GABlog

October 30, 2018

The Rhetoric of Mastery: An Inquiry into Silence and Irony

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:35 am

Ian Dennis, in his GA-informed book, Lord Byron and the History of Desire, concludes by countering an assertion from George Soros that we can have a market economy but not a market society. Dennis contends, that, no, it’s market all the way down. He is working within the very expansive notion of the “market” I have also explored in recent posts, in which any presentation of any possibility to any set of competing desires can be termed a “market.” It is a position that overlaps considerably with von Mises praxeology, and is deeply rooted in the history of GA—as reflected, for example, in Eric Gans’s analysis of the liberal democratic political system as a kind of political market “superstructured” over the economic market, serving to express (and hopefully defuse) the very resentments generated by that economic market. (The question of whether we would not then need a third market, to “absorb” the “surplus” resentments generated by the political market is not at all a frivolous one.)

Thought experiments to test the limits of a particular concept are useful: in this case, the experiment would be whether there is any human activity that we could consider market-resistant or immune, again, in this broader sense of the market. (So, for example, seemingly easy answers like “love,” let’s say parental love, are not so easy—once children have “access” to a range of other affections, from friends, teachers, fellow boy and girl scouts, not to mention celebrities, etc., are not parents put on the “affection market” with all of these? Don’t we often speak of parents “competing” for their children’s affection, often by entering other markets so as to buy them objects of desire?) In other words, we have to work on a definitional or axiomatic, rather than empirical, level, here. Is there any human practice that can be situated outside of the desire for desire?

If we follow Dennis’s argument, the parallel question within discourse would be, is there anything, any imaginable individual or action, that is not vulnerable to irony? Dennis’s book is an extremely illuminating study of Byron’s poetry, starting with his early “heroic,” proto-nietzschean poses early in his career. Following Gans’s understanding of Romanticism, Dennis situates the origin of this aesthetic mode in Rousseau’s self-description as “[t]he most sociable and the most loving of humans [who] has been banished from their midst by unanimous agreement.” The one utterly rejected by society must in turn liberate himself from society, by eliminating all his desires for recognition from others. This would entail liberating oneself from mimesis—imagine composing an inventory of all your desires and identifying each one’s roots in some mimetic relation to another, and then setting about extirpating all those desires or reconstructing them so their dependence upon others has been eliminated. All the words you might use to define this stance—“strength,” “independence,” “defiance,” “spontaneity,” and so on—all betray their dependence on some distinction from weakness, dependency, conformity, etc. Even more, your stance could only be meaningful if you staged it for others—you could hardly embody heroic independence locked in your bedroom—thereby rendering yourself dependent on an audience. To be free from the desire of others (in both senses—your desires for others, and their desire’s effect on you) would be to be free from irony—everything you say would coincide completely with what you mean. But nothing could be more ironic than claiming such a stance, which would in fact lead to every single word you utter having unintended double meanings.

Dennis follows Byron’s gradual recognition of the ironies of his early stance, ironies exacerbated by the fact that his early poems made him a “celebrity,” and hence an intense focus of desire and resentment. In his masterpiece, Don Juan, Byron deploys his own ironic insights into his own history and position within the “history of desire” in order to deconstruct all claims to unmediated desire, which comes down to all claims to be free of the “market” (again, in the sense stipulated above). Dennis shows Byron demonstrating how even the most outrageous injustices and oppressions (like slavery) are ultimately situated within their own “markets,” bringing revolutionary and victimary claims (heavily dependent upon assumptions of authenticity and sincerity) within the scope of the irony we all need in order to navigate, both successfully and ethically, the universal market. That, in fact, is Byron’s essentially pedagogical project: to teach his readers how to act on the market, where all traditional conceptions, like “honor,” “hierarchy” and “authority,” as well as all the modern ones bidding to replace it, like “freedom,” “equality,” and “fraternity,” are “marketized,” attempts to gain oneself a market “share,” or a “brand.” I want to insist that within the inclusive notion of the market we are working with here, this approach can’t be denounced as “cynical,” because there’s no non-cynical exterior against which it could be measured. In a world where we are all “internal mediators,” the ethical position is to acknowledge desire and mimetic dependencies, and to keep generating new and non-violent ways of having those desires recognized and shared by others. A self-ironized stance on a comprehensive market in which we seek alliances/make deals with others is the only way of accomplishing that.

I don’t think I have to disagree with any of this; I just can point out that it only applies to the declarative order. If you try to issue ostensives and imperatives ironically, they are no longer ostensives and imperatives. Dennis points out that irony is the contrary “of what Gans speaks of as a ‘rhetoric of mastery,’ the most potent expression of which must be silence” (216). The most potent or authentic rhetoric of mastery is silence because only in that way are the master’s words and therefore intentions made invulnerable to the repetitions, inevitably ironic, and therefore subversive, of his underlings. This really brings us to the crux of the issue, and the logic of the ironizing position is itself potent. Even if the ruler speaks only in clear, crisp, directly implementable commands, he still has to issue those commands. If he were genuinely master, his subjects would be constituted by his intentions, in which case they would not even need to be uttered. The full deconstructive logic should be faced: to issue a command is to allude to the possibility of its violation, or, for that matter, unintended parody. We would be back to a market in which the ruler places his own desires on the marketplace, i.e., democracy.

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon whereby the subjects of a king who is perceived to be acting wrongly exempt the king from all responsibility, which is then placed upon his advisors. Peasant protest movements in Russia, for example, would plead with the Czar to undo what his evil advisors had done, obviously without his knowledge and consent. We see the same thing with supporters of President Trump, who see him constantly betrayed by his RINO advisors. For a liberal, this faith that the ruler cannot possibly have willed wrongful acts seems delusional and craven, but it’s really exactly the right attitude—although it would be even more right if silence regarding the ruler’s knowledge and motives were extended to all acts carried out in his name. The ruler’s silence—and even if the ruler is seen explicitly commanding the “wrongful” acts, there is the silence of his refusal to entertain complaints and demands is “echoed” by the silence of his subjects. As soon as the space of silence is violated, irony does seep in and corrupt the chain of command. The only responsible response to those who do violate it must include, along with whatever is actually said and done, a kind of dumbness, which “echoes” the refusal of the “rhetoric of mastery” to entertain complaints and demands, and which we may have to allow to be taken for stupidity. After the command comes silence, and then we see whether marginalization of irony by the silent obedience to the command means that it was, in fact, the rhetoric of mastery.

