Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Answer to the Nine Dots Prompt, "Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible:" -- “We Are the Unembraced: Technology Gave Us Captial P Politics, and Now It Takes It Away”

by Steven S. Vrooman

I submitted an entry for the Nine Dots Prize on their inaugural theme: "Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?"

Looking at it now, months later, I am trying wayyyyyy too hard to squeeze way too much into the word count. The idea that mass media gave us a small window of "mass" politics in the middle of the 20th century which we now mourn the passing of is still something I think is interesting and correct. But I approach this question with a style that seesaws a bit too much from a casual lit review to quick pop culture references. In my defense, I could not tell whether they wanted a more or less academic text, even after researching the organization and the people behind it. If I were to do it again, I think I would choose more pop culture and less theory, but I write these words two hours before the prize winner is announced. We'll see if my prediction of what they want is true.

Okay, the results were just announced. Looking at some excerpt's of winner James Williams' submission, it sounds like they wanted academic after all. Ah well, it is better to make a choice than try to do it all, as I did. If it's wrong, well, then, next time.

So what you see below is a sandstone of approaches that may not, ultimately, be structurally sufficient. I hope to return to this idea in the future. In which case this post will stand as an early, failed form of these ideas. 

This is the core of writing: failing and then revising.


“We Are the Unembraced: Technology Gave Us Captial P Politics, and Now It Takes It Away” 

Politics is impossible. Not the brute Laswellian mechanic of who gets what when why how.

What has long been impossible is the inevitability of the embrace, the optimistic Aristolean entelechial dream of the enormous, affirming group hug of civilization. Aristotle suggests that such an outcome is logically inevitable, as we might expect of a thinker fulsome with the sameness of his Athenian tribe, here at the beginning of his Politics and its dream, where he is three mere paragraphs away from an insulting discourse differentiating women and slaves and bees: “But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”

This faith that goods are additive into a magic Emerald City polis is, as are so many of Aristotle’s ultimately cloistered Aquinian faiths, cute. This faith is not simple. It involves conflict and compromise, but it sees inevitable “harmony” resulting from that, unlike the single beat or foot of music he critiques in Socrates’ political ideas in Book Two. While he awaits the final swell of a Garlandian thematic reprise in Victor Fleming’s musical, we live in a world of more complex harmonics.

Bernard Crick, who has come to represent a battered postwar version of a faith in the telos of politics, writes in an age in which the devil’s tritone has been pulled from satanic dissonance into Baroque harmonies and bebop improvisation. Unlike Aristotle, he sees political good as an axiological commitment, not an ontological inevitability, embracing, as many did in a century of fascists, political process as a bulwark against horror. 20th century dissonance, as in jazz, resolves into something approaching harmony only with “tolerance and diversity” for Crick.

Crick understands that group hugs are awkward. They are work.

Although Crick talks “compromise” fifty years ago, he really seems to be after what the business school gurus will eventually call win-win problem solving. In a compromise we both feel like we lose. And in a world where, as E. J. Dionne writes, we “hate politics,” and, as polls continue to show, distrust it, so many seem willing to Brexit and Trump their way past politics to something that looks an awful lot like win-lose problem-solving, as they vote to protect their tribe, their community, their family, their race, their dream, their illusion, their jobs, their nostalgic picture of a better time.

So much for the grand, “big tent” wins of the coalition-builders.

Does that kind of politics no longer exist?

It might be more prudent to ask if it ever existed.

Have we abandoned the big tent group hug Emerald City major chord politics of yesteryear in a digital stream of narrowcasting, fake news echo chambers and unfollows? Or was Crick always peddling an illusion he knew we needed as a motivator whilst Stalinism rose on ballistic plumes in the east and Blitzed buildings went on to a second decade of unrepair?

Ah. Now we’re talking rhetoric, another Aristotelan passion which Crick departs from, unfortunately equating it with vapidity and sophistry, exactly the things Plato wished to rescue it from, by, well, writing to defend “truth” in dialogues where he made up dumb things for his sophisitic opponents to say before they recognized that he was right, like classical age wish-fulfillment fanfiction, complete with a “yes” at the end.

If we are to suggest, for a moment, that Aristo-Crickian politics is impossible, we are left with a definition of politics as the art of achieving the least-bad outcome for your tribe. Big tent group hug coalitions happen when those least-bad outcomes dovetail. Candidates win when they can narrowcast least-bads to a governing preponderance of groups. Get out the vote is more reliable than convincing the other side. Which sounds like a departure from a rhetoric that might involve persuading someone who thinks differently than you do.

Instead, we’ll shift past Aristotle’s rational, conscious, mental, calculation-heavy, try-hard formula of the “use of the available means of persuasion in any given case” to a post-Freud Kenneth Burke, who posits that persuasion happens via the magic of identification in a quasi-mystical commingling. It is hard to say when it happens, which is fair, as if you, reader, were to list all the times you changed your mind about something important as an audience member, I imagine the list would be shorter than that for your weekly groceries.

It is a shift to the “you can’t not communicate” era of unconscious complexity given to us by ethnographers of ritual like Gregory Bateson, who suggests that our words and gestures sound a lot more like animal noises, the very differentiator Aristotle used to justify his entelechial faith at the beginning of his Politics. For Bateson, people just kinda suck at information-processing. Most of what we say is ritualized friendship messaging. We, like Democratic candidate Al Gore in his AME church event, simply and awkwardly continually try to communicate fealty. I am here. I care.
We have, then, always lived in small echo chambers of friendship since we dropped from the trees and needed another set of eyes to look for big cats.

Politics and Rhetoric should not be separate books.

Does Martin Luther King convince white America with his ideas, or does he simply use enough religious code words to convince the Bible belt that he is part of that tribe, as Selby seems to suggest? Is social change the result of cognitive dissonance in tribal identities as much as it is anything?

One more moment for rational faith in rhetoric comes from the optimistically monikered “new rhetoric” of postwar argument theory. Stephen Toulmin adds markers of uncertainty and calculation to syllogistic reasoning, suggesting, for example, that in a world of diverse audiences and complex knowledge, arguments have a “modal” qualifier which signifies a level of certainty. Practical argument in an uncertain world, I guess, requires us to diagram that the claim “Kanye West is a genius,” is, even for its proponents, not at all meant with anything approaching certainty.

Better work in the new rhetorical school comes from Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, who catalog every form of argument they can find in a rather exhaustive reading list of Western discourse. Perelman, who remembers being unpersuaded, not believing the Holocaust was possible when first told of it in his office in Belgium, is an enthusiastic student of the impediments to persuasion. His catalog of argument spends more time stripping the logic out of argument, calling it, at best, quasi-logical, a general form that looks like math, maybe, perhaps, if you are bad at math and don’t really know much.

Perelman, for example, finds that most argument seems to proceed from example or cause, with more paradoxes and errors in both topoi than you’d think. He emphasizes the impossibility of a universal audience to respond to the premises of argument, which Toumlin, for his part, reduces from “major premise” to the accurately and inevitably ambiguous notion of a “warrant,” which, like the legal document, simply authorizes us to move to the claim, to the end, inside the door to search for contraband. For Perelman, premises must be given “presence” like “Caesar’s bloody tunic” and he spends the end of the book dithering into how we more readily break philosophical pairings than build them.

All of this adds to a world where reasoning, the kind of thing you’d need to compromise, is fraught, mistaken and rare.


We return, again, to Aristotle. He suggests that there is such a thing as an enthymeme, an incomplete argument. This could be a persuasive tool, as when you suggest the two premises that have only one logical outcome and let the audience say it themselves: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. So….?” But the dark side enthymeme, which we would expect to be triumphant in a world beyond Aristo-Crickian politics, is fantastically common. In this case we drop a piece of evidence and barrel on to the claim, because, you know, we are preaching to a narrowcasted choir. We rely on the old saws (loci, for Perelman) of our tribe and expect them to be able to provide the chamber’s echo. When Fox News suggests a candidate might raise taxes, for example, there is no need to remind the tribal hordes of the major premise/warrant that “Taxes are bad.”

So is technology free of the burden of its contribution to making this kind of politics a dodgy business at best, the kind of thing that exists most clearly in Aaron Sorkin programs and heavily-advanced political autobiographies? Are we all choirs to our chosen preachers, clicking our ruby slippers to go home when confronted with another opinion, whether we are on Facebook or in the donut shop?

Not entirely.

The dream of technology, since Howard Rheingold coined the term “virtual community” in books he wrote in the pre-web 90s with pictures of himself wearing pajama pants on the back covers, was to foster connections of ideas. If you are a brony or lover of bar graphs or Blue Note LPs or late 19th century US presidential facial hair or long discussions of which Shoshtakovich symphonies count as art, the Internet is the place for those conversations, as they usually don’t fly between frames at the bowling alley. The unabashed optimism of the early days of the Internet was that it meant that someone out there, somewhere, dug the same obscure shit you did.

And this isn’t new. Since even before Paul innovated new uses of a distributed communication technology, the publicly performed letter, to expand and cement an enormously successful tribal identity, the early Christian church, since before Virgil piggybacked on the Homeric poetic invention of Troy to remythologize Rome, since the beginnings of writing and song and myth, we use communication technology to craft tribes.

Although lazy enthymemes and choir-preaching are inevitable rhetorical habits in a world built of communities and tribes, the act of seeking out, riskily, additional connections with a new tribe based on a new interest or secret passion is structurally different than the passive replication of the memes of your clan over Sunday dinner or football halftime or happy hour.

That kind of entry into a pre-internet irl wizarding world has so many nostalgic paeans that it is hard to imagine 20th century popular culture without this story: the smoky jazz club luring you with its horn riffs, the underground record store smelling of pot, the surfers rolling in the swells after dawn, the mysterious colors and textures of yarn on the craft store shelves, the nerds fighting with swords in the park in the afternoon, the folded party flyer you’re sure most people don’t know about, the hushed up Bible study in that 3rd floor dorm room, the older kids who hang out in the back of the comic book store with Crumb comics and quiet when you walk by, the Tupperware party at the end of the cul-de-sac you finally got an invite to, the like-minded political meeting at 6pm in the conference room in the back of the library.

