GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 28, 2020

Hypothesizing the Present

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:34 pm

This post will deal with the implications for knowledge production of the meta-practices of converting the ritual-mythic nexus into practices and the Big Scene into an articulation of centripetal disciplinary spaces. I haven’t explicitly connected the ritual/mythic and the Big Scene, but it’s not hard to see the connection: if you are imagining the social order (at any level: local, national, or global) on the model of the originary scene with its shared sacrificial center, then you can only think in terms of imperative exchanges with that center. Those imperative exchanges, moreover, will have to involve imagined forms of propitiation through some form of redistribution, material and/or symbolic. Put simply, you will be compelled to believe that relieving some kind of “inequity” between groups will lessen the total sum of resentment in the social order. This, in turn, dooms you to moving pieces around on a fantasy game board: will formal recognition of national independence propitiate? A check for X billion dollars? Opening new factories in a depressed area? Closing factories in an exploited area? This is all magical thinking and cargo-culting. An absolute precondition for any serious project of social renewal is the unqualified rejection of it.

The Big Scenic cargo cult is obsessed with big pictures and all-encompassing narratives—telling the story of a civilization or nation can employ the same tropes and formulas as a domestic melodrama, with anger, manipulation, conciliation and so on attributed to mythically constructed actors. The underlying pretense is that the center is no more than various ways these groups leverage power, which would mean the center is divisible and shareable—again, just like on the originary scene (more precisely, in the sparagmos, which is where Big Scenic thinking is always located). This kind of fantasizing can make someone feel powerful, because you can imagine building a big enough lever. But keep in mind that when someone pieces together various (reported) events and concludes that Trump is either a lazy, easily distracted incompetent being jerked around by “Javanka”; or, that he is a patient, calculation mastermind who is taking years to properly roll out a plan to drain the swamp, control the borders, neutralize the left, and reorder economic relations to the benefit of American workers—this someone doesn’t really know. These are hypotheses supplemented by attributions of familiar motivations and “plot devices” needed to make the narrative work.

Now, it is also important to say that of course they are hypotheses, because that’s all we have. I want not to eliminate hypothesizing but to make it more “austere” precisely by eliminating the melodramatic flourishes that allow us to find a role for ourselves. We have nothing but samples and are nothing but samples ourselves. We have to hypothesize the present out of a single sample, which in turn produces a new sample out of which one again hypothesizes the present. You keep initiating an ongoing inquiry in which your practices are both the objects and experimental systems. When Trump leaves some “traitor” subverting his policies in place in, say, ICE, well, maybe he’s being played, or maybe he’s letting the deep staters expose themselves, maybe he’s allowing for a distraction while something else is happening somewhere, maybe he doesn’t take his own policies seriously, maybe he’s allowing for an unavoidable “slack” in the system, etc. One or more of these hypotheses, or others, necessarily present themselves upon hearing the report (which is itself, of course, sliced out of a “thicker” layer of events)—we can’t make sense of anything without generating hypotheses about it. If you withhold the narrative props, though, you can freely oscillate between these hypotheses and use them to generate further “if… then” hypotheses predicated on each of them. This is an especially advanced form of deferral. This horizontal spreading of various possible presents is what generates the vertical because we also have to make decisions at every point along the way and the strongest decisions, the practices most in accord with the central imperative to iterate the originary scene, is the one that operationalizes in a consistent way the horizontal “slice” that allows for the completion of a practice while keeping all the other possible presents in reserve. If your hypothesis doesn’t enable the perfection of some practice—if you can’t say that doing what you do changes the conditions under which you do it—then both the sample you are working with and the sample you presently are are of tangential relevance at best.

We now have the question of how such a hypothesis and practice are bound up—what does a streamlined hypothesis, free of the narrative devices needed to make us feel like we’re present on a scene, look like? First, I want to bring this question into an intersection with another one, which I have tried out various solutions to over the years. When I first starting working on “originary grammar,” I wanted it to do the kind of work a traditional linguistic analysis would do, like analyzing a particular sentence as an articulation of ostensive, imperative and declarative. I realized that such an analysis would be overwhelmed by the contextual determinations one would have to take into account, and this enabled me to see that the grammar itself could not be complete without grounding it in the center, which is what grounds any ostensive in the first place. So, in Anthropomorphics, I did a different kind of work with the originary grammar, on an anthropological, moral, political and historical level. But I’ve never given up on the original intention, and continue to think that further inquiry will provide the materials so as to reframe the problem and make it generative. The recent work I’ve been doing on algorithmic thinking, self-appification and data immersion seems to provide a promising “context.”

