Friday, September 22, 2017

As it stands, we are in a hurry to stand still

Here is a process, probably familiar to you:

Some person of note makes a remark. This remark is problematic, and since there are many people of the opinion that problematic things are not to be left unexpounded, there is a flurry of activity to expound the problematic nature of this remark. Given that any statement is an invitation to further statements, further statements occur, some of them insightful, some of them problematic. And since a problematic statement cannot stand either unopposed or unexpounded, things compound.

You have seen this happen. Most likely online, but probably offline too.

In these situations, new topics of discussion are introduced, with varying degrees of relation to the problematic remark. Suddenly, everyone is abuzz about something, and even if you did not think you would ever have an opinion about it, you all of a sudden do. It is easy to be caught up in the moment, and the moment has a tendency to extend itself for longer than one would initially suspect.

Expounding takes time, after all. If it could be done in a hurry, it wouldn't need doing; it'd be a done thing.

Thing is. Discourse produced under these circumstances tend to be local responses to local statements, rather than global considerations. This goes with the conversational nature of the situation - everyone involved is talking to everyone involved, making things very involved. Attempts to sort things out afterwards have to go ever backward, in order to ascertain what any particular statement responded to, and what prompted that earlier statement, and so on. Statements do not stand by themselves; quoted out of context, they will read very differently than in context. (Let's avoid the temptation to ponder the meaning of being quoted out of context in context.)

The short of it is that writings produced under these circumstances have a limited shelf-life, and the long-term return on emotions invested will probably not make up for any temporary intensity. If the goal is to leave a lasting impression, this is not the way.

Consider these words from the Invisible Committee:

Power is now immanent in life as it is technologically organized and commodified. It has the neutral appearance of facilities or of Google’s blank page. Whoever determines the organization of space, whoever governs the social environments and atmospheres, whoever administers things, whoever manages the accesses—governs men. Contemporary power has made itself the heir, on the one hand, of the old science of policing, which consists in looking after “the well-being and security of the citizens,” and, on the other, of the logistic science of militaries, the “art of moving armies,” having become an art of maintaining communication networks and ensuring strategic mobility. Absorbed in our language-bound conception of the public thing, of politics, we have continued debating while the real decisions were being implemented right before our eyes. Contemporary laws are written in steel structures and not with words. All the citizens’ indignation can only end up butting its dazed forehead against the reinforced concrete of this world.

This, too, is a process that is probably familiar to you. Even more so now, as you cannot unsee it once becoming aware of it. It shall stand in the way, as it were.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reverse identity politics

Strangeness is yet again afoot. This particular strangeness I suspect many of you readers have taken note of on occasion, seeing as it is the topic of the day and has been for many days.

It concerns the liberal subject.

Since there is considerable confusion with regard to the exact meaning of both the word "liberal" and "subject", it would only be prudent to define their combination. Lest we be lost in the vagaries of the English language.

The liberal subject is what is visible to the bureaucracies of the liberal state. In an immediate sense, this takes the form of tax records, hospital journals, criminal records or other documents that in some way depict a person. In a less immediate sense, it is a person as it is defined in the code of laws that governs the land: their rights, their obligations and - most importantly - who they as citizens are supposed to be.

This is something else than who they are, in any sense of self or identity. This is a purely discursive construct, and exists only as an aggregate of small fragments that combine to make up a whole. One regulation here, one regulation there; small things. But these fragments add up, and the construct that emerges has real life implications.

An example of this are rights that a person has to actively claim in order to actually benefit from. There are any number of these, from municipal to national. In theory, all you as a person has to do is to fill out the proper paperwork and possibly do some talking to some bureaucrats, and then it's all yours. You as a liberal subject have it within your power to mobilize the apparatus of state on your behalf in this regard, should you but choose to do so.

You as an actual person more than likely have no idea that these rights even exist, and there is a non-zero percentage that no one in your neighborhood does either. You as an actual person have a limited knowledge about the finer points of legal print that surround you, and frankly I suspect that you have better ideas about how to spend your life than reading every rule and regulation there is based on some just in case basis.

But.

