GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 26, 2019


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:24 am

It’s common to hear some event or discussion denounced as a “distraction.” A distraction, presumably, from what is really important. A distinction between what is more and what is less important is essentially a distinction between what is more real and what is less real. What is more real, it will always turn out, is what better fits the model of reality you presuppose—and wish to impose on others. So, people pay more attention to some lurid scandal manufactured by media outlets than to the latest study showing a decline in the wealth of the middle class. Clearly, the latter is more real, more important, because it is a sign of other things that are real and important: a decline in consumption, leading to a recession; growing dysfunction among members of the affected group, leading in turn to growing dropout, drug addiction and crimes rates with potential for a higher risk and less stable society; the possible emergence of new political forces trying to represent the dispossessed, with the possibility of upsetting the existing establishment, and so on. Meanwhile, what follows from the scandal? Nothing real—one corrupt politician gets replaced by another, maybe a new rule, soon to be forgotten, gets imposed—no one will remember it a few years down the road.

But in attributing such a higher degree of reality to certain processes, a further assumption is made: that those who are enjoined to pay attention to those processes in proportion to their reality can also affect the event, or its subsequent consequences, in proportion to the attention paid to it. Why criticize or ridicule others for being “distracted” or “distracting” if distributing their attention in a more appropriate way is not going to pay off in commensurate power over what one pays attention to? Otherwise, why not just pay attention to local, everyday, “petty” events and issues that one might be able to influence; or, to what one finds amusing or exciting? The one criticizing the distraction and the distracted, then, is the one out of touch with reality: more people paying attention to the latest economic developments does not add up to more people having intelligent, informed discussions about those developments, which would not, anyway, in turn, lead to a shift in the commitments of policymakers, such that they would now start formulating and implementing policy in accord with the presumably coherent and essentially unanimous conclusions drawn by those intelligent and informed discussions. The pathways from events, to reporting of those events, to taking in that reporting, to public opinion, to official political responses to public opinion are all cut in a manner unrecognizable to one who takes the model of the public spirited, informed, citizen seriously.

Well, then, how should one organize one’s attention? In such a way as to find vehicles for thinking through the anomalies and paradoxes that most forcefully present themselves to you. If there really are intrinsically more important or more real realities, that’s the way you’re going to find them anyway. This means we’re always working with what’s “at hand”—even when we want to be important and talk about important things we end up carving our own little niche within them, like arguing some technical point that hardly anyone else considers important. The desire to pitch one’s tent at the realest of the realities is the desire to have a commanding metalanguage that enables you to give orders, at least in your own mind, or the space you share with others, to those who actually command, who occupy centers. When a pundit or resentful intellectual says that some politician did this or that in order to distract us from what he’s really doing, resentment is expressed in a satisfying way insofar as one is superior to those so easily distracted and to the politician who thinks he can hoodwink you. You can construct a pleasing image of the political leader who will come along and carrying out your instructions to the letter.

A better criterion for determining relevance and reality is to employ as much as possible of the signifying means available on the scene where you find yourself. You’re on a scene—you’re thinking about things, which is to say rehearsing potential future scenes; you’re observing something; you’re speaking with people, even if mediated through a screen. The scene has propos and supports; it has a history. The participants have entered this scene from other scenes. All of this leaves traces on their posture, gestures, tone, words on the scene. All of it can be elicited. How much, and what, exactly, of it, should be elicited? Well, this is at least a much better way of posing the question of relevance than looking for an objective hierarchy of importance. Elicit whatever can be turned into a sign of the center of the scene. Any scene falls prey to mimetic rivalry: one actor tries to one-up or indebt the other, maybe even without realizing it. Everyone involved wants to be at the center, which might very well mean subverting another’s bid for centrality. It certainly means evincing resentment towards whatever keeps us all on the scene in the first place—even if, in fact, we’re all there to see that person, her attempts to usurp others’ attempt to be at least the center of their own site of observation is a form of resentment. And, of course, pointing these things out on the spot leaves one, justifiably, in fact, vulnerable to charges of deploying an escalatory form of resentment oneself.

Any sign of resentment toward the center is also a sign of genuflection before it. You can always show another their resentment by simultaneously showing their worship of what they resent. And of whatever it is that counts as a center upon the scene. The resented/worshiped figure, itself, points to some other center: whatever we deem to be “in” or “of” the resented object is also elsewhere, in whatever allows that object to carry on in such an offensive way. If your argument with someone escalates, it gets to the point where it becomes “excessive”—but what does that mean? Excessive according to what measure? Well, the argument started with an “issue,” but the stakes have now raised to the point where the “issue” has become secondary—the confrontation becomes the thing itself. Like it or not, your resentment toward the other is a form of worship: you devote attention to him, and attribute to him power over your own actions (he’s making you angry). But this means that the original “issue” hasn’t been left behind—it turns out that that issue was a mere proxy for this new one, this new form of devotion. And who’s to say it’s less relevant? But what form of worship will this turn out to be? If he kicks your ass, it ends anti-climactically, and you return to your own group in shame. If you kick his, well, maybe it’s the same, because it turns out he wasn’t a worthy adversary, which is also a bit shameful and not very “relevant”; but if you return in triumph, you install him as a kind of permanent deity, whose prowess proves your own. You construct an idol, and will require ritual repetitions of the same battle.

But it’s also possible that the two warriors will discover that they worship, not the other, but something that is neither of them. Whatever allows them to make peace with honor intact, whatever they can swear by together—that is what they worship. But now every sign put forth by the other—every sign of fear overcome by courage, all evidence of training, sacrifice, self-denial, skill—that one can emulate, that one has put forth oneself, are signs of devotion to that center. All the words that the two will henceforth speak to each other, and that others, telling their story, will speak of them, testify to that center. If one gets unreasonably angry with the other they can both laugh, because that resurgent resentment recalls the scene upon which its predecessor was transcended, and therefore becomes a sign of that transcendence. The show of resentment is just demonstration of the gift of vigor given by the center.

This brings us to critical ontological and epistemological questions. We’ve already dealt with the question of “reality,” that is, whatever is inexhaustibly signifying. It’s also a question of truth, which, in social and cultural terms, can only mean the eliciting of signs of one another’s relation to the center. One central principle of modernist art is that aesthetic value lies not in what a given work represents (ideas, a social reality, etc.) but in the extent to which it makes full use of its materials—colors and shapes on a flat surface, words on a page, and so on. Modern art and its theoretical defenders were right to defend art against its social utility, which in practice means kitsch, but were mistaken in thinking that rigorous artistic practices meant eliciting desires concealed or suppressed by the civilized social order. The materials of art are the materials of other areas of life, which also use colors, shapes, surfaces, words, sounds, etc. The vocation of art is to retrieve those materials from the disciplines, which use them to establish the hierarchies of relevance through which they hope to subordinate those who occupy the center. To some extent this always means the disciplinary establishments of the arts themselves.

Whatever is presented as relevant in itself is to be presented anew as a product of a scene. This includes all the aesthetic materials that, in a disimperativized declarative, disciplined order, are set up for purposes of control—for the anticipatory capture and sequestering of resentments generated by the carousal for rotating power itself. The more you can event-ize and scenicize the conceptual hierarchies streaming toward you the more reality and the closer to truth you are getting. These conceptual hierarchies always stream toward you through other people, people mediated by scenes and media. The conceptual hierarchies, then, need to be performed along with them—one needs to help elicit from them this performance, and help them elicit it from oneself. When the conceptual hierarchies dissolve, the real hierarchies that don’t need their support become more visible. The concepts can then be put to use discerning what the real hierarchies demand of us.

Here’s another way to think about it. Our lives are increasingly run by algorithms, which are really just a technological extension of the desire to predict what others will do. If I’m in a difficult situation, and I can predict what others will do for the next 5 minutes, I might get out of it; if I have machines that can predict what pretty much everyone will do over the course of their entire lives, I can dominate them fairly easily. Two things are necessary to build such machines: first, humans must be analyzed, broken down, into parts (fears and desires, primarily) that make them predictable; second, a social world is built that constantly elicits those anthropological mechanisms. It’s a bit too science fictiony to say we currently live in such a word, but it’s obvious that we are governed by those who are trying very hard to construct something along these lines. If you want to approach this in libertarian terms, you could say freedom depends upon being anti-algorithmic; in autocratic terms, you could say that clarity in the command structure requires it. The ideal of the algorithm is to separate the declarative order from the ostensive and imperative worlds once and for all. In the perfected algorithmic order no one need ever command because everyone would always already be guided spontaneously upon the path that maximizes frictionless coordination.

It’s pointless to ask, well, what would be so terrible about that (even if we could answer the question), because the ideal of the algorithmic order is really the opposite of what its appears to be. It’s just a war machine. It grinds you up to generate the inputs it needs. The victimary left thinks it opposes the algorithmic order because it reproduces the hierarchies resulting from behavioral differences—but the left just wants to control the machine. Which just proves human decisions are necessarily made to determine what counts as “inputs.” So, the left can’t have a counter-algorithmic program. Countering the algorithm would involve asking, what would be predicted of me now? And then confounding the prediction. I don’t mean that, if your “profile” suggests that you will behave compliantly in a given situation you should instead kill a bunch of people. Indeed, a slightly modified algorithm could predictthat. It means looking at the markers of compliance, as many of them as one can in a given scene, and delineating their imperative structure. We’re following orders here—we can all see this, right (look at what that guy just did.. why do you think this space is arranged in just this way?… did you notice how that gesture made her nervous?…)? The algorithm can’t account for an ongoing exposure of the terms of obedience. There’s no telling where it will lead—not necessarily to disobedience; maybe to subtle shifts in obedience that might eventually add up to decisive ones. The algorithm can’t account for someone seeking out an other worthy of being obeyed, or trying to become worthy of being obeyed oneself. The algorithm can’t account for the irreducible determination of relevance, of centrality, on the scene. It can’t account for the reading and writing, literal and figurative, of all the signs of the sign as signs of centrality and marginality—and therefore of relevance.

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