Here is one axiom I developed long ago for determining what should count as a model sentence: it is predictable in direct proportion to the “recipient”’s participation in a given disciplinary space. So, if we imagine a sentence being uttered following a previous sentence and therefore an entire speech situation, which itself has roots in other speech situations more or less available to and recallable by other participants on the scene, that sentence can either come as a complete surprise to one, or be heard almost as an echo of what one was already thinking—or, of course, anywhere in between. The model sentence creates a continuum, which is a measure of one’s participation in a space with a history of speech situations, so that the sentence seems inevitable to those participants most immersed in the space. It now seems to me that a better way of formulating this is to say the continuum from astonishment to obviousness should be produced for all recipients, regardless of where they are situated in relation to the disciplinary space, with the difference between insiders and outsiders rather being in the rapidity with which one would move across the continuum. So, you want to say something that, for a peer, someone equally immersed and practiced as you, is astonishing, and then instantaneously intuitively obvious. For an outsider, meanwhile, the astonishment opens the prospect of a long period of study and initiation into a space, with the promise of intuitive obviousness lying at the end of the road.

This axiom is modeled on the creation of a new ostensive. Think in terms of what is involved in pointing out something new to someone, that is, creating a new space of joint attention. If it’s something the person has never seen before, you will have to single it out of a mass of “distracting” material—no, not that, no, look a little higher, yes, but only part of that, etc. That’s what declaratives are for—to make the negations and distinctions that eventually enable everyone to home in on what is being pointed to. And we can see how imperatives are necessary at each point along the way in order to bring the other into the ostensive space you already occupy. So, the axiom for the model sentence aims at creating sentences that rehearse the pedagogical practice of showing someone something new. Such a sentence, which arranges its audience so as create a virtual representation of the entire process of identifying something new and being able to say that we are seeing the same thing, may never actually exist. How could you prove you have it? But that doesn’t matter—it exists as a model, against which we can measure other sentences, and determine the extent to which they reveal and iterate this pedagogical practice. This differs from Turner and Noel-Thomas’s model of “classic prose” by, rather than pretending everyone hearing the sentence is on the same scene, constructing the emergence of the scene and the uneven ingress to it on the part of the audience. We can then take a single sentence as a sample and hypothesize various possible oscillations between that sentence and the model one from which it must in some ways and to some extent deviate. And this analysis could descend to the level of the embedded phrase, individual word and grammatical choices, and so on.

So, to return to the question of a single-sample based hypothesis inextricably bound up in the perfection of a practice, we can say that the proof is in the writing, or, even, the style. If I’m going to make a claim about Trump based upon a report about the actions of a mid-level bureaucrat in some department, the purpose of that is to lower the threshold of significance regarding Trump and Trump-related events (and which events are not Trump-related at this point?). To lower the threshold of significance and make my attention more laser-like is to produce a condition of enhanced readiness. Readiness for what? Well, that’s what’s bound up in the hypothesis. Readiness to contribute to Trump’s efforts; readiness to pick up the pieces after Trump’s failure; anything in between. Full spectrum readiness attunes us to all of these possibilities, and is a readiness to transition seamlessly from one to the other. I remember at some little league training session I took my son to many years ago the trainer showed the kids the ready position for a fielder in baseball. He then showed the ready position to receive a serve in tennis, and to start a play in football, and I think he mentioned a couple of other sports as well. It was the same position, which even he seemed to find astonishing. We want to write, think, and practice our way into the equivalent of such a position in participating in our various modes of centered ordinality. A good hypothesis/practice is one that creates that position with an ever so slight orientation to the most likely move you will be called upon to make.

A hypothesis/practice (a binary symmetrical to the myth/ritual one) is always a relation between something you (and others) do and what you (and others) say—a relation that you want to make as close and necessary as possible. What you say is the boundary between what happens and what you do. My opening and continuing criticisms of “Big Scenic” thinking may suggest that I’m in favor of thinking small, but that’s not the case—I’m just against imaginary solutions to real problems. “Trump is saving the world,” a hypothesis he himself put forth in a recent press conference, is a perfectly viable and even operationalizable hypothesis. The extent, means and forms in which Trump is saving the world directly impact your positions within the scenes in which you participate. You can convert yourself into a sample of Trump saving the world and, simultaneously, of a sample of the intractability of the present world to being saved on those terms. Everything in the world can be framed in those terms, and every action guided and representable by them—even if, of course, that not the only hypothesis that might take the shape of a practice The practice involves making the boundary (Trump saving the world/the world’s intractability) visible, so that any event can be placed on one side of the boundary and then the other, and in this way become a useful source of information. As for which boundaries to take an interest in, I think those which entail a rapid conversion of astonishment to intuitive obviousness on the part of your close colleagues, and presuppose a more arduous conversion for more distant potential colleagues, provide a good starting point. Of course, identifying those features involves hypothesizing as well.


August 19, 2020

Transposing the Scene

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:08 pm

I’ll be coming back here to issues addressed in a post from April 9, 2019, “The Big Scene is the Anthropological Basis of Anarchist Ontology,” and which I can now place in the context of the conversion of the ritual/mythical nexus into practices. The starting observation is a simple one: it is extremely difficult to speak about politics, history or social order without modeling these constructs on a scene upon which all are present. It is necessary to make a real effort not to talk about social groups (“whites” and “blacks,” “men” and “women,” “racists,” “transgendered,” “liberals,” “conservatives,” etc.) as if they were unified individuals with a single intention. It takes an even greater effort to resist speaking of individuals this way, even if doing so is equally delusional or, more precisely, “mythical.” The difficulty here is clarified by what Francis Noel-Thomas and Mark Turner call the “classic style,” which David Olson considers central to the emergence of “prose” (and therefore literacy) and which generates the illusion that the writer and reader share the same scene (this is what is taken to be “clear writing”). If we think that there is some “we” that shares the same scene, what we really believe is that we have a shared center, and that finding the right sacrificial object and the distribution of that object will resolve any conflicts.

It would be impossible to overstate how prevalent and destructive this mythical mode of thinking is. Anyone who says “we” without specifying the practice that constitutes the “we” participates in it. But no one can be blamed for it—it is a deeply laid intellectual and cultural inheritance. That we no longer share a sacrificial center, where distribution takes place directly and intentionally; that the social center is now permanently occupied by someone who cannot be sacrificed—after all these centuries this has still not registered. All of our social and political concepts—justice, liberty, equality, nature, democracy, right, and so on—share the same “big scenic” imaginary, as if we were all imagining ourselves standing around a shared central object. The occupied center is still taken as a kind of accident, acceptable only insofar as we can reduce the occupant to the implementation of one of these concepts. The concept of the free market, contrary to appearances, represents the same kind of primitivism, as if we were all at the same meal exchanging parts of the sacred body with each other: “wealth” and “GDP” are imagined as the beast at the center, even if the beast continues to grow. All of the “social” disciplines are engaged in the impossible task of transposing the scenic imaginary of a shared sacrificial scene onto the realities of a social order with a permanently occupied and sacrificial-repellent center. Our strongest moral inheritances are no less attempts to bypass this “imperial” reality and imagine a direct relation with other individuals with God as an ever more distant center. “Love your neighbor as yourself” was once a moral revolution—in what percentage of actual interactions that anyone today engages in does that statement provide even the slightest guidance? It only makes sense insofar as we can imagine directly dividing something up with our “neighbor”—rather than engaging with our neighbors only through very complex transactions presided over by the center. All the mystifications of our thinking, all of what Marxism tried to understand as “ideology,” or deconstruction as “logocentrism,” comes down to this. The same is true of what Bachelard called “atomism,” the “prejudice” in favor of seeing reality as composed of indivisible individual units, even if we keep dividing them further. We think of social being as divisible “substance” rather than articulated practices which have their end in more perfected practices because we have not yet developed modes of practice and inquiry that would identify and resolve once and for all the anomalies of transposed Big Scenic Thinking. But that, then, is exactly what the form of originary thinking I’m calling “anthropomorphics” is for.

Still, those moral inheritances pointed the way forward—not in their moral “principles” or theology but in new, disciplinary forms of organization they created. What is important about early Christianity, Talmudic Judaism and Greek philosophy is that they were communities dedicated to working out the implications of a particular revelation or mode of inquiry. It is in such disciplinary spaces that the originary scene can be retrieved, not in fulsome assertions of togetherness or universality. What matters is constructing practices that work out targeted cause and effect relations; or that iterate memorable events in controlled ways so as to make them transformative of other practices; or that modify or assess or create the conditions for other practices; or that confront mythical thinking with its sacrificial imaginary. Practices that, like the originary event, create forms of humanization, even if that now means relativizing the human in relation to the organic and technological non-human. All of these practices can proceed without or with occasional reference to the occupied center precisely to the extent that they operate under its assured security—they are all simply working out the implications of a secured center that need not be subordinated to one arbitrary principle or another, and thereby simply gives direction drawn from the strongest work in the most advanced disciplines. Everything comes from the center, and all is given back to the center, in accord with the imperative to create spaces of humanization. A little thought experiment that enables us to distinguish between when something has been learned, and when it has not been learned, is a greater tribute to the center than all the bleating about equality, love of humanity, etc.

