Wednesday, December 15, 2010


So just a quick note, for anyone still listening, regarding Gramsci's notion of the organic intellectual. I made the argument in class, albeit perhaps not very articulately, that Professor Gitlin offered us a misreading of Gramsci on this point. Whereas for Gitlin, the organic intellectual is organic to the power structure that oppresses and controls the masses ideologically, and hence is the instrument of hegemony, in Gramsci the case is just the opposite. He introduces the concept in a section of The Prison Notebooks devoted to "The Study of Philosophy", in which he makes the case that:
"it is essential to destroy the widespread prejudice that philosophy is a strange and difficult thing just because it is the specific intellectual activity of a particular category of specialists or of professional and systematic philosophers. It must first be shown that all men are 'philosophers', by defining the limits and characteristics of the 'spontaneous philosophy' which is proper to everybody. This philosophy is contained in: 1. language itself, which is a totality of determined notions and concepts and not just of words grammatically devoid of content; 2. 'common sense' and 'good sense'; 3. popular religion and, therefore, also in the entire system of beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of seeing things and of acting, which are collectively bundled together under the name of 'folklore'." (Gramsci, 1971:323)
Gramsci's critique of philosophy as a specialized discipline arose from his revolutionary convictions; he saw at work in Italy both the ancient religious ideology of the Catholic church and the rising politico-ethical ideology of the Fascist state. His invention of the concept of hegemony was an attempt to describe the ways in which these groups managed and deployed their ideological resources in order to retain their essentially exploitative positions of power over their constituents. But Gramsci was no detatched theorist; his description of these mechanisms of power was thoroughly motivated by his deep commitment to a Marxist philosophy of praxis, which he opposes to the kinds of philosophy employed by the specialist functionaries of these privileged groups:
"The position of the philosophy of praxis is the antithesis of the Catholic. The philosophy of praxis does not tend to leave the 'simple' in their primitive philosophy of common sense, but rather to lead them to a higher conception of life. If it affirms the need for contact between intellectuals and simple it is not in order to restrict scientific activity and preserve unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can make politically possible the intellectual progress of the mass and not only of small intellectual groups." (ibid.:333)
It's clear here that Gramsci's conception of the Marxian revolution reserves a central and critical place for philosophy. Not the philosophy of specialists, which distinguishes itself from and thus excludes the "common sense" of the "simple" (i.e. the proletariat), but a philosophy of praxis, which for Gramci meant a Marxist philosophy, in which the historical separation, and immanent revolutionary reintegration of theory and practice was understood to coincide with (and, crucially, to determine) an analogous historical separation (and immanent reintegration) of the intellectual (bourgeois) and physical (proletarian) workers, since both were (according to Marx's historical and economic philosophy) bound in servitude to the rising capitalists.
Consequently, for Gramsci, the immanent revolution depended upon this reintegration of the proletariat with intellectuals. Commenting on the failures of "the so-called 'Popular Universities' and similar institutions", he asserts that:
"In any case one could only have had cultural stability and an organic quality of thought if there had existed the same unity between the intellectuals and the simple as there should be between theory and practice. That is, if the intellectuals had been organically the intellectuals of those masses and if they had worked out and made coherent the principles and the problems raised by the masses in their practical activity, thus constituting a social bloc." (ibid.:329; my italic.)
And he goes on to restate his original rhetorical question:
"is a philosophical movement properly so-called when it is devoted to creating a specialized culture among restricted intellectual groups, or rather when, and only when, in the process of elaborating a form of thought superior to 'common sense' and coherent on a scientific plane, it never forgets to remain in contact with the 'simple' and indeed finds in this contact the source of the problems it sets out to study and to resolve? Only by this contact does a philosophy become 'historical', purify itself of intellectualistic elements of an individual character and become 'life'." (ibid.)
So anyway, I think that these excerpts clarify Gramsci's notion of what it means for an intellectual to be organic. That is, he's not -at least in this section of his Prison Notebooks, talking about the specialized, disciplinary intellectuals who work (either intentionally, or de facto) in the service of the ruling classes and their dominant interests as being organic to those ruling classes, but on the contrary, it is when the intellectual is able to rise naturally from the working class, and to stay in contact with these 'simple' origins, even as he -and/or she!- elaborates hir concepts to achieve properly philosophical levels of clarity and precision (a large part of Gramsci's discussion here, in between the quotes I've given, is devoted to theorizing a rigorous distinction between properly philosophical and 'folkloric' conceptions; a distinction which is, incidentally, necessary for his theory of hegemony), that he or she is able to develop a true philosophy of praxis; one which can transcend the separation between state and people to "become 'life'"; i.e. organic.

