Friday, March 25, 2022


I would like to discuss the example of two competing versions of some lyrics by one of the great 20th-Century poets, Jeffrey Hyman (aka Joey Ramone). The printed, “official” (boo, hiss) version uses direct quotation of speech, whereas the lyrics as (apparently) sung use indirect quotation; this has pronounced effects on the way the subjectivities of the speaker and his interlocutor are developed in the song itself

The lyrics, as found online, are as follows:

Questioningly, her eyes looked at me,
and then she spoke, “Aren’t you someone
I used to know, and weren’t we lovers
a long time ago?”

Looked at her close, forced her into view,
Yes,” I said, “You’re a girl
that I once may have knew.”

In this version the reported speech (including that of the I who is reporting) is carefully bracketed and kept separate from the narrative itself. Self and other are kept carefully apart and communicate solely through speech, in fact through implausibly blunt, stagey speech. Compared to the sung lyrics (below), much of the development and nuance has been sacrificed so that “clear-cut, external contours” can be maintained, in accordance with the style of “authoritarian dogmatism” as per Volosinov/Bakhtin. Note (as you probably have) that in this direct-quotation version ends with a particularly egregious example of poetic license overriding syntax (“I once may have knew”) ( as well as the clumsy use of spoke instead of said in the second line).

Whether as an effect of the gap between script and performance, dialectal pronunciation, melismatic rock crooning, or some combination of these, the sung version, as I hear it, differs through the use solely of indirect quotation (if even that), which leads to a process of progressive contamination of (and struggle over) the subjectivity of the first-person narrator, who is also a character.

Questioningly, her eyes looked at me,

In the first line, the agent is not “her” but “her eyes”, a clue to the fact that visual rather than aural communication will remain central to the account.

And then she spoke unto someone I used to know,

The first-person narrator apparently agrees with Goffman that the “I” by which we refer to ourselves is “a figurea figure in a statementthat serves as the agent, a protagonist in a described scene, a ‘character’ in an anecdote, someone, after all, who belongs to the world that is spoken about, not the world in which the speaking occurs” (Goffman 1981: 147). He uses the flexibility this creates to avoid being addressed by making a perhaps Sartrean distinction between the I of Es and the I of Et (which becomes split into I and someone). Becoming unstuck in time, he does not recognize her as addressing him, but as addressing “someone I used to know,” even though this someone is his past self with which he refuses to identify.

and weren’t we lovers a long time ago?

This apparent quotation could be considered a mid-sentence split suddenly developing between the “narrator” (as a function of the narrative) and the first-person character, but I think its more productive to think of it as the dissolution of the first-person narrator’s ego.

The change of voice in mid-sentence (especially with that “and”) obviates the narrator’s attempts at avoiding identification: instead he is subsumed into the “we” who are both subject and object of this question. It is not clear if these words are in fact spoken, or by whom; they may be communicated by her eyes, or be posited necessarily by the very fact of these two people meeting each other’s glances. In a way this line is not quotation at all, but a metalinguistic commentary on the interaction itself.

Looked at her close, forced her into view,

Nietzsche may have felt that to speak of an “I” who “acts” is a needless doubling, a mistaken positing of cause and effect, akin to saying that “lightning flashes” (which is to divide the event into subject and action). Joey’s narrator, however, is here trying to regain his I-ness through first-person action, even if he not able at this point to regain “I” per se. Specifically he seeks a position as Cartesian subject, looking out at the world, and distinct from the world by means of this looking. So to “force her into view” is to regain his own identity from the encompassing we-ness of the previous line (and to describe the action in this way, as the narrator does, is metapragmatic commentary on the interactional effect of such a move of “close looking”).

just to say, you’re a girl

“You’re a girl” is not necessarily spoken out loud, its “saying” being more an effect of his looking, which repositions her as “you.” He is now ready to restore himself to being an “I”, but things will then rapidly fall apart again. This dissolution over the next line is accentuated by the music which consists of descending heavy, lingering chords, which each play predictable roles within the self-referentially “classic” rock model in which the song is written:


[Fourth]            I

[Minor Sixth]    once

                          may have

[Fifth]                knew

The confident fourth chord with its I is swiftly undermined by the troubled sixth, during which the narrator again tries distancing tactics (“once,” “may have”). But by the final fifth, which marks this part of the song as unresolved (it needs to end on a first), the narrative ego is again dissolved into a “he” or more probably the returning “we”, subject of “knew;” his belonging to this we is in fact the central message of the song, a message which the author resists, but which, in the interaction within which he finds himself, he cannot avoid voicing.