One especially ruinous consequence of the attempt to transpose the parameters of the originary scene onto the occupied center society of scenes is the reduction of human desires to the lowest common denominator under liberalism. Politically, the wager of liberal democracies has been that the frustrations of being abstracted from communal relations into meaningless work and frivolous, often degenerate leisure and the hatreds generated by constantly playing groups off against each other could be kept below the threshold of destabilizing resistance or disintegration by ensuring each individual had enough possessions to fear losing them. At every point, responsibility, obligation and reciprocity are replaced by fear, humiliation and demoralization. Here as well disciplinary spaces of intergenerational pedagogy, invention and inquiry counter these tendencies, but then these kinds of spaces get targeted as well. But the reason this all seemed plausible is the assumption that an equalizing distribution modeled on the originary scene could be abstracted from the devotion to the center that is just as essential a component of the scene—as if humans are just animals capable of dividing portions in a peaceful way. But everyone needs to donate the center, even those who have so crippled themselves as to believe themselves capable of satisfaction with a growing piece of the pie. I have been wondering why the billionaires support the craziest left-wing groups—I know all the economic and political reasons regarding creating consumers, controlling workers, taking out competitors through regulation, high-low vs. the middle, etc. It’s all true, but it doesn’t seem to me enough—it reduces them to the same measure, in the same demeaning way, as the working class man assumed to be satisfied with a TV, house and car. They need to believe they are worthy of their wealth, which is actually a very worthy sentiment, and no doubt many of them support worthwhile enterprises (or at least sincerely try to) aside from their political giving—they simply can’t imagine any way of improving society other than giving a bigger piece of the pie to those with the least, because they have no way of imagining society other than on a scene with a shared center rather than a layered order with an occupied and directive center.

The moral imperative issued on the originary scene is to iterate the originary scene, and this is not done by imagining oneself in all kinds of friendly and cooperative relations with fictional collective constructs but by creating a present. And creating a present can be turned into a practice. Take any discussion—it will be filled with references to the past and future, along with the present. References to the past are inherently mythical: they represent narratives of attempted occupation of the center that serve as precedents of the imperatives from the center we see ourselves as following now. The same with references to the future: they are either projections of successful adherence to today’s central imperative as followed by the author of the narrative, or jeremiads warning of disaster for not following those imperatives cut to the size of the author. Convert all such mythical references to the present, and you impose a very enabling constraint upon your thinking.

What would otherwise have been constructed as a mythical narrative of the past must now be reconstructed as traces of the past in the present, identified as such through practices designed to recognize such traces. In this case there is an explicit acknowledgement of constructing a particular observational system designed to record some things and not others. A narrative of American slavery continued up through segregation and into the present can be aimed at positioning all of us on a single scene upon which some of us are where we are because of slavery and others are where they are for other reasons, and we must find some way to rearrange ourselves on that scene. If one is compelled to identify traces of slavery in contemporary institutions and practices, we get a very different distribution. Of course a practice and discipline created to find such traces will be able to do so, and it may be that the current practices of the anti-white cult have identified quite a few. But, of course, you find them because you’re looking for them, and have deliberately constructed practices to bring such things into view. In distributing these traces across the present, though, you necessarily open the field, in a way a linear narrative does not, to other practice designed to reveal other historical traces—and such practices will also uncover many traces that don’t fit the initial frame. And nothing obviously follows from identifying such traces: whether remedying the effects of past actions whose traces we find in the present is a meaningful project is itself to be determined by another practice.

Refusing to mythify the future, meanwhile, enables us to avoid fantasizing in the present. This doesn’t mean we don’t deliberately produce the future—it means that we construct practices whereby we find elements of possible futures in present practices. (I can use “we” here because I’m referring to practices that could produce such “wes”.) Practices are self-contained, while opening up onto other practice—indeed, they are self-contained by opening up onto other practices, which means converting other practices or elements of them into pieces of its own practice. A practice addresses problems generated from past practices—open questions, anomalies, hypotheses we haven’t yet found a way to test, etc. These new problems suggest new practices which haven’t yet been constructed, and it is out of these possible practices that the future will be produced. In other words, instead of “visions” of the future, look to everything tacitly spreading out from the “edges” of your current practices as signs of practices that could prepare the way for other practices, and could in turn prepare… Eliciting the tacit is itself a(n aesthetic) practice, which will in turn produce more of the tacit to elicit. Even to talk of the “goal” or “purpose” of a practice is to mythify, to imagine a whole scene in which we are all present in front of the center—what a practice produces is itself simply part of the practice, part of its continuation and revision, not some external objective reducing the practice to a means.

