Thursday, January 31, 2019

Can Democracy Work? A Disputed Question

'Can democracy work?' is a question whose answer in the affirmative seems less and less certain these days. On one hand is the rise of authoritarianism. In a recent segment of his HBO show 'Last Week Tonight', John Oliver expressed concern over the trend, citing the obvious, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Chinese President-for-Life Xi Jinping, but also Hungary's Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and far-right politician Jair Balsanaro, the new President of Brazil. On another, and equally disconcerting to Oliver, is the fact that many of
these authoritarian regimes have ironically gained power by being duly elected by their constituents. The United States is not in a league with the aforementioned examples, although it's not for lack of trying by the current incumbent executive, AKA 'Individual 1', and his cronies. Taking up the question literally is historian of ideas and Professor of Politics at the New School for Social Research James Miller, whose latest book endeavors, as its subtitle suggests, to give a history of democracy from ancient to modern times.

The idea of democracy has its origins some 500 years before the common era in the Greek city-state of Athens. Indeed, the terms we use for democratic politics come to us from the ancient Greeks, from dēmokratía, rule by the people, and politiká, affairs of the city. Every citizen was expected to directly participate in the political life of Athens; they were not elected but chosen by lottery, providing equal opportunity for all to serve. Assemblies of citizens, which took place at least 40 times a year, were open to all and ordinary citizens held public office and served on juries. And yet, even then democracy was a contested idea.

Perhaps most famous was the critique of Plato, who in the Republic held that democracy necessarily degenerates into tyranny due to the susceptibility of public opinion to false beliefs, exemplified in the Allegory of the Cave where shadows cast by a fire on the wall are mistaken for reality. The model of good government was instead aristocracy, led by a philosopher-king who ruled with reason and wisdom, guided by knowledge of the Ideal Forms. Plato was joined by his near contemporary, the classical historian Thucydides, who blamed the defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) on the manipulation of the citizens by demagogues (from the Greek dēmagōgos, leader of the people) who persuaded them to blindly march down the road to perdition.

Moreover, the definition of citizenship in the Athenian polis (city) was restricted to adult males who had completed military training; slaves, including those who had been freed, women, and foreign residents were excluded. Citizens could also be disenfranchised as a penalty for certain crimes and failure to pay debts to the state. And not unlike the United States today, the elite sought over time to restrict citizenship further, in the case of Ancient Greece to only those descended from citizens on both sides. According to John Thorley's Athenian Democracy (Routledge, 2004), at best the category of citizens accounted for no more than 30 percent of the total population.

For the next two millennia, the notion of self-rule as exemplified by the Athenian democracy lay dormant, generally considered inferior to either monarchy or aristocracy. The Renaissance saw the embrace of the republican model, first described by the ancient historian of the rise of Rome, Polybius (c. 200-188 BCE), as a system of checks and balances that merged monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with the last constituting an unstable element that while useful in guarding against the abuses of the first two was liable, much as Plato and Thucydides feared, to devolve into mob rule. It wasn't until the mid-eighteenth century that democracy as a form of political governance began to be re-embraced and developed into that which we recognize today.

Contrary to the adherents of American exceptionalism, Miller picks up democracy's story not with the United States in 1776 but with the French Revolution a decade and a half later. A key figure here is the 'dreamer of democracy', as Miller once characterized him in a book of that title, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, particularly as he retooled the concept of sovereignty from the divine right of monarchs to the 'General Will' of a people. Another important figure of the period is the political theorist and mathematician, the Marquis de Condorcet, who drafted the first modern democratic constitution, which was never implemented as he was forced into hiding in the wake of the Jacobin uprising that culminated in the Reign of Terror. (Condorcet was arrested as he attempted to flee Paris, imprisoned, and died under circumstances that continue to be the subject of speculation.) And of course, there's Maximilien de Robespierre, who as a member of the Committee of Public Safety argued for the execution of King Louis XVI, as well as a speedy and abundant use of the guillotine as a tool for purifying the body politic and to which he himself ultimately fell victim.

A reading of The Federalist Papers reveals the deep skepticism with which the American Founding Fathers held the notion of pure democracy, advocating instead for a system of checks and balances along the lines conceived by Polybius. The three branches of government effectively mirror Polybius's republic with the executive mirroring the monarchy, the judiciary the aristocracy, and the legislative the democracy. Even in the last instance, however, the bicameral structure of the legislative branch additionally checks the democratic impulse with the Senate reinscribing a measure of aristocratic restraint over the potential unruliness of the House of Representatives. The Electoral College further foils majority rule. The exception was Thomas Paine, who in the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense argued for a unicameral legislature subject to robust citizen oversight via a broad definition of the franchise and frequent elections, a rash suggestion quickly refuted by future President John Adams in his riposte Thoughts on Government. Even so, throughout the nineteenth century, the idea of democracy continued to expand in the United States and elsewhere in the West.

Thomas Jefferson arguably introduced the term democracy, if not entirely the fact of it, into the American political lexicon under the auspices of the Democratic-Republican Party, which defeated the Federalists in the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson's political ideal was hardly that of Rousseau, Condorcet, and Robespierre, though, with its commitment more to the republican side of his party's name than the democratic. The democratic aspiration expanded with the rise of Andrew Jackson to the Presidency in 1828 in the wake of the factionalizing of the Democratic-Republicans, along with the expansion of the franchise to a majority of adult white males, as opposed to being restricted only to property holders. Ironically, Jacksonian democracy at the same time promoted a strong executive at the expense of the legislative branch and to a lesser extent the judiciary, a case of the populist demagoguery critics of pure democracy have so often decried.

Other instances of attempts at proliferation of democratic reform over the 19th century include Chartism in Britain, the working-class movement that sought expansion of the franchise to all males over the age of 21 and other egalitarian initiatives, and the Paris Commune of 1871, the short-lived radical government that ruled the city in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. As Miller notes, both failed to achieve their immediate goals, but particularly on the left they became models of pure democratic societies to come and in fact foreshadowed reforms that expanded suffrage and solidified the modern political parties under which most forms of national self-governance continue to operate.

