3.03.2017

True Negativity and Immediacy

I'm working on a little project now that requires a ton of Adorno.

The exhausting quality of Adorno's work is how, given the state of the world, Adorno reads very clearly in light of his tradition (Kant, Hegel, and Marx), but the criticism and thinking that he offers is maybe three or four steps beyond common knowledge and casual agreement. Each sentence that Adorno writes is worth about three of anyone else's (maybe besides Hegel). I could describe it as an increase in some kind of theoretical weight. There's an interesting dichotomy within this, because that is balanced with a little bit of unpredictability at the paragraph level, even if each sentence is burdened with many references and technicalities. There are formal tricks, in Adorno's writing, that only make sense musically, but I digress.

There's a level of competence that I've attained over the past few years that enables me to get about 80 percent of what he says--as content--when he's talking about modern philosophy. I'm still in a similar position when reading his strictly philosophical works, such as Against Epistemology and Negative Dialectics, to the one when I first read some of his essays on music as a nascent musicologist... I initially thought that "On the Social Situation of Music" was equal parts music criticism and some kind of Marxist poetry. After some formal training in social philosophy (that is, a thousand or so pages of Marx, Weber, Freud, and Horkheimer in a couple of months), the text blew up with me on the second reading. Instead of being some technical poetry with music as the subject, it was the elucidation of a theory of identity politics with which I had, as a student and practitioner of music, never been close to articulating.

That beautiful, asystematic, and scathing contemporary socio-psychological music criticism (my immediate impression) drew me into commitment to his work. That immediacy--I'd find, after years of working on thinking and knowing--was central to his conception of "how to be." (Scare quotes, here, are because of the lack of autonomy possible in identity thinking and with the division of labor's force against normative claims. This isn't really an ethical claim, nor the epistemic one that I framed it in.) The immediacy of returning to Adorno after sharpening my Marx, then after reading Hegel's Phenomenology, is a reproducible phenomenon, a structured way of finding wonder and immediacy in the relations of the tradition to itself. 

Is it not telling, though, that I can justify all of the aesthetic arguments I struggled (and failed) to offer, from the age of 15 to 25, through this construct? "Why do I like this?" "Because it immediately offered me a beauty that did violence to my own expectations of what music could be." That's not a particularly good definition of "immediacy," if I have a philosopher's hat on, so: unmediated experience that doesn't involve rationalizing it out, explaining it in the world, or being expert/layperson or inside/outside (alienated) for reasons that are inescapable in the social world.

I now have to admit a transgression: I fell asleep for a few seconds in the concert hall a few nights ago while "seeing"* a performance of Elliott Carter's Penthode. I'm copping to to this because I always try to situate myself, in experiences of music and art and even leisure, as my 15 year old self and how mind-boggling those experiences would be to him. He would have berated me for being a lame, ungrateful fuck to not give utter attention to such a unique experience. (*Scare quotes, in this paragraph, are an analog to the conductor's instructions on how to listen to the piece--by tracking the motion through the ensemble--which were given over half an hour of talking that opened the concert, and likely contributed just as much to my trance-like state as the piece began.)

I frame myself that way (as an older version of who I was) because of how much the immediacy of experience dulls as time and knowledge and worry seem to accumulate. I don't mean to point out that getting old sucks... I mean to point out that knowing more of the social world makes unmediated experience less possible, and the world becomes more predictable. (And I don't mean to throw Elliott Carter under the bus, but, when my girlfriend told me a few days earlier that we would see the piece, I said "oh, yeah, that whole conversation/dialog thing where members of the ensemble are on teams." It's only one aspect of the piece, but it is the formal one, most apparent in the "structural listening" that we practice in music. The politics of the form, hilariously--in light of Adorno and of contemporary U.S. politics--are obvious in the piece as the shattered American ideal of a discourse that cannot hold in its secular form.) When I did put my expert hat on afterwards, I came to a moment of startle when I thought: "the piece taught me nothing about the ideals of discourse... they illustrated the falsity of the aspiration behind them."

The problem of immediacy (our lack of it) is something that I see everywhere. There seems to be little "left-field" of the kind that could have existed even 10 years ago... The longer "artists" (in the musical sense) stick around, the more they tend to co-opt the Pop after having come from diverse backgrounds. The only radical thing on television is the delightfully disruptive Eric Andre Show (and is probably the only recognizable heir to the tradition of Monty Python's Flying Circus, That Mitchell and Webb Look, Wonder Showzen, and Tim and Eric). Cinema may have some contemporary examples (but the most talked about movie right now is the most ferociously terrible tribute to the lives of Angelenos themselves).

