Violence in a Complex World

Violence clouds our minds; it makes our vision murky. Our hearts race, our muscles flex, and we get ready to do something. Depending on how close we are to it, we are either fascinated or horrified. Often both. All of this is normal; it’s an important survival instinct, harnessed these days mostly to sell movies. But despite the extraordinarily nonviolent bubble that middle-class Westerners generally live in, violence remains at the core of our politics. At bottom, political debates are about the application, or non-application, of violence. And for reasons biological and social, we are generally terrible at thinking about these issues.

Three especially graphic examples of violence have been dominating the headlines over the last few months: ISIS beheading a journalist; a cop shooting a teenager; and the kidnap and murder of three Israelis. Each incidence has provoked an angry, knee-jerk response, which has in turn triggered a cycle of escalation. . And so from the potent seed of dramatic violence we get three even more violent, politically charged situations: Ferguson, Gaza, and Western intervention in Iraq and Syria.

What all of this means is that telling a story about these violent incidents has been a major preoccupation for writers, politicians, policymakers and activists. The appropriate response follows from accurately diagnosing the problem. Was Michael Brown a criminal, or yet another victim of a racist system? Is Israel defending itself, or acting recklessly outside the bounds of justice and international law? The fate of thousands turns on the dominant interpretation of some crucial act of murder.

We use incidents like this as ways in to much larger, pre-existing political debates. This makes sense: they are immediately, viscerally, relevant. They demand a response, and we’re prepared to spend a little bit of time considering what sort of response that should be. But they are also, for much the same reason, imprecise ciphers – Rorschach blots on which we can project our own meanings as we see fit. There is too much meaning in the digitally broadcasted execution of an American journalist by a group of self-styled jihadists. Take a minute to appreciate all the possible angles here; just the act of killing is already too much for my mind to handle. What does it mean to end a life? Is this a noble ending? How is it with James Foley’s soul?

This already fraught, emotionally charged event is then further situated within cascading layers of meaning. We come with readymade narratives. Michael Brown was a good kid killed by a broken system; he was a bad kid, killed by a public servant who has sworn to protect society from the sort of threat he represents. Zoom out a bit, and he was a kid—who cares if he was good or bad? The point is that he was black, and, in America today, that is enough to get you killed. Zoom out again, and Brown is yet another example of entrenched racist systems and the militarization of America’s police. Zoom out again, and the whole story is an example of the way the media fixates on race, when really what we should be focusing on is the tragedy of this particular incident, this unhappy story of a police officer who felt threatened, reacted badly and killed an innocent man.

I want to dwell on this last move for a minute, because it articulates an impulse that I think we all feel. At each point in the layering of meaning, there are those who will stop you and say, “This is where I get off,” or, “I can appreciate that there are nuances to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but when you start talking about Oriental thinking in medieval Christendom leading up to the crusades, I just don’t see the relevance. Real people are really dying. Let’s not get too abstract here.”

We live in a society that produces literally endless commentary-on-commentary. Things have a way of getting pretty abstract pretty quickly. And figuring out how to zoom in and zoom out is perhaps the biggest challenge in trying to think coherently about pressing political issues. Pull out too far, and you lose a sense of the actual people and events. Stay in too close, and you miss the broader implications.

There is a strain of the contemporary Left that has argued themselves into irrelevance by insisting that what is primary, what is really fundamental here, is discourse analysis. Figure out how narratives of black men have been constructed, and then we can start talking about Ferguson. Actually, we better start by unpacking the cultural baggage of our concept of “narrative”. That’s where the politics really takes place.

Now, I tend to think these people have a point, which we can see if we zoom in just a little bit. No one seriously maintains that Michael Brown’s blackness and the fact that he was shot are simply coincidence. Reasonable people acknowledge that, to some extent, there is a script for how a white police officer interacts with a young black man. There are certain roles that both parties more or less expect. Like the script that governs my interactions with professors or cashiers, this script is learned by observation and training, and although it’s not immutable, breaking out of it can be jarring. So when we say that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t stand on its own, but is an example of larger forces at work, there is obviously something to it.

But there is also something to the frustration with discourse analysis and meta-narratives. It’s dehumanizing. It makes people into epiphenomena; it makes a real death into a symptom of an unreal, intangible system. It manifestly fails to engage at the level of fear and anger and emotion that actually shape these events. It can be politically demobilizing, elitist and painfully insensitive.