The difference between you as a liberal subject and you as an actual person does not exist as far as the liberal state goes. Who you are outside the rules and regulations literally does not matter - it does not exist, it is not visible, and it is not a proper justification for action of any kind. The actual you that walks around, breathes and has impressions of the world - does not exist. In the eyes of the law, you are a citizen. No more, no less.

This means that any failure on your part to act in the prescribed manner is your fault. Even if you had no idea you were supposed to do it, or were utterly oblivious to the fact that doing it existed as a possibility in the world.

Or, phrased slightly differently: if you did not claim your right, you actively chose not to claim it. Ignorance is no excuse.

I imagine that actual you might have objections to this state of things. Good. It means that you perceive the strangeness that is afoot.

Welcome to modernity, citizen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

What Mastodon needs (and then some)

Mastodon participation requires non-trivial levels of literacy.

I need you to look at this statement. It is not a condemnation, it is not an accusation; it is merely a statement of fact. An important statement.

If we look closely at the statement, we see that it includes five components, which can be parsed thusly:
Mastodon
participation
requires
non-trivial levels [of]
literacy

Depending on which part we choose to emphasize, the statement will take on different implications. I suspect that the most immediate reading is to emphasize the "non-trivial levels", and hurry to the conclusion that we need to take action to lower these barriers to participation. While this is by no means a wrong conclusion - removing barriers to participation is seldom wrong - it is not the only conclusion.

Let's look at the statement as a whole. What does it mean that that Mastodon requires non-trivial levels of literacy?

It means that you have to be able to read, and be able to read well, in order to get things done. Not only do you need to be able to look at words and know what they mean - you have to be able to look at who is saying them, when and why, and from all this contextual information piece together what is going on. Above all this, you have to navigate the situation - both as it stands at any particular moment, and in a more general overarching sense - in order to figure out how to appropriately respond to what's going on.

Not to put a fine point on it: this is a non-trivial amount of literacy.

Depending on where we place our emphasis, we end up with different questions and different calls to action. What does it mean for Mastodon to require something? What even is Mastodon, and who gets to define it? What does participation mean, and how do we organize it? Does literacy include the capacity to code?

This post is not meant to answer any questions, or even to pose them in anything resembling a comprehensive fashion. Rather, it serves as something to anchor your thoughts on as the Mastodon project toots forward. And as a reminder that:

Mastodon participation requires non-trivial levels of literacy.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

No, actually, it is both sides

Sometimes, I get into brutally one-sided fights with individuals who want to argue that capitalism is better than communism. I say one-sided, since they are interested in arguing and I'm not, and I shift the brunt of the emotional labor involved in keeping an argument going squarely upon them. This is a patently unfair move, to be sure, but if you seek me out specifically to reiterate a high school debate, it's an unfairness brought upon yourself; unlike both communism and capitalism, it is within your individual power to avoid this particular structural unfairness.

A more interesting approach to the capitalism/communism divide is to see them both as possible manifestations of modernity, with shared roots, shared symptoms and shared absurdnesses. Modernity could go either of these ways (possibly others as well), and we are now armed with a century of empirical data to study and learn from. Declaring either alternative to be 'better' and ending one's analysis there is a failure to engage with the data; it's ideology.

Sometimes, my non-participation in these fights is interpreted as an ideological proclamation. Since I refuse to partake in these small moments of grandstanding against communism, I must be on team communism. And thus, they unleash the killer question, the question to end all questions:

Do you want to live like they did in the Soviet Union?

Funny you should ask.

There are a non-trivial amount of stories emerging from the US right now about how the current megastorms (Harvey, Irma) are impacting ordinary everyday citizens. Some are about price gauging, which is to say the process predicted by neoclassical economics wherein it becomes more expensive to survive the worse things get. Those stories are not surprising; economists have long referred to this as the cost of doing business. More surprising, however, are the stories of individuals fleeing the oncoming megastorms - and subsequently getting fired for not showing up to work.