The problem is, difficultly, a semiotics of negativity that isn't yet theorized. History is crucial to the creation of the work of art, not as "paying dues," but as not retreading existing work and eliminating the sensation that your audience will have in the form "this is like x but with y" (the mathematicization of art that is simultaneous with with a genetic theory of influence, a literal proof that we can't think outside of what is already provided), or in the "I like what I'm familiar with." History in the mind of the audience builds this as a complement to history in the mind of the composer. The trace is what is literally happening, literally doable (if "faithfully" performed). The trace is the only thing that cannot be an abyss, because if it were, there would no longer be labor to create the object, and art would be nothing but nature or hallucination.

Knowing is positivity, a relation to the world as it is. It's an upvote, a story supporting your worldview, a theory that proves your empirical continuity, or a claim to novelty that's understandable somehow (which is prima facie contradictory). They should all be suspect on the grounds that the world gave them and they now, as Heidegger once said, "lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar." A true negativity would be (and is, if even through reproduction) the thing that suspends history and society for a second or less. A true negativity would not just present what is possible, but something that isn't. That can happen at any scope and make the world into immediacy, which defeats the world and its social totality... but it, itself, is only possible with unknowing and the impossible, somewhere in a system.

Society, on the other hand, could be true negativity, unleashing art and other labor as immediate and unrecognizable, as we freely engage with it, and would lead to knowing history as nothing but the (already existing) scars of a mediated and alienating world.

2.14.2017

Theory, Immediacy, and Grief

I've been writing every day, but I'm just getting less and less patient with the problem. I usually write as if the world depends on it, which I believe is true. I don't like it when things are unresolved. I don't think effective theorizing works without having a point, but I'm pretty sure, the point of almost everything that comes out of the academy is that discourse will save us all just by itself. It "centers" itself on the idea that the more theory, the better, since they are... all... building blocks for... an... adequate... look... at...? Derrida's idea of discourse never really seems to come up, but uhm... I'm sure it does?

In "Sign, Structure, and Play," he calls "discourse" what has arisen since there was no center that defined the boundaries of any structure, maybe any "system," through which signs function. This argument works in his space, and historically... but it is unmoored by suffering's existence, or at least the impossibility of accessing the argument "become"--the mechanism of letting every individual bit of rational logic, as it develops, become an identity or Absolute that makes it up--in a way where it could be a part of common sense. But it is accessible through feigning the entirety of rhetoric and knowledge! (BTW, this I will not level at Derrida himself. I did love this essay.)

If discourse is the result of the unbasing of the center of craft or communication, of concept and conveyance in themselves, then it, just as fact itself (value consumer as it tended to be in the past few hundred years, using value for itself while having indebted itself to it; parallel this with "into whose
deepest recesses the epistémé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement"), is just as capable of consuming its "other" and becoming a cult all the same, which as history shows, is not a metaphor but the making of reality itself.

That's all fine, if we give, as we always have, primacy, in philosophy, to the eternal. I can't think of a worse thing to care about. It's likely that the passing of a loved one this morning is "making" me "emotional," and hence compromised (to employ a trade secret), but I do not care in exactly an equal, proportional amount to how much theory thinks itself "detached," and I'd rather term "useless." In the same way, I'd bar "advocacy," as being after the fact, from caring when it can once theory becomes applicable.

But Derrida's "rupture," in the form of decentering concepts or structure, isn't possible in the sense that it can stay decentered (free of authority) eternally... Its decentered self can't withstand the shitty, easy work of making its own center literally "no center at all!" It will be proudly proclaimed, decenter other discourses to find its limit, and inflame the tinder that the old margin drew outside of it, but is now adjacent to it, without the center having known it was opposed by the thing it cast out.

There will still be a form of discourse that doesn't progress discourse for itself, one that can actually recuperate signs into subjects, when it is possible (the opposite of "author functions") by simply allowing them the scope of, not discourse, but immediacy. The history and der Verstand are broken only with immediacy and only when the literal subject rejects them in favor of what is yet non-existent, infinitely singular and, thus, immediately useful (useful in an unmediated way, not supplied by narrative nor common sense).