A major issue Miller seeks to address is democracy's ostensible relationship to liberalism, which has its origins in the Age of Enlightenment. Against tyranny and superstition (which is to say monarchy and the Church), the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought to place equality and reason at the center of human affairs. In particular, the so-called Father of Liberalism, the British philosopher John Locke, held that each man (sic) has a natural right to life, liberty, and property, the last notion of which Jefferson elided into the pursuit of happiness. As a political and moral philosophy, liberalism advocates the freedom of individuals to self-determination. From this, Locke developed the radical idea that government is a social contract that requires the consent of the governed in order to be legitimate. In practice, liberal democracy has proven to be a fraught concept.

In his Social Contract, Rousseau asserts that direct democracy exercised in a small city-state is the environment in which freedom can best flourish. Yet the modern democracies that have arisen in the last two centuries in the industrialized West have been large-scale enterprises administered perforce through vast bureaucracies. Over time, these systems have tended to follow early 20th-century Italian sociologist Robert Michels's 'iron law of oligarchy', that complex organizations, including nation-states, eventually evolve (devolve?) into being run by a small leadership class. (Later in life, Michels embraced Fascism as a charismatic counterpoint to bureaucratic oligarchy. Be that as it may, a sustained reading of Gore Vidal, not to mention sociologist C. Wright Mills, suggests the veracity of Michels's theory in the case of America at least.) In the penultimate chapter of Can Democracy Work?, Miller cites 28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, American journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman, and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter as acknowledging democratic 'sovereignty' as more a matter of consent than participation. Even the notion of consent has increasingly diminished as dramatically rising inequality and economic wealth concentration, along with the political influence it buys, threatens the very foundation upon which the modern democratic project has been erected.

Running throughout Can Democracy Work? are personal asides from Miller about his educational development from childhood to college and beyond, which some readers may find distracting. As a fellow, if somewhat younger, Boomer, I found them compelling as a kind of autoethnography of Miller's evolution from a 1960s campus radical and card-carrying member of Students for a Democratic Society to tenured professor who, wistfully perhaps, continues to hold out hope for the democratic impulse, if in far more measured form; it's a coming-of-age story for a generation of Americans whose ideals of social, economic, and political progress foundered on the rocks of brute capitalist power. (Full disclosure: Miller was my thesis advisor in the New School Liberal Studies MA program.) In fact, Can Democracy Work? is best read alongside Miller's study of the New Left, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Harvard, 1987), particularly in light of last year's 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in which antiwar protesters were confronted by Windy City police and National Guard in full riot gear, a fiasco from which the party has arguably never fully recovered, and marking the onset of the crisis of democratic liberalism that continues to this day. (Boomer disenchantment runs throughout another of Miller's books, the award-wining Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 [Simon & Schuster, 1999], drawing upon his three-decade career as a pop music journalist for Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and elsewhere.)

Taking a cue from the examples of the Chartists and the Paris Commune, whose egalitarian aspirations failed in the short term but heralded the expansion of democratic practice over the long run, Miller ends both Can Democracy Work? and Democracy is in the Streets on a more positive note, acknowledging the propensity of the idea of democracy to persist against all odds. It's an example of the motto often attributed to Italian Marxist and legendary jailbird Antonio Gramsci, to wit: 'I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.' In these seemingly dark times, that works well enough for me.

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Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our Times by James Miller. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018. 320 pages. $27.00. This review crossposted at

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

There's a line, usually misquoted and often erroneously attributed to either Hermann Goring, Henrich Himmler, or Joseph Goebbels, that goes: 'When I hear the word "culture", I reach for my gun.' (The actual line, from the 1933 play Schlageter by the equally despicable Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, translates to: 'When I hear "Culture"... I release the safety catch on my Browning!') The role of culture in waging ideological warfare is the motivation for curator and art activist Nato Thompson's book Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life, now out in paperback. Thompson asserts that culture is not just contested terrain, it is a tool used by elites to assert and maintain power.

Culture as Weapon is a follow-up to Thompson's 2015 Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century, which surveys the ways in which contemporary artists and activists are confronting power, using a range of tactical interventions and strategic alternatives, such as culture jamming, indy media, and socially engaged art practice. In Seeing Power, Thompson references advertising, public relations, and other forms of communication in 'the production of affect', a media-theory concept that describes how emotions are mobilized to influence human behavior, from what to buy at the grocery store to the most deeply held beliefs. Culture as Weapon offers a history of the development of the techniques of affect production and gives examples of their use in the present day, mapping the landscape within which the tactics and strategies of artists and activists described in Seeing Power are deployed. (Thompson presented some of these tactics in an exhibition he curated at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art titled 'The Interventionists' and showcased strategies in the Creative Time project he organized under the title 'Living as Form'. Both are documented in books with those respective titles published by MIT Press.)

Thompson begins his dissection of the production of affect with a brief history of its development in modern American culture. Fundamental to the story is the work of Ivy Lee, generally credited with being the founder in the late 1800s of modern public relations, whose first major client was the railroad industry with the assignment to promote the interests of management against the burgeoning union movement. Another key figure is George Creel, a former investigative journalist tapped by Woodrow Wilson to head up the Committee on Public Information as part of the effort to muster support for American participation in World War I and vilify its detractors. Arguably the most notable character in the early history of public mind-control is Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who parlayed his relationship to the father of psychoanalysis into a lucrative career manipulating the collective psyche. His clients included Big Tobacco and the nefarious United Fruit Company. Bernays also wrote the 1928 book Propaganda, which married social psychology and early media theory to develop techniques of 'persuasive' communications. (Highly influential at the time of its publication, Propaganda slipped into relative obscurity with the rise of fascism, which cast the term if not the practice into serious disrepute.)