Converting past and future narratives into present practices involves extending practices “horizontally” across the various social scenes. Finding traces of slavery will lead you to find other historical traces and, in fact, constructing practices to identify other traces (and more differentiated forms of the traces you started looking for—why should “slavery” necessarily indicate a single, unified event producing homogeneous traces?) is an act of deferral that kicks in when mythical narratives that can’t be operationalized in a practice start to congeal. Similarly, identifying some elements of possible practices will “slide” over into identifying other elements, ones you can now identify because of the “apparatus” constructed in the course of previous practices so that you get more articulated practices of, say, pedagogy, showing others how to condition themselves to notice ever more minute elements of possible practices. All practices tend towards lowering the threshold of significance. It is precisely and only through this horizontalizing construction of the present that the vertical is accessed and comes through loud in the increasingly clear imperative to build more practices like this, like this distilled essence of the originary scene.

Constructing practices of presenting is the only way to break the addiction to the Big Scene, for which the blue pill of The Matrixis really a very good analogy. Redpilling involves the ongoing, patient work of distinguishing the Big Discipline from the Big Scene. The concepts generated by the metalanguage of literacy addressed at some length in Anthropomorphicsare essential to sustaining the Big Scene: the justice vs. tyranny opposition, for example, opposes a divinely sanctioned division of the center to its usurpation—as long as you think in such terms, you must imagine yourself on a Big Scene with other “citizens.” The same is true of all the concepts required to support the “internal scene of representation,” to refer to our recent Zoom discussion. The “internal scene” is really our “inalienable” piece of the Big Scene. But we can always initiate an inquiry with those terms. Is the tyrant always tyrannizing and doing nothing else besides? If so, “tyrannizing” becomes incredibly complex, and we’ll have to start making distinctions within the concept; if not, well, what else does he do aside from, alongside of, perhaps even as part of, his daily tyrannizing? Inventing practices that reveal such distinctions constitutes the disciplinary infiltration of the Big Scene. The same with the “internal scene”—where is the boundary between the inner and the outer here? Will we not find much of what is most interior to be, in fact, traceable to all kinds of external scenes? This is a kind of deconstruction, but, rather than discovering that positing centrality involves constructing a margin to play the center off against, we discover that constructing margins (the rebellious anti-tyrant, resisting from his inner scene) in fact reveals the center.

I’ll repeat the moral-political difference that follows here. Rather than, as we imagine ourselves doing on the Big Scene, expelling the tyrant (and his supporters and instruments) in the name of the exemplary (scapegoated) victim, we instead refrain from scapegoating (we learn to detect signs of accelerating convergent attention) because scapegoating is always an attempt to disorder the center by prepping us to look for indications of a hidden usurper behind it. Maybe there’s an attempted usurpation in process; maybe not—either way, it is increased coherence of the center and the matching of responsibility with power within practices at all levels that will always already disable any usurpation.

August 11, 2020

Successful Succession

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:36 am

This post could be seen as a “successor” to my previous post on model events insofar as it identifies the kind of event we should be looking towards as models.

In a recent post I extended an argument I made in Anthropomoprhicsand previously to the effect that the mode of succession is the most important question for assessing a social order—how is the center transferred from one occupant to the next tells us everything important we need to know about that social order. I want to further extend that argument now so as to apply it to all practices—everywhere, succession is the sign of success. Whatever you do or say is meaningful and important insofar as create the place for and when possible installs your successor. A “childless” practice is a failure.

This argument seems to me the necessary and sufficient answer to the notion of “spontaneous organization.” Spontaneous organization seems plausible because so many “causes” go into an event that we could never identify them all and weigh their various contributions to the event—so, if we can’t know all that, even when it comes to our own actions, which we can always see, in the aftermath, as being caused by lines of thinking, memories, automatic responses, and so on above and beyond our own intentions, how could anyone possible control all of those causes and bring them together to produce an event? We can see a paradox here: the more we know about everything that goes into some social process, the less it seems to us that anyone could have determined its outcome. Indeed, it follows that any attempt to control things will have the opposite effect of generating unintended and undesirable results. Better to go with the flow, and if one must act, act so as to balance things out and maintain equilibria that seem at risk.

But why wouldn’t it be just as “hubristic” to decide “unilaterally” where things are out of balance, what counts as “balance” in this case, what are the “forces” that seem out of balance, what would be the correct action to rectify rather than exacerbate the imbalance? Where does that knowledge come from, and what makes it certain enough to act on? It seems that everyone must see himself as in sufficient control of at least some “portion” of his existence—enough so that a practice can be constructed so as to produce predictable outcomes. If one believes this, one also believes that more effective control can be exercised—practices can be perfected. And perfecting a practice involves distinguishing between what is inside and what is outside the practice, which is to say what you need to be able to control and what you can’t control but don’t need to control in order to control what you can. You can’t control your dreams, but you can prevent your dreams from interfering with your management of your household. Making this kind of distinction is, in turn, key to constructing the meta-practices that enable you to maintain and extend your practices—what we could call the maintenance of subjectivity. And, who knows, maybe such maintenance acts back upon your dreams.