Nothing that isn’t repeated has actually happened. Repetition can include mimicry, response, reference, recording, translation, allusion, reordering of patterns as a result of the event, among other possibilities. The sign needed to be repeated on the originary scene, and all of subsequent human culture is a series of attempts to repeat the orginary scene, starting with the first ritual. The imperative was originally a mistaken repetition of an ostensive, and the imperative became the imperative through an ostensive repetition—Gans, in his discussion of the emergence of the imperative in The Origin of Languagerefers to the operating room, where the doctor’s request is repeated by the nurse’s acknowledgement: “scalpel—scalpel.” What comes between the event and its repetition, which also means what comes “within” the event, or between the event and itself, is silence—a silence that is a kind of faithful awaiting, an imperative-ostensive oscillation. But this space within the event can be prolonged by a silence that is willing to give resentments more time to reveal themselves—the one who breaks the silence takes the risk of becoming subject to irony, and the one who maintains silence takes the risk of attracting the resentment of those who want the scene closed. But that’s just a way of raising one’s own value, isn’t it? Maybe, but when does the item go up for sale? Simultaneously attracting and repelling resentment anticipates the accrual of value beyond all possible exchanges. At a certain point one has shaped enough of reality to pre-select and pre-repel the resentments—those resentments then give way to silent acceptance of and resentment toward challenges to the center. And a value beyond all exchanges isn’t exactly “value” anymore; the asymmetrical exchanges engaged in are too extended in time to have measurable value. Of course, this recapitulates the emergence of the Big Man, but what in a market society excludes that possibility? Ironically, only the state, but if we presuppose a scenario in which the state become simply another player on the market, or gets chopped and divvied up by the largest market players (and in a market society, why wouldn’t that happen?), what is unimaginable about some of the more silent “masters” across various crucial institutions being brought under a single head that seems least likely countenance a fire sale when the (political) market is undergoing a mimetic crisis, i.e., crash? Byron started as an individual and remained one, but what if masters of deferral had to seek out yet greater masters to resist following the more mimetically addicted rushing to the bargain basement?

The vaster and more inclusive the market, the more it is suffused with the rhetoric of mastery, silence. Let’s grant that the market penetrates into every nook and cranny of the social order, even the most sacred: the soldier who sacrifices himself for the homeland has “bought into” an image of heroism and is putting his embodiment of that image on the market for future buyers, those who will value that gesture over some other (the soldier piles up his symbolic rewards in anticipation); the priest who baptizes is “advertising” a particular version of Christ, for those who place a value on their souls above other values. We can resist such “sacrilegious” descriptions of such events in the name of an inherited vocabulary, but that resistance can itself be ironized as another move on the market. A step in the other direction, toward an acknowledgement of ironizing marketing discourse and ethics, would be to note that the more self-reflexively aware you are of your own self-marketing the more you presuppose the protection from one embodiment of the rhetoric of mastery that can only be granted by another embodiment—to put it more crudely, you acquiesce in a protection racket, or you act as if there might be a trustworthy authority. You can only sell or buy that which will be there an instant later so as to be possessed or enjoyed. The more that presence and availability can be guaranteed, the more stable the value, and the more intelligent the market calculations. But the more you are buyer or seller, the less you can guarantee it. But the one who has been busy self-immunizing from resentment by attracting it can.

You can buy security, as the radical libertarians would have it; indeed, you can redefine the king as a paid for enforcer. But what guarantees the king will stay bought? Competition with other prospective kings, right? But the king to whom you have actually sold out possesses the apparatuses of kingship (which includes, among other things, lots of able and loyal men)—how much is that worth? Maybe you can’t afford it. Maybe the new king you’d like to hire has done his own risk analysis and will decline. The king who would willingly turn over all the controls (which, therefore, he presumably maintains competently) to the competitor who has underbid him is perhaps the king you don’t want to replace. Why would the king, who maybe now you want to keep, be so willing? Whatever it is, it’s hard to put a price on it; it’s hard to see how irony gets a handle on it. It may be the kind of thing about which it is best to remain silent.

October 23, 2018

What are We Talking About When We Talk About the Market?

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:01 am

It may be possible that no one really likes “the market.” Eric Gans identifies as the “constituent hypocrisy” of Romanticism that the romantic stance is predicated upon resistance to the market in the name of an irreducible individual distinctiveness, while this distinctiveness is precisely what enables the romantic artist to circulate in the market. The analysis applies to contemporary marketing just as acutely, as the method of marketing is to sell identities that liberate the consumer from the judgments of others, that is, of the market. But anti-marketism characterizes producers no less than consumers: not producer really wants to compete; if it was up to the producer, he would secure a complete monopoly, along with absolute control of the supply chain comprising the production of the goods or services produced. The advocate of the free market will say that this is precisely the point: the market compels everyone to recognize an impersonal structure indifferent to his desires and resentments, and hence to accept a sociality to which his individuality must be subordinated. The fact that it is impersonal is a key selling point: market advocacy is an argument for authority in the absence of, and to the deliberate exclusion of, any personal, responsible authority. This leads to the assumption that the market is something one might “resist” or “oppose”; as well as to the complementary realization that such resistance is always already futile since it will just produce another commodity. Which, of course, keeps the market going.

The more you’re ensconced within economic networks, the less you talk about markets—then, it is a case of preserving existing relationships with suppliers and distributors, R & D, planning PR and advertising campaigns, securing reliable politicians, and so on. It is the outsider who engages in market talk, hoping to pry open those networks and get plugged into them. So, if market talk represents a demand for obedience to an impersonal authority, it also, paradoxically, represents the demand that that impersonal authority be turned into a vehicle of power for the marginalized. On one level, there’s no contradiction: the more impervious to influence the authority it is, the more useful it is to sway it to your side; but, of course, sooner or later it becomes evident that the authority was never impersonal in the first place, and it’s just a question of getting your influence peddling installed before the claims to neutrality, objectivity, stability and so on lose their market value. It turns out the market was always already just a big ol’ romantic itself, one big center of resistance to authority. Even the Man wants to fight the Man.