A more overt affect-producing factory is advertising. Here Thompson starts with the culture industry critique by the dour German Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Written during the closing years of the Second World War when the two highbrow academics sought asylum in LA, the collection of essays published under the title Dialectic of Enlightenment expressed their view of the utter degradation of culture under capitalism. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the damnable thing about capitalism is its ability to turn any and all expressions of 'pure' culture into marketable products to be peddled to the unsuspecting masses. The critique was picked up in more virulent form in the 1950s by the Situationist International in France, which distrusted mainstream culture in all of its forms as the tools of a society in which even the most intimate social relations are mediated by spectacles of consumerism and false consciousness. (Ironically, the SI is held in many quarters to be a major influence on punk, an ostensibly anti-establishment social and cultural movement that quickly turned into a highly marketable commodity.)

Thompson calls upon the usual suspects in the form of Mad Men David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and Bill Bernbach who led the so-called 'creative revolution' in the ad biz in the 1960s by rejecting the previous regime's methods of 'scientific' advertising based on the repetitive exposure of 'unique sales points' to stimulate behavior modification. Instead, these Svengalis of the creative revolution tapped into consumer desire in part by creating iconic campaigns—The Man in the Hathaway Shirt, The Marlboro Man, the Volkswagen Beetle—that are well known to anyone familiar with advertising history or practice.

In the postmodern age, the production of affect has moved from inside the consumer's head into the environment she inhabits. Contemporary consumerism doesn't reside simply in products any more but in experiences, as well. In this regard, Thompson presents case studies of the retail environments of IKEA, the Apple Store, and Starbucks, spaces where social interaction is completely stage-managed to inculcate a mindset ripe for the harvesting of profit.

The production of affect has implications that are broader than marketplace manipulation; it has invaded the public sphere in every way. The result, as Thompson argues in Seeing Power, is a profound distrust of everything, an alienation so deep as to render mass paranoia the default orientation of being in the world. Pervasive distrust now governs the political process to the detriment of democracy itself.

But as Thompson notes: 'We must learn from power even if we do not agree with it.' A crucial point Thompson makes is that there ultimately is no escape from 'the system'. Rather, the point, as Karl Marx proclaims in the 11th Thesis on Feurbach, 'is to change it'. In both Seeing Power and Culture as Weapon, Thompson offers examples of resistance by artists and activists that not only imagine another world, but seek to put their ideas into practice. If culture is a weapon of power, then power can be gained in the production of alternative culture. It is the time-honored function of the artistic and activist vanguards. It is a battle that, quite frankly, never ends.


Update 13 June 2018: Two articles that engage the question of culture in contested terrain, both of which center on George Orwell, one of which cites Edward Bernays's book Propaganda: "How Orwell Gave Propaganda a Bad Name"; "How George Orwell Predicted the Challenge of Writing Today."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals

Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) is the first and only woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Even more noteworthy is the reason for which she was so recognized, namely, her work on the commons, collective forms of ownership that challenge the self-interested rational calculations of private ownership upon which mainstream economics is based.

Derek Wall, visiting tutor in political economy at Goldsmith College and International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, wants to position Ostrom as a key thinker for the political left as her work challenges the forces of so-called free-market capital. Wall's book Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals: Cooperative Alternatives Beyond Markets and States (Pluto 2017) is an introduction to Ostrom's life and work and its relevance to political action in the Age of the Anthropocene. Wall takes his cue from Saul Alinsky's 1971 Rules for Radicals, but the rules in this case are of Wall's devising not Ostrom's, though they were gleaned from a close reading of her work.

Ostrom was born in Los Angeles during the Great Depression and studied political science at UCLA.  She married a fellow student, moved to Boston, and supported him while he attended Harvard Law. They later divorced and she moved back to LA in order to pursue an economics PhD. She was prevented from entering the program at UCLA because she had not taken enough mathematics in high school, a course of study she had been prevented from doing because she was female. She received a doctorate in political science instead.

Elinor Ostrom in 2009 (Photo credit below)
Ostrom's interest in the commons was inspired by her second husband, Vincent Ostrom, whom she met while assisting him with his PhD work, which looked at cooperation among municipalities to manage water resources in Southern California. The galvanizing moment in her development occurred after she and Vincent moved to take up teaching positions at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Elinor attended a lecture Garret Hardin gave at IU based on his influential essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," published in 1968 in the journal Science. An advocate of population control who took his cue from Thomas Malthus and William Foster Lloyd, Hardin argued that shared resources are subject to overuse by unregulated individuals whose self-interest is to maximize those resources for their own personal gain without regard to all others, ultimately leading to the collapse of the resources and the detriment of all. Hardin supposed two solutions to the tragedy of the commons: privatizing them to individual owners who would protect their investment or strict state regulation, a dichotomy Ostrom rejected.

Ostrom had seen the effective use of shared resources as part of her PhD work and set about researching other examples of successful management of the commons. Among her case studies were the communal ownership of grazing meadows in the mountains of Switzerland, community irrigation systems in Spain and the Phillipines, and the management of village commons in Japan. She also looked at examples of failed commons in Nova Scotia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. These cases informed the work that became her 1990 book Governing the Commons, for which she is best known.

In conducting her research, Ostrom distinguished between common pool resources and common pool property. The former includes forests, fisheries, and other areas from which it is difficult to exclude others and are thus available for collective use. The latter is a legal category that enables collective ownership. Examples of these include: property held on behalf of the public by the state, producer cooperatives, and real estate condominiums.

Among the traits of a sustainable commons are clearly defined boundaries, participatory governance, and nesting within a wider system. These principles informed Ostrom's interest in institutional analysis, direct democracy, and co-production, all of which Wall cites as foundational for a progressive politics. Analyzing and understanding the rules upon which institutional structures are built is the first step in transforming them for the common good. The second two open up pathways for theorizing and implementing models that move beyond conventional economics based on self-interest to those based on sharing.