This interpretation of the lyrics (whether or not it is correct) leads to a much more nuanced understanding of the shifts of subjectivity involved. However, looking back at the direct-quotation version of the lyrics, the stilted, cartoonishly archetypal confrontation can now be seen as itself a metalinguistic reference to the more subtle, interactionally metapragmatic possibilities exploited in the indirect-quotation version. It therefore becomes clear, in the over-directness of their statements, that the interlocutors may not be “speaking” these words after all, but “saying” them nevertheless.

Goffman, Erving (1981) Forms of Talk. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 8


Summary of Chapter 8: The Scientific-Technical Revolution and the Worker

In another short chapter Braverman further explores the scientific-technical revolution and its treatment of the worker, in particular its reduction of the worker to a machine. There had been two stages in capitalist/industrial development during the original Industrial Revolution: first, a change in the organization of labor, and second, a change in the instruments of labor. Those two stages, as described by Marx, refer to the initial industrial revolution; the ensuing scientific-technical revolution cannot be so simply described, because it involves revolutionizing all aspects of production, and manufacture in this time is also continually changing at every level:

It is in the age of the scientific-technical revolution that management sets itself the problem of grasping the process as a whole and controlling every element of it, without exception. (118). 

This involves an attack on the unity of thought and action leads to a “crisis:” labor as a subjective process is removed from the process of production and treated as an object which can then be added (or re-added) to the process conceived as steps controlled or designed by management. This ideal is not achieved in all industries, often for technical reasons; it also creates "new crafts and skills and technical specialties which are at first the province of labor rather than management" [though what these are is not specified]. Workers leave the places where tech has taken over, but move into different fields, some of which have been created by mechanization, others move into fields resistant to mechanization. Braverman promises to return to this subject in future chapters.

In addition to actual mechanization, there is the move to treat workers as machines. Gilbreth, the follower of Taylor, adds motion to Taylor's time studies, and new, more scientifically elaborated ways of studying and representing motions, the units of which are called "therbligs" (120). Gilbreth and his followers developed detailed lists of motions with initials that stand for them, like G for “Grasp,” TE for “Transport Empty.” There are also finer distinctions, such as subcategories of "grasp" [all this is clear machinification of human labor, preparation for automation, or at least dreamed-of automation].

To pick up a pencil, therefore, would involve the proper categories of Transport Empty, Pinch Grasp, and Transport Loaded, each with a standard time value, and the sum of the time categories for these three therbligs, given in ten-thousandths of a minute. constitutes the time for the complete motion. (121)

He gives further examples of "the charting approach to human sensory activity, visual, auditory, and tactile, which have been developed since the early 1950s and which aim at comprehending a larger range of work activities outside the purely manual, in order to apply them not only to clerical work but also to professional and semi-professional specialties." (122) The Universal Operator Performance Analyzer and Recorder (UNOPAR) records human movements using sound waves; other devices measure force exerted by worker, or "kinematic characteristics" of limb movement, etc. These allow the "human factor" of labor to be engineered ahead of time; instead of conducting on the job studies like Taylor had, engineers now use accumulated data to plan out work movements, breaks, etc. before even hiring people; from this point of view labor can appear to be something that is plugged in to an existing process. The numbers and statistics give the whole process an aura of authority; even greater authority is achieved as the calculations come to be carried out by computers.

Braverman provides a great summary of the view of humans as machines:

The animating principle of all such work investigations is the view of human beings in machine tenns. Since management is not interested in the person of the worker, but in the worker as he or she is used in office, factory, warehouse, store, or transport processes, this view is from the management point of view not only eminently rational but the basis of all calculation. The human being is here regarded as a mechanism articulated by hinges, