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.

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