If your frame of reference is that capitalism is better than communism, then you will be ill equipped to discuss this state of things. It makes no sense on the face of it to penalize workers for evacuating in the face of a storm encompassing whole states; the words force majeure spring to mind. No reasonable person would expect ordinary people to have to stay and die in the face of overwhelming natural forces for the sake of a contractual agreement. Those kinds of suicidal heroics for symbolic causes are the stuff of war legends, not of everyday workaday business as usual.

To be sure, die-hard ideological capitalists would probably not be surprised to hear of these things if they were told it happened in the Soviet Union. But it is happening now, in the United States, the self-avowed bastion of capitalist free enterprise. Why do we see the same disregard for individual liberty in both instances?

If you view communism and capitalism as two possible variations of the same overarching historical tendency, then these stories become less confusing. Seen in the light of increased bureaucratization and the insistence that formal rules trump informal actualities (e.g. megastorms), it makes sense. We may not agree with the practice of expecting employees to stand and die for companies that spend more money lobbying against increased minimal wages than it would cost to simply pay those minimal wages, but we have a framework for understanding that these demands do not spring from nothing. There are historical trends and forces at work, and you do not have to have read Kafka to understand them.

But it helps.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Discursive notches

There is a strange process afoot, which I suspect is easier to describe than to explain. In its most basic form, it goes something like this:

Someone has an online presence, most commonly in the form of a content creator. They describe themselves as rational, skeptic and free-thinking, often with an undertone of anti-authoritarianism. They position themselves in opposition to conservatives on a number of issues, for instance when it comes to the role of religion in politics. Their god-terms (to wit) are science, rationality and skepticism, with the corresponding devil-terms of religion and tradition.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and things have radically changed. While there might be lingering traces of skeptical roots, the overall tone and messaging have changed. If the tone was polemical before, it has now intensified and become increasingly specific. The prior focus on denouncing anti-scientific sentiments has been replaced with denouncing leftist SJW feminists, wherever these may be found. Similarly, the notion of free-thinking has been replaced with what can only be called a liturgy: there is a number of stock phrases that are used almost verbatim by members of the community.

The transition from the one type of person to the other seems contingent to me. Out of all the possible developmental paths things could have taken, this one underwent the formality of actually happening. Things could have been different, but they are not.

The question posed by this state of things is: why? What led these self-awowed critical thinkers to join the relentless chant against the so-called SJWs?

A less obvious question is why those who, today, display interest in the skeptical line of thinking tend to follow the same trajectory as those who did years ago. What compels them to undertake the same journey, even though the present-day discourse bears little resemblance to the source material? What discursive notches are at play?

There is a strange process afoot, which I suspect is easier to describe than to explain. A first step in explaining it is to notice it.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Intersectional lines of flight

In the most recent anomaly, I use the concept of international supply chains to illustrate the possibilities of intersectional analyses. It is both a joke and an illustration: a joke in that it is not a concept you would expect to see in a text on intersectionality, and an illustration in that there is no real reason why it could not be included in an intersectional analysis. One would have to make a case for including it, but that goes for every other methodological aspect as well, so it is not unique in that regard.

There are always more potential analyses than actualized ones. This is due to the fact that it is easier to come up with ideas than to go through the months long painstaking process of gathering and processing the data. There really is nothing stopping anyone from saying "hey, we should analyze x in the light of y" - the only effort involved is to have the idea in the first place. And ideas are plentiful.

If you've read your Feyerabend, you can have ungodly amounts of fun generating ideas for potential analyses about the most counterintuitive objects from the most unexpected of angles. Indeed, if you've read your Giddens, you have seen it in action; that famous introduction sure is effective in showing how coffee is not just a beverage but also a social institution, a major economic commodity, a marker of social status, and a whole host of other things condensed (and percolated) into one singular thing. There are no real limits to how many approaches you can use - in theory and in mind.

In practice, there are limits about. Some limits are related to energy - you only have so much of it. Some limits are related to genres and conventions - you are expected to follow the written and unwritten rules for how to go about things. Some limits are related to empirical applicability - some approaches simply will not work.

The first kind of limit is absolute. The second one is negotiable.