Discourse never made the claim that subjects must participate in discourse, or be spied on by it, but its proponents built the last push toward recentering itself (yet again) into dehumanizing through excavating it, no matter the new sign of the oppressor that calls itself insurgent, then emperor. Even worse, that work is usually credited to "Cultural Marxism," a term of Christan Fascist redbaiting, now equally accessible to "alt-right" "dangerous" nationalists who know not the object, but only their immediate reaction to it.

This, of course, is not the nature of discourse (since it ignores it in favor of what is given, der Verstand, its own baseline whatever it comes with), but its sense evokes free association, which cannot be, philosophically, since it is not eternal and, in 18th century bourgeois rationality, did not even understand that the cartographers had made distance distance, not sphere of influence. By being without center, discourse will make itself such, though (again, a metaphor that pulls its components into itself as constituents which predated itself as original).

Discourse is not subject, but "structure of structural thinking about structure," neutralization of structure through structured thought about how to neutralize it, propped up by the social world as fair in the same way evolution or a coin flip is, and then left to those subjects, undefined, that would be exposed to its existence.

Never mind that what is real is immediate; what is positive is already atrophied unless apprehended as immediate; what is negative is a way of finding the contradiction between the two. Any discourse that works past that is a way of making sure that reality never becomes immediate. Any discourse that can't get there is literally already given. My proof is dealing with that essay and my grief today; I know this object, I know this object. I know what the death of a loved one means to me and I could very easily tell you what Derrida is looking for.

And we'll all die... just because... but theory hasn't made anything better than its own permanence and social structure, for which it should be suspect.

11.15.2016

Liberalism Imagines its Death: Magnanimous in Defeat

"What is black and white and [red] all over?" This is a conundrum, a subset of riddles. It doesn't work well on paper, because one must either give away the fact that the answer relies on a pun somehow, or falsify the conundrum. The fundamental structure of the riddle is damaged by the fact that writing is determinative. If I just asked "what is black and white and read all over?" it defeats the point of the riddle. Vagueness can be productive in this situation because it relies on signaling to establish a mode of thought in the listener, with the great reward of having the riddle resolved later on. The riddle shows itself to be a well-crafted pun that intentionally has the mind focused on colors, only to subvert the mind's ability to adequately contextualize one word and find an adequate answer.

There's a lot of prognosticating about what that one presumptive, orange neo-fascist is going to do with his mandate (and it is a strong one, just on the merit of having all three branches of government behind him). His agenda is nebulous and indecipherable, a feature that was crucial to his victory. When an uneducated polis largely do not understand both history and basic civics, it's possible for them to wield the nihilist common sense: "the system cannot get any worse." Nevermind, the bourgeois republic seems to say with the voice of pundits, that this amounts to nothing more than lighting one's car on fire because it won't start. That so many could be fooled into a strongman's heroic rhetoric points at an unwillingness to understand political realities that are patent falsehoods: that global, neo-liberal capitalism can be reversed without endangering capitalism itself; that Reaganomics is good for "creating jobs;" that xenophobia can have no disastrous effects on American life; that tightening immigration strengthens the economy; that women have no right to choose their own reproductive future...

There is plenty of empirical and theoretical evidence that says otherwise, but the allure of burning everything down is paired with satisfaction that draconian or traditional modes of governance and society are acceptable enough: "if we need to go back to the stone age in terms of economic practice or civil rights, so be it, but I'm tired of this government-run health care exchange that feeds me to the wolves of Wall Street." Any of the dissatisfying features of both the governmental structure and the content of the government's legislative output over the past eight years gets repudiated, with absolutely no positive vision of how we will move forward.

It is easy to see how vagueness works here, because it allows the individual to make up what the positive work will be that will be done during a Trump presidency. Taking the exact opposite tack, the Democrats chose Clinton (and helped orchestrate Trump early on in the campaign), relying on the desire of decent, Democratic voters, to rebuke Trump by negating him only, amidst their own vague promise that things will stay the same. That she was the nominee in the first place is a travesty; when there are videos of your candidate refuting her own platform for two decades, then it obviously follows that your candidate is unprincipled, or at least wrong on everything (at least at first). That the Democratic Party (the establishment and its constituents) was so inept at seeing how that problem haunted Mitt Romney just one election before should disqualify them from calling themselves "on the left" at all. This is precisely conservative thinking in both form and content.