In conclusion, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not writing this in order to endorse a Marxian "philosophy of praxis", but in order to clarify what I felt was its misrepresentation; not only in Professor Gitlin's paper, but in Marcuse's work as well. I think that this persistent misinterpretation -or at least inconsistent interpretation; there may indeed be other places in Gramsci's notebooks where he describes the situation differently, and uses these terms differently, that I'm unaware of (and if so, please notify me ; )- can be attributed to a persistent incoherence inherent to the Marxist philosophical tradition itself, of which Gramsci obviously seeks to constitute himself as part. For Americans today, who can't help but occupy the weird historical bubble that enables us to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and the U.S.S.R. as a kind of belated vindication of the U.S. Cold War ideology (if not of McCarthyism; it's constitutive 'exception'), I think that the ambiguity of the notion of "hegemony" as a theory of culture/politic/communication/psychology results not so much from the complex and interdepentent nature of these disciplinary areas/spheres/fields themselves (although this is undoubtedly the case, and contributes to the confusion!) as to a pervasive uncertainty regarding not only the status of the intellectual, but the status of any reform-oriented 'praxis' in the world today. I would argue that this uncertainty is what Marcuse misinterprets as an overarching, "one-dimensional" determinacy, to which we attempt to apply ambiguous concepts such as "hegemony", not despite, but because of their inconsistencies and incoherences. I would suggest that in order to really understand Gramsci, we would have to first really understand Marxism (and presumably Marx); not in the way Gramsci himself understood it -i.e. as an infallible and necessary conceptual revolutionary mechanism- but in light of a comprehensive historical assessment of its applications; to economics, to politics, and to "life" itself. Obviously this is an impossible task, to the extent that the Cold War didn't really end, but rather mutated, so that now it is being fought in the terms of a 'global capitalism', itself a kind of delocalized cold war, in which various (American, European, Chinese, Indian, etc.) state powers and the private interests that they have demonstrated themselves to be respectively beholden to battle for the last of the planet's dwindling resources.

And I guess it's precisely in this rapidly evolving climate we might be able to adapt Gramsci's thought and reapproach it in a new interpretive context: not as a theory of hegemony-as-oppression, which has become indissociable from the cold-war politics governing the behaviors of groups and individuals across scales, right down to the interpersonal level, right down to the level of our relations with ourselves, but as a theory of praxis-as-emancipation, no longer in the service of an alternative ideology claiming the status of science, nor yet science itself, claiming to be a religion, but as a necessary condition of our collective and individual survival on this heavily-leveraged planet. Perhaps, in lieu of "Philosophy," which despite its own internal misgivings seems determined to retain its privileged institutional status as a specialized disciplinary function, we would better define such a praxis by an altogether less impressive, but perhaps more pragmatic term: education.

In closing, Gramsci again, from the end of this same excerpt:

"The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical understanding of his practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world insofar as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he ahs inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed. But this verbal conception is not without consequences. It holds together a specific social group, it influences moral conduct and the direction of the will, with varying efficacy but often powerfully enough to produce a situation in which the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit of any action, any decision or any choice, and produces a condition of moral and political passivity. Critical understanding of self takes place therefore through a struggle of political 'hegemonies' and of opposing directions, first in the ethical field and then in that of politics proper, in order to arrive at the working out at a higher level of one's own conception of reality. Consciousness of being part of a particular hegemonic force (that is to say, political consciousness) is the first stage towards a further progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will finally be one. Thus the unity of theory and practice is not just a matter of mechanical fact, but a part of the historical process, whose elementary and primitive phase is to be found in the sense of being 'different' and 'apart', in an instinctive feeling of independence, and which progresses to the level of real possession of a single and coherent conception of the world. This is why it must be stressed that the political development of the concept of hegemony represents a great philosophical advance as well as a politico-practical one. For it necessarily supposes an intellectual unity and an ethic in conformity with a conception of reality that has gone beyond common sense and has become, if only within narrow limits, a critical conception." (ibid.:334)


Todd Gitlin, "Television's Screens: Hegemony in Transition," p.240-265 in Cultural and Economic Reproduction in Education. Michael W. Apple (ed.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Quincy Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (trans. and eds.), New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Natural Contract

“What language do the things of the world speak, that we might come to an understanding with them, contractually? But, after all, the old social contract, too, was unspoken and unwritten: no one has ever read the original, or even a copy. To be sure, we don’t know the world’s language, or rather we only know the various animistic, religious, or mathematical versions of it. When physics was invented, philosophers went around saying that nature was hidden under the code of algebra’s numbers and letters: that word code came from law.

