Farrelly, Gorz and Stupidity

Elizabeth Farrelly’s latest piece in the Sydney Morning Herald has already fired up a number of my friends and colleagues mostly through Twitter. I am broadly supportive of her argument and points, while most are not. The danger the article presents is a knee-jerk reading that defends the democratic mass against accusations of mob stupidity. I think the article deserves a more nuanced reading.

It may be, as one correspondent wrote last week, that advertising works on the “80/80 principle”, the assumption that 80 per cent of Australians have an IQ average of 80.

Here she is writing about an assumption, not an actuality. Advertising assumes that 80 percent of Australians have an IQ of 80. She is no describing a reality, but the suggestion is nonsense (IQ is a statistical measure of intelligence, if 80 percent of the population had lowered IQ’s relative to a previous average then 80 would no longer be ’80’. ’80’ is roughly two standard deviations away from the actual average of 100). Rather, she is describing the way advertising functions to interpellate and produce subjects that act as if the general average IQ dropped 20 points. Advertising produces stupidity. I agree with this point.

For one person to live in an acre of grass and trees is perfectly harmless, even lovable. But for the numberless hordes to do it means an end to wilderness, clean air and polar bears. This must be obvious to everyone who has ever sat in the daily Sydney-to-Richmond traffic jam, yet we do not see it. Which is why premiers repeatedly stake their careers on building more roads, which just means more congestion. We don’t have to be dumb. It’s enough that our leaders think we are, and pander accordingly.

Her next point is about scale. It repeats an argument originally developed by the ecological socialist Andre Gorz. Gorz is one of the most under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century. He was a realist and not an idealist. He recognised that what we now call sustainability would eventually have to be the goal of modern societies. In Gorz’s example (if memory serves, in Ecology as Politics) he discusses the example of everyone desiring a chateau by the beach, which, clearly, is not possible. People recognise the limits of the beach and real estate, etc. as a luxury. Yet, everyone desires an automobile and so on, but does not recognise it as a luxury.

But democracy, the tyranny of the majority, may yet prove an own goal for humanity, mainly because of the weird trick it does with scale; allowing us all to pursue our own happiness as if we were the only ones on the planet. Allowing us to act like a vast family of solipsistic only children, steadfastly voting for lower taxes and higher services.

Farrelly introduces the notion of ‘happiness’ as something we pursue of our own interest. The great libertarian liberal myth of a society of individuals operating according to their own rational self interest sounds great until you realise that most people do not act rationally or necessarily even in their own self interest (ie stupidity as an infection). A variation of this is developed by Gorz who talks about “autonomous” (self-directed) and “heteronomous” (other-directed) activities.

Autonomous activities are truly self-managed. These are freely chosen tasks, performed by individuals or in cooperation with a like-minded group. Heteronomous tasks are constrained by social demands. Such tasks are imposed by the nature of the tools used, their organization, the division of labor and its global dispersal. The history of capitalism has involved the increase of heteronomous tasks at the expense of autonomous ones. The size of corporations and of the factories they have built, even the technologies used, have been designed expressly to thwart direct workers’ control. Heteronomy limits self-management.

Now, lets go out on a limb here. Lets imagine that ‘stupidity’ in our democratic societies is the misrecognition of heteronomy for autonomy. This is facilitated through the work of advertising and the media that asks us to assume certain goals as our own (in my PhD research I looked at the way enthusiast media propositioned certain challenges as worthy for enthusiast mobilisation, these challenges were congruent with commercial outcomes). Most people are familiar with the list of life goals that require great mobilisation to be achieved, but which serve as a resource for others to commodify and make money from: owning one’s own home, the esculator of consumerism, etc. Farrelly summarises all this under the term ‘happiness’:

It’s not that, as a society, we’re especially happy. More than we feel we ought to be. We feel that, under the circumstances, and given the vast quanta of food, pleasure, leisure, wealth and freedom at our disposal, there’s no reason not to be.

She then offers two ‘proofs’. The first is that true happiness is attained when it is not pursued. In other words, false ‘happiness’ as the ideal of ‘stupidity’ or misrecognised heteronomous action is set up in opposition to autonomous activity that is the outcome of activity when ‘happiness’ is not the singular goal:

Even Martin Seligman, positive psychology’s founding father, admits that the most reliable path to happiness is not to pursue it, but to commit to some greater, connective cause (be it housing the homeless or writing metaphysical sonnets).