Every time something happens, we are faced with a choice of explanations: identify the “spontaneous process” that produced it, or look for the hierarchy of human decision making that did so. The two explanations are defined against each other—to look for spontaneity is to deliberately “debunk” any claim to autonomy and authority in a decision making process. This is the assertion of power of those within an anti-imperative declarative culture: you think that the president’s and military leadership’s decisions led to the loss of the war but it was really a critical mass of generational changes, shifts in diplomatic culture, profits driving media coverage, and so on. The purpose of the argument is to subvert clear lines of decision making and to give power to precisely all the spontaneous elements you cite—the media, the diplomats, crowds, and so on. There are lots of power bases to be found in directing decision making along these lines—you present yourself as necessary to those making executive decisions because you are clever enough to manipulate the media, popular opinion, the political scientists in universities or whomever. To stay focused on the executive arena, or the imperative order, is to identify the executive power informing all the spontaneous non-agents, all of whom are at the very least initiated by someone.

The question of succession brings a great deal of force to the executive argument. Every institution, needless to say, takes great care in propagating itself, which is to say ensuring a succession practice that will sustain and enhance the institution. Every decision made can be seen as aiming at solving the problem of succession—who to hire, who to promote, which rationalizations to use in justifying the institution’s priorities, internal policies, and so on. All these decisions lay the groundwork for one kind of potential successor to emerge as opposed to other kinds. Whoever is in charge, then, is always involved in choosing his successor—and this is even the case where there are rules of succession that completely cut the present executive out of the loop—insofar as the governor has any power at all he’s using it to manipulate the very levers of power that overtly preclude his making the decision in order to propagate his own “kind.”

I was thinking of writing a separate post on “American freedom,” but what I want to say about that can be incorporated here by way of an example. I am very favorably and generously inclined toward American freedom because what American freedom really means is a very strong prejudice in favor of an executive culture—freedom means that people in charge of something should be allowed to actually be in charge of it. This is just about the healthiest thing one can believe. Americans passionately hate the “consensus” model of decision making that seems to be popular pretty much everywhere else in the world and is systematically recommended to us as a move toward a less “white” and more “diverse” culture. I also hate the consensus model, in part because it’s so obviously a way for everyone to evade responsibility. A consensus culture would want to ride the wave of spontaneity, whereas an executive culture wants to make cuts everywhere—this is what I did, this is what he did, this is what I was charged with, this was his responsibility, I’m depending on you to do this, and so on. The “cure” for the more “idiosyncratic” and reactive elements of American freedom, then, is to restore what was once very explicitly part of it—the desire to found something, to institutionalize, to have one’s successors look back to one as a model. (The left’s current attack on the memorialization of America’s past shows that they are also aware of how important this is.)

All contemporary institutions seem dead set on producing successors who will repudiate the founding work of the institution itself. I’ve been hanging around the academy long enough to have witnessed a couple of generations of nice, gentle, open-minded, egalitarian professors who were adamantly against “racism” and “sexism” and “war” and other things harmful to living things who would, of course, have never burned an American flag, torn down a statue, boycotted a store whose owners made a “problematic” political statement, and so on—but very cheerfully and proudly paved the way for those who now encourage and, I’m sure, sometimes participate in, such activities. And they are still proud of it—with very few exceptions, these nice elderly English professors sign petitions claiming that all of American history has been a conspiracy to torment America’s black population, whether or not they realize that this would invalidate most of what they themselves taught and wrote during their careers. These are liberalism’s chickens coming home to roost, of course, because liberalism has never been anything more than the repudiation of what came before, but I’m insisting that a successor focused version of what gets called “American freedom” is crucial to the antidote. To counter liberalism, then, means to put the successor problem front and center, and this allows us to “recruit” whatever dispositions toward continuity that can still be located.

We give names to the spontaneous processes: capitalism, democracy, socialism, and, of course, liberalism. We can append verbs to these nouns: capitalism does this, the market does that, and so on. Creating abstract agencies like this means some power centers have broken free of “tyranny,” so the names can be more or less accurate and penetrating. They give names to forms of decision making practices, which to say that they are ways of addressing the succession problem in lieu of any hierarchy that articulates the totality of practices. The problem of history is replacing the shared sacrificial center that was lost with the rise of the ancient empires—I’ve focused more precisely on sacral kingship, but that’s simply the point at which the shared sacrificial center becomes fully “vested” and therefore reveals its limitations—sacrificing the king is an inadequate solution to the succession problem. Capital is a distribution of power aimed at solving the succession problem by constraining the possibilities—no ruler can rule against capital. Succession within capital is solved by having the enterprise serve as a conduit through which state decision making circulates through disciplinary practices that facilitate the further abstraction of subjects from practices that obscure them in some way from the corporate-state center. Next up in corporate leadership will be someone who can plug the disciplines into the state through the corporation. So, the names of these processes identify sites of inquiry into the succession problem.