In fact the Earth speaks to us in terms of forces, bonds, and interactions, and that’s enough to make a contract. Each of the partners in symbiosis thus owes, by rights, life to the other, on pain of death.” (Serres, p.39)

“There are one or several natural equilibria, described by physical mechanics, thermodynamics, the physiology of organisms, ecology, or systems theory; cultures have even invented one or more human or social equilibria, which are decided on, organized, and maintained by religion, laws, or politics. But something is missing: we are not conceiving, constructing, or putting into operation a new global equilibrium between the two sets of equilibria.

Social systems, which are self-compensating and self-enclosed, press down with their new weight, that of their relations, object-worlds, and activities, on self-compensated natural systems, just as in the past natural systems put social systems at risk, in the age when necessity triumphed over reason’s means.

Blind and mute, natural fatality neglected, back then, to sign an explicit contract with our ancestors, whom it crushed: now we are sufficiently avenged for this archaic abuse by a reciprocal modern abuse. It remains to us to imagine a new, delicate balance between these two sets of balances. As far as I know, this just weighing is at the origin of the verb “to think” (penser), as well as of the verb “to compensate.” Today this is what we name thought. This is the most general legal order for the most global systems.” (Serres, p.37-38)
Both of these quotes come from Michel Serres’ book The Natural Contract. I think that Serres' work offers a beautifully synoptic perspective of the issues that we've discussed in this course. The notion of code, which figures so heavily in today's communication technologies, is a fascinating and troubling one to unpack philosophically. It seems simple; you just give things names and then you can use the names to describe the things. Ok, fine. But check it out: the things are never quite well-enough described by their names. This might be fine if we hadn't imported Platonic assumptions about the absolute ideality of truth into our modern theories about nature. Where's Ockham when you need him?!

Even when we add more and more names, the things escape; there is always more to them, there is an irreducible uncertainty that permeates, haunts, our sense of certainty, and of mastery, of control over our experiences in the world. This sense of control, argues Serres in this wonderfully concise, yet lyrical little book, is at the crux of the issue of where we have come from, and where we are going, as a species. “Cybernetics is back,” he exclaims:
“For the first time in history, the human or worldly world is united in facing the worldwide world, without play, reminder, or recourse for the whole of the system, just as on a ship. The governor and the helmsman with his governail become identified in a single art of governing. The helmsman acts in real time, here and now, on a local circumstance from which he counts on obtaining a global result; it is the same for the governor, the technician, and the scientist. When scientists, gathering their local models into a totality mimicking the Earth, plan some intervention, they speak of steering committees and pilot projects.” (Serres, p.43)
The cybernetic control is a control figured by the helmsman, who steers the ship on the basis of his best ability to gather and comprehend the information, aided by the full wits of his crew, who know that their survival depends upon everyone’s full cooperation. Another sailor-philosopher, Buckminster Fuller, coined the term “Spaceship Earth” to capture the moment that Serres is also describing; a moment in which it falls to us to “imagine a new, delicate balance between these two sets of balances.”

This image of a meta-measurement; a weighing, not between two weights, but between two balances, seems to me to offer us an excellent metaphor for relationship in general, and I would suggest using the notion of Marriage as a corrective on our tendencies to think about relationships in abstract terms, as if they were confined to their local instantiations. Marriage is relationship as a global condition: “til death do us part.” As such, Marriage figures for us a relationship that is eternal, a relationship whose unity transcends even the mortal beings residing at/as its termina. We, the undersigned, the signators of a Marriage contract, simply by agreeing to participate in something that transcends us, accept the principle of our own innate replaceability; our own mortality. Marriage is thus a relationship whose only ends lies in the ever-looming propensity for its constituents -its signators, their co-conspirators, and their inheritors; namely us (or anyway, those of us who are Married, or who desire or plan to get Married- to fail. To fail at observing and forging, maintaining and reproducing, desiring and communicating about, the set of integral balances whose inter-supportive stabilities amount to what Serres calls equilibria. Which means, again, a double- or meta-equilibrium: between our desires and our conceptions, our predictions of the effects of these desires’ realization; and with the equivalent equilibrium in our partner.