Her second proof attacks the weakness of our contemporary political leadership who are too afraid to lead against ‘stupidity’ (or misrecognised autonomous activity that infects a population through the stupidity of advertising and the media) as indicative of a weak democracy:

En masse, when all of our small, personal happiness pursuits coagulate into one big, ongoing, democratic res publica, the result is an increasingly cowed and cowardly leadership with no higher goal than this; to service an increasingly petulant public by telling it precisely what it wishes to hear.
Of course you can have both cheap petrol and clean air, my darlings. Yes, yes. Big houses and swift individual transport, perfect health for free and forever, new toys all round, all the time – these things are everybody’s right. There there. Back to sleep with you.

The last point is about the way Western liberal democracies are hamstrung by the need to pamper to the ‘stupidities’ of the public. Even though leaders, and others, may recognise the need for decisive action about issues and increase the capacity for action to respond to various crises, our leaders must play the game of ‘politics’ for re-election and lead in a continually reactionary mode.

Certainly, freed from any need to pander to the 80/80 rule, they have at least one freedom Western-style democracies do not have – the freedom to act decisively.
This, of course, can be bad, very bad. But it can also be good, facilitating just the kind of purposive decision making needed to change habits quickly and cater to excellence rather than popularity.
Maybe it’s too soon to dump democracy, but I’d make voting a privilege; not a right, and certainly not an obligation. If they can’t be bothered to vote, the last thing you want is their help in running the country. Rather, we’d earn our voting rights by demonstrating at least some intelligent grasp of the issues and so force, or perhaps allow, our leaders to raise their eye-cues.

The job of the Left is to help produce subjects capable of heteronomous action, and from my appreciation of the current state of affairs the job of intellectuals broadly following the Enlightenment tradition is to critique ‘stupidity’.

A brief working definition of the Virtual

The ‘virtual’ in the philosophical sense is not restricted to Virtual Reality.

Think of the boiling point of water. Humans have measured the boiling point and have figured out that it is 100C. The boiling point is real; you can actually witness water boiling, but on the other hand, depending on the energy introduced into the water-boiling system only small amounts of pure water at sea level will boil instantly and turn into steam. (If there is a large amount of energy released into a system, such as a nuclear weapon, then larger bodies of water will boil and evaporate instantly. Instantly still not being ‘instantly’, it still takes some time for this to happen, relative to our human frame of reference, it is an ‘instant’.)

In all other situations, the boiling point is virtual because it is actualised in different ways according to the variable constraints that move the water-boiling system from the ideal model (small amount of pure water at sea level pressures). Super heated water, for example, is water that has had extra energy added to it (heated) beyond the boiling point, but kept under extreme pressures. The boiling point remains virtual, it is not actualised, but the variable constraint of pressure (nominally at sea level) has not been fulfilled.

Now, instead of the boiling point, think of something social, for example the passage from being a child into becoming at adult. Similar to the water boiling example, this passage is a phase space. There is a process of transduction from one energy state to another. Think about how different your power relations are as an adult (expressed in terms of freedoms and responsibilities) compared to that as a child. In most cultures there is some kind of rite of passage from childhood into adulthood where the subject is forced through particular experiences that endow the subject with the memory of such experiences that are then shared with others in an economy of memory-experience.

Unlike water-boiling, we remember the passages of experience in our lives. The events (collectively belonging to a series of events known as a ‘rite of passage’) through which a subject experiences becoming an adult can then be drawn on, either explicitly if a particular piece of esoteric knowledge has been handed down, such fixing a car or cleaning the house, or through a particular constellation of affective states (confidence, respect, patience, etc.). The rite-of-passage series of events are more or less virtual. They exist not in the location of electrons around a nucleus of a molecule in a bunch of molecules determining the phase state of the bunch of molecules (solid, liquid or gas), but in the embodied memory of the subject. When ‘adulthood’ is performed by a subject through particular actions or whatever, the virtual events of the becoming-adult rite-of-passage are actualised.

The function of media in all this is that they can distribute events that implicate the audience (viewers/readers/users/participants/etc) in the events. The audience has to learn how to be implicated. For example, you need to learn the rituals based around watching ‘the game’ on television. This implication in events can be in a passive way (a broadcast medium, some print) or active (social media, video games, some print). Breaking down the word ‘implication’ we get im-pli-cation, ‘pli’ being the French for ‘fold’. Implication is a kind of enfolding or enveloping in this sense.

Now think about which events you’ve been implicated in that have transformed your subjectivity, perhaps through repeated exposure, that have created new behaviours or modes of action. Examine emergent or changing patterns of behaviour. Think about the way memories exist in your present experience of the world. This is the virtual that already belongs to your reality. You do not need fancy VR goggles to access and contemplate it.