Wall obviously has enthusiasm for his subject and much of the book is honorific in tone. But he also presents positions Ostrom held that might not square with some of his intended readers on the left. In addition, he lays out arguments against her.

While Ostrom advocated for the commons, she did not embrace them universally. Neither did she rule out the efficacy of markets. Similarly, while she employed a range of methodologies in her work, including ethnography, secondary-literature review, and surveys, she did not reject conventional economic statistical models out of hand. Instead, Ostrom assembled a multi-dimensional toolkit as deemed appropriate for the question under consideration. She also did not propose to overthrow capitalism, but did reject the hegemonic Eurocentric ideologies under which it has evolved.

Wall acknowledges the validity of the Marxist critique of Ostrom's conception of the commons. As he writes:
[T]he commons didn't fail because of a breakdown in trust and cooperation by the commoners but instead the commons were enclosed, stolen and shut down by capitalists, imperialists and various species of the rich and powerful (113).
From this perspective, he points out, the micro political economy of managing the commons at the heart of Ostrom's analysis distracts from the larger considerations of world-historical class struggle. (Wall doesn't say this, but the embrace of the tragedy of the commons itself is but one element, albeit a critical one, of the social imaginary of capital as it emerged from the Second World War, ensconcing rational-choice theory as increasingly hegemonic in all aspects of social, economic, and political life, a story well told in S.M. Amadae's Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism.) Ostrom's position is obviously pragmatist, an argument  for action under conditions where it is deemed possible.

Pragmatism has fallen into disrepute in the eyes of many on the left these days, held to be the province of those, such as New Labor in the UK and the Democratic Leadership Council in the US, who espouse small-bore changes that have essentially left the mechanisms of capitalist power in place. And yet, there are examples of cooperation one may point to—the social and solidarity economy projects in Europe, South America, Africa, and the US (see the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on the Social and Solidarity Economy, as well as the US Solidarity Economy Network). These efforts may be perceived as merely incremental (I would argue that they are more than that). Be that as it may, they do offer avenues for material progress while the millenarians among us wait for the Angel of History to descend.
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Elinor Ostrom photo: © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Is It Just the Pynchon In Me, or What?

I first published this essay in the UK-based online journal Oomska in 2010. When I recently tried to share the link, I discovered that the website had been deactivated. I reproduce it here for the archive. The essay has its origins in a class on the postmodern turn (AKA "That 70s Class" and "Civilization and Its Disco"), which I took at The New School with New Yorker contributing writer Luke Menand.

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I first became aware of Thomas Pynchon my senior year at Michigan State. One of my housemates, whom we called Bopper (and still do, actually), was reading Gravity's Rainbow, which at the time had just come out in paperback. One of the first things that caught my eye was the book's dedication to Richard Farina, the author's close friend and classmate at Cornell, who had died too young in a motorcycle accident in 1966. Farina's name was familiar, as part of a 1960s folk duo whose other half, Mimi, also happened to be Joan Baez's sister.

But for me it had greater significance as Farina was the author of a single novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. For years, Farina's tale of hipster Gnossos Papadopoulis was part of my back-to-school ritual, the last thing I would read before heading back to campus each fall.

I started reading Pynchon with V., however. And I was immediately taken with the crazed plot lines, the even more crazed characters, and the alternate reality in which they existed. It was even cooler than Kerouac, I thought, the same level of delirium but with more erudition. I dug the yo-yos who aimlessly rode the subway from one end of New York City to the other, and also alto saxophonist McLintic Sphere, whom I identified as based on free-jazz master Ornette Coleman. An art student, I endeavored to execute a performance piece modeled on the character Herbert Stencil in which I vowed to speak of myself in the third person for the rest of my days. (Alas, life imitated art for only a week and a half before I abandoned the project.)

Gravity's Rainbow came later when I was out of school and working an entry-level office job where my responsibilities were such that I could spend half the day reading. The intertextual relationship of V. and Gravity's Rainbow was of course amusing, not to mention self-gratifying in the pleasure gained from knowing winks on the author's part to the cognizant reader. Also engaging were the things that were seemingly bizarre yet based on reality, for example, the covert operation of parapsychologists, gathered under the code-name PISCES, who really did work for British intelligence to undermine the Nazi war effort by counter-posing "white" magic to German occult practices. I was dabbling in the hermetic tradition myself as a source for making art and thus found entry into the book's deeper meaning through that channel.

I re-read Gravity's Rainbow a little more than a decade later when my stepdaughter gave me Steven Weisenberger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion for Christmas, still arguably the best aid to negotiating Pynchon's labyrinthine opus. (Although there is an error that to my knowledge has never been corrected, namely, on page 152 where Weisenberger notes the numerological symbolism of tetragrammaton as signifying the eight-lettered name of God in Judaism when the prefix 'tetra' means four in Greek and refers to the four Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vau-He from which the Old Testament word Yahweh is derived.) But it was on the third time through just a few years ago that I believe I uncovered some heretofore-unnoticed elements of my own.

Two of them relate to Gravity's Rainbow's major theme of what sociologist Max Weber terms the "disenchantment of the world" by modernity, the supplanting of religious cosmological systems by technological apparatus under the rule of rationalism. These are revealed when the episodes are arranged in cumulative order.

The first is the eleventh episode of Part Three, which cumulatively is the fortieth episode. Placed at the center of the book, the apogee of its trajectory, it is also the longest. While the episode opens on or about July 9, 1945, much of the narrative is a genealogy of the German rocket program back to its origins in the Society for Space Travel. But, the episode is more importantly an allegory, which doubles the narrative onto American history a generation later. In Judeo-Christian symbolism, the number 40 is one of fulfillment: The Great Flood lasted for forty days and forty nights, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years after escaping Egypt, and Christ's temptation lasted for forty days. And so it is that Episode 40 of Gravity's Rainbow is also one of fulfillment—of the landing on the moon by Apollo 11 in July 1969 in fulfillment of the dream of the Society for Space Travel.

