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Re: <nettime> Return of the F-scale
t byfield on Mon, 29 Feb 2016 22:58:07 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> Return of the F-scale


On 28 Feb 2016, at 23:29, Brian Holmes wrote:

Those are my thoughts,

Really great.

What follows is more chiming in than replying to you per se, Brian. Though I do want to amplify one thing you said:

You know, by simple math of wealth and access, I'm of the privileged.
But I'm frankly afraid of the liberal future which is becoming equal
to the authoritarian one. Intellectuals should help imagine, plan,
test and build a different present, on all levels from technics to
ethics to affects and back again. It takes some theory and a whole lot
more.

-- in particular a much wider range of experiences and views. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, diversity (multiplicity, polyvocality, call it what you like) is the best fertilizer. I'm happy this discussion is happening on nettime, and I'd be even happier if we had a wider range of people chiming in. I'm pretty sure a few people around here have some experience with authoritarianism in everyday life. That said...

'The left' (or whatever you want to call it) hasn't responded to this authoritarian turn very effectively, or even just to its retro-turbo-fascist symptoms. That's not surprising, really. The key institution the left relies on at almost every point -- the university -- has proven itself more adept at capturing and taming its various constituencies with endless administrativia, compliance, job security anxieties, and debt. If those dysfunctions were the price we paid for some really compelling product, we could overlook them. But the norms of the 'academic' dissemination of ideas guarantee that it'll continue on its trajectory of becoming increasingly irrelevant: the credentialism more exclusive, the publications more impenetrable, the facilities less accessible -- the very opposite of compelling.

But if we look at that same cluster of problems at a smaller scale, as Patrice suggests, we'll see good things for the most part: deeply social, personal engagements that shape individuals intellectually and emotionally, the shifting tides of communities of inquiry, and undeniable advances in the complexity, richness, and intimacy of thought and practice -- the kinds of things leftists tend to value. But when we try to survey this field more systemically, what we see looks more like a catastrophic wasteland: an endless expanse of sentimentality, idiosyncratic positions and relations, writings that no one will ever read, projects abandoned then forgotten, events recorded on the wind, and above all frustrated aspirations.

It's easy to look at that and say, "Well, the left needs to improve its ability to operate at a large scale"-- and that's true to a limited extent. But the left needs to recognize that there's a reason it sucks at large scales: functioning and acting at a large scale is antithetical to most things the left values. But why is that? Why would different political tendencies be asymmetrical in their ability to operate at different scales? Well, a better question is why would anyone think that disparate tendencies would or should have symmetrical or equivalent abilities? Why would political tendencies that embrace persuasion and consensus be as effective at any 'scale' -- and there are many kinds of scales -- as tendencies that embrace violence and coercion? And why would political tendencies that reject the accumulation of wealth be as effective in any context as tendencies that fetishize it? They won't be. 'Scale' presupposes wealth, and wealth presupposes coercion. That's why leftist proposals about scaling often sound ridiculous -- sure, as soon as we're done with 'our own big data projects' we can start on 'our own antiballistic missile systems' and 'our own pharmaceuticals.'

But why talk about left and right when this thread began with Brian's forward about *authoritarianism*? Well, for starters our vocabulary for discussing authoritarianism barely exists -- which is why Geert had to jump directly to Reich, de Mause, and Theweleit, even at the risk of disturbing the ghosts of therapy for the masses. It's not surprising that we'd find ourselves in this situation. Seriously, how much 'establishment' support should we expect for a kind of analysis that waved away the fundamental distinction of the Cold War, capitalism vs communism, to focus on what they have in common? And the same goes, in different ways, for sources of support from the 'alternatives': radicals of every stripe, from the ludicrous to the pragmatic, have had their own reasons for discouraging analyses that would emphasize what their movements had in common with the establishment(s). So we need to talk about left and right -- not because they're valuable categories in themselves, but because they've served as proxies (masks, really) for efforts to grapple with authoritarianism.

But we also need to look for analyses that are independent of the (counter)therapeutic tradition Geert mentioned. In my view, one useful tool comes from Bakhtin, the Russian (or Soviet, if you like) literary historian and theorist -- specifically, his idea of dialogic vs monologic. I'll do a bit of violence to his work by adding some pop Nietzscheo-Kierkegaardian rubbish, but for those who haven't spent any/much time with it, Bakhtin laid out these two terms as a way to understand a fundamental conflict in literature -- with political implications that seem plainly clear for speech.

The dialogic is an environmental form of language that emphasizes a multiplicity of voices and tends toward the comic: a sort of 'acoustic' space in which individual invention is almost impossible to identify amidst the noise of babble, echo, and laughter in its deepest forms, irony and parody (as opposed to mockery, which is laughter in the service of aggression). In this kind of linguistic environment, meanings are multiple and mutable, so they tend to dissolve boundaries of almost every kind, including the boundaries of the self. When you apply this kind of logic to social and political entities -- say, by asking where would we find it or what would it look like? -- I don't think it's surprising we'd find it aligned with the multiplication of new kinds of selves, the generative uses of social divisions, the celebration of hybridity and gradation -- for example, in form like multi-ethnicity, or the transformation of 'sexual' distinction into less determinate, more creative preferential tendencies.

In contrast to this, there's the monologic, which insists on a tragic singularity and identity of thought, voice, and meaning. The result is a violent positivism in which idea = utterance = object. It aims to be the first and last word, with no echo that might hint at the erosion of meaning. It leaves as little room as possible -- preferably none at all -- for ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt, skepticism, or even circumspection. It's easy to see, I think, how this tendency would appeal not just to military institutions but also to particular kinds of religion (evangelical on the one hand and reactionary on the other), for example. And why it would lend itself to nostalgist tendencies (dead men don't talk back) while aligning itself against the emergence and legitimation of new kinds of subjectivity (who *do* talk back). And how *it would draw many disparate traditions together* into effective, executive, and instrumental political formations.

In my view, there's no better tool for understanding the fundamental asymmetry of left and right -- and, in this context, how those woolly terms would come to serve as proxies for varying degrees of authoritarianism. And I don't just mean on the primary level of a mapping in which left = dialogic and right = monologic (which is too blunt but pretty effective). I also mean a way of explaining why leftist efforts to mimic rightist activities and institutions are often doomed -- to betray their principles, to sell out, to become hollow-sounding, to be appropriated by institutions in ways that are both completely cynical *and* completely naive.

Cheers,
T

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