So, if hating the market is just a trick for drawing you into the vortex on the consumer side, and loving the market is trick for getting into it on the producer side, perhaps a moderate “like” for the market provides a better approach. In this case, it will no longer be “the market.” If someone makes or does something very well, that person knows it, and so do other people who are trying to do that thing or something similar. But when the question is asked, in general, what is done well, what is worth owning or having done, the answer comes back: the market decides. Whether the expert is judging or the market is deciding, there is a circularity here: the expert is the expert because he knows what the best is, but if he tries to explain it to the non-expert, he can’t do so convincingly. The non-expert might prefer lesser wares, and resist attempts to refine his taste so he can appreciate the better product. Meanwhile, on what grounds could one appeal the verdict of the market? To say that the market was “wrong” seems almost like a category error.

David Graeber is definitely right that many, if not most, jobs in the advanced capitalist economy are bullshit jobs, even if his explanation (conspicuous entouragement by the managerial class) only covers a small part of it. Somehow, the market seems OK with that. There may not be enough genuine productive labor for the population anymore, but that’s not really the market’s problem either. But the more you are good at your job, and consider it important, and want others capable of judging to share in the fruits of your labors, the more you want a smart market, with no extraneous interests coming between your exercising your discipline and finding those willing to join it. Also, the more you are committed to your discipline, the less you want to worry about power, and the less you want everyone else worried about power, because clearly exercised power is the constant that allows you to focus on your own work. And, the less you will talk about “the market,” although you may talk about systemic failures to produce subjects commensurate to the goods and services you’re able to supply them. Of course, you might be wrong: plenty of people think they’re the best who really aren’t. Here, we have to rely upon intellectual and practical traditions, and those genuinely interested in serving some center to act as judges and “checks” on subjective claims. It is those who talk most about “the market” who want power and want to influence power.

Only power that plans on being around for a long time can encourage the development of networks of disciplinary networks that will in turn set the tone for markets, i.e., broader spheres of distribution mediated by money. Revolutionary governments will just burn up networks. Liberal governments resting upon a high level of civilization can be more patient, because they can always find ways to exploit new scientific and technological developments, but only until intra-elite struggles require the deployment of proxies leading to proxy arms races between the contending elites. The predictability of governance is already recognized as a contributor to economic value, even if this can’t be calculated, but we can be more precise about which form of government is itself most interested in predictability and reliability and which model of subjectivity such governments will posit as representative of their rule. It was, at one time, plausible to argue that liberal governments were the most interested in a coherent legal framework, because the legitimacy of their rule rested directly on protecting contracts and generating wealth. That claim is becoming less and less plausible, but it will still remain for disciplined government to demonstrate that it can be such a guarantor.

There is a familiar (but I have no idea how common) pattern whereby a new leadership, brought in to save a failing enterprise or institution, or to carry out an important project, selects a team, either of marginalized employees or those brought in from the outside, and sets them to work outside of the normal rules of functioning of the institution. This is called “skunkworks.” The alternative to liberal and democratic governance is governance by skunkworks. On the model of Thomas Kuhn’s distinction between “normal” and “revolutionary” science, we would distinguish between the normal, rule-governed operations of a company or institutions, and government by skunkworks which, ideally would always be held in reserve and never used. An executive ready, and known to be ready, to resort to skunkworks, would never have to. The model citizen or subject would be the potential skunkworker, and educational institutions would be constructed so as to single out potential skunkworkers for various fields.

“The market” is also really government by skunkworks, to the extent that it exists. A social order with no potential skunkworkers, with no executives willing to shake up organizations and no disciplinary networks they could draw upon to do so, would be an utterly stagnant and parasitic one. Markets are fields of overlapping disciplinary spaces. My hypothesis here is that we can measure the economic efficiency and long term viability of a socio-economic order (or any company or institution) by the qualitative presence of skunkworkers. This couldn’t be measured, in part because you can’t know it exists until you try to mobilize it. But I’m not interested in a new form of economic calculation; I’m interested in the development of public modes of thought and argumentation capable of swaying elites, and those who sway elites. And the best argument for post-liberal and post-democratic, or absolutist, government, would be singling out where skunkworkers are necessary, where they are present, and what interferes with their greater qualitative presence. Focusing on the skunkworker elicits images of the executive ready and willing to use them. All of the criticisms we might make of liberalism, progressivism, and egalitarianism can be reframed as identifying efforts to stifle skunkworks.

The skunkworker ethics would introduce differentiations across the board. The more focused an inquiry gets, the more directly a discipline’s concepts generate imperatives, the more precise the measuring instruments get, the larger the consequences that follow from small differences. We would have a vast field of overlapping disciplines, some of which inquire into the consequences and implications of other disciplines. A discovery in chemistry is taken up by a pharmaceutical discipline; the development of new medicines must be integrated into the practices of doctors and hospitals, and perhaps by city planners in managing public hygiene. The causality might work in the other direction: new forms of travel or work leading to new studies into stress or muscular wear and tear, and from there into genetics. Everyone is to be brought into some disciplinary space—even if some practices start as make work programs, just following the imperative to articulate all subjects into disciplines (which itself would be a discipline), there really always is something that can be done on the periphery of some other discipline. As McLuhan suggested, it might be worth it to pay people to learn things.

Of course, the process of production of the scientists and those entering all the other disciplines, i.e., education, is also a discipline; but that means the overall integration of the disciplines must be thought through in organizing the education process, which means that the human sciences, whatever they might come to look like, focused on moral, ethical and aesthetic problems, service, survey and oversee the entire disciplinary field all at the same time. (The religions I would consider human sciences, as they are inquiries into the sacred, or the permanent center.) I think that what I have called “centered ordinality” should be the organizing assumption of the human sciences: there’s always someone at the center, and the way to be at the center is to carry on the work of your predecessors at the center and leave things better than you found them for your successors there; those who follow centrality create little “eddies” of centrality in its wake.

Of course, I have left the central economic issue, the one “the market” is supposed to resolve, out of the discussion so far: the allocation of resources. Even with a group of very likeminded workers, who are in agreement regarding the final goal and the division of labor amongst them, there are very likely going to disagreements over how to use the available resources. If we’re building a house, should we spend a bit more for the superior brick, or a bit less so we can install better windows? There’s no obvious answer to such questions, even for the most expert. But there’s no objection to the answer the free marketer would give: if you’re building the house for someone else, let the buyer decide. Or, if your company’s brand is that you don’t skimp on brick, then those who agree with you regarding housebuilding priorities will hire you. It may very well be that not enough people consider top-notch brick to be more important than the most up-to-date windows, and you will have to change your brand, accept a smaller market niche, or take up another profession. There will be all kinds of “interfaces” where the market rules in the sense a liberal economist means. It may be that majority, even the vast majority, of transactions take place at such interfaces.

The real question is whether we can imagine a social order in which “disciplinary production,” even if numerically inferior to mass production, nevertheless sets the tone for the latter. That is a social order where the skunkworker option is always open. It’s very likely that a strict monetary policy, deflationary rather than inflationary, sharply privileging saving over lending, would be necessary here. “The market” would be authoritative, but not in the impersonal sense the liberal wants; rather, it would part of a broader human authority directing economic activity toward social ends. We already have fairly obviously examples even in a capitalist order, like tariffs, safety and building codes, aesthetic constraints, like preserving a particular view or the compatibility of housing styles. We know from libertarian economists like Thomas Sowell that such regulations invariably serve vested interests, which is to say the interests of those able to access some portion of state power. (Environmental regulations in wealthy areas make new development prohibitively expensive, thereby increasing the property values of the already wealthy, etc. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.) But this is a problem of decentered and distributed, rather than hierarchical and concentric, authority. The economic order I am describing presupposes a competent central authority that, regardless of its precise nature, spends like a royal household and a modernizing state, that is, on residences, office buildings, entertainment complexes, parks and gardens, etc., as well as constantly upkept infrastructure—and spends on the best, setting the tone for production and consumption all the way down the line.

October 16, 2018

Puppets and Probes

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:27 am

A few years ago, I saw someone with a T-shirt that had nothing but the words “Us vs. Them” on it. It seemed both meaningful and meaningless, so I gave it some thought. Us vs. Them is, first of all, the most abstract form of all group conflicts, from the perspective of one of the parties (both of the parties). So, it’s the way everyone in every conflict sees things, but it’s also the way no one, in any conflict, sees things: no one would engage an enemy if it was just “the enemy”—the enmity has to have some “content” to it. So, the T-shirt was satirical—when you’re immersed in some struggle, this is the way you see things, even if you can’t see that you see them that way. It makes a kind of Girardian point regarding the way in which sustained struggle creates increasing symmetry between the combatants. But at the same time, in claiming a kind of satiric or ironic stance, the T-shirt creates a division, between those capable of this insight from mimetic theory, and those blind to it. The T-shirt is mocking its viewer. So it reinstates an “Us vs. Them,” and it does so on the purely formal level of the abstract antagonism itself. But one final observation is necessary: the T-shirt, or its wearer, in reinstating this division, is itself a target of the irony, which means that all of us enter the Us vs. Them frame, i.e., are subject to mimetic desire, and all of us need to have others snap us out of it by mirroring back to us in a “barer,” more formal way, our display of that mimetic attitude; and each of us has to do it for others.

This art object (why not?) is exemplary of the aesthetic. That, ultimately, is what the aesthetic is, and what art does: exhibit our resentments back to us in such a way that we can inspect and distance ourselves from them. Eric Gans locates the origin of the aesthetic on the originary scene, in the oscillation between the sign and the object on the part of each of the participants on the scene. The sign (the gesture of aborted appropriation) directs one’s attention to the desirable object at the center, but now the object is just an object, once it is no longer mediated by the sign, so the attention goes back to the sign, and so on. This consolidates the sign as an acceptable, albeit temporary, proxy for the object: it is “beautiful,” or at the very least well-formed. I think what is involved here is the creation of a potential scene within the scene: if one participant is “judging” the sign, he must be doing so under the assumption that everyone else on the scene could turn to the sign and do the same. On this scene, the sign will be judged either acceptable (well-formed) or unacceptable (unformed). In the former case, the object is approached symmetrically by all on the scene; in the latter case, the sign may work, but all approach in a state of heightened suspicion (the unaesthetic life is possible, but is a lesser life). The aesthetic on the scene, in the form of one of one’s fellow “signers,” is the entire body presenting as a more or less perfect balance between self-disarmament and deterrence. In this balance we see reflected our own resentments, and the means of curtailing them.

Within every scene, then, that is, every human event or happening, there is a potential aesthetic scene wherein we are able to withdraw somewhat and take in the signs of the scene—rather than trying to push oneself forward as a center, one can inspect the potential centrality of others. The origin of art, as distinct from ritual (where the aesthetic was always surely a contributing element), involves taking some such marginal figure and placing it at a “prepared” center. Gans sees the classical aesthetic exemplified by ancient Greek tragedy as the “degree zero” of art. Art has human figures at the center, replacing the deities of mythology, and the figures initially placed at the center are unquestionably important within the human scene. The significance of the scene is taken for granted, and so the scene itself is not represented. But it’s also the case that on this scene the artist is invested with an authority modeled on that of the Big Man who usurps the ritual scene. In classical art, the artist is fully invested in and identifies with the authority of the community. The scene of art is a supplement or direct replacement of the ritual scene, with the art object or happening at the center and the audience at the periphery. The art scene, then, enacts an oscillation between itself and the center, as a site of distribution and modeling of needed practices. So, all art works within, that is, imitates, and displaces some discourse on the center—ritual, myth, prayer, public discussion, interactions in the royal court or, in the modern age, the disciplines scientific, pedagogical, bureaucratic, journalistic, etc., along with privatized modes of self-regulation like diaries and letters.