In relationship, therefore, qua relationship, we communicate. To communicate, we must adapt ourselves to the use of established lines of transmission, techniques of transcription, and codes of interpretation. Each of these factors influences the others: we interpret our experiences and desires partly according to the existing possibilities of transcription and transmission; codes that find their stability in their relatively solid infrastructural networks of transmission, from trade routes to cable lines. But the interpretations we make contribute in turn to the evolution of these collective codes; not only by changing habits of interpretation, but also by changing the ways in which we build the transmission networks that support them. The ways in which we learn techniques of inscription, like writing, are likewise influenced by the ways in which our desires and experiences perceive and engage with the structures of established codes, and the lines of transmission that may or may not support them. Successful technical innovations can find ways to manifest as improvements to this correspondence between interpretive codes and lines of transmission. All of these patterns have of course been mapped and studied ad nauseum by inspiration-seeking capitalists (which is not to denigrate their importance!) My concern here is not to find laws governing the derivation of profits, but rather those which might be applied to the metaequilibrium Serres describes.

To that end, we can define the difference between Marriage and mere relationship in terms of communication: communication-as-relationship is generally thought of in terms of single equilibria, which mappable and can thus be described as symmetries. The transferrence of signals between subjects, in which the sender’s in-tentions are symmetrically-balanced by the listener’s at-tentions, provides the basic relational symmetry structuring most philosophical and scientific theories of communication. This symmetry is precisely what allows ‘transmission-models’ to separate sender from receiver (they can now be dealt with separately-but-equally, by projecting the symmetry’s continuity over time) in order to focus more closely on the transmissions themselves. Claude Shannon’s 1948 paper defined ‘information’ according to a ratio between ‘signal’ and ‘noise', and this new abstraction allowed us to forget that we had already been dealing with abstractions in the form of symmetrically-isolated ‘transmissions,’ and set the stage for the subsequent, ruthless drive to eliminate noise and perfect signal transmission. Information became a commodity.

We can modulate from here directly into James Carey’s historiography of the telegraph, in which he identifies the demand of the nascent wire services for “a form of language stripped of the local, the regional; and colloquial. . . . something closer to a 'scientific' language, a language of strict denotation in which the connotative features of utterance were under rigid control.” (p.210) Innovation demands abstraction, but the concomitant standardization leads directly to commodification. Carey of course recognizes the parallels here between his findings and the theoretical predictions of Marx, Benjamin, and the Structuralists:
"After the object is abstracted out of the real conditions of its production and use and is transported to distant markets, standardized and graded, and represented by fully contingent symbols, it is made available as a commodity. Its status as a commodity represents the sundering of real, direct relationship between buyer and seller, separates use value from exchange value, deprives objects of any uniqueness (which must then be returned to the object via advertising), and, most important, masks to the buyer the real conditions of production. Further, the process of divorcing the receipt from the product can be thought of as a part of the general social process initiated by the use of money and widely written about in contemporary semiotics; the progressive divorce of the signifier from the signified, a process in which the world of signifiers progressively overwhelms and moves independently of real material objects." (Carey, p.222)
But we should look in detail at the connection that emerges here between commodification as “the sundering of real, direct relationship between buyer and seller” (think also: sender and receiver) and domination, which gets figured in this quote by Carey as a domination of abstractions (signifiers) over the “real material objects” that they represent. We are inclined to dismiss this oppression. We don’t even recognize it as such. We’re taken in by the humanistic tendency to define suffering as an infringement on basic human rights to, for example, food, water, shelter, and of course, more abstractly, freedom, or self-determination. Furthermore, we can see that such human suffering, where it exists, appears to result from macro-systemic patterns of behavior, which we define in a global sense, as being imposed structurally by something called “global capitalism,” which is said to pervade human behavior across scales and socioeconomic classes. Marxist rhetoric, like rhetoric in general, as Socrates was kind enough to point out, persuades us to swap one abstraction for another.

