GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 19, 2020

Design and the Attentional Economy

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:55 am

I’ve been working for a while with the assumption that the “Axial Age” created the conditions for the generation of a new, post-sacrificial morality. Sacrificial morality relies, ultimately, on human sacrifice: someone is put in the place, ultimately, of the sacral king, who served as the target of the mimetic crises that plague any human community. Girard called this “scapegoating,” and I have been calling it “violent centralization,” and I have been following Girard, and then Gans, in attributing to the Christian scriptural tradition the revelation of the “bad faith” of sacrifice—the members of the community must blind themselves to the fact that what they see as an act of deserved retribution (the victim must always been rendered “guilty” in some way) really has nothing to do with the victim and everything to do with their own internal relations as a group. Calling the social orders marked by this revelation “post-sacrificial” is not to argue that such bad faith centering of the other no longer takes place—obviously, it’s quite common—but that everyone knows it’s wrong, can see it in others, and require elaborate rationalizations to carry it out. When we do it, we must insist it’s something else—and, of course, sometimes it really is.

I believe that, so far, I share this understanding of what Gans calls the “Christian revelation” with just about everyone who has been working in GA since, say, the 90s. In other words, it’s “canonical,” or “orthodoxy.” There is a seemingly obvious corollary that is equally canonical or orthodox, but which I reject. This corollary is that a certain understanding and reality of the “individual” results from the transcendence of scapegoating: the individual who is “equal” to other individuals, within the framework of what gets called “moral equality.” I’ve criticized this concept before, but my recent thinking about design provides it with a larger frame. My initial claim is that the social injunction to refrain from scapegoating implies nothing, and need imply nothing, regarding the “being” of the potential victim. In order to justify and reinforce that injunction, or the prohibition on scapegoating, it might indeed be helpful to project onto those not to be sacrificed the qualities which make them undeserving of such treatment. So, for example, if human beings all inherently somehow possess something we can call “dignity,” then it is because of that dignity that they must be treated in certain ways. The same goes for things like “consciousness,” “conscience,” and what Gans has always called an “internal scene of representation.” Rather than such projections, all we need to be able to say about the self is that is continually constructed as a sustainable center of attention, that of others and the self itself. These qualities and entities, along with the aforementioned “moral equality,” and notions of the “soul,” are all, that is, parts of a mythology of the individual, a way of invoking the center (drawing from it imperatives) to match the imperative to refrain from marking individuals in ways that have proven communally destructive.

It would be at least as easy to say that this prohibition on “marking” the other as victim (or “stigmatizing”) leads us, not to an ontology of the “individual,” but a semiotics of marking. So, we could say, if you frame this kind of behavior in this way, it is likely to incite this kind of response from a particular audience, and so on. A cataloguing of such “markings” would tell us nothing about individuals, but only of possible social constructions of them. And which markings needed to be attended to, and cautioned about, in different cases, would differ considerably—in other words, the prohibition on scapegoating could just as easily lead to an insistence on attending to lots of differences among individuals. Such an approach would be far more effective than the one based on “moral equality,” which leads us to scapegoat anyone who notices anything that might make us skeptical of that moral equality, and the way it is enforced under any given regime, and therefore leads straight to our current victimary order, which is has significant sacrificial elements. It would be more effective because it would direct attention where it needs to be, on the proclivities of the community and the various fluctuations in mimetic tensions, rather than upon the imaginary qualities of potential victims and potential perpetrators.

If our only interest is in “marking,” then, we need no ontology of the individual—nothing, no consciousness, no soul, inner being, free will, nothing. But people would, naturally, construct their behaviors in ways that make the markings most potentially relevant to them as irrelevant (or “counter-relevant”) as possible—to put it simply, they would both be aware of the way certain stereotypes might apply to them, and do what they could to disrupt the application of those stereotypes—which, in turn, would make things easier for those who don’t want their thinking to be in the grips of such stereotypes, but also don’t want to censor themselves for noticing differences. In fact, we would be finding ways to take the sting out of stereotypes, for ourselves and others, by making them explicit and thereby making it possible to modify behaviors, even by turning “negative” stereotypes into “positive” ones. All this would obviously be very different from the way we go about things now, and, I’ll repeat, requires no projection of an ontology onto the “individual” nor any assumptions of “equality.”