We have always been, just a bit, the Gore Vidals of our lives, looking for what we can archly appreciate as an inside joke, even though the rival 70s icon, George Plimpton, autoethnographically finding a way to do everything and then ruining it by writing a tell-all, just sounds more real, even though the opposite seems like the truth.

In Internet makes the search for the smoky rooms easier, and it also makes it easier to crowd out everything else. I’m looking at you, Tumblr.

So it should make our tribal-style politics easier, too, while at the same time reducing Crick’s axiological bridge-building.


But was it really that hard before?

Or have we just recently popped what felt like the new normal bubble of 20th century collective broadcasting, when we all watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite crying when we landed on the moon and all read the same papers that pretended we were all duped by Welles’ War of the Worlds until we believed it was true?

Was the group hug moment of political life across the world a temporary function of the big media monopoly bubble that lived on in our memories as the way-it-should-be even if it was no longer the-way-it-is when the Paramount decision and new TV channels Howard Bealed the media into market shares?

When exactly, in fact, did this Technicolor dream of politics exist, this foundational historic moment of better times, this Golden Age fallacy which, as in Baudrillard, is a simulacra, a vision of visions, a text of texts, a medium of media which represents what we wish it was as much as anything else.

Politics and education, even amongst academics who might know better, share this tendency to believe that students and voters of the past were smarter, paid more attention, and probably ate more fiber.

Giddens suggests a reason for this pervasive Yellow-Brick Age fallacy in another context, when he suggests that the complexities of modern life and its abstract and expert structures, technologies and discourses which proliferate but which we don’t get, induce both increased states of trust and faith in buildings and vehicles and institutions and discourses which we don’t understand but which require magical fealty in order to satisfice our ways though life and something like Kroker’s panicky concern at the lack of the grounded Real that Baudrillard and other salty postmoderns keep swiping out from under us. We wish for a simpler time while we enjoy all the channels and apps. We don’t understand the simpler time either, the jazz tritones, how Fallingwater’s cantilevers stay in the air, how three strips of Technicolor come together into one film, whether or not TV pictures break apart into pieces and fly through air over Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka hair, how the little rectangles on the punch cards worked in the mainframes, what the difference was between the superchargers and the turbochargers installed in the Pony cars that boomer dads raced past Rydell High. But we all know someone who says they did, even if they are just bullshitting us.

They tell us that back in the day they could take apart their VW engine on the lawn and have it working again by the end of the day but now mechanics work by popping a thumbdrive dongle into the slot under the dash, which seems improper even without the symbolic overtones. They tell us that back in the day the polls were never surprised. They tell us that back in the day, as my grandfather swore, that Gone with the Wind somehow got colorized later and everyone just lied about it.

We know that Ozzie and Harriet and Anne of Green Gables and Upstairs Downstairs and even Godzilla were always already nostalgia bombs, but we want to believe that big P politics hasn’t always already been an impossible game we built on the endorphinned memories of the war correspondents who built the network news.

In the 70s, Anselm Strauss was exploring the constant segmentation of our social worlds across geographic and interest boundaries, with the inevitable battles of legitimation and authenticity, and Dick Hebdige was exploring exploding subcultures as Star Trek fans were finding ways to share mimeographed erotic fan fiction via mail-order catalogs.

Technology is the fever dream of unity, the CRT LCD glow of electrified human connection, but the deep structure of that connection is the ham radio after midnight “Can anyone hear me?” you drop after your callsign, or the phone number you found in the back pages of the local free paper from the head which you call on your Hayes Micromodem II to connect to a MUD, or the new local show about the surf at your beach you found on a 3-digit channel on a cable box you didn’t know went up that high, or the pimped-out MySpace page of the sweet new band your friend from history class said the flute player in the marching band her cousin was drum major for said was going to be the next big thing on TRL, or the new trending subreddit that was the community that you always wanted to find but doubted existed.

Politics is the fever dream of humanity. But its deep structure is of people finding their tribes and cooperating just enough to defend them.

Our task is to study the textures by which technology and politics haunt each other, structure and move each other while we burst the cynical histories that suggest that something is, in fact, different about now. Every now feels like a surprise, like a discontinuity with the mythology we have been weaving around ourselves. That feeling, which feels like wisdom, is in fact the oldest mistake. It is a grit of sand which we always seem to use to spitball ourselves another pearl we can inevitably spit upon the shore of the new world on which we will inevitably land, a beach of millions of grains of sand which always seem to be just too much to swallow.

If we study those textures, those eddies, those magical currents, those surprises, if we can work through this history while resisting the lure of myth, if we can turn to the technological rhetoric of politics, and if we can use this different pearl-less faith, perhaps we can grab a more secure hold on the house as its spins, one more time, through the twister. And when we leave our yellow-bricked golden age behind, perhaps we can learn to love living as the people behind the curtain, people who see the wizard on the screen as what he really is, a flawed sideshow that still brings us all together.

No comments:

Post a Comment