This kind of thinking, which attempts to first define (morally) ideal situations (which are always more difficult to impose in practice than to imagine in theory, owing again to the irreducibility of perspectival differences), and then define present in terms that reveal the possibility of this outcome, corresponds to what James C. Scott called Seeing Like a State, by which he meant seeing a complex reality in terms of its simplified abstract representations. Alfred Korzybski, in the 1930s, summed up this error with the pithy phrase, “the map is not the territory,” but his writings have not been very closely studied, and his influence has unfortunately been largely forgotten. One of Korzybski’s most salient proposals, that we should, on the basis of scientific findings develop and adopt ‘anti-Aristotelian’ habits of thought and behavior, was taken up, in a way, by Havelock in his Liberal Temper, when he describes the strange continuity, in the new humanistic doctrines of the Enlightenment, of the old metaphysical suppositions of the Classical era:
"when the cause of liberty was fought for in France and America under banners inscribed with the doctrine of the rights of man, the battle was conducted on behalf of those same convictions about the eternal nature of man's soul. The majestic language of the Declaration of Independence, appealing to the testimony of self-evident truths as before a bar of eternal justice, still used the formulas congenial to men who believed in a natural law written in the heavens and wished to use it to support the equally metaphysical conviction that all men as individuals have innate and inalienable rights. . . . The problems and the vocabulary were still Platonic and Aristotelian." (Havelock, p.15)
This problem is one that we could (and did, through this course) trace all the way through Western history, from Plato to Amartya Sen, whose sophisticated (sic) treatment of this subject draws out for us the implications of these properly philosophical issues to our everyday ethical and relational lives. It comes down to a basic misconception about the role of reason, of logical thought, in relationship, communication, and life. Sen makes it clear that because no one can occupy a priviledged position vis a vis their other community members, economic partners, or legal disputants, rationality needs to be understood as something much more multifaceted and complex than what any given rational agent can see from their (or any other imagined) point of view:
“what may appear to others as clear examples of ‘unreason’ may not always be exactly that. Reasoned discussion can accommodate conflicting positions that may appear to others to be ‘unreasoned’ prejudice, without this being quite the case. There is no compulsion, as is sometimes assumed, to eliminate every reasoned alternative except exactly one.” (Sen, p.xviii)
But if guiltily/angrily/prophetically blaming the imagined anti-community of “capitalism” doesn’t seem to have offered much in the way of solutions to the complex and massive set of problems that we so readily attribute to “it,” of precisely which radical interventions might our alternatives consist? For me, the answer here can’t be critical one. It will never be enough for us to point our fingers and say, “the problem is...” Critique in general, I’d argue, isn’t radical, it’s conservative; if not directly of the states of affairs and/or of discourse that it seeks to challenge, then indirectly, insofar as it is always mobilized in defense of preexisting ideological positions that get activated in response to a perception of a challenge or threat from the entity at whom the critique gets directed.

Instead, we should carry out our actions as if in adherence to a doubled-injunction: survey, integrate and assimilate -i.e. research, study, and understand- the scattered and fragmentary linguistic matrices of culture, history, science, economy, etc.; and compile, create, and disseminate novel concepts, constructions, and collaborations that emerge from this work. The balance it difficult, because it’s not a balance that can be thought of as in spatial terms (and hence abstracted) i.e. as a symmetry. In other words, it can’t be ‘perfected’ in the static sense of that term. Rather, it is a balance between (and among) balances. If it were to be figured as a symmetry, it would be as an impossible, spatiotemporal symmetry; a reciprosymmetry. Because such a symmetry cannot be represented abstractly (in any known medium), it could constitute an effectively transcendental goal for any number of co-aspirants. I would call any ensuing community simply ‘society’; not to imagine it in the way that Benedict Anderson describes, but just to indicate that this would be a community constituted by the imagination of each participant, freely, but not in isolation. Rather than reifying such an entity, we could perhaps simply agree to disagree about it. We have to realize that this agreement, as trivial as it seems, is absolutely crucial one for us to begin to understand, if we are to survive on this planet together. We need to figure out how to make room for both freedom and necessity, in our hearts and minds. We need to recognize that we are all here in this together, flying through the universe on Spaceship Earth, and it’s gonna be a matter of sinking or swimming, and the operating manual for this thing is really, really huge. I think that this is what Serres means by a Natural Contract. Married people might know what I’m talkin about ; )
“Here then, is the form of contemporary society, which can be called doubly worldwide: occupying all the Earth, solid as a block through its tightly woven interrelations, it has nothing left in reserve, no external place of withdrawal or recourse on which to pitch its tent. Society knows, moreover, how to construct and use technologies whose spatial, temporal, and energetic dimensions are on the scale of worldwide phenomena. Our collective power is therefore reaching the limits of our global habitat. We’re beginning to resemble the Earth.