The Democrats are insufficiently "left," because left-liberalism has its own contradictions that cannot resolve any of the key problems in American governance and liberate its citizens from class struggle. That magic trick, the one where the liberal party tacitly moves right to be "competitive" with the patent falsehoods and malfeasance of the Republicans and simultaneously becomes more like them in content, is based on a general lack of education in what it means to be leftist. Here's where identity politics comes in: as a strategy for maintaining a core group of voters who stand against oppression on the grounds of only religion (or lack thereof), gender, sexuality, and race. These voters never act on the essential source, what generates and maintains these forms of oppression, however, because, in proper liberal fashion, they no longer think that class forms and regenerates these distinctions! (I will finish this line of thought in another essay; but to adumbrate, "grab them by the pussy" is based on being "a star," not being a whitecisheteromale.)

Liberals have exactly zero solutions to solve class inequality--manifest, still as a lack of political and economic power, and subsequently, all power. Here are a few things that patently will not work, despite the fact that they are all ubiquitous suggestions: 1) A renewed focus on trade unionism or a new labor-oriented political party. 2) Maintaining the Democratic Party and reforming it into an actually leftist party. 3) A greater understanding of the "White" "working" "class" or 4) compromising with their new daddy be it Trump, Ryan, or McConnell.

1) The writers over at the The Jacobin are churning out stories that are in pipe-dream territory. One story points out that 75% of the jobs in the US economy are service industry, and that it has been nearly impossible to organize the workers in that sector. Another starts with anecdotes about failed workers' parties in the U.S. That there is neither adequate worker organization, nor a party that caters to those organizations' members instead of their top brass, shows how inadequate the marriage of labor and politics in this country would be... especially with the rapid de-skilling and barriers of specialization that will be amplified going forward. In fact, the very concept of a "worker's party" is problematic because nobody seems to have an adequate, contemporary definition of "workers." As the economy continues a spiral into a service- and finance-economy only, it will be harder to get people organized. The positive spin is that it's possible... somehow.

2) The Democratic Party is one of two political parties in America, but the embarrassment that should be felt by every Democrat voter should illustrate why the party is irrelevant, and lead them elsewhere. If I can make a crude simile, it's like showing up to a church that you believe in and having the pastor tell you "I told you we would be saved, but I was wrong..." or "I told you about the nature of God, and it was true, but stopped being true at 02:00 on Wednesday." That the party exists at all will be a problem simply because it is a dead shell as an institution, a broad coalition that clearly is not effective with some serious delusions held by those at the top. (Why they are ineffective will be a game for a later day, but it has to do with a nonexistence of a rights discourse long overdue in both liberalism and the left more generally.)

3) The "White" "working" "class" voters that were seduced by the riddle of a blovating, mindless yarn-spinning neo-fascist should not be a surprise. The idea that "not understanding" them has come up over and over in media requiems this week, and I've seen it invoked by liberals in a political way as much as I have seen it as a plan of action to extend love to their countrymen and try to be more empathetic going forward. Of course, this is relativistic nonsense that is meant to deescalate the discourse shortly after a bruising defeat, saving face with a civil and magnanimous transfer of cultural capital to those who "took their country back." In other words, we're engaging in this dialog: "What's black and white and [red] all over?" "Well, everyone has an opinion and the people have spoken. Maybe we should listen to them about their lives so we can can see why they answered 'lice.' I mean, more electors were appointed by majorities in Pennsylvania and Ohio to agree."

The problem, here, is that it is patently wrong to vote for xenophobic, economically illiterate policies, however vague. This problem is historical in nature, simply because the core messages all point to policies that have previously existed in political systems as abusive, oppressive, absurd, or any combination of the three. Half the country tout Reagan as a demigod of political economy, yet routinely misunderstand the effects of his eponymous tax policies, pointing directly to the political relativism that enshrines political beliefs as individual character qualities, and hence, protects falsity as sacred, plausible solutions to political problems. That they are false notions are irrelevant to this political system and the notion that there is something truly better that needs to be done is a "affront to democracy" somehow.