On the other hand, calls to “get real” and respond to violence in a concrete, tangible way have their own set of problems. The Israeli government and the American law-and-order crowd both appeal to “real danger,” “in the moment” to sidestep questions about the broader forces that shape those moments and create that danger. At the end of the day, Israeli homes are being bombed; at the end of day, the American-backed, Israeli military is forcibly perpetuating a Christian-backed occupation of Muslim lands. Both of those points are equally true, as are the appeals to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that we could make if we wanted to continue the conversation. My point is that “at the end of the day”—nothing. Getting real doesn’t get us far.

The discourses that we use to diagnosis the problems are also the structures that create them. Our peculiar predicament, in this age of infinite commentary and information overload, is that we have the capacity to be articulate about the structural features of our lives in ways that we never have before. Our social science can take us deep into issues that in previous generations would have been ascribed to forces of nature or gods (like poverty, gender, or cultural difference). But this very articulacy can actually have negative effects. It can be paralyzing and demobilizing, or falsely empowering. By driving our gaze relentlessly away from the specific, the concrete, the literally violent, our capacity to understand our society undermines our ability to engage with it. We live in a world where every action can be graphed by big data, but none of them matter much. Our longing for “authenticity” is an attempt to cut through this, but like “get real” appeals to violence, ‘authenticity’ creates as many questions as it answers.

The challenge is to come up with a politics and/or an ethics that, on the one hand, leverages our deep knowledge to respond to the real complexity of our world, while on the other hand remains faithful to the specific predicaments in which we actually find ourselves and can hope to do something about. We need virtues that scale up and down; that can shape individual behaviors but are informed by systematic analysis.

I’ll conclude by saying that the good news, it seems to me, is that many of the traditional virtues are up to this task, if they are properly interpreted. Courage, Moderation, Wisdom, these all sound good. That’s because the challenge of aligning individual action with social goods isn’t a new one, even if the particular challenges that come from an awareness of our participation in unjust structures is.  I’ll try to develop this thought further in another post – it’s on my mind a lot, as I’m working on a PhD grant proposal that argues that the Christian virtue of Humility is an especially relevant one to our present condition.

Facebook has made us all Nietzcheans

One of my favorite philosophers is Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was an iconoclast, better known for tearing things down than for building them back up again. He famously declared that God is Dead. But he also targeted other important concepts for assault; one of them was the idea of a ‘self’. The self, like God, does not exist. It is rather a projection, an imaginary construct, a useful illusion.

This was one of the most powerful ideas in the twentieth century. Such disparate intellectual movements as existentialism, behaviouralism and identity politics draw on Nietzsche’s notions of reflexive self-creation in the absence of a genuine self.

What’s interesting to me is that this idea, which was thoroughly controversial when Nietzsche proposed it, is by now common sense. I blame Facebook.

For my generation, and especially for the generation just a few years younger than me, it is almost impossible to ignore the fact that we construct our “selves”. We spend substantial portions of our days interacting with people’s obviously cultivated personas. Social media demands that you engage in an active project of self-creation, self-definition, and self-promotion.

Foucault, who called himself a Nietzschean, spent most of his career denying that there was anything in the world that he could value. But toward the end of his life, he began advancing a notion of aesthetic self-creation. That is to say, the activity of consciously giving oneself identity and one’s life meaning not according to artificial religious or ethical principles, but rather according to the principle of beauty.

In this solution to the problem of where to find meaning in modernity, Foucault was shockingly prescient. What is in Foucault’s terms quite abstract – aesthetic self-creation – has been made by technology thoroughly banal. It’s “maintaining you social media presence.” It’s “developing your personal brand”. (Foucault would of course thoroughly resist the capitalist implications of the latter. I don’t mean to imply that Foucault would in any way condone social media, which represents a much less radical project of self-creation than anything he had in mind.)

This is a major shift in how Westerners think about themselves and the world. Nietzsche made a radical claim about nothing less than what it means to be human. In our age, we often implicitly accept Nietzsche’s position, and certainly do not find it radical. It is somewhat radical to suggest that even offline, people are constantly projecting an edited version of themselves. But I think this becomes less and less controversial every day. Indeed, we are now obsessed as a society with ‘authenticity’ – as a bulwark, I think, against this tendency. But the result of this obsession has simply been that marketers and politicians now strive to be more authentic. Indeed, the Tea Party leaders, simply by existing and embodying their political ideology, are quite a bit more authentic than most New Yorkers just living their everyday lives. (I mean that they claim that, but I also mean that that is probably true.) In a situation like that, the notion of authenticity cannot be long for this world.

