GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 30, 2019

As Who Does One Speak?

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:26 pm

When I listen to Michael Bloomberg, I hear a very wealthy and powerful man who, whether out of a lack of self-awareness or indifference to the effect of his attitude on others, sounds very much like a man speaking directly from his wealth and power. He has no hesitations in dictating to subordinates, prescribing behavior to poor people and other presumed inferiors, casually discussing various legal arrangements to channel behaviors in ways approved by social elites, and, perhaps most “shockingly,” seemingly spontaneously identifying with China’s “authoritarian” rulers in discussing ways of influencing China’s environmental policies (has he had anything to say recently about Hong Kong?). I am assuming that Bloomberg’s casual rhetoric of power will not win him the presidency, but it’s worth asking the apparently obvious question of why that’s the case, and of noting Bloomberg’s singularity here. Other extremely prominent and powerful billionaires don’t speak like that—Donald Trump, for example, doesn’t. In other words, billionaires very rarely “own” their power—they much prefer to speak as ordinary citizens who have risen from among us in a way any of us could, and as people who want to use their good fortune and the lessons they’ve learned to show us the way. Or, of course, to speak for the “powerless,” or the “environment” (of course, Bloomberg does this as well) It’s unfortunate, but probably to be expected, that Bloomberg’s fantasies (which he has been able to partially realize as mayor of New York) are petty and schoolmarmy—that interview on China, where he took his outraged interviewer through the various considerations the “dictator” Jinping must enter into his decision-making process was undoubtedly his most interesting moment. Maybe that’s the arena he views himself as best suited for.

So, Bloomberg himself may not be very interesting, but the complete absence of a serious rhetoric of power from the modern world is. Wouldn’t detailed, honest, accounts of everything that goes into their decision-making by the most powerful people in the world be the most informative disclosures we could imagine? Wouldn’t you want to see how the world looks to them? (Maybe they themselves don’t really know!) Think of how irresistible it seems for reporters, pundits and various left and right dissidents alike to pretend to be inside Donald Trump’s head: he’s worried now, he’s being played by his advisors, he’s too lazy to see that things are out of his control, how can he be so lacking in self-control, etc., etc. All of these (often hysterical) speculations are certainly wrong in important ways, and for reasons that should be obvious—from his perch, Trump knows lots of things none of us do. It’s not very often that one sees this pointed out—or that Trump has known many things very few people do for decades. And yet it’s easy to see why Trump can’t speak explicitly from within that perch, that is, drawing upon is vast array of sources and inside knowledge of those he must work with and those he must undermine. Insofar as Trump has ambitious plans for the use of power (unlike the anemic Bloomberg—but, then again, do I know what he knows?), such openness would diminish rather than enhance its exercise. The less others know about the precise sources of his power, the better—except for when he wants to bring a very precise quantum of power to bear in a particular instance. In any plural, and therefore unstable, order, power is exercised through leverage, and if others know your points of leverage they might be able to target those points with some kind of counter-leverage.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Were Trump, or any powerful figure, to speak so explicitly about the sources and purposes of his power, he would be presenting an image of the world most of us would be incapable of reproducing or picturing for ourselves. It would sound crazy. For one thing, we wouldn’t be in it, and there would be no “characters” for us to “identify” with. Any medieval peasant would have easily understood that his own understanding can’t begin to encompass that of the king’s, but such a realization is almost impossible now—to suggest it is to sound insulting, and as if you are describing massive “abuses” of power rather than the basic conditions of its use. I can’t think of a single work of art or entertainment set in the present that takes the perspective of the powerful, or the social center—which would be very different from the very common representation of the persecuted individual trying to evade or overthrow the center. This represents a very serious intellectual deficiency—a crippling one, really—and one we should start remedying.

We can’t remedy this defect by pretending to speak from power ourselves—that would be mere fantasizing. We have to read power off of the effects it produces down the line. And we can only do this as those who have themselves been produced by power. We have no choice but to make sense of power because power is disordered and disordering, and disorder can only be made sense of, indeed, recognized as such, against a residual, possible or implicit model of order. The most basic indication of order is things remaining the same. Which things? By what measure of sameness? We’d have to select a sample of things, and establish a disciplinary space that ascertains its identity over time—this amounts to showing that you can point to what others have named. There are always such spaces underway, and it’s a question of joining one, and then improving it. Ascertaining sameness over time is a problem because everything changes, and there are two ways of solving this problem. First, you can ignore all changes and differences and keep repeating those markers of sameness most evident to one’s fellow learners. Second, you identify the sameness in the midst of differences; this involves an oscillation between noted differences and retrieved or re-affirmed markers of sameness. In the process new markers of sameness will replace the old, which means what counts as a marker of sameness will be markers of continuity and transition, or repetition with a difference—an originary logic of iteration, according to which our “sample” is a marker of the origin of our inquiry into it, and the origin of that inquiry is in the production of that sample, in which our inquiry is a, furthermore, participation.