The succession problem is the problem of all our practices. It’s the problem of immortality—how else do we live on if not through others repeating and extending our practices and words? According to Denise Schmandt-Besserat (who very decisively clarified the origin of writing in ancient accounting notation), the ancient emperors helped advance the development of phonetic writing by having declarative sentences, spoken in their “voice,” inscribed on their monuments in the earliest forms of phonetic lettering. They did this because they wanted the reader of the inscription to have to repeat, “I am _________, ruler of _______,” etc. By speaking in the king’s first person voice, you give the king’s words, and therefore the king himself, continued life. So, you want your actions and words to have successors, to be repeated in enough contexts so as to live forever, even if the words are ultimately changed and forgotten along with the name of the author. Why should the words of someone who says, essentially, “it’s all spontaneous, I’m not really doing anything and neither should you,” be remembered or carried forward? Speaking and writing are practices—you say or inscribe something so that something happens that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, so that a repetition and perfection of the practice can produce “similar” effects—you perfect your practices so others can repeat them. Whatever appears spontaneous is where the succession problem needs to be worked out—all of those unknowable causes are sites of deficient or misaligned power and authority, and the most memorable thing one can do is institute the proper forms. Anything else is delinquency, malingering and mindless subversion.

August 3, 2020

The Model of Data

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:19 am

In my latest post on self-appification, I proposed that algorithmic inquiry begins with a model event on one side, and actual events on the other side, with the subsequent inquiry identifying markers of the actual event as a sample of whatever the model event is a model of. The example I used there was “racism,” and the point is that no one thinks about “racism” in propositional terms and then tries to “apply” all the “features” of “racism” explicit and implicit in its “definition”—rather, one works with what we can call an “originary” event of “racism,” and then calls subsequent acts “racist” insofar as they are “similar to” the originary event. The originary event must be an event that “woke us up” to the phenomenon in question, or is retroactively posited as having done so (there’s not clear line between these two possibilities). I now want to explore this example, and bring it to the foreground as a way of engaging our present immersion in data without any nostalgia for a more “human” mode of being—which is to say, for a mode of the human modeled on earlier forms of media.

The very words used in political attacks make evident their reliance upon model events—“fascism,” “white supremacist,” “Nazi,” etc. Whatever “idea” the people issuing such epithets have of the model event in question, it is obvious that there is some historical referent behind them. The Holocaust, of course, in Eric Gans’s analysis (to which I’ve made my own contributions), is the ur-event of the modern victimary position. Godwin’s law parodies the rules of the game whereby whoever makes the most forceful identification of some current event with the Nazi genocide of the Jews “wins.” We can imagine a method for working out and developing an algorithm for determining the similarity of any modern event to the Holocaust. Is there a “player” who is unalterably opposed to the very existence of all those playing the role of a member of a group identified according to some immutable characteristic, and are there “bystanders” who allow the event to proceed because it’s “convenient” or they don’t want to make trouble? The criteria for determining each of these roles and the acts that count as them inhabiting these roles would have to made explicit so that search instructions can be designed. Here, we have the perpetrator—but he’s not an obvious perpetrator, because maybe he’s doing things other than trying to destroy all the members of some other group and maybe he’s not even doing that unambiguously at all. But we need to shape the scene, because this model event is all we have, so we need to identify markers that would allow us to identify his perpetrator status, and construct the event in such a way that those markers are more predictive of his actions, and the actions of those who would take him as a model are more “real” than statements and actions that would indicate other trajectories. And the other roles, along with the events actualizing those roles, would have to be similarly specified.

Now, my claim is not that victimary agents have constructed and follow such a method with such self-awareness. Obviously, like Beria, Stalin’s KGB head (a model event for me to work with), they’re looking for crimes to fit the people they want to eliminate. If you ask them to explain what makes this or that “racist,” they will rarely be able to tell you, and almost never convincingly. (This is why it’s a good idea to ask.) What framing their actions and agendas algorithmically, though, does, is, first, help us to display how automatic and programmed their actions are—it provides us with a satiric grammar; and, second, it allows us to construct hypothetical rule-following processes that helps us intervene and interfere when possible with transfer translations of their words and actions. But beyond all that, we have here a method that serves our own purposes in remaking declarative culture so that it is directed towards filling the imperative gap rather than inventing outlandish “authorities” meant to generate imperatives that subvert the command structure.