Technology is driving this change in how we think about ourselves. As I discussed in my post about telemarketing cyborgs, technology helps us to breaks things apart so that we can “optimize” and control each of the parts. Assembly lines allow us to break the construction of a car into a thousand steps, and then perfect each one of those steps. Each step can itself become a goal – a whole other assembly line can figure out the best way to build the robot that paints that car door. Social technologies perform the same function for social processes. By social technologies, I do not only mean communication technologies, but also sets of practices – like a sales pitch or catchy headline (“We all use Facebook every day, but I bet you’ll tear up when you hear what it’s doing to our souls” is an example of a headline written according to a “social technology” perfected by upworthy).

The internet does, however, represent a quantum shift in the ability of these social technologies to be incorporated into our daily lives. The “environment” of the internet is an environment of conscious social manipulation. The decision to retweet something is always already a strategic calculation – there is no way to avoid thinking “will my followers like this” – the way that a politician might always think “will my voters like this” every time they speak. And having become aware of that question, how do you avoid seeking out “best practices” – strategies to help you accomplish whatever your goal is?

I think it’s obvious that I’m troubled by this. But I’m not unduly pessimistic. I think I belong to the generation that sits precisely on the cusp of North American society’s shift to an internet-based society, and I think that is such a radical shift that our basic philosophical concepts – our most profound wisdom about the universal features of the human condition – are struggling to keep up. That is, quite obviously, unsettling. It’s confusing, and it means that a lot of our inherited wisdom – our shortcuts for living a good, meaningful life – needs to be reexamined. But you are reading this on my blog, which is my own personal form of cultivated self-creation. So it would be hypocritical of me to claim that this is all a bad thing.

Telemarketing Robots: How Technology Comes Between Us

There was a neat piece in the Atlantic a little while ago about call centers using machines to semi-automate conversations. Rather than actually talking , the agent’s role is to select from a bank of pre-recorded statements, depending on the situation. They can also click the “laugh” button or the “exactly” button as required, in order to produce a “natural” conversation.

I think this is an excellent example of the kind of “abstraction” I have discussed in earlier posts.  An additional layer of technological separation is being placed between two people. Rather than talking to another human being, the telemarketer uses a computer to direct an automatic voice to talk to a human being. Already, the telephone was adding a layer of mediation. But this takes that to an extreme, and changes the activity along the way. It’s a bit like one person is having a conversation while the other is playing a video game.

What this highlights is one of the important features of technology, and especially communication and information technologies. They ‘stretch out’ human interactions, and create new opportunities for rational control. Because this conversation is occuring via telephone, and because these dialogues have been recorded, marketers are able to use experimentation and rational analysis to create an ‘optimal’ sales pitch.

The obvious technological intrusion of the voice-automation obscures what I think is a more subtle, more troubling development: the transformation that has already occurred in the nature of the conversation itself. There’s a great line toward the end of the article where someone says that  telemarketers  who are reading off of scripts and trying to operate within specific time limits to meet their performance goals are “like robots already”. Fundamentally, it’s that fact that enables the automation. Data driven management and psychological research into the science of the sale had already produced a more or less optimal, more or less automatic, process. In other words the entire interaction between two people had already been broken down into a series of parts, and each part had been scrutinized to determine the “best” way to do it. The interaction was no longer an organic, human process – it was rather, for an expert telemarketer, a tactical exercise. The trick is to use the right technique at the right time in the right way.

Telemarketing, and marketing in general, is not the only place in our society that approaches conversation “tactically.” A huge part of psychology and counselling involves precisely selecting and implementing the right conversational tactic to achieve a desired outcome. The difference between talking to a friend about a problem and talking to a trained counsellor is, at least theoretically, that the counsellor is equipped with a set of techniques that they can use in order to help you.  Political rhetoric is another obvious example.

Approaching a conversation tactically means approaching it at an abstract level. Rather than attending to the flow and the meaning of what is being said, the words themselves have been rendered routine, mere tools in the execution of a broader strategy to sell or persuade or convince. It’s the difference between “hi, how are you?” and <initiate greeting>. What’s remarkable about this telemarketing example is that much more complicated interactions, like “sales pitch” or “respond to key concerns” have equally been routinized and optimized.

As the Atlantic article highlights, this optimization is in an important sense progress. It yields better results more often and more efficiently. It’s much easier to re-write a script to be more optimal than it is to train hundreds of agents on a new “best practice”. The introduction of mediating technologies creates new opportunities for improvement and problem-solving.

But there is also something to our knee-jerk reaction, which finds the whole thing a little weird and a little alienating. It’s precisely the fact that I will be listening to an “optimized” sales pitch that I find so troubling. There is something tragic about the loss of the art of the sale. Travelling in the Middle East, I have had the experience of being sold to by many street vendors, one or two of human were masters of their craft. Their ability to connect with me personally, and then convert that relationship into a purchase, was amazing. Living in a world where prices are always listed and you might as well shop online, I found this a powerful, unsettling, and moving experience. I made the purchase, but I treasure the memory of that fleeting relationship. The telemarketing robot and the customized facebook ads, even if they respond effectively to my every wish and know my needs before I know them myself, contain none of this magic.

In other words, there is something about the immediate, the face-to-face and the unpredictable, that we intuitively value as human beings. The alienation I expect most people experience at the idea of a marketing-robot I think offers a crystalized version of this instinct. But as technology progresses, we place more and more mediating technologies between and around ourselves. We deliberately and systematically reduce immediacy, in order to also eliminate the messiness and “sub-optimality” that comes with it.

On balance, I’m not sure that I think this is either a good or a bad thing: technologies have transformed our social and political worlds before, and they will again. People find ways of preserving what matters to them while inventing new ways of being together. But I do think it’s important, in the age of Social Media, that we be aware that the introduction of mediating technologies opens the door to new systems of rationalization and optimization. That it encourages us, like the telemarketers, to increasingly substitute liking something for clicking like – replacing our ‘natural’ response for the technologically mediated performance of that response.

Abstraction and Potato Chips

I suggested in an earlier post that we live in an abstract society. There is perhaps no clearer indication of this than President’s Choice “Greek Feta and Olive” Potato Chips.

Like, what the hell is that?

Potato chips used to be potatoes. According to folklore, they were invented when a restaurant owner deliberately over-cooked and over-salted thinly sliced potatoes. They were the logical conclusion on the chain that stretched from the baked potato to the french fry. If someone didn’t know the word “chip” they could have just said “salty fried potatoes” and everyone would have known what they were talking about. Think about describing a package of Lay’s salt and vinegar chips as “salty fried potatoes”. Not only would you seem bizarrely pretentious, no one would know what you were talking about. Somewhere along the way, chips stopped being potatoes.

After some extensive Wikipedia research, it seems to me that there are two key developments in the history of the potato chip that explain this transformation. The first is mass production. Potato chips gradually made their way from restaurant items in the 1860s and 70s into widely distributed consumer products. In 1920, Frank Smith founded a company devoted to the production and distribution of potato chips in London. They were distributed in sealed, greaseproof bags – a major innovation.

So people of my grandparents’ generation would have been exposed to “chips” when they were children. But it was not until the 1950s that the modern potato chip was born.  Joe Murphy and Seamus Burke succeeded in developing a process for seasoning chips during the manufacturing process. “Salt and Vinegar” and “Cheese and Onion” Chips were born. Even though by this time potato chips were a totally unique product, you can still see the ghost of the potato lurking behind these choices of flavours. Basically, you’ve got a baked potato chip and a French fry chip. Flavours like sour cream and onion, cheddar cheese, and even barbeque carried on this lineage.

At some point, however, chip companies got over their infatuation with potato-inspired seasonings. They realized that most consumers – certainly including myself – did not regard the chip as a potato, but rather as its own, unique food. The chip then becomes a delivery mechanism, a canvas on which the food engineers are free to paint whatever taste combination they see fit. And so we arrive at the “Greek Feta and Olive” chip. The potato is gone. It has been replaced, on the one hand, by a mass manufactured ‘chip’ the delivers crunchiness and convenience in snack-sized portions with a nearly endless shelf life, and on the other hand by a complex chemical seasoning that distills the taste of entire meals like Greek salad or buffalo wings into a thin powder. If aliens landed in Loblaw’s today, they would not see the connection between the potatoes in the produce section and the chips in the snack-food section. A hundred years of business and consumer innovation have driven a deep wedge between these two foods.

This is how technology works. Each technological innovation – like mass production of chips – provides the raw material for the next set of innovations – like flavour-powder. The trick, if you are a capitalist, is to make your product in to a raw material for something, to make it cheap enough and useful enough that you can grow whole industries – like the sour-cream-and-onion industry and the salt-and-vinegar industry – based on your product.

But this kind of innovation involves a conceptual shift. It involves forgetting that the potato is a potato – because it’s obvious to you, as it was not to your grandparents, that chips are really different things from potatoes.