Aesthetic history is determined by the ways in which the scene of aesthetic representation is represented within the art work or event itself; or, we could say, the way the potential or virtual scene within the scene is represented. The artist governs the art scene from its center; as such he represents a “bit” of social authority, which also means he mimics and draws upon some other authority. There is therefore a boundary between the art scene and other disciplinary scenes and between center of the art scene and its periphery (between art and audience). On one side, we can imagine maximal differentiation between the art scene and the other disciplines, along with maximal investment of artistic authority in that differentiation; on the other side, the art scene tends to dissolve the boundaries and become an aesthetic difference within the other disciplinary scenes—in the most extreme case, the artist’s authority is diffused amongst other disciplinary authorities as an aesthetic dimension “vibrating” within them. Post-classical art, which is to say art that purports to oppose the social center, has itself oscillated between these possibilities. I will say that the latter, dissolvent, diffusive tendency is most likely to win out, and should win out, because it leads the artist to be reintegrated into communal authority. I would see, then, the furthest unfolding of aesthetic possibility to be the establishment of the oscillation between the actual scene and the potential scene within the actual or world scene itself: the introduction of “switches” into everyday life that just barely upset our expectations (expectations being a concoction of desires and resentments “streaming” on the screen of the world) and so “read” them back to use in the course of our lives. The power of the artist in maintaining the boundary between art and spectator, that is, is already too crude and impossible to credit: we know too much about what goes into the production, placement, and valuation of any work. Aesthetic experience has to include that knowledge and show us how we keep nevertheless forgetting it. Much like that “Us vs. Them” T-shirt.

The origin of aesthetics, then, is the participant on the scene imagining a potential scene focused on a fellow “signer.” That fellow signer guarantees, to a greater or lesser extent, the significance of the central object. The more the signer presents himself, or is presented on the imagined scene of the viewer, as all sign, and nothing but sign, that is, as a complete and unequivocal model of deferral, the more certain the guarantee. That is the origin of “beauty,” even if naturally desirable objects become the more readily available models of beauty in works of art. But being all sign and nothing but sign is temporary, because it depends upon the specific desire being deferred. The “artist,” or revealer of the aesthetic scene, must transform that static sign into a model for recognizing, responding to and generating aesthetic scenes. For this purpose, the static all sign and nothing but sign, which will, or always already has, become embedded in the habits of the group, must be turned into a kind of anti-model. All art begins, that is, with the exhaustion of a previous aesthetic tradition; any art begins by accelerating and accentuating that exhaustion. The same goes for the everyday aesthetics found in our “styles,” whether of dress, speech, gesture, or any mode of interaction. Something is made meaningful by distinguishing it from something that has lost its meaning (it would be equally true to say that things lose their meaning when we distinguish it from something we now find meaningful).

A good way to think about something that has taken the path from maximally meaningful to meaningless is as a puppet whose strings we have just seen. A moment ago, it was to all appearances alive, conscious, spontaneous and intentional; now, it’s dangling and jerked around by unseen hands. (I’m continuing a line of inquiry from my “Signing Up” post, only now suggesting more strongly that there is a satiric element of all aesthetics and art, an element that always highlights the difference in some repetition.) In this way aesthetics erects a potential scene within some scene we are immersed in, the complete meaningfulness of which we have taken for granted. The aesthetic scene begins by showing us that we conferred rather than simply recognized the apparent meaning on the scene, and once we realize we’re doing that, we can do it no longer—we’re the puppets, just as much as the objects we’ve been taking too literally. Any art, even the most traditional and classic, must do this insofar as it wrenches us from our ordinary forms of attention in order to initiate us into a more transcendent or “presentified” one.

In allowing our attention to thus be unraveled and rewoven, we enter the potential scene actualized by the aesthetic object or event. It’s more accurate to say that we send, or delegate, a part of us to attend the scene. This is a more specialized and attentive part of oneself, a more disciplinary self. One “peels” it off, so to speak, as a form of oneself that moves more freely among representations than we normally can or do. We can call it a “probe” we send out. It’s the part of us we train to notice small details or unremarked similarities; to poke into crevices or embed a figure in a vast tableau; to look at something as a point in time stretching backward and forward millennia, or as something that came together miraculously at that moment. As aesthetic beings, we oscillate between being puppets dangled by and probes on behalf of the center. Puppets, or in a modern version, perhaps, robots (or crash dummies, or NPCs), can be very instructive—like small children can do, they show us what we look like considered as purely mimetic animals. We need to see that in order to initiate a counter-mimesis, one that remembers the “joints” now operating mechanically as composed and integral to gestures.

Now, we peel off and set free the probe, which examines things from inside the puppet, and the probe itself becomes puppet and peels off another probe, and so on. It’s puppets and probes all the way down. But the probes come home—you can think of them as layers of narration. Like in self-reflexive fiction, the narrator enters the story, and doubles as character and narrator—the telling of the story and the story itself interfere with each other. We can’t set a theoretical limit to scenes within scenes, to the mise en abyme, or vorticism, but there are always practical, which is to say ethical and moral limits. The narrative structure of beginning, middle and end can generally be relied upon to set the limits (which some artists will want to defy—and they may succeed). You enter the scene you have constructed, you act within it, and you exit it as the one who was both always outside and constructed it and also constructed it out of your experience within it. This should all be easy to understand today, when everyone on Twitter gets drawn into narratives of their own creation, via impersonation and pseudonymous agency, trying to craft the stories (“time-lines”) that are crafting them.

October 9, 2018

Social Market

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:18 am

What would a market, built into which is an acknowledgement of the market’s dependence on central power, on the one hand, and the long term moral and ethical life of workers and consumers, on the other hand, look like? Let’s set aside the policies and governing structure needed to create such a market, and just examine how the people, especially employers and investors, would think and act within it. If I sell heroin, I’m going to keep running out of customers, because they will keep dying or ruining their lives and therefore be unable to pay me anymore. So, I need to keep finding new customers, which I can only do by exploiting unhappy, weak-minded, and desperate people, and making those people no good for anything else, whether it be their families, their jobs, or buying lots of other things. And I contribute to the ruination of the society I live in, diverting the resources of the state into expensive quagmires, where it ends up at war with many of its own citizens. Here, then, we have a model of a clearly anti-social market, from which existing markets will differ to some extent in degree and kind. If I prefer to sell something other than heroin, even if doing so yields me much lower profits, and even if I could insulate myself from the legal liabilities of the drug trade, then this is a choice any individual or firm could make in less extreme situations.