In explaining the dream to his daughter, Ilse, the rocket scientist Franz Pokler uses a map of the moon to help her visualize it. Ilse chooses a spot in the Sea of Tranquility where she would like to live when people are able to go to the moon. And it was a spot near the crater Makelyne B in the Sea of Tranquility where the Lunar Expeditionary Module set down when Neil Armstrong took his historic "giant leap for mankind." (It's also significant to note, as Weisenberger does, that the author of Gravity's Rainbow's opening epigraph, Werner von Braun, directed both the Apollo 11 project and the German rocket works at Peenemunde where Pokler is stationed.)

The other episode that gains resonance in this manner is Episode 21 of Part Three, cumulatively Episode 50. Fifty is the number of days after Easter that the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ's disciples. The Pentecost, also known as "whitsunday" or White Sunday, is an important date to Gravity's Rainbow's narrative. In 1945, Pentecost fell on May 8, which was V-E Day, and also the anniversary of the death of occulist Madame Helena Blavatsky plus the birthday of US President Harry S. Truman. It was Pynchon's own eighth birthday as well. Thus, the date is an harmonic convergence of narrative trajectories: the end of the war in Europe, the occultic other of Judeo- Christianity, the opening of the door to the Atomic Age, and the author who would tie it all together.

But, the fiftieth episode is also a kind of worldly Pentecost for the character Enzian the Herero. In the spirit of the giving of tongues, Pynchon writes: "There doesn't exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you're afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away—there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding." In the pages that follow, Enzian articulates the grammar of War and Technology, which are the lingua franca of global capital unto the present day.

While these two examples show how a cumulative reading of the episodes can amplify an existing understanding of Gravity's Rainbow, there's another trope that flows through the text to which I believe the novel's dedication provides a clue.

Weisenberger takes note of the importance of the number 9 to Gravity's Rainbow's narrative development, in particular as a number of incompletion—the interrupted countdown of the rocket launch, the lack closure of the book's nine-month- long narrative, etc. In addition to setting the time span in months of the narrative overall, nine is the number of days that transpire during the novel's first part. The first nine episodes are a unit when the structure of Episodes 1 and 9 are compared: Both episodes begin with their main characters dreaming. Both begin and end with rocket attacks. Their openings are similar in terms of meter and have virtually the same number of syllables. This Gnostic cosmology of world inside world, like the layers of an onion, inaugurates a narrative thread that unfolds in Gravity's Rainbow through factors of the number 9, beginning with the tenth episode.

The tenth episode seems to come out of nowhere. To be sure, Weisenberger refers the time of Episode 10 as "unspecified" and characterizes it as "grossly surreal." However, a trope is introduced in Episode 10 that carries throughout the book and constitutes an essential subtext to the novel. To see this, we must go outside the text, but not very far. As noted earlier, Gravity's Rainbow is dedicated to Pynchon's friend from his college days. And I would argue that the reference is as much an elegy for the unfulfilled spirit of 1960s counterculture as it is for the bright young man who tragically died before his time during that decade. In Episode 10, the Dionysian impulse of the 1960s, a charismatic eruption against the Apollonian demiurge of rationalist society, is unleashed. In the episode, Tyrone Slothrop journeys down a toilet in search of a lost harmonica. In the 1960s, soldiers in Vietnam referred to the battlefield as being "in the shit." The 1960s are further personified in the figures of Malcom X (the bathroom attendant, Red, encountered by Slothrop) and JFK (referred to as "Jack Kennedy, the ambassador's son"), both of whom were assassinated in the 1960s. This eruption of the carnivalesque, the counterculture of the 1960s, was very much a factor in the political and cultural landscape of the time of Gravity's Rainbow's writing, ultimately leading to what Pynchon elsewhere terms the "Nixonian repression." This theme runs through Pynchon's later, much-underappreciated novel, Vineland, where speaking of the character Brock Vond he writes: "Any sudden attempt to change things would be answered by an immediate misoneistic backlash not only from the State but from the people themselves--Nixon's election in '68 seeming to Brock a perfect example of this."

Episode 10 also begins a mathematical formula that ties seemingly unrelated episodes of Gravity's Rainbow together. This can be expressed in the formula, "E = N x 9 + 1" with "N" functioning as a geometric progression. (10 = 1 x 9 +1, adding an "isotrope," as it were, to the molecular structure of incompletion.)

The next episode to pick up the trope is Episode 19 in Part One (19 = 2 x 9 + 1). Set in pre-Hitler Berlin, the episode is ostensibly concerned with Franz and Leni Pokler's discussion of Western science. The narrative's focus is more on Leni, making the second expression of the trope feminine. (In numerology, the number 2 is feminine.) This episode is permeated with language of the 1960s and early 1970s, which is anachronistic in the context of a narrative that until then has been consciously periodized. (The extensive research Pynchon undertook into period slang and colloquial usage of the 1940s in writing Gravity's Rainbow is well documented.) The first is the term "detente," which began to be used during the Nixon administration to describe its policy toward the Soviet Union. Next is the reference to a fictional leftist magazine, Die Faust Hoch ("the raised fist"), a reference to the controversial incident in the 1972 Munich Olympics in which American athletes were stripped of their medals for raising their black-gloved fists in salute to Black Power during the award ceremonies. There is reference to the "Revolution" and the fact that "AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN." The "President" is quoted as saying, "I'm sending all the soldiers home," which was Nixon's second-term campaign pledge. Finally, the utopian image of the 1960s Dionysian release is set against the vision of "a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority."