And that conceptual shift produces its own kind of alienation. Our material culture, including especially our food, is shockingly removed from the ‘original’ materials and practices that laid the foundations. Abstract art is a clear example of this. At a certain point, it becomes obvious to artists that a ‘painting’ bears no relationship at all to the world that it supposedly represents; a painting, like a potato chip, is its own form, its own language, its own site for innovation. But for people who haven’t made that shift with the artists, for people who are still looking for the potato, this new set of innovations is difficult to grasp.

Similar transformations take place in any tradition of political or artistic discourse. And these shifts, I think, are one of the major reasons people can’t talk to one another. Political or ideological groups go through a process of transforming and transmuting their own concepts. The concept of patriarchy is a good example. In mainstream discourse, it means a fairly overt and well defined set of social relations that privilege men; the Catholic Church is patriarchal. But for many feminist activists and scholars, patriarchy is a much richer, more malleable, and more insidious category. They took that basic idea, and thought through its consequences. It became a tool of analysis – no longer a specific type of society; it became a way of looking at all societies. How is this or that society patriarchal? How does this or that social relation entrench existing power structures?

But like abstract art and weird potato chips, people who haven’t made the necessary conceptual shift get left behind. When someone on the internet states that Miley Cyrus entrenches the patriarchy, people get confused and annoyed. And often, the original poster gets annoyed at the other commenters’ inability to understand what is, given her understanding of patriarchy, a banal and uncontroversial point.

So this kind of chain-of-conceptual shifts, this transmutation from a potato to a chip, both separates us from our world – from honest-to-god potatoes – and from each other – by creating ideological groups that have a hard time talking to one other, because they are speaking at different levels of abstraction.

But it ain’t all bad. After all, a reasonable definition of “progress” is precisely the ability to enable this sort of new innovation – where today’s ideas build on yesterdays innovations. And in that sense the abstraction is just the flip side of living in a culture that also produces lots of pretty awesome stuff – like greek feta and olive potato chips.

The Gods of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street

We live in a shockingly abstract society. By that I mean, among other things, that many of the forces which shape our daily lives are so distant from us that we think of them as concepts or entities rather than actual people or processes. The “Economy”, “Society”, “Government,” are all examples of this. We all have personal relationships with these abstract forces. It’s a sign of intelligence to have opinions about them and how they work. But this way of talking also constantly reinforces the notion that these things are distant from us – that they are other.

There’s a kind of mysticism to this language. I think that when you realize how comfortable we are invoking such abstract non-entities, things like the Roman gods or animal spirits start to make more sense – they too provided people with a vocabulary to talk about something that mattered to them, but that was not easily accessible or readily understood.

It’s interesting, though, that our ‘gods’ don’t really have personalities. We sometimes say things like “Society hates X” or “The Economy is Y”, but we always know that this is metaphorical. That really what we’re talking about is an abstract, complicated process. That it’s unreasonable to hold “the Economy” accountable for its actions – it just doesn’t make any sense.

There’s a kind of powerlessness that comes from living in a world that is shape by such alien forces. That powerlessness has been much written about – in some ways, it’s the “malaise” or “ennui” that existentialist philosophers and poets believe characterizes the modern condition.

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, for all of their differences, both seem to me to be an anguished cry against precisely this kind of powerlessness. Both have had a crucial insight – that these big, abstract forces (Government or the Economy) are also, at some level, people. These systems are working for some people and against others, because some people like it that way. And so, to a certain extent, both protest movements take their primary goal to be changing the people – and so re-jigging the system.

But at another level, there is it seems to me an existential anger, a nihilism, to these movements; there have been plenty of reformers who share basically the Tea Party or Occupy’s agenda. But these movements are not, not really, reform movements. They think the system is wrong.

In this sense I think that they are jointly articulating a fundamental critique of modern mass society. Things are too complicated, too distant, too abstract. Even though nothing happens in society that people don’t do, it still seems like people can’t do anything to change how things are. The gap between life and politics, between work and the economy, is breathtaking. The movements appear ideologically opposite, but they are united in their appeal to a more basic, less complex set of values: let’s hold people accountable for things; let’s get rid of these colossal apparatuses that nobody thinks are fair or just or how things should be; let’s just try being fair for a while, and see how that goes.

It’s hard to decide whether this message – which is partially a call to reform this system, but also a visceral rejection of the system itself – is ultimately empowering. It stands in a deeply ambivalent relationship to the modern project of progress and reform. This ambivalence, I think, recaptures an important insight about the ambivalent nature of humanity’s position in the world, about our relationship to the abstract and external forces which shape our lives.

There is, after all, a hubris to thinking that we can fix everything. The Greeks knew that the gods were capricious. Maybe contemporary political discourse is re-learning that lesson.