We should make use of the broader, somewhat metaphorical, use of “market” to make sense of the “market” in the narrower, more technical sense of an arena where money is systematically exchanged for goods (where you can’t get goods any other way). The most obvious example is the “sexual market,” explored so extensively and meticulously in the “manosphere,” at sites like Chateau Heartiste and Rollo Tommassi’s Rational Male. The calculation of male and female sexual value is certainly a highly advanced art, and perhaps a science, at such sites. Because, of course, there is something we could recognize as exchanges here, and a range of possible exchanges that might be made. David Graeber identifies three modes of human interaction: communism, exchange, and hierarchy. In communism everyone takes what they need and give what they can, which is actually a fairly common arrangement, found in families and sports teams, for examples. Hierarchy is unidirectional, whereas exchange, however asymmetrical, is give and take. Clearly, communism and hierarchy shade into exchange, which means that at its margins exchange shades into them.

Eric Gans, in his reading of The Illiadin The End of Culture, identifies war as the first marketplace. It’s definitely either that or sex. Warriors are assessed at their fighting value, for which they expect recompense from the spoils—the whole plot of the poem is driven by Achilles’s resentment at being, in his view (and objectively so, it appears), shortchanged. These pre-monetary marketplaces, bordering on communism and hierarchy in very visible ways, are very helpful in assessing more developed, monetary markets. In these more primitive markets, the relation between value and choice is much more direct. The better warrior, the more beautiful woman, the more alpha man—these values can be tested fairly easily, and virtual unanimity achieved. The types of conflicts they lead to are also fairly typical, along with the institutions and positions needed to constrain these markets: marriage, family, commanders, kings. And these institutions in turn create new markets: the position of commander can be exchanged for political support, marriage becomes a way of consolidating status by families. It may very well be that, rather than a strict linear procession of markets, constraining institutions, modified markets, the markets and institutions are co-created in various ways in different situations.

Achilles would want the best sword; the alpha of the tribe would want the most beautiful clothes for his wife (she would want this too)—blacksmiths would want to make Achilles his sword, and tailors the alpha’s wife’s dress. We would see the same thing today with makers of private jets, luxury yachts and Lamborghinis and their customers. The most important buildings in town would be designed by the best architects, who compete amongst themselves. Achilles is sure to know the best sword; the mayor or town council is somewhat less likely to know which design will be best, even under conditions in which we could exclude bribery and favoritism. The odds are much better if the town has a long tradition of prestigious structures, its own style, and if those traditions are respected. The best construction company will want to build the building, and it will want to use the best bricks, mortar, cement, wood, etc. Less important buildings, built by those with less resources, will be designed and built by the second, third, fourth, and so on best architects and construction companies, using correspondingly inferior materials. They will be modeled on the more prestigious buildings though, and will try to borrow their glamor and charisma.

Such a system requires that the elites be deserving, and seen as deserving, of their position. Achilles is the best fighter—he proves that daily on the battlefield, and if you want to challenge him you may be able to find out for yourself. Who are the richest men in town, or in the nation? We can dismiss Balzac’s witticism about crimes and fortunes—for the most part, at the origin of wealth and power is genuine accomplishment. Not everyone can build a giant, innovative corporation that will last for generations—Henry Ford, John Paul Getty, John Rockefeller and the others were definitely better at something which it is very good to be better at, than others, even if quite a bit of luck and ruthlessness facilitated their rise (exploited luck, and channeling ruthlessness are also worthwhile capacities to possess). Nevertheless, if one wants to claim they were unworthy elites, and that we would have been better served by a different breed or batch, then the question needs to be formulated properly—a particular mode of rule or sovereignty allowed these to rise, just as a particular mode placed Achilles at the center. The most effective way of making the market social is through constraining the elites—there is, by definition, a bottleneck allowing only a few people to become and remain elites; the attention of the sovereign, from the narrow perspective of wealth generation and the broader perspective of integrating wealth generation into the entire social order, is to closely monitor that bottleneck. Any social order, at any particular point in time, has a particular stock of technology, infrastructure, sunk capital, homes, buildings, and so on. If the sovereign allows for elites to degrade that stock, he undermines his own occupancy of the center, because he is allowing considerations other than a hierarchy of recognizable value to determine the ordering of society, and the stability of his rule depends on such a hierarchy. If crap is being designed and built, and therefore modeled for everyone else, the sovereign is clearly responsible, and is either incompetent or is being swayed by lesser motives. And this encourages others to try and sway him by such motives.

So, the ruler is the occupant of the center to the extent that he constrains the elites to preserve and enhance the existing stock of social capacities and goods, which also means to generate markets that serve circles modeled on and organized concentrically around those surrounding the sovereign. At each level there would be means of recruiting and elevating talented individuals from the lower levels; indeed, there’s no reason such a social order couldn’t have as much upward mobility as present-day Western ones which, in truth, is not all that much. And it might have more downward mobility, as the maxim that the fish rots from the head would be put conscientiously into practice, with the elites subjected to special scrutiny. The far more important question is that of the mass market. The most compelling moral argument for the contemporary liberal capitalist order is that it has lifted hundreds of millions, by now maybe over a billion, of people throughout the world out of poverty—on the brink of starvation poverty, not food stamp receiving poverty. Even in the wealthier countries, it cannot be denied that mass marketers like Wal-Mart have made available what were once luxuries to pretty much everyone—universal access to refrigerators, cars, air conditioners, ovens, microwaves, lawn mowers and all the rest is far from nothing, and I’ll grant it’s an unmitigated good, even the TVs and computers, which can’t be blamed for what is transmitted via them. But the model of the market I’ve been piecing together here would seem to preclude such direct appeal to a mass, all-inclusive consumer market, one that has not been adequately formed by the market spaces proximate to the sovereign.

