GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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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