The trope is again picked up in Part Three, Episode 8, or Episode 37 (37 = 4 x 9 + 1). This episode also appears to interrupt the narrative flow and concerns a group of Argentine anarchists who plan to make a film of the epic poem Martin Fierro. The scene takes place in a harmonica factory, recalling the action of Episode 10. There is a western film being shown, and in the film, the horse Snake appears, the same mount of Crutchfield the Westerner who also first appeared in Episode 10. Pynchon mentions a character, Shetzline, which refers to David Shetlzine, a contemporary American novelist and friend of Pynchon and Farina from Cornell. In the epic of Martin Fierro, the protagonist gaucho initially resists colonial control of the pampas but ultimately sells out, a metaphor of the demotic thrust of the 1960s counterculture, which even by the time of Gravity's Rainbow was being commercially co-opted. But, the most compelling reference closes the episode: "It took the Dreyfus Affair to get the Zionists out and doing, finally: what will it take to drive you out of your soup kettle?" By the time of Gravity's Rainbow's publication, The New York Times had published the Pentagon papers and The Washington Post had broken the Watergate scandal, which eventually concluded with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

The trope culminates along with the novel in Part Four, Episode 12, or Episode 73 by the cumulative measure (73 = 8 x 9 + 1). Contemporaneous references include the cryptic statement in Weissman's Tarot: "If you're wondering where he's gone, look among the successful academics, the Presidential advisors, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. Look high, not low," an obvious allusion to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The figure of Nixon is again evoked, this time by the character Richard M. Zhlubb, "fiftyish and jowled, with a permanent five-o'clock shadow (the worst by far of all the Hourly Shadows) and a habit of throwing his arms up into an inverted 'peace sign.'"

When set against the circular structure Weisenberger erects for Gravity's Rainbow's plot line, the cyclical time of the ancients, the formula of countercultural references can be seen as a offering up a cautionary tale of resistance to modernity in general, which though defeated for the time being might hold out the hope of eternal return. The notion of progress shatters in Gravity's Rainbow as the narrative splinters into fragments, an index of the differentiation of social forms in rational society as understood by Weber, fellow sociologist Emile Durkheim, and others. Like a rocket it explodes in a charismatic festival to revert to the cycle of time immemorial (the multiplier 8 of the last episode in the formula is the numerological sign of eternity). Weissman's Tarot presents The World as his future card; the number of The World in the Major Arcana is 21, which is the number episodes in Part One of Gravity's Rainbow, bringing the end back to the beginning.

Hence another thread of meaning is woven into the fabric of Gravity's Rainbow. Or is Carducci just being paranoid?

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Death of Homo Economicus

Peter Fleming is surely an outlier in the cohort of university business school academics. A professor on the faculty of management at the Cass Business School, City University of London, Fleming is the author of The Mythology of Work and Contesting the Corporation, among other books, and a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian. Working in proximity to the City of London financial district, Fleming has developed his newest study,The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt, and the Myth of Endless Accumulation, as a polemic against mainstream economics in all its forms. Its thesis is that the notion of human species being as one of self-interested rational calculation, continuously seeking to maximize utility and profit, has always been a falsehood. It has been propagated to hide capitalism's true identity as an apparatus for exploiting the land and labor to the detriment of the vast majority of us for the advantage of a select few.

Fleming takes up the metaphor of the tsunami to describe the 2008-2009 financial crisis and its aftermath. The tsunami metaphor has been invoked, particularly in the media, Fleming notes, as a way to frame discussions of the economic devastation and subsequent austerity that the crash has wrought on economies around the world. There is a problem with the metaphor, however, in that it hasn't been applied thoroughly enough. Typical evocation of the tsunami metaphor captures the first two elements: the cataclysmic triggering event—in this case, the subprime lending meltdown—and the wave of devastation—collapsing financial institutions, rising mortgage foreclosures, evaporating equity, the Great Recession—but misses the final stage, the backwash in which the receding deluge sucks back into the abyss all that was destroyed in its wake and more. It is this final stage of turbulence that we continue to endure whereby the neoliberal capitalist regime, which rightly should have disappeared in 2008, has perhaps mutated into something worse.

Fleming terms this something worse "wreckage economics." It seeks to appropriate all aspects of what's left of the commons, a twenty-first century enclosure of the already tattered public domain. It polices its economic pillaging assiduously, leaving no stone unturned in the interest of unlocking value. It disdains democracy. It perpetuates and exacerbates inequality—indeed, as opposed to the 1930s when the global elite lost a significant portion of its wealth, wreckage economics has enabled those at the very top to greatly expand their share at a rate that has only increased since 2008.

Fleming documents his thesis with examples taken mostly from around the English-speaking world. They include Dawn Amos, a 67-year old woman with chronic lung disease who was certified to return to work by the UK Department of Work and Pensions, only to receive that notification on the very day she died in the hospital from complications of her condition. Others include the rash of suicides that have occurred in the face of mounting debt. On a less fatal level is the plight of those members of the precariat who have been casualized, rendered redundant, and otherwise dispossessed from the means of making a decent living, much less securing a future. Through it all, homo economicus has roamed unchecked as a kind of undead, relentlessly devouring those who are least able to resist.

If the situation for the average worker is dire, the impact on the environment is of even greater concern. The environmental degradations visited upon the planet under capitalism are well documented and don't need to be recounted here. Nature is retaliating against this threat by shutting down biodiversity, increasing climatic instability, and generally rendering the habitat ultimately uninhabitable.

Against the prospects of mass extinction, the left, in Fleming's eyes, has offered some solutions that may be at least ineffective if not counter-productive. One of these is accelerationism, in particular as articulated by Steven Shaviro in his book No Speed Limit. Accelerationism of the left variety proposes to push the contradictions of capitalism to the point where they completely break down, thereby opening up a horizon of new possibilities. The problem with that idea, according to Fleming, is two-fold. First, history has shown that oppression can reach epic proportions without sparking violent revolt. (Indeed, the Frankfurt School of critical theory took up as one of its core agenda items the task of explaining why the revolution never took place in the advanced economies of the West even in the darkest days of the Great Depression.) Second, pushing the capitalist mode of production to its breaking point may well unleash an eco-apocalypse from which there would be no one left to fashion a brave new post-capitalist world.