What it will do, though, is turn individuals into designers—of practices and institutions. I’ve been doing some reading in contemporary design theory, of the kind that is very cognizant of postmodern thought (I’ll mention briefly the work of Benjamin Bratton, especially his The Stack, and his colleagues in the Strelka Institute in Moscow), and one can see the tendency towards a very promising post-humanism. The notion that individuals were “constructed” was once a fairly esoteric theoretical speculation, but how does one deny it now that our whole lives are very tightly governed by algorithms under the control of corporations and states that now, between them, regulate all social interactions? Now, this intellectual tendency is very clear about how the complex of systems constructing our lives—which they are sure to do far more intensively, down to the molecular level, as technology improves—practically dismantle the mythology of the individual I’ve been referring to—where does one find “freedom,” or “conscience” in all of this?—assertions of such qualities are themselves programmed gestures. But the same does not hold for the prohibition on scapegoating, which I would say, counter-intuitively, but in agreement with Girard’s claim that Europe didn’t stop burning witches because it became scientific but, rather, became scientific because it stopped burning witches, that the prohibition of scapegoating has made all of modern technology and even more so its current, scary, intrusive, seemingly uncontrollable social media technology possible.

It’s not hard to find people with complaints about the totalitarian nature of social media and the forms of government surveillance and information gathering and keeping that work seamlessly with them. But, despite the very serious criminality of sections of the American government that has been revealed through inquiries into the Russia collusion hoax, a criminality almost universally shared with the major American media (which is really nothing more, and probably never has been anything more, than a racket trafficking in information and what we could call “information laundering”), it is still worth pointing out that, for example, these ubiquitous means of social monitoring and control have not led, say, to the isolation and targeting for elimination of large social groups. You could say I’m setting a low bar, but if it were the case that this thoroughgoing construction of the individual revealed morality to be a myth concealing sheer utilitarian power struggles or the conveyance of collective resentments, such things would be happening (as they seem to be in China). Meanwhile, if it’s the case that it’s the origin of these technological capacities in the study of the various “dangerous” markings that the prohibition on scapegoating calls for, then the evidence of clear moral limits on the use of this immense power is no surprise. In fact, if we set aside the dominance of much of social media by the “wokeratti,” what this media mostly does is provide security and enhance knowledge dissemination. It’s actually much easier to use it to exonerate rather than frame the innocent.

A lot of scapegoating takes place on social media—at times it seems like little else goes on there. My claim here is that the nature of social media is more to be used to design social interactions or “interfaces” that foreground dangerous markings along with ways of deferring their danger. I’m obviously also saying that those who want to abolish victimary practices should be using social media in this way. Also, I’m just using social media as an example here—post-liberalism should be a project of design across the board. The human sciences should be practices of design—mimetic theory channeled through the originary hypothesis allows us to diagnose institutional dysfunction in terms of ineffectively designed modes of deferral caused by undetected modes of mimetic rivalry; and such diagnoses would lead to proposed designs that would acknowledge the rivalry and re-set them.

You could say that this leads to a practice, if not ontology, of the individual—the individual as designer of social interactions. Again, nothing needs to projected onto individuals—we don’t need to say that humans are “by nature” designers, that it is their telos to design, that they are genetically determined to be designers, etc.—it’s enough that we are designers as a result of the ways our ancestors and predecessors designed the institutions producing us. We don’t all need to be equally good at it. Those who are better at have an interest in helping the less skilled; indeed, they have an interest in designing institutions and practices that will make people better designers. Making design the definitive neo-absolutist practice supports the kind of dedifferentiated disciplinary spaces I’ve argued for elsewhere. We’re always starting with a practice, which we can assume fits a model, and has therefore been designed more or less directly. We can start right where we are, in other words, in improving the design of our own practices and interactions so as to minimize the damage unthinking mimesis does to them. Once we’re committed to a particular practice, we become interested in organizations and institutions that can house and support them. This, in turn, generates new design projects. Designs can be made across the moral, aesthetic, pedagogical and political spheres—we design assignments to enhance learning; we design impossible objects, like perpetual motion machines or Rube Goldberg-style devices, to satirically expose failing institutions and unconsidered assumptions; we can design inspiring utopian visions in the great tradition of such visions; we can unite the infinite with the infinitesimal in our designs; we can design projects for social reform for potential patrons (indeed, wouldn’t they demand it?). In this way, any discussion can be put on entirely new footing, and piles of ideological baggage swept away—we can be designing to make sure that happens as well.

Design involves translation: a problem into confluence of reciprocally counter-acting designs; desires into a project; a territory into a map; a map into directions; patterns of social interactions into accumulations of reciprocal mimetic modellings; declaratives into an imperative meeting an absolute imperative; imperatives into extended ostensives; any utterance into spread out presuppositions and implications of that utterance; oral into written. Measuring is translating; money is a medium of translation. Any two terms you could put an “=” sign between involves a translation. Even more, then: the use of words and phrases at different times involves what we could call a translation of a term into itself, insofar as it becomes different over time. The designing frame entails looking at everything as problems of translation (and if we want to push this a bit further, transcription and transliteration as well0. You ascertain that the two terms are the same, that the “=” is appropriate, which makes you identify all the ways one could introduce a / through or an ~ above the =. When you design you confirm the = by eliminating all the /s and ~s. This is done on the scenes upon which you design narratives and articulate human movements with materials so as to inhabit and suspend the /s and ~s; you are being designed on this same scene, since the most basic reciprocal translation is that between design and designer.