Thus our de facto unified group borders the world, to which it is equipotent, just as the solid and mobile deck all but touches the surface of the waves, separated only by the stanchions of the guardrail. Everyone sails upon the world like the ark upon the waters, without any reserve outside these two sets, that of men and that of things. So here we are, underway! For the first time in history, Plato and Pascal, who never went to sea, are both right at the same time, and here we are, constrained to obey shipboard laws, to pass from the social contract to the natural contract. The social contract long ago protected mobile social subsets in a broad and free environment, equipped with reserves that could absorb any damage, but a unified, compact group that has reached the strict limits of objective forces requires a natural contract.” (Serres, p.41-42)


Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Carey, James, Communication as Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1989.

Havelock, Eric, The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics. Yale University Press, 1957.

Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity. Institute of General Semantics Press, 1994.

Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press, 1998.

Sen, Amartya, The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Serres, Michel, The Natural Contract. Trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

recourse to rhetoric

thought some of y'all might be thinking about the sophists again, in preparation for your final papers, and having stumbled across this little gem by the great, but understudied, Kenneth Burke; A Rhetoric of Motives (L.A.:University of California Press, 1969), I thought I'd share a little taste with you here, as it seems to me that Burke's take on rhetoric offers us a nice glimpse not only into the Plato v. Sophists debate, with Sen at the helm, but also into the notion of hegemony, as a kind of spontaneous social self-regulation...

"In pure identification, there would be no strife. Likewise, there would be no strife in absolute separateness, since opponents can join in battle only through a mediatory ground that makes their communication necessary for their interchange of blows. But put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric. Here is a major reason why rhetoric, according to Aristotle, 'proves opposites.' When two men collaborate in an enterprise to which they contribute different kinds of services and from which they derive different amounts and kinds of profit, who is to say, once and for all, just where 'cooperation' ends and one partner's 'exploitation' of the other begins? The wavering line between the two cannot be 'scientifically' identified; rival rhetoricians can draw it at different places, and their persuasiveness varies with the resources each has at his command. (Where public issues are concerned, such resources are not confined to the intrinsic powers of the speaker and the speech, but depend also for their effectiveness upon the purely technical means of communication, which can either aid the utterance or hamper it. For a 'good' rhetoric neglected by the press obviously cannot be so 'communicative' as a poor rhetoric backed nation-wide by headlines. And often we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reenforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill.)" (25-26)

"just as God has been identified with a certain worldly structure of ownership, so science may be identified with the interests of certain groups or classes quite unscientific in their purposes. Hence, however 'pure' one's motives may be actually, the impurities of identification lurking about the edges of such situations introduce a typical Rhetorical wrangle of the sort that can never be settled once and for all, but belongs to the field of moral controversy where men properly seek to 'prove opposites'." (26)

"the rhetorician and the moralist become one at the point where the attempt is made to reveal the undetected presence of such an identification. Thus in the United States after the second World War, the temptations of such an identification became particularly strong because so much research had fallen under the direction of the military. To speak merely in praise of science, without explicitly dissociating oneself from its reactionary implications, is to identify oneself with these reactionary implications by default. Many reputable educators could thus, in this roundabout way, function as 'conspirators.' In their zeal to get federal subsidies for the science department of their college or university, they could help to shape educational policies with the ideals of war as guiding principle." (26-27)

"As regards 'autonomous' activities, the principle of Rhetorical identification may be summed up thus: The fact that an activity is capable of reduction to intrinsic, autonomous principles does not argue that it is free from identification with other orders of motivation extrinsic to it. Such other orders are extrinsic to it, as considered from the standpoint of the specialized activity alone. But they are not extrinsic to thefioeld of moral action as such, considered from the standpoint of human activity as such. But they are not extrinsic from the standpoint of human activity in general. The human agent, qua human agent, is not motivated solely by the principles of a specialized activity, however strongly this specialized power, in its suggestive role as imagery, may affect his character. Any specialized activity participates in a larger unit of action. 'Identification' is a word for the autonomous activity's place in this wider context, a place with which the agent may be unconcerned. The shepherd, qua shepherd, acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and harm. But he may be 'identified' with a project that is raising the sheep for market." (27)

