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.

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