Committing to the origin and history of the sample involves some form of impersonation—not in the sense of taking on another’s identity but of taking on a persona. Conducting an inquiry means being shaped by the inquiry; the more engrossing the inquiry, the more deeply shaped by it the inquirer; so the sample itself, as constructed by the learners, provides the names that provide the materials for impersonation. A good persona, or mask (or costume), is one that can exist on both the scene of inquiry and the scene inquired into, or the sample. Charles Sanders Peirce said that all knowledge is knowledge of the relation between a sample and the whole—more precisely, whether the “proportions” of whatever “ingredients” you are interested in are the same in the sample as in the whole. Of course, the whole is changing as you extract each sample, and you could never extract enough samples to equal the whole, so we’re always approximating. There are measures we can take to ensure that the sample will be as close a simulation of the whole as possible, and we learn what these measures are through the process of sampling itself.

If it is knowledge about power that we seek, then the “ingredients” we want to discern the “proportions” of are those of power that generates order relative to power that generates disorder. That’s really a question of whether the practices of the center remain the same over time. The practices each of us participates in, and those we are made aware of via the more or less reliable media we have access to, provide us with our sample, which is always at some distance from the center. We are interested in the inquiry because we want more order, and we want more intelligent order, which is really saying the same thing. It’s possible to want more disorder, but only because you see the possibility of a more orderly setting for your own quest, at this moment, within a broader increase in disorder—but, even then, you’d have to try to stabilize the conditions enabling the continuation of that quest, or the preservation of its results. In that case, the fundamental disagreement we wish to isolate is between those seeking more direct and those seeking more indirect paths to order. Within the sample we help to comprise, we distinguish between more and less direct paths to order, and in doing so try to pave more direct ones. The smaller, more infinitesimal differences we can mark between more and less indirect paths, the more effectively we can leverage that distinction. The identity you take on, then, in the ongoing iteration of your inquiry, is one that represents the ordering subject marking the distinction for another insofar as that other is marginally less ordering. If the difference between the two is reduced to the infinitesimal, the two will be changing positions, so your identity is simultaneously that of a learner as well as teacher. Identities will take on names, but more fundamentally the notion refers here to style, figuration, and idiom.

Your maintenance of an identity, given to as much as taken by you, is the way you know things and make things known to others. The “flaneur” of 19thcentury Paris communicated knowledge of the street as a series of passing scenes. Philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche did much of their thinking through impersonations—everyone does, but they were just more explicit and knowing about it than others. Epistemologically, such positions are superior to those occupied, discursively, by those in the seats of power—Bloomberg’s remarks on China startle because he says what is forbidden within democratic discourse, and doesn’t seem to care, or, perhaps, realize, that he is doing so—but he gets pretty banal pretty quickly. From a position of power, it’s easier to make disorder than to create order—the direct advantages to be gained from the former are much more obvious. It’s hard to see how anyone with proximity to the center would choose sustainable order over the marginal utility of disorder without knowledge of its possibility, along with knowledge of the futility of exploitable disorders, being transmitted upwards to those in power through displays of discipline from below. This means having names, styles, idioms—an aesthetic.

Here’s a good way to think about aesthetics. There’s some object, or person, or type of practice, that draws dangerous, i.e., mimetically convergent attention. It’s the kind of thing you’d want to render sacred, so as to defer the violent attraction—you want to put it beyond bounds, so it can remain safe, and so can we. But you can’t render it sacred, because only a shared event can do so, as you realize in the course of your efforts. So, your representation of the object is now a representation of the impossibility of sacralizing it, and since this does not diminish the need to protect it, the aesthetic representation makes a case for a different mode of deferral, one to which the spectator/participant’s contribution is more explicit. The aesthetic takes up space ceded by the sacred, and aesthetic representations are representations of the unsacralizable and of a world needing new powers of deferral. This is a world requiring more explicit knowledge of mimesis, and its historical articulation in power, media and technology.

Aesthetics, then, also refuses degraded and decadent forms of sacrality, like the bizarre Christian heresies that have devolved into liberalism. Aesthetics seeks out a more direct representation of sociality, of both desires and resentments, stripped of their justifications, and of the institutional forms for naming, pre-empting and countering those desires and resentments—also with no more “elaboration” than that needed to make imperatives issued from within those institutions known. Of course, doing this might involve displaying and exposing lots of justifications and elaborations. The work needs to exhaust the attempts to sacralize as well as the attempts to pretend it’s unnecessary to try. Aesthetics itself should ultimately be dissolved into more knowing and thinking modes of authority, designed so as to eliminate the imperative exchanges in which resentments are bound up (resentments themselves would, then, be directly converted into reasonable and helpful criticisms of the exercise of authority). To put forth an aesthetic, then, is to embody, or impersonate, a form of authority—authority, we could say, is power retracted completely into the ostensive, so presence itself models the proper ordering. So, we want to create identities that tacitly call forth an ordering, that add one more increment of sameness amongst a broader field of difference than existing positions have so far identified.

December 2, 2019

Conditions for an Enduring Technostructural Civilization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:26 am

The most destructive thing about liberalism is the systematic falsification it imposes on all of reality. One could say that this has gotten worse—that, for example, mid-20thcentury liberalism didn’t so adamantly demand fealty to obvious lies—but this only means that our social orders were less liberal then. At this point, there are very few things one can tell the truth, or seek the truth, about, even in private life, without some kind of “backlash.” The reason for this is that liberalism is founded on the oxymoronic practice of imposing equality from above (which is the only way of imposing “equality”). The purpose of imposing equality from above—from a centralizing power position—is to demolish intermediate layers of authority. You need to demolish intermediate layers of authority when you can find no way of integrating them into the power dynamic you need to set in motion in order to undermine some other power center’s dynamic. The consequence is that you destroy reality, because reality can only be comprehended and apprehended from within positions of power and authority, where you need to make decisions whose results are visible and important to others who have to make decisions. And then you have to redouble your attacks on anyone who gestures towards a reality outside of your egalitarian imperative. This process has already significantly corroded the sciences and engineering, and can only continue to do so.

The creation of a new order would have to involve more reality. That is, people would have to be rewarded, not punished, for speaking and seeking the truth; or, more precisely, for putting forward disputable hypotheses within recognizable intellectual traditions. There will always be borderline hypotheses, where one or more of those traditions are radically called into question, thereby raising questions of institutional authority, but even there a wait and see approach can be maintained, while that sphere of inquiry is “quarantined” without being squashed. Truth (or reality) friendly regimes have so far only been possible within protected spheres deemed essential to central authority. To extend such regimes further requires further increments in solving the fundamental human problem of mimesis. If I am to look at what someone else says—something unfamiliar, something troubling, something potentially harmful to my status—and ask questions that allow that statement to be further fleshed out rather than denounce it as heresy, then I must have constructed a model of behavior for myself modeled on central authority rather than on some rampaging power agency solicited to advance my rivalry with some resented other. And there must be a sufficient number of others doing this as well, so that I don’t have to denounce before I am denounced. This means that for a sufficient number of people discourse is sufficiently abstracted from mimetically driven rivalries so that statements can be commented on outside of a “who, whom” frame.

The most radical form of traditionalism is one that sees mimesis, mimetic rivalry, communal expulsion (what I call “violent centralization), and mimetic crisis, along with the myriad ways mimetic relations are reconfigured through the deferral of actual and potential crises, as the problem with which all of human culture, which is to say all of human language, is occupied with. Every myth, every ritual, every political order, every work of art, is above all concerned with this problem, and represents an attempt to resolve it in a form that accounts for the particulars of a given case or scene, while still being enduring. A denial of mimesis might be the purpose of the self-generated individual posited by liberalism. In moral and anthropological terms, the “individual” is created as a form of deferral—the individual is the one protected from violent centralization, or scapegoating. In this case, who the individual is doesn’t matter—it’s precisely the individual who “triggers” certain forms of rivalry within the community who must be protected, precisely in the name of controlling the escalation of rivalries. The individual, in that case, as one created in the image of God, is a cause for reflection upon our own “sinful” nature, with “sinful” meaning “mimetic”: driven by lust, envy, and hatred—by a relation of “reciprocal usurpation” with some other. But if the individual is self-creating, and is the foundation rather than product of a social order, on what grounds can mimetic desires be criticized? Indeed, to criticize them is to attack the “individual,” to be “authoritarian.” In that case all of inherited culture represents arbitrary impositions on freedom.