Just another angle on some of these things. Has anyone in the class studied Burke before?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

swimming in the ocean

oh man,
this class has been overwhelming me.
...and i do really appreciate that; thanks everyone.

i've been writing a lot, but rather tangentially to the specific materials we've been dealing with in our course. as we draw to a close, and with my eye on the 'final paper' post i'll be gathering together over the next couple of weeks, i'm going to take a stab here at some rather scattered, wide ranging talking points that i've been savoring throughout the course.

1. philosophy of history: do we really know what history is? i don't think so, because i'm pretty sure that we don't really know what time is. i think that this seems like kindof a minor problem to most people, occupied with more 'practical' considerations, but to me it seems to be affiliated with the strange and compelling thematic repetition that we've been observing throughout our readings this semester, from plato to carr (quite the odd couplet ; ).

the issue of time is, i think, intrinsically bound up with the issue of communication. how? consider that all of our eminent theorists of communications base their theses, their interventions, their judgements of the techniques in question, like Plato has Thamus judging Theuth's invention in the Phaedrus, on diagnostic assessments of the effects of these techniques. and in each case when the adoption of the new technique is ruled against, it is on the grounds that its effects on the status quo will be unacceptable: writing will destroy memory; print will destroy the clergy; industry will enslave the proletariat; internet will destroy our ability to concentrate...
on the other hand, when the new techniques are celebrated, it is because they will ameliorate social conditions; writing will allow thinkers to imagine the ideal politeia; print will create a free space for universally accessible 'public reason;' industry will free the bourgeoisie; the internet will finally displace the cultural elites...

this reminds me of Derrida's treatment of the pharmakon in his essay Plato's Pharmacy, in which he draws attention to this radical ambiguity of technology; Plato condemns it, but uses it to do so! consequently, arguments that attempt to focus on one or the other 'side' of this ambiguity -through what i've been thinking of as moralizing arguments, which attempt to define the technique in question in either positive or negative terms- will always dissimulate the techniques themselves; will be unable to grasp their full range of affective and effective potentials.

so how does time play in all this?

i think that this problem of the technique as pharmakon -as an entity that resists objectification, or better, definition; encryption- rather than being a kind of historiographical anomaly, is in fact representative of a problem that haunts not only history, but all of language, and such as we are able to think them as languages, all techniques of thinking and remembering. the problem of assessing and predicting novelties, a problem that we as humans -homo fabers- seem destined to continue to face, cannot be reduced to empiricism. nor, as Sen points out, can it be reduced to principle. it must rather oscillate in the space between these polar positions, which are only imaginary anyway, and to the extent that they can be definitively described, encoded, can only be approached asymptotically. when historiography comes up against technique, even though it tries to materialize it, to locate it in the realm of the solid and definite, the known, it can only do so in such a way that it compromises its own observational neutrality in the process. in our haste to grasp the truth of language, or of technology, we end up using it more blindly than even in order to pursue its image in our minds.

and here we find ourselves faced with a temporal problem. i would call it the problem of recursion: how are we to go about pursuing the instrumentation of pursuit? what if the technique described by Husserl as epokhe can indeed never be completed, but must be observed, as a kind of categorical imperative; like Kant's own method of critique, not a solid ground, but a melete -a practice; a self-imposed discipline?!

more soon...


is a story about the transformation of modality-distribution on the internet...

i got it from my friend Ghislain's site:

Ghislain just got a PhD from Concordia University in Montreal's Communications program, where he studied under Thierry Bardini and Brian Massumi. I think he is on his way to Harvard for a Post-Doc with Peter Galison...

Ghislain is a member of the collective SNS, along with some other very good scholars of media and communications. Their website is: -and you can find links to their personal websites there.

Thought some of y'all might like to take a peek into what they're upto...

Monday, November 15, 2010

pedagogy, immediacy, and imaginary nichespace(s)

rounding out this trilogy of posts, i wanted to make a note of our discussion in the last class about how print served to codify the previously much more diverse and distributed spoken vernacular languages of Europe. Resulting from this codification, as Frank pointed out, we got the advent of industrial production (the printed book as 'the first' mass-produced -artificial- commodity), the necessity of systematic education (everyone had to learn to read and write in a common language), and of course the (corollary) emergence of the nationalisms identified by Anderson.