In my own work I am mostly interested in the virtual belonging to the future or relations of ‘futurity’ for given subjects. Think about this, following the above schema, in terms of being memories of the future.

Object-ness, enthusiasm and challenges

One of my colleagues, Caroline Hamilton, who along with Kirsten Seale, we’ll be putting together a special issue of the Cultural Studies Review for release in 2013, shared this story in the New York Times about a subculture organised around a renaissance for mechanical typewriter use. The author (and academic) Jessica Bruder reflects upon the simplicity and durability of the machines. She then isolates something else:

In more than a dozen interviews, young typewriter aficionados raised a common theme. Though they grew up on computers, they enjoy prying at the seams of digital culture. Like urban beekeepers, hip knitters and other icons of the D.I.Y. renaissance, they appreciate tangibility, the object-ness of things. They chafe against digital doctrines that identify human “progress” as a ceaseless march toward greater efficiency, the search for a frictionless machine.

This is very similar to the way outsiders describe the enthusiasm of participants in modified-car culture for whom there is apparently a general fetishisation of the object of the car as a result of the way a car is sumbliminated into the subjectivity of an enthusiast. All of which is a very apt description, but it doesn’t actually describe what the enthusiasts are doing or the mechanics of enthusiasm. A focus on the object of enthusiasm itself or the relative enjoyment (or perhaps more accurately the satisfaction) of enthusiasts is insufficient for accounting for the ways enthusiasts are mobilised into action.

I am not suggesting a more familiar ‘fan’ type account of the practices and enthusiasts of the D.I.Y. renaissance would be more appropriate. Popular academic accounts of fans miss out on the ‘hands on’ relation that Bruder is describing in her article. For example, Henry Jenkins’s thesis about fans in Textual Poachers is a critical explication of specific fan reading practices. I am suggesting that a critical account of the relation between enthusiasts (if that is the most appropriate term for those people Bruder is describing, which I think it is) and the objects of enthusiasm needs to be pushed further than a reification and fetishisation of the objects to examine the practices of the enthusiasts, to see how the relation between enthusiast and objects of enthusiasm is inacted in practice.

Firstly, to remain at the level of objecthood loses the dynamic dimension of enthusiasm and relies on an instantaneous image of the enthusiast and object. An enthusiasm is defined by the challenges that mobilise an enthusiast into action. ‘Challenge’ here is part of an event in the Deleuzian sense of belonging to an incorporeal materialism. Non-enthusiasts will see a typewriter (or any other object of any enthusiasm) as being pregnant with problems, hassles and unwanted drama. They are not worthy of one’s interest, beyond mere whimsy (or a short 30 second Youtube clip or similar). True objects of enthusiasm for true enthusiasts demand a sustained interest that, as Kant defined enthusiasm, is not exhausted by whimsy.

Secondly, enthusiasts encounter ‘problems’ all the time. One of the great questions I tackled with in my research was to find an answer to why modified-car enthusiasts will continue to persist with a car or some modification or another after it has caused huge amounts of grief. Here I am referring to vehicle damage from crashes or blown engines as a result of racing and ‘pushing the envelope’. Why bother with the object of one’s enthusiasm when there is very little enjoyment and, indeed, a surplus of negative experiences. Surely, if the object of one’s enthusiasm is meant to provide pleasure and the enthusiast relation with his or her objects is about enjoyment, then the enthusiast will discard such problem objects as quickly as possible? This certainly happens, evidenced by an economy in modified-car culture based around the commerce in failed projects. Many enthusiasts persist however, with the idiosyncracies of their objects (such as the time required to type or change ink ribbons and so on) as much as they persist with the downright catastrophes, such as an engine destroyed by an incorrect lean tune and too much turbocharger boost.

There is an incorporeal translation, effected by the mobilisation of the enthusiast, from an object and set of objects that appear to be a ‘problem’ into the object and set of objects that belong to the enthusiast proper as the objects become part of a ‘challenge’. The movement from ‘problem’ to ‘challenge’ is not necessarily a transformation of the object in any normative sense, it is part of the event of enthusiasm. The tangibility appreciated by the enthusiast is a direct result of the appreciation of objects according to the challenges they pose as invitations to mobilisation. Enthusiasts ‘read’ objects according to a semiotics of force and affect. A car enthusiast can ‘read’ how much ‘work’ has gone into a car, how many hours or effort have been required to properly massage a body panel or build and test an engine or even merely to clean a car properly.