A lot follows from the realization that we’re always working with model events rather than propositional “principles,” “beliefs,” “ideas” and quasi-mathematical representations of reality. Originary models, for one thing, give us something we can always talk about, and return to, in order to revise and extract more “data” from. We can always “thicken” or “thin out” the model event as necessary. We can test its plausibility, and make it more plausible when necessary—or use it to test various norms of plausibility. Take the “American founding,” for example. Like any historical event, it has given rise to many interpretations—it was based on certain principles, it advanced the interests of a particular class, it continued precedents set by earlier historical events, and so on. But how would any of these interpretations be pared down to an “event,” rather than some broader historical “process” or “idea”? Where did, say, the “emergent merchant class” as a coherent, intentional agent, doX or Y? How did the “desire for freedom” manifest itself in this or that meeting among revolutionary leaders? (What else manifested itself in that meeting?) We can disqualify any model that can’t be represented as an event, and while the questions I just posed are not merely rhetorical, representing those processes as events in which specific people do and say things would turn them into different originary models.

Here’s what can be represented as an event: the designing, in the composition of the US Constitution, of the executive branch with the knowledge that the first occupant of that branch would be George Washington. I’ve mentioned this in several places, and I would have to do a search to find where I might have come across this (intuitively obvious) claim of seemingly marginal importance, but taking this as our originary model of the America order has some interesting consequences. It would mean, whatever else they were doing, the leading figures of the American revolution were watching and weighing one another and with a great deal of precision identifying those who performed best in the most important roles in the most trying times. It means they carried over these assessments to their thinking of a government structure, especially in the wake of the failure of the Articles of the Confederation, which failed to create a central office that gave due weight to the most important qualities of human leadership. It also means that they thought of the forging of the Constitution not just as a formal document laying down rules for the passing and implementation of laws, the transition of power, the division of offices, and so on, but as a model to be filled in with certain kinds of characters. They hoped that Washington’s performance in office would shape the performance of future presidents. Washington was elected unanimously in the electoral college; perhaps the framers of the constitution hoped every president would be elected unanimously, through sheer and undisputed recognition of the superior quality of the man.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way—the “factionalist” disease of left and right was immediately imported from the French Revolution coming in the wake of the American (and, of course, it was really there already). But the design of the highest office with the greatest man in mind can, first, be constructed as an event—we can work with records of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention’s thinking, and we can easily imagine how they might have discussed amongst themselves making the match of man and office as close as possible. There’s no plausibility problem here. And we can use this model event as a measure of the defects of their design as they have been manifested throughout American history—but also as a measure of American strengths, almost all of which can be attributed to “energy in the executive” in one form or another. And it’s a good model—that is, a model of how things should be ordered—so, in measuring other events against it, we are thinking in an intrinsically normative way, and one we can make fairly transparent: government office should be shaped so as to amplify the highest forms of leadership. I think that if we devise an algorithm for oscillating back and forth between subsequent events and this originary one we would develop an increasingly rich critique of the American social order and one that would preserve everything great about it. Nor need we ignore everything else the founders were doing other than designing the office to match the man. Everything else they were doing was either tributary to or interfering with this, what we hypothesize to be their central project. In this way the originary model is an inexhaustible source of normatively molded data.

A large part of the power of models figuring an “exemplary victim” is precisely the plausibility and richness of the events they are drawn from, with Jesus on the cross, or Socrates sitting with his students waiting to drink his hemlock among the most obvious examples. Most events promoted by liberals and leftists to this day take these events (especially the crucified Jesus) as their model, as a brief look at the iconography emerging after George Floyd’s death will confirm. Martyrs have been central to anti-tyrannical political practices from the beginning, as such practices are only barely intelligible without them: a broad generalization about “police brutality” would get lost in the weeds of statistics, the vast diversity of situations in which police encounter civilians, the difficulties of working out the intent of people involved in any situation, and so on. A display of physical force ending in death dispenses with all that, once it’s inserted into the right spot within an algorithmic process matching that event with others. What we’re witnessing in such cases, as gets noted occasionally, is a subtle form of human sacrifice—where martyrs are needed, they will be produced (the whole point of Antifa riots—of terrorism in general—is to produce usable martyrs).

The aesthetico-ethical problem of the ve/orticist app, then, is to construct model events that can withstand scrutiny as to their particulars, and can, without denying that victims can be framed in any event, replace the victimary with the authoritative center as the data source. It is certain that a structure of centered ordinality can be extracted from any event, and the process of production of victims can be interfered with by pointing out that even in scenes focused on the victim someone had to construct that focus. In cases where the victimization is real in accord with widely accepted frames (that is, when we’re not simply dealing with a hoax), there is always someone, before or after the fact, who tried to close the breach that led to the act of victimization. These instances can provide extremely compelling narratives. The polemical counter to the extension of victimage from the more egregious to the more implicit (from the macro to the micro to the nano-aggression) is the construction of events of representation that enact a centered ordinality that points to a structure of centered ordinality in the very events adduced.

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