Among those who for whatever reason oppose the notion of intersectionality, it is common to make reference to the third kind of limit. "Atoms do not have genders", they might say, implying that an intersectional analysis of physics is impossible. More specifically, they imply that the objective (and thus scientific) ontic universe cannot be understood using the methods and concepts of the social sciences, and that true scientists should be left alone to pursue their important work unperturbed.

They are usually perturbed when an intersectional analysis about how 'objectivity' is a gendered concept with roots in imperialist colonial practices, and thus cannot be used uncritically to convey what they want to convey. The fact that this is a successful application of intersectional analysis is shoved aside by the assertion that no, it isn't.

Thus, we find ourselves back at the second kind of limit. Genres and conventions.

If you read enough about intersectionality, you will eventually come across appeals to include animals in the overall roster of categories. In its mildest forms, this pans out as arguments to strengthen animal protection laws; if it is unethical to let humans suffer, then surely it is unethical to let other forms of life suffer, too. In more radical forms, we find militant veganism (though, to be sure, it is likely militant vegans found their way to where they are by other routes than methodological considerations). Somewhere between these positions, there is a point where it becomes unstrategic to include animals in your analysis.

It is not difficult to come up with intersectional analyses which include animals. For instance: there is a class (or, perhaps more fittingly, caste) system in place with regards to animals. Some animals (dogs, cats) are pets, and kept around the house. Some animals are slaves to be exploited to the fullest extent of their biology (mutated, deformed fowl who live their life in dark factories). Some animals are poached for their alleged medicinal properties (tigers, elephants). Some animals are national symbols (bald-headed eagles). I probably do not need to flesh out the differences to successfully convey that there is something to be learnt by performing an analysis along these lines. Or that international supply chains might be involved somehow.

But.

It is unstrategic to perform such analyses. They do not get funded, for one. They also do not tend to be read with a sense of delighted gratitude; more often than not they are dismissed as prattling sentimental nonsense, along with their authors. There are limits to what a serious participant of contemporary discourse can say, and it is solid strategy to be aware of these limits.

Indeed, these very limits are very rewarding to perform an intersectional analysis of. I would go so far as to say it is a good idea. -

Friday, August 18, 2017

Who and what to know

A while back ago, I was attending a social gathering where people came, discussed for a while, and left. There was no fixed topic of discussion, or other purpose than the sheer getting together and talking. It was a fluid situation.

At one particular moment, those present got to talking about family relations and relatives. There were old folks present (persons in their sixties and upwards) who talked about their relatives and relations in terms of individuals. The reference points went along these lines: he was the one who was married to her, and they had that fancy car, remember? or: remember the old man who lived on that hill back in the days - he had a nephew, who married this other person who ran that store, and so on.

For those listening in on the conversation without knowing (and thus not remembering) these particular facts or persons, this line of describing who's who will remain a work in progress. More information is required about the nature of marriages, cars, hills and other aspects of local historical memory to make sense of it all. It is a situated knowledge about a specific cast of characters, and the only way to really become someone in the know would be to stick around long enough to become situated.

After a while of establishing who's who, someone asked one of the young persons present if they knew the children of those discussed. As it turned out, they did, in a way. They knew of these persons, but had never really interacted in any significant fashion. The most succinct summation of the situation put it thusly: oh yeah, him. He was in B, so I never talked to him.

This is a distinctly different way of relating to social relations. The B in this case refers to an administrative subdivision of school populations - 6A, 6B or 6C. These are all sixth grade, but for purposes of keeping group sizes manageable, divided into three groups. Referring to B as a known fact implies knowing these administrative subdivisions and their social implications, which is a radically different way of organizing who's who than the individual-to-individual approach outlined above.

The old folks present did not know the specific implications of the letter B. But, being old and wise, they picked up the gist that this letter somehow meant that the individuals in question did not know each other, and continued the discussion armed with this new nugget of contextual information.

The difference between young and old in this case is not subtle. In fact, it seems to be taken right out of some introductory textbook on sociology, wherein it describes the gradual expansion of bureaucracy into more and more aspects of our lives. The old ones thought in terms of individuals; the young ones in terms of administrative subdivisions. It was, in a single moment, a crystallization of modernity.

It was a strange moment, and I have pondered it ever since.