The bourgeoisie -the emergent mercantile middle class- comes into being as the product of at once capitalism (distributed mercantilism), education (centralized cultural reproduction), and nationalism (collectivized xenophobia). There is also, lurking behind these scenes, the extremely important matter of science, but we'll just have to leave it lurking for now...

It's amazing actually, how all of these changes seem to have occurred in such perfect synchrony; a pseudo-Hegelian ideality that we should perhaps attribute to the false clarity of hindsight... Certainly though, there is something to be said for the evidence of feedback-amplifications among some of these interlocking contingencies.

Take for example the matter of pedagogy's anamorphosis. We can see in the Enlightenment a kind of recapitulation of the Platonic moment, in which the techniques that Plato associates with the Sophists seem to reemerge as the set of instructional techniques that would be required to organize and govern the new (read: secular) systems of education. Kant's philosophy is often described as having emerged from his heroic attempt(s) to reconcile the instrumental (Sophistic) rationality of the pragmatic utilitarians with the (Platonic) idealism of Christianity and its church(es).

Developing on Frank's insight into the effects of vernacular codification, it seems evident that what we could call 'contemporary' pedagogy arises as the (Kantian) necessity of fixing the meanings of texts (i.e. by appealing to transcendental categoreality), overpowering the innate interpretive divergence that Derrida called dissemination. The emergent res publica (i.e. the republic) required a homogeneous (if not universally-extended, then at least internally-consistent!) medium. Enlightenment required the immediacy of print media. 'Public reason' requires immediacy generally; as the given a priori upon which successive rationalizations might be based in common...

Lastly, in response to David's pointed concerns about the difficulties of linking capitalism with these print-technologies, I would suggest that we might attempt an escape from a kind of historicism that is itself biased by its dependence on print. Instead we can perhaps make some headway describing the linkage between rationalization and commodification. This attempt is made by Stiegler in his Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, the TC Record's review of which I sent out to the class. Essentially Stiegler thinks this linkage by way his notion of grammatization.

more on this another time ; )

antinomies /&/ economies

If communities really are imagined, as Anderson imagined them to be, we still have to ask ourselves the questions: how are they imagined differently under different conditions -i.e. synchronically and diachronically; at different ecological scales, organismic and/or societal, and in different epochs- and how do these imaginaries interact with one another?

The question that seems, along these lines of thinking, to assert itself with regard to Kant, for example, is: to what extent did his evocation of the universality of 'public reason' -and of Enlightenment, thereby- depend on a blindness to the limitedness (pointed out by Cochran) of the new print medium to a literate, (and systemically-educated) bourgeoisie?

This seems to me to be an interesting question, given the radical nature of the cultural and sociopolitical changes we've been studying with regard to their historical linkages to technical advances in communications media. How much could Kant really have been aware of the socioeconomic limitations of the new print media? How does this probable oversight (or shall we say more specifically, lack of foresight -I'm recalling the words of Aeschylus' Prometheus here!) come to bear on his notion of a universal rationality; how dependent is his characterization of Enlightenment as maturity (see his late essay What is Enlightenment -and perhaps see also Foucault's late essay of the same title!) on what we can recognize, with the benefit of hindsight, as an error?

We might summarize: in the relatively massive expansions of the economies of communication that seem to accompany the advent and spread of new media (I'm thinking of Plato as Kant's inverted forebear), can we suggest the presence of a systematic tendency to overestimate the absoluteness of the transition? In other words, in the case of each emergence of a new medium, couldn't we demonstrate that while for those involved the transition seemed absolute, and was therefore theorized and described in absolute terms, in retrospect the transition was relative; the new economy never completely replaces its forebear, but rather includes and recontextualizes it. (McLuhan puts this as: "the content of a medium is another medium").

Are we not then tempted to correct Kant by asserting that his new realm of the text is not in fact a 'universal' res publica, as I think he claimed, in which the imagined community of the Enlightenment (and Platonic!) politeia could somehow assert itself directly, but is rather merely a new form of agora, in which the instrumental politics of 'private reason' -and the dynamics of Foucauldian parresia- have shifted the locus of their distributed operations to a new field; no longer performed verbally as in the Greek agora, but now performed textually in the new agora of the res publica?!