Liberalism makes much harder what is in any case very difficult: realizing that we are thoroughly mimetic and mediated beings. It’s almost impossible to desire something while simultaneously thinking that you desire it because you imagine someone else desiring it—it’s “cognitively” difficult, and we’d rather not do it, because it saps desire. The satisfaction of desire becomes much less satisfying if such considerations are kept in mind. But where else do you imagine desires coming from? Yes, outside of any human order one would want food, drink, sex, shelter—animals want those things, and work on obtaining them. Some food would taste better than others, some potential mates be preferable to others, etc. But, absent mimesis, we wouldn’t want a particular “object of desire” more because we have been denied it, or because we imagine someone else enjoying it. And this also means that without mimesis we wouldn’t think in “non-pragmatic” ways about things, because what we think about are what we desire, what or who we fear will abscond with what we desire, those who interfere with our desires, and the ways in which this entire configuration is characterized by ongoing fluctuations: an object seems irresistibly desirable, but, then, not; someone seems unattainably admirable, but then maybe a bit contemptible; a particular struggle seems existential, but then rather silly. All of these events happen through language, which is what first of all allowed us to desire something while still deferring appropriation of it but while still desiring it, etc. And it is through language that all of this can become “interesting,” which is to say worthy of sustained and self-reflective attention.

Now, think about how difficult civilization is. Civilization requires hierarchies and divisions of labor. This means accepting that there will always be others who have better things than you, and can order you around, and being able to consider yourself unworthy for dwelling on this fact. And why, exactly? Maybe those with more than you are “better” in some relevant way, but maybe not—such claims can be neither verified nor falsified, so you can tell yourself what you like. More subject to proof is how the power of your superiors is used: we can tell, at least to some extent, whether an enterprise or community is well run, whether problems are solved or allowed to fester, how this particular authority measures up to others we are familiar with. Still, it’s precisely when things are being run well that we might imagine ourselves most capable of running them—it seems so easy, and therefore all the more “unfair” that this guy gets to do it rather than me. And when we have the “right” to complain about things being run poorly, how much of that arrogated right depends upon us not knowing all kinds of things that are involved in “running things”—and, then, how can we tell how “justified” our complaint really is? (A simple example: I recently saw some figure, respected or at least more respected on the “nationalist” or “dissident” American right than “Conservatism Inc.” say something like, “it’s time to focus on our rivalry with China rather than getting bogged down in endless wars [in the Middle East, etc.],” with this sentiment being met with approval, as rejecting “endless war” has been a password providing entry to the new right. But: will not China seek to extend its influence where it can, including those areas from which the US withdraws its influence? And will not getting serious and directing our attention to our rivalry with China therefore not involve countering such attempts by extending our own influence? In other words, is not rivalry every bit as “endless” as our recent wars, and in fact the cause of them? Unless, of course, “international relations” can be reset in new, cooperative, terms. Why not?—but doing so will involve controlling rather than exhibiting resentments.)

A properly civilized attitude, then, requires one to be inquisitive regarding the exercise of authority, including over oneself, while ensuring that this inquisitiveness leaves permanently open the question of what one does not and cannot know as an inquirer without access to the very power one is questioning. You have to be aware of your place within a system while being simultaneously aware that you don’t know the system. And the system itself would have to encourage this level of maturity. As a mimetic being, you must imitate your model as closely as possible while still maintaining an inviolate distance from him. Now, in the tradition of advanced civilizations, sustaining this equipoise becomes difficult because the system drifts further and further from its founding principles and becomes more reliant on exploiting the hierarchies that were creating under other conditions, in accord with another principle of merit, but that are now primarily sources of self-enrichment available to those most skilled in intrigue and flattery. Here is where the constant revolutions introduced by a technological social order may improve the prospects for the civilized attitude, and provide a means of exiting the seemingly permanent “cycle” of rise and fall. The proper technological attitude is rather similar to the properly civilized one: one must recognize oneself first of all to be a means of much larger, impersonal systems, i.e., to de-personalize and fragment oneself, in order to imagine the ways one might be an end of such systems.

The first, ancient, technologies were predicated upon the power to move around masses of people who didn’t need to be considered as people, i.e., as named within some sacral order. (We can distinguish this from crafts and techniques, which can always be contained within a relation to some cult, transmitted through pedagogical apprenticeship relations.) It was the ancient empires, with millions of slaves gathered from conquered peoples, which had such power, and used it for various construction and destruction projects. All the parts became homogeneous because all the people who were the parts could be made so. The availability of the masses of nameless slaves was equiprimordial with the imperial vision which could imagine god-like projects, i.e., projects of world destruction and creation. This is the origin of the technological world view, which is therefore mimetic to the core: the ancient emperors modeled projects on the power of Gods and technologists today model this imperial vision. The technological vision excludes consideration of human ends irreducible to the project itself, even when enacted for the purpose of improving the human condition, and even when it does, in fact, improve the human condition. But there are good reasons why the technological vision didn’t, for the most part, engage in the transformation of materials rather than the movement of masses of people until starting from about half a millennium ago.

If you are to advance the technological vision beyond the imperial one, you need to expand the range of practices that might become models for technological transformation. Rather than abstracting mass organization from social interaction, the observation of social interaction itself would have to become the source of models for technological transformation. The development of machinery out of the very careful examination of the cooperation, often indirect, of workers, as noted by Adam Smith and then Karl Marx, might be “dehumanizing,” but it first of all required attention to minute human practices and “sub-practices.” Modern technological development is predicated upon explicitly posing questions that have already been implicitly posed by collective practices, and then further sub-dividing so as to replace machinically the practices that posed the question in the first place. So, it becomes evident that more rapid communication across great distances would facilitate practices already in place; so, “communication” must be analyzed and disassembled into its elements (signals, vibrations, spread out temporally, “codes” and decoding processes, etc.), which can then be simulated and transmitted through wires, and so on. And, as a result, even “face to face” communication becomes “distanced” in new ways.

This process looks a bit like the “high-low vs. middle” power “mechanism”—it’s as if the “high,” the technologist, organizes the “low,” the particulate, “unconscious,” elements of signification “against” the actual speakers of a language. And we could further see how disciplines like linguistics, communications, and information are marshalled in this “campaign.” This might be because the conditions for a “breakthrough” of the HLvM process are the same for the technological breakthrough: a social order that is simultaneously desacralizing and resacralizing. Desacralizing, because the old sacrificial cults have been torn down (and who knows how long the war against their remnants continued even after the cults were officially overthrown), by Christianity in the West, but by the Axial Age more broadly across the board. Resacralizing, because what replaces the cult is not ‘secularism,” not even for philosophy, but the cult of the innocent victim targeted by cultic and imperial power. It is this latter cult that is responsible for the inviolate “individual” discussed above, and that led to new and very intense forms of attention being paid to human individuals. But this is unsustainable as a cult claiming to be outside of, or above, power. For Christianity to find a way to govern the West again, it would have to be a Christianity that makes explicit the entire set of power relations it in fact presupposes: the sovereignty Christianity projects onto God would have to be mapped onto the kind of human sovereignty being projected, with all of the political and economic categories of Christianity (“redemption,” “hostage exchange,” “shepherd,” etc.) spelled out.

So, we cannot and will not make humans masses of nameless slaves again; but we will continue to detect in the practices other humans perform the elements of new practices inclusive of but unimaginable within the older ones. In the process, technologists mobilize us all to do (including to ourselves) what we “cannot and will not,” even if we disavow doing so all the more vociferously. It may be that a lot of contemporary resentment can be mapped onto such disavowals—it may even be that this is part of the reason it seems to be becoming easier to see each other (and to act?) as enemy “bots,” i.e., cogs in political machines, indistinguishable from pre-programmed responses to utterly predictable “provocations.”  The kind of governing authority that could guide a post-sacrificial technological order is one that accepts the absolute responsibility to name everything, established and emergent, within the human order; while knowing that naming does not close but rather opens the order to new possibilities. Naming things, persons, practices, institutions, entails placing them at the center, and the creation of a new center in turn creates new peripheries.

If you take responsibility for naming, you reject—and name—the position that pretends that reality names itself, that wishes to have the names without the resentable namer. In that case, you want the names to last, because you want your name, as you have tried to inhabit it, to last. So you want the names to be able to stand on their own, with you, or a proxy, providing the most minimal backing possible. That means they must encourage a stance of deferral over resentment: those most capable of deferring their resentment and therefore looking carefully at those named objects most likely to incite their resentment must be those who find the most use in the name. This is what will make the names honest and truthful. And these are also the names that will most evoke expansive tacit realities. Stable, ordered, named institutions will create individuals who know their names mark events, and that these events can be replicated through the naming of others and self-re-namings. We could come to see our practices, individually and collectively, as the sources of new technological processes we would participate in sovereignty over. First of all, soliciting and enabling such participation would be made intelligible, and become a practice. As a practice more available to some than to others, it would generate resentments, all the more so because the practice has become available—why should the other be a more fully technological subject than me? So, then, the practice is replicated and extended to meet that resentment. The most basic precondition for an enduring technostructural civilization, then, is the generalized practice of responding to others’ resentments by extending to them a practice; and, of course, a general preparedness to accept such pedagogical gestures as an answer to one’s own resentments, resentments such answers will have explicitly formulated (because to be a subject of resentment is to be at least partly blinded to the mimetic investments generating those resentments). So, in response to a complaint: here’s something you can do—and, even if it had on the face of it nothing to do with your complaint, you do it, and find that it did, and so you can then replicate the practice for others.

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