January 8, 2020

Design, Imitation, and the Transfer Translation

Filed under: GA — adam @ 2:25 pm

Where do opinions, ideas, beliefs and arguments stand within the production system of modern life? Everyone has ideas, opinions and beliefs, and everyone makes arguments all the time, but through what process of mechanism can one imagine all this mental machinery being translated into institutional modifications that would be recognized by their possessors as realizations of the intentions manifested in them? For that matter, where do ideas, beliefs, and so on come from? Anyone could point to books one has read, education received, events that led to revelations, influences by parents and media, but where do all those sources come from? Once the Enlightenment fantasy of a conversation among equals being directly translated into the creation of social relations is dismissed, we can’t do better than invoking Plato’s cave metaphor in describing ideas, beliefs, opinions and arguments—they are descriptions of shadows playing on a wall. Then again, what would make what I’m doing here any different?

Social practices are commensurable with each other as practices, and, so, if we set aside terms derivative of the metalanguage of literacy like “ideas,” “beliefs,” “opinions” and “arguments,” and think of speaking, writing, listening and reading as practices, we can speak of media practices that might be converted into or made interoperable with other media practices. A practice is something that one or some do, that can be done again and be the same thing. A practice is a doing in the middle of things that are happening. Part of the practice, then, is marking the difference between what you are doing and what is happening. So, if your saying or doing (your saying as doing) can be iterated by others in such a way that others can say it’s the same thing, well, you can’t guarantee specific results, but you can distinguish the ordering of your practices from a world of events that, as far as anyone can tell, are just happening.

The most elementary understanding of knowing is that it is being able to say that two things are, or the same thing at different times, or to different participants, is, the same; insofar as things are parts of other things, this means that knowledge is being able to say that the proportions of the ingredients comprising the parts of one part are the same as the ingredients comprising the whole. In other words, that a sample is the same (in some respect) as the population it is selected from. Selecting a sample by doing something is a practice, that may or may not be the same as a system of practices it self-selects from. Nothing is lost if we say that a sample is a translation of the population, or the whole—the whole being nothing more than all of the actual and possible translations of it (in collections, new arrangements, measurements, etc.). A translation produces something in one medium that is the same as some original in another medium. So, all social practices are translations of all the other translations, with the question always being, what makes it a translation, or the same, in this new medium as all the others. When people gather into a disciplinary space, it is to answer this question.

This now returns us to the “transfer translation” Marcel Jousse found at the basis of the “oral style”—while Jousse is not completely clear about this, the transfer translation seems to be the written residue of the most repeated and most broadly applicable, the most embedded in rituals and other practices, of the oral traditions of a community—the parts of the oral tradition that must be preserved and therefore cannot be allowed to dissipate with the loss of or diminishing intelligibility of the language in which they have been articulated. Since these central discourses have been transferred into a new medium, with different idioms, much of the original is lost, so ascertaining the identity of the translation is the most important of social practices. Let’s say that in the original God “breathes” life into humans, but Gods don’t “breath” in the target language—maybe God “gives birth” to humans in that language. Now we have two origin narratives, the difference is noticeable and problematic, and therefore must be reconciled. All our ideas, beliefs, opinions and arguments are the effluvia of these efforts at reconciliation.

We begin with the assumption of sameness and commensurability because doing so is a precondition of the maintenance of linguistic presence and then we create original cultural forms by showing that the new form is the same as the old. This happens because showing it’s the same requires that we generate the idiom within which the repeated form will indeed be a repetition of the form previously embedded within another idiom. This is a way of saying we always assume order, continuity and centeredness. It is also the case that translation is a form of language learning, insofar as we learn a new idiom, or how to use a new word, by treating it as synonymous with ones we are familiar with while also guessing at its proper use in each new context until the responses of other tell us we’ve got it right. Keep in mind the way Google learned to translate—at first, word for word synonymous translations produced laughably bad results; then, drawing upon previous translations of the same words, phrases and sentences produced seamless results. That search process, for humans, involves trial and error, as we have to find idioms that fit an entire field of discourse in the target language.

I have mentioned on occasion that discourses on racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are really just “superstructures” erected over anti-discrimination law, which makes it ridiculous to argue over what these words “really mean,” and I’ll return to that now because it’s a good example of translation as a fundamental cultural practice. Liberalism declares all members of a polity to be “equal”—equal in relation to the state, but in relation to the state as form of centralizing power directed at demolishing formal differences, one after another. To align yourself with the state is to point to a difference to be demolished. This is what counts as being a good person. That this is really not about equality in any possible sense is clear from the fact, intrinsic to such a demand, that you or others like you be given power over those now benefiting from the difference under attack. One form of hierarchy is being replaced by another. So far, this is all familiar enough. But in applying liberal law, or anti-discrimination law, all kinds of distinctions and decisions need to be made: what actually counts as a violation of the law? We need model events, narratives, to make sense of this, like those involving fat Southern sheriffs harassing innocent black people. These stories are translations of the practices involved in enforcing the law, and they are reproduced, refined, and modified as necessary by legal institutions, journalists, politicians, schools, and so on. Broader sociological, anthropological and political concepts are generated to supplement these stories, to make the accounts of differences and attempts to eliminate them as consistent as possible. You can’t argue about these concepts and stories without participating in the practice of translation that produced them—which is why, again, it’s pointless to argue about them.

Now, we can propose, “logically,” the abolition of liberalism, thereby getting directly to the heart of the problem. But this can’t work without a network of practices generating the translative practices that would plug such an argument into narratives and supplementary concepts. And such practices are excluded by the ones already in place. The system of practices and the translations they generate needs to be exposed; but whose “need” is this, what imperative demands it, and from within what set of practices can this exposure be effected? If we want to think in the long term, this becomes a question of which disciplines to infiltrate and how. I would suggest that transdisciplinary practices of meta-translation can be summed up on the problem of design, which is a way of constraining translative practices. To engage in design, of a block, a neighborhood, a city, an institution, a network of institutions, is to think in terms of how the work of all the different disciplines would be translated into each other and into the design as a whole.

We can think very productively about design in terms of mimesis and deferral. If we know that a certain social arrangement regularly leads to certain rivalries, and those rivalries lead to conflicts which disrupt the ends for which participants engage in that activity, then, rather than talk to the individuals (or “types” of individuals) commonly led into those rivalries, and “explaining” to them why they are really wrong to distrust each other, that it would be better if they worked together, and so on, we would simply redesign the social arrangement so as to avoid the emergence of those rivalries. Of course, another arrangement might lead to other rivalries—we’re talking about a complex business here, in which various disciplinary spaces would need to participate. But framing, from the start, every problem as, in essence, a design problem, directs attention towards media, technology, and capital (the power to command the disciplines), rather than ephemera like opinions, beliefs, principles, opinions, policies and so on. The question we pose is, what deployment of media, technology and capital might render a particular conflict irrelevant? We don’t want to resolve the conflict itself, we don’t want to reconcile the parties, we don’t want to hear them out, we don’t want dialogue, we don’t want to take sides, etc.—we want to render the conflict unintelligible, like an argument over the proper way to arrange the sacrificial animal on an altar in some archaic community would be unintelligible to us now. All conflicts, actual and potential, are to be transformed into means of providing informed feedback to duly appointed authorities.

All practices, then, are to be translated into design practices. The media, technology, capital and power that have gone into producing a certain practice (of, say, conducting an ongoing debate) are included in the practice as part of its idiom. This is not a question of pacification—mimetic practices and practices of deferral are represented all along the line. New forms of mimesis, of modeling our behavior on others, must be proposed for each element of the design. You can imitate someone in such a way as to shrink the object you learn from him to notice and desire, so that there is only enough for one of you; or you can imitate another so as to enlarge the object so it can be shared. The latter is easier if we openly acknowledge that we are modeling our behavior on others, which we all know but will all reject for those practices we take to be most distinctive to us. It may be easier to openly acknowledge our unpayable mimetic debts to others if we learn to treat our own practices as design problems, which would naturally involve studying models and distinguishing what is usable and what is not, including what we are already using and misusing. Our transfer translations of design hypotheses would generate stories and supplementary concepts, like any transfer translation, but they would be stories of anthropomorphized beings engaged in translating the “human” into a current set of practices.

Engaging in full scale design requires power and capital, which excludes those who are not privileged actors within the liberal order. But every institution within the liberal order has a non-liberal purpose (liberalism has no purposes that is not parasitic on non-liberal institutions and practices) and insofar as public discourse is part of a post-liberal political practice, rather than offering up our opinions, beliefs, principles, and so on in pointless back and forths with those of others, we can present designs in the form of thought experiments that would eliminate the problem caused by liberalism by making liberalism impossible or irrelevant. There may not be any need to be explicitly anti-liberal—one could be ingenious enough to even propose voting systems that make voting irrelevant. These would be thought experiments that would re-formalize the differences and hierarchies that have been demolished, and would displace statements with practices (would insist every statement generate a practice to be part of the game). Whatever organizational form post-liberal politics eventually takes, it will be predicated upon presenting hypothetical designs, large and small, as demonstrations of the capacity to embark upon transformative design practices.

Powered by WordPress