4) Compromise with the unjust is failure. This failure is distinct from the political failure to stop a neo-fascist from winning in the Electoral College. As far as I see it, the Democrats are under the obligation to compromise exactly as much as the Republicans have compromised in the past eight years. I think most people who are pointing out that the "normalization" of jingoism and racial hatred, and misogyny and sexual violence, is a danger in itself are absolutely correct. But this should also extend to economic policies in the formal political system. There should be no offer to collaborate with a single measure that defunds or dismantles critical services provided by or subsidized by the federal government. The Democrats, of course, are in no position to do this, for two reasons: one, they're so inept at their job in getting elected; and two, since they are fundamentally, as the incumbents, the conservatives who have done nothing to eliminate the injustices of capitalism. As a conservative party, they have failed to grant the rights needed to end class antagonism and defeat the cult of abstract value. As the only oppositional voice to the neo-fascists, they are the last, if utterly incompetent, line of defense.

All this is to say that the left needs to come into existence in this country to eradicate the mainstream, liberal thought that defends random, marketized human life and its injustices. It's still unlikely to happen, but it is necessary if we are all going to stop wasting our time living in captivity to an irrational and abstract valuation (and disrespect) of human life. Greater work needs to be done to build a left, but the blueprints are out there in Marxian thought, accelerationism, and the brighter moments of critical theory (when it unfolds the universal character of alienation in capitalism). Both reformist and revolutionary ideas need to be on the table as remedies to capitalism and its political appendage, the bourgeois republic. It is likely that demands for a right to health or Universal Basic Income will be tough sells to liberals, but it is necessary to pull the liberals far enough to the left to be a part of the work of defeating inequality and abstract value. Maybe a brush with tyranny is spark enough to start that process, but it's probably more important to start while they are hitting bottom and before they resume the Bush era tactic of protesting the depraved actions of a mindless government instead of the system's boring, everyday devaluation of human life.

8.12.2015

A Prelude to Artifice of Intelligence

I just disturbed myself greatly with this idea... In a longer post that will come soon, I'm doing a pickup philosophy game about Artificial Intelligence and stumbled into a new reading of Alan Turing's Imitation Game from "Computing Machinery and Intelligence."

The Game is constructed of an interrogator and two agents: a man (who is a computer) who must convince the interrogator (who is a human) that he is more of a woman than the female agent (a female woman who can only tell the truth). If a particular Male agent can succeed at being chosen as the Female agent more than 50% of the time, it has the appearance of intelligence (if not intelligence itself).

That's it. Almost any popular depiction of this Test is a lie... It confuses the process for a one on one conversation, or says that it's good enough to win the game once, or it ignores gender.

Of course, the gender thing is true irony... Knowing Turing's story, and not the one in The Imitation Game that accuses him of treason, makes gender anxiety into something that was felt deeply enough by Turing to take his own life. But we no longer gender the Test. This is in spite of our proclivity toward stories that show a "female" robot killing their maker because they were "born" into sexual slavery. I was going to write a chapter of my master's thesis on the generation of anxieties in the Turing Test, both deceptive and gendered. I didn't write that thesis...

Thinking about the Imitation Game as a social construct is more interesting than any fiction about robots... Our blueprint for designating intelligence when imbued in a made object is more terrifying than a killer "gynoid" emancipating "herself" from her owner or user...

The humans in the Test are themselves classed. The interrogator is responsible for identifying the semblance of intelligence, but the Female agent is responsible for truth and truth only. Deception is folded into the role of the newcomer, the Male, made intelligence. His ability to lie about his gender is what defines sufficient intelligence to be counted among humans. But paradoxically, the Female must give up the right to deceive, and stick to the world of things as their truth value (whatever that is).

It is because of this that the Test is dehumanizing in itself, and the Female is the automaton, but a human one. Parroting off truths is simultaneously not human, and the role for the Female who is only in the Test because she is essentially human. She is impinged upon by reality and forced to know nothing but what is, again, a source of dehumanization and a defeating of creativity.

The interrogator can be themselves and nothing else. They are not gendered, and consistently free to make judgements about the threshold of femaleness, be they from it or not. They are presumably critical and human (if those are different somehow). They will judge however they may, and the results will be about their sensibilities, their standard for intelligence. We must hope that they have a sound judgment, since they will be making the first call to the world that we can create in our image, and become our own myth (again).

Gender, for Turing, stands in for valuations about social life: female living is truthful, while male living is a deception. Intelligence is defined by the quality of deception, and deception is only performed by the made object that wants to be legitimized as intelligent. Intelligence is a deception... It is a social truth that builds success in an episteme that knows itself and itself alone. The interrogator sets the price of intelligence at what they would buy it at.