Of course, all new products start off expensive and are first of all marketed to the wealthy; still, the process by which such products go down the line, finally reaching the wage earner (and welfare recipient) has accelerated to the point where it barely exists. A new Apple phone, which would have been an astonishing, well-nigh science fictional device to younger versions of many of us, is marketed directly to everyone. How is this done? Vast amounts of capital are moved overseas, so that near starving workers can produce the items at prices affordable for those elsewhere a generation or two beyond near starvation wages. OK, let’s go along with this for a moment, and take the economic, libertarian argument at its word: those working at near starvation wages now will be middle class in a generation and the work will then be passed on to some other impoverished nation, and so on, until… well, what, exactly? The process has worked for South Korea and the other “tigers,” it seems to be working for China, but then what? It seems to have made no progress at all in the Middle East, much less Africa, which is being colonized by China for its raw materials in a development no Western narrative is equipped to recognize. The results are mixed in lots of other countries, but, anyway, all of these production processes are going to be increasingly automated anyway. Then what? The question of the mass market turns into the question of creating high-quality forms of activity out of the universal networks we are all plugged into.

Hannah Arendt remarked that Marx never seemed to consider the implications of the end of labor in the fully automated society he projected communism to be for his own anthropology, which defined man as homo laborans. The same question can be asked of free market liberals—if all necessities and a lot of luxuries can be produced with very little labor, as will no doubt eventually be the case, why is anyone going to work, what is the point of buying and selling what is readily available to all, etc.?—but it’s a good question for anyone. It may be that the work we do will be more social, as the old tech-utopians from the 60s like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminister Fuller thought—lots of teaching one another to do all kinds of interesting things. As Gaston Bachelard predicted, society will be for school rather than school being for society. (Liberals might consider how inane protests over things like “white privilege” will seem then.) There will also be a lot of caregiving—the health care professions, which have been expanding dramatically for a while now, will no doubt continue to do so, as various forms of therapy will become more nuanced and we will be troubled and seek help for aches and pains we don’t even notice now.

I think what this would amount to is a process of de-disciplining and re-disciplining. Take health care. We still go to the doctor for all kinds of things that could probably be dealt with by trained professionals without an MD (even though more and more people do go to these intermediate caregivers). No doubt science and engineering—a great bulk of the work done will involve keeping everything running and holding up—can similarly be broken down into more precise levels of expertise, especially as the frontiers of knowledge advance and subdivide. If all of these professions involve directly helping people who can judge whether they have been helped or not, and maintaining systems the decline or collapse of which couldn’t go unnoticed, then we actually have a social market that has an orderly, hierarchical structure similar to the one sketched out above. I wouldn’t want to speculate on the leisure activities that might accompany the social market, but there’s no need to assume that people engaged in productive, freely chosen and mostly interesting occupations would spend their free time in nihilistic pursuits. Absolutism is not utopian, but these eutopian prospects represent an extinction event for liberalism and democracy, which would therefore fight every sign of them fiercely.

October 2, 2018

Deferral as Media

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:20 am

I’ve been limiting my discussions of media by assuming it is the sign and sign system that is the media while it is, in fact, the form of deferral created by that particular sign. It is the deferral created by the issuance of the sign that provides for the new form of sense and intellectual activity characteristic of engagement with that medium. Let’s take a simple example: someone insults me. I can take a swing at him, in which case all I really notice is the spot on his face I am aiming at (if I’m collected enough to aim). If I refrain, though, other things come into view. Maybe, his insult was a prelude to an attack on me, in which case I might notice a determined, aggressive expression on his face that suggests I would have been better off hitting him (sometimes he who hesitates really is lost—that’s the bet we lay down in gesturing rather than striking). Even in that case, though, I might now better prepare myself for what could be a sustained struggle. I might, though, see some hesitation in his expression and posture, I might notice something to suggest that his insult might be a response to something I said or did, perhaps inadvertently (maybe I notice a bag of groceries spilled at his feet and realize that I had in fact bumped into him). My deferral opens up a world of observations to me, directs my attention in ways it wouldn’t have been otherwise, and suggests other possible uses for my eyes and ears (at least). I might even refrain from returning the verbal insult, returning a good word instead, and see where that leads. It is whatever posture and attitude I have replaced the potential blow with that generates this space of deferral in which looking, listening and thinking are possible.

It would be necessary to show how each new media form, through the different forms of writing up until alphabetic, through print, film, TV and electronic media represent more advanced forms of deferral. Each of these formal advances have been denounced as sources of infantilization, starting with writing and most certainly continuing through the most recent forms of electronic communications. Certainly any modification of the sensorium will involve a loss of some capacities, capacities deemed indispensable by those still immersed in the newly marginalized form of media; and maybe capacities that it would really be better to preserve. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if we were all capable of memorizing a few thousand lines of poetry. But I think the more important problem is that each new media form reflexively attempts to model itself on the forms it is displacing. In the example I have spent a great deal of time on lately, writing took upon itself the task of making the written text a simulacrum of a speech situation, one that could be reproduced by the reader. We still use terms drawn from orality to speak about writing—we refer to what a text or author “says,” and don’t even have alternatives drawn from writing should we want to use them. If one individual speaks with another individual, or a few, the listeners or interlocutors know the speaker, can assess him, respond to him, speak amongst themselves, etc. A single text “speaking” to thousands or millions of people is taking up residence in their minds—it becomes their own voice. The experience and consequences are radically different, but it’s still modeled as an “internal dialogue,” even if one of the participant is remotely controlling that dialogue.

If writing were represented and performed more as what it is, a mapping of speaking and listening possibilities, it would not have these hypnotic effects. The focus on a single speaker, who must be made answerable, cross-examined, defeated in rhetorical and logical combat (essentially, expelled from the mind); or, on the other hand “internalized” and agreed with completely, would be deferred. One would, instead, be prompted to generate hypotheses. I think the same is true for the other allegedly stupefying media. There’s probably no point to talking about TV by now, since it has become such a minor medium, but the internet and online communications is anyway the far better example of how it is the holdovers of previous media that contribute to a kind of mindlessness easily associated with new communication forms. In fact, the recent discovery that the major media companies manipulate their algorithms so as to hide and marginalize thinking considered heretical by state liberalism, provides a perfect example. Now, there’s no doubt that Google, Facebook and Twitter have become the media arms of Antifa; that’s not the issue. The issue is the assumption that algorithms can be neutral, constructed without assumptions regarding a hierarchy of importance concerning ideas, events, agents, and so on. When someone searches “Trump” what should they find? The documents that mention his name the most times? The most recent documents? The documents that mention his name and are on sites that are otherwise the most searched in general? The documents that have received the most hits (partisans could hire illegal aliens to sit and click on the preferred sites all day long)? Some combination of all of the above (and a dozen other criteria we could easily devise)? Which combination?

People who ask for neutrality here are imagining what is in fact one of the precedents of the internet: the archive. They are imagining, however vaguely, a scholar, researcher or investigator, interested in getting at the truth of whatever one imagines oneself to be getting at the truth of, sorting through masses of documents, assessing authenticity and reliability, ascertaining relevance, generating links between documents that could only be discovered once one has seen enough of them. An ideal self for themselves as inquirers, really. But most people can only imagine the results of such work, having done very little or none of it themselves in the course of their lifetime. What they imagine is the popular narrative of the heroic sleuth discovering the truth hidden beneath a pile of lies and revealing it to all just in the nick of time, confounding the falsifiers. Or they are imagining a kind of decentered public square, an agora, where equals exchange ideas, battle it out, and get a bit closer to the truth. These are extremely attractive models. But they are all also essentially sacrificial. The attraction lies in the promise to have a scoundrel, stripped of all his protective covering, served up to all. Each new gradation of deferral saps sacrificial thinking of some of its power, power which powerful forces within the new form will seek to exploit and intensify. The online lynch mob is far more ferocious and consuming than the real thing, and if it seems somewhat less devastating in its effects, I would say that it would not be at all surprising to pass the point at which online lynch mobs start instigating the real thing. Would either George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson be safe in public in most places in the US?

But it’s possible to imagine a far more productive discipline of algorithmic design in a well ordered society. If computer programmers know what people need to fulfill their disciplinary assignments, they could design the algorithms most helpful to them, from the sovereign on down. We would all learn, unevenly and in accord with necessities, to think probabilistically, to project probabilities further and further into the future, albeit with declining degrees of certainty as we go further ahead. That is really the essence of deferral: if we don’t think primarily of how to kill each other right now, we can occupy ourselves with more profitable uses of our time; if we extend that period for ten years, yet further vistas open up; for a hundred, and we can imagine civilization building. Then all our thinking would focus on what builds trust and what minimizes resentment, and our practical activity would focus on deploying resources and energies so as to build that trust and neutralize and redirect that resentment. How would we know we have another hundred years (perhaps to then be renewed indefinitely)? We really wouldn’t, but we’d be able to speak in terms of which activities and which ways of thinking made it either more or less likely. We could be wrong, but then we could study the source of such errors as well, and seek to minimize them.

But there could be no such “we”—overlapping disciplines, concerned with the intersections of scientific development, technological advance and anthropological understanding—without an unchallenged center. If I want one figure at the center and you want another, that incentivizes us to start arguing over different definitions of “trust,” different assessments of this or that resentment, opposing opinions regarding which anthropological understanding best accounts for a particular conflict. Your acceptance of the self-evident belief that we should be building a society to last becomes for me the arrogant assertion that my subordination must be imposed, my complaint ignored, eternally. We have to then argue about how our respective claims can be adjudicated, and we have to argue about rights, procedures, mediators, and so on. The media form enabling a new transcendence is then weaponized by being saturated with corrupt simulations of earlier forms: oral argument in court, tabloid journalism, state propaganda etc.

The study of the new media counters this development by articulating the increasing delay of consequences and projection of consequences beyond the immediate consequences, of events “processed” through the media, on the one hand, with the centering and continuity of power, on the other hand. All our inquiries into the future effects of present decisions presuppose a fundamental stability and continuity of order, and all attempts to project probabilities onto particular “timelines” are also attempts to hold constant the bulwarks of order that, first of all allow me to hypothesize without having to daily defend myself and construct my own order. Those most devoted to research and scholarly pursuits, to the maintenance and articulation of the archive we are all becoming part of, should be the freest and the most powerless, and therefore the most insistent upon the organization of all institutions around central power. Inquiry and social commitment converge, because the best conditions for anthropological research, which is ultimately the basis of all research, are those in which human possibilities are multiplied and presented in well formed, public ways. We have nothing more learn from revolutions and other upheavals; we have a lot to learn from the endless possibilities of dialectical transformations of disputes into agreements, and then those agreements into more disputes that we already know will be aimed at generating new agreements.

But the media still remain, at least the most elementary ones, like body and voice. The new media become more proficient at turning ostensives and imperatives into declaratives—something like “look at that criminal—stop him!” becomes something like “demographic, environmental, urban and architectural studies demonstrate that instances of disruption can be most significant reduced through the following combination of lighting, surveillance and direction of pedestrian traffic…” Instead of shouting at bystanders to stop the guy running away with a purse, you report the incident to security which undertakes a review. But at each point along the way, “fleshy” human responses—what people see, hear and feel, what they look like, how they move, how they play off of each other—gets fed back into the system. But that just means the more ancient media are resituated within the new space of deferral, and they take on meaning insofar as they serve that deferral. We speak and gesture, but we do so as if we might be recorded or are ourselves recording; we write by hand, or by spray paint, but in doing so we present what we know can only be seen as a scrawl; even print writing has “always already” been chopped up into excerpts and sound bites; we sing, in anticipation of various remixes and electronic voice modifications. All the media can therefore be kept in play, for the most expansive production of meanings should be kept in play, but always as the oscillation between our “speaker’s meaning” and the now unlimited possible “text meanings” that might result. Deferral lies in that oscillation.

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