics. At least one of the future directions of such work will involve making thinking increasingly hypothetical. To question the meaning of a word or term is to treat it as a hypothesis: what follows from describing phenomena in these ways? The purpose of my concept of a “sovereign imaginary” is the same: when you say something is good or bad, right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, that we “should” or “must” do this or that, what form of central power would make possible the relation between what you say and what you take to be the “payoff” or “downstream” of what you say? Everything we say or do entails a hypothesis regarding the sovereign order making that saying or doing possible and intelligible.

In a sense, I am proposing a kind of freedom of thought, one already practiced by many on the new or dissident right (which makes it possible for me to reflect upon it). We’re not obliged, nor does it always serve our purposes, to “prove” that we have a better theory of “human nature” or “social structure,” or to provide, on demand, iron-clad “alternatives” to the seemingly carved in the stone of history liberal order. It’s not as if we shouldn’t do these things, if they seem useful—my point is that these are not rules we need play by. Liberalism thoroughly saturates today’s media-scape, and a lot of what we can do is facilitate liberalism’s own self-dialogues, its incessant, narcissistic babblings. It’s helpful to point out that the truth of the matter is almost always pretty much exactly the opposite of what the liberal says; indeed, what liberals say is almost invariably a way of avoiding some damaging truth. My own approach, which I of course hope others will find compelling, is to keep asking about origin, center, power, deferral and discipline, questions liberalism must avoid under penalty of brain death.

To think and speak hypothetically is to “de-saturate.” It’s very easy to think in terms of being a “man speaking to men,” thereby evoking a speech situation in which one anticipates responses, seeks “common ground,” appeals to approved attitudes, and so on—these are some of those deeply embedded reactions and reflexes I referred to before. Instead, why not think of one’s reader or listener as a vehicle conveying a kind of irresistible, minimal, model, whether by endorsement or opposition? I began by mentioning the absurdity of taking offense in online discussions, but it’s actually pretty absurd anywhere—if you’re not going to demand satisfaction in duel, what’s the point? Getting offended just gives others needless power over you—if they know what offends you, they know how to jerk you around. (I’m speaking here of people who actually take offense, not of the big business of taking offense for rent-seeking purposes—but, of course, the latter can only persist if the former is still practiced.) If we can learn these things through a new medium we can apply it to older ones, which in turn get situated within the “media ecology” in a new way.

I come back to that here because once we target, analytically, an archaic or useless attitude, the next step is to ask what might replace it. What would take the place of offending and being offended—an interesting thought experiment, I think. (One can say part of being human is being offended by violations of reciprocity—but we don’t know that. There are all kinds of ways of detecting, assessing and responding to violations of norms. Referring to what we must be “as humans” is one of the last resorts of scoundrels.) To be offended is to take the meaning of a remark to be some present or possible future lowering of status, it is to see oneself singled out as a more likely center of resentment and therefore target of violence. The first question, then, is whether the remark indeed portends some deleterious centering of the offended: what hypothesis regarding possible targeting is one entertaining? To pose the question is already to make it possible to defer any such danger. If you can’t really point to any danger, maybe you’re the one who is looking to attack pre-emptively. In what way might the offensive remark be fair or just? (What is the scenic meaning of “fairness” and “justice”—what sovereign imaginary comes with each concept?) If there is some way, then we are looking into the sovereign imaginary shared by offender and offended; if there is absolutely no way, if the remark must be deemed sheer, utter, vitriol, then taking offense is particularly ridiculous—the other is admitting his impotence, since he clearly wants to commit violence but realizes he can’t. Instead of taking offense and devising some “proportional” response, the situation can be used to create memes regarding the paradoxes of simultaneously denying and establishing hierarchies and paradoxes. Using situations to promote such hypothetical thinking will, eventually, lead us to the theories of the human and the social, and the “concrete alternatives” that we will need.

Now, of course, there are times when it is good policy to affect taking offense, to demand apologies, insist on reparations, etc., in whatever form a particular medium provides for. But to think in such terms is to already “de-saturate,” to distance oneself from an imagined speech situation, and to try and figure out how to generate a simulacrum. This is part of the study of meaning: how does the other’s words and actions, within a given power structure, on the margins of a particular center, commit that other in ways that make it possible to help him reveal himself? To approach meaning in this more disciplinary way is to ask what imperatives someone’s words and actions issue to him, which it turn makes it possible to try out ways of amplifying the imperative.


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