Another apparently limited option is the politics of exodus, where the objective is not to exacerbate the contradictions of capitalism, but instead to collectively withdraw from them into networks of self-reliance and communal interdependence. (A model of this notion at the grassroots level can be found in Grace Lee Boggs's book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism in the Twenty-First Century.) While the outlines of how this might work can be discerned in some of the practices of the DIY movement, capitalism has proven time and again quite adept at capturing value in even these diffuse precincts, most recently through regimes of governmentality and biopower.

In lieu of these alternatives, the question to coin a phrase, "So then what is to be done?" The first step, according to Fleming, is to demonstrate the irrationality of so-called rational choice and its underlying free-market fundamentalism, which as evidence of the last few decades has shown does not lead to greater productivity and growth but only serves to redistribute economic gains upward. Second, the state must perforce be reinvigorated in order to restore a more just balance in the relationship between capital and labor and promote a revitalization of what constitutes the public good. While much has been done in terms of exposing the former, the latter, unhappily, appears to be receding farther and farther from view.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

For and Against the Anthropocene

Global temperature anomalies for 2015 compared to the 1951–1980 baseline. 2015 was the warmest year in the NASA/NOAA temperature record, which starts in 1880. It has since been superseded by 2016 (NASA/NOAA; 20 January 2016). Source: NASA Visualization Studio (Public Domain).
Since the turn of the 21st century, many scientists have been arguing for the designation of a new epoch in Earth's geological history, which they term the Anthropocene in acknowledgment of the impact of humans on the planet's evolution. While not yet officially approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences, the concept has been gaining acceptance not only among scientists but in the culture generally as the effects of human activity on climate, biodiversity, and other aspects of the ecosystem seem to be increasingly apparent.

That humans are adversely affecting the Earth, or that there is even anything at all out of sorts with the planet's ecosystem, is a serious bone of contention to the point of denial in many quarters on the right. While the left readily accepts that humans are responsible for the apparent ecological crisis, how to characterize that impact is subject to debate and the central concern of Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today by T.J. Demos, cultural critic and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz and director of The Center for Creative Ecologies.

As noted on the popular website Welcome to the Anthropocene, the term was introduced into current usage in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer. But as Demos notes, various iterations of the concept date back to at least the mid-19th century when Welsh geologist Thomas Jenkyn introduced the term 'Anthropozoic' to describe the current epoch. The specific term 'Anthropocene' seems to date to 1922 when Russian geologist Aleksei Pavlov appears to have proposed it.

The actual onset of the Anthropocene is also a point of discussion. Some scientists contend the new epoch dates to the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century with the invention of the steam engine. Others place its origins back several millennia with the beginnings of agricultural cultivation and the domestication of crops in the Neolithic Age. Still others posit the dawn of the nuclear age at the end of the Second World War, while some specifically date 1492 as the year when the planet first came to be dominated by humanity with the connection of the two hemispheres under European colonialism. Although not mentioned in the book, devotees of Frankfurt School critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (of which I confess I am one) might identify the mind/body split articulated in the mid-17th century by Rene Descartes as the Anthropocene's fountainhead.

Trained as an art historian, Demos first takes up the ways in which the Anthropocene is visualized by various imaging systems and the ideologies that inform them. Following Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton, Demos divides these perspectives into two camps: the 'techno-utopians' who believe the problem can be fixed via geoengineering and the 'eco-Soterians' (named after Soteria, the Greek daimon of safety and preservation) who seek to work in concert with Gaia's natural processes.

The geoengineering solutions offered by the techno-utopians propose to leverage the advances of science to rectify humanity's domination of nature with even more technological intervention, which some might argue is the root of the problem in the first place. The visual culture of the techno-utopians reinforces humanity's mastery of nature through digital satellite photography and data visualizations in the form of maps, graphs, and virtual simulations. Geoengineering projects tend to be proposed by major corporations and wealthy nations of the global North with support from the likes of the multibillion-dollar Gates Foundation.

Where techno-utopianism operates from the top down, eco-Soterianism works from the bottom up, offering a more critical, grassroots perspective, endeavoring not to 'fix' the Earth so much as to rehabilitate humankind's relationship to it. Most of what Demos surveys in this regard is the action of eco-activists to resist techno-utopianism through direct confrontation—for example, the 2015 blockade of Shell Corporation's Polar Pioneer drilling rig in the waters near Seattle—and consciousness-raising by artists to draw attention to the crisis through documentary filmmaking, exhibitions, and performance. Briefly surveyed here, this work is explored in greater depth in Demos's previous book Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Other manifestations of eco-Soterianism not explored by Demos are ecofriendly practices such as voluntary simplicity, organic farming, locavore consumption, and the like.

A bigger concern of Against the Anthropocene is to contest the very concept itself. According to Demos, a major problem with the Anthropocene concept is the way in which it universalizes the roots of the eco-crisis by situating it among the anthropos, i.e., humanity in general, when it is in fact the result of a specific set of actions taken by a specific set of individuals, which is to say unbridled global capitalism and its agents and beneficiaries, especially as connected to the exploitation of the environment in all its forms in search of ever-increasing profit.

A number of people have grappled with the question as Demos shows. The most direct connection is drawn by those who embrace the concept of the 'Capitalocene',  the geological age of capitalism and its deleterious effects on the environment, which tend to be distributed unequally geographically, socially, and economically to those who lack the wherewithal to resist. Though she doesn't specifically use the term Capitalocene, Naomi Klein identifies its eponymous economic system as one of the combatants in the battle for the future of the environment in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

While Capitalocene identifies the culprit and has the benefit of being world-historical truth, it lacks a conception of the possibility of an alternative. A candidate in that regard is Donna Haraway's term 'Chthulucene', from the Greek khthon, 'earth', drawing attention away from human-centered activity—whether universal or particular—to encompass a broader understanding of the planet's ability to persist regardless of whether it is homo sapiens or Blattodea (cockroaches) at the top of the food chain. Thus it is ultimately humankind's mandate to work within Gaia's existential conditions in all their complexity to ensure that another world is not only possible, but certain.

Other concepts have been proposed, positive and negative. To name two: the Gynecene, in recognition of ecofeminist reverence toward Mother Earth, and the Plasticene, the age of plastic, for the artificial materials derived mainly from petrochemicals, which portend to outlast all manner of other fossils.

Whatever their merits from a philosophical perspective, none of the above-mentioned alternative designations appear to have the resonance and likely staying power of the term Anthropocene. Perhaps a compromise might be to propose an alt-Anthropocene movement in which the ecological dead-ender machinations of capitalism are actively resisted and replaced with more holistic ways of thinking and doing. The former is the province of thought-leaders, including artists; the latter is the province of social entrepreneurs, including 'citizen-designers'.

Regardless of the banner under which one chooses to act, act one must. Humanity's collective future depends upon it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Practice Makes Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art

Clocking in at nearly 900 pages of dense text plus index, Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art, edited by artist and researcher Samuel Bianchini and curator and critic Erik Verhagen, is a door-stopper of a book. Its ambition is equal to its mass—it proposes to rewrite postwar Western art history in order to trace the emergence of a heretofore unrecognized organizing principle of art that serves as the book's title. Works that merit the designation "practicable" subvert the "do not touch" mentality of art as a sacred object of veneration; instead they are those in which, as contemporary parlance would have it, the user experience is central. And as that term suggests, many of the more recent works of the practicable use digital technology and feature mediated interactivity, but that is not a necessary condition of their being. Indeed, a number of the works discussed in the book are decidedly low-tech even as they embody conceptual foundations that are forward-looking.

The book is both an historical survey and a theoretical treatise. It starts with a genealogy of the practicable dating back into the 1950s and in particular the influence that the development of cybernetics has had on its emergence. It highlights key artists and movements and then brings broader humanities and social science perspectives to bear. Other sections focus on performativity and methods of exhibiting the practicable. The book ends with several case studies and interviews with artists, curators, and critics, the most memorable for me being the last one, with the incisive critic of relational aesthetics, Claire Bishop. The entries are mostly short, allowing for a plethora of voices to enter the conversation and explore the practicable in all its multiplicity.

The first-mover of part I, "From Cybernetics Onward," is not Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics in 1948, but English author, inventor, and educational theorist Gordon Pask, whose side interest in musical theater provided the venue, in works such as the 1968 Colloquy of Mobiles, to test the way various information systems and human beings could interact in conversations and adapt to one another. The sections on art movements and artists contain a welcome internationalist cast, including the Brazilian Concretists and Neo-Concretists, the French Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visual (GRAV), and Polish artist and architect Piotr Kowalski. The usual suspects are there as well, including Robert Rauschenberg, whose collaboration with artists and engineers in the Experiments with Art and Technology (EAT) organization in the late 1960s and early 1970s opened the door to emergent practices of intermedia of various sorts, and Yoko Ono, whose 1964 Cut Piece—in which the artist sat motionless while members of the audience cut away pieces of her clothing—became a feminist symbol of gender-encoded passivity and vulnerability and its potential for violation, made manifest a decade later by Marina Abramovic in a performance that took place in a Naples gallery where a mostly male audience, using various implements, subjected her to intimate groping and physical injuries that drew blood on her denuded body.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964 (Excerpt of a1965 recreation).

A key concept running through the book is "dispositif," a French word that the editors note has no easy English translation. It is often rendered as "apparatus" or "device," giving it a somewhat mechanical connotation, leaving open the possibility for missing the more active, constructive notions of its alternate definitions as a plan of action, a legislative pronouncement, or a legal provision in a contract. The term entered the contemporary critical lexicon via Michel Foucault, who began ruminating on it later in his career, before his untimely death from AIDS at age 50 in 1984. Foucault was interested in three things that thinking through the concept of the dispositif might reveal: to identify systems of various elements such as bodies of knowledge, social, cultural, and political institutions, physical structures, scientific theorems, philosophical and moral precepts, etc., and their interrelationships; the specific connections within and disjunctures between various elements that might constitute ways of understanding, both explicitly and implicitly, or what in Foucauldian terms would be understood as regimes of truth; and the power, both positive and negative (which for Foucault is always the ultimate question), that these operative nexuses might have at key historical moments.

Leaving it untranslated, the editors propose a usage of dispositif, as it relates to contemporary art, as "arrangements...that organize...operating capacities or...the way the conditions of a real or potential process are arranged." Works of art surveyed in this book—those which the various contributors understand as practicable—manifest, engage, and sometimes contest dispositifs in that they establish conditions, the effects of which are not always predetermined, that create situations that are not only aesthetic, but oftentimes social and political as well, and which typically work in collaboration with a public. Practicable art works are conditional; they are not only experimental but can be experimented with.

As the editors note in the introduction, practicable approaches to art start to appear in Western culture at roughly the same time as theories of participatory democracy. What is not noted (although Bishop does hint at it) is that both coincide with the ascendance of neoliberalism in which self-reliance becomes not an aspiration but a mandate. (That connection is the subject of another book, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization by Jasper Bernes.) From that perspective, participation, and the practicable art that embraces it, may not constitute a model for a new form of revolutionary liberte, egalite, fraternite (liberty, equality, fraternity), but augurs a new dispositif, what can be termed, following Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, a new spirit of capitalism, in which we are set loose to rely on one another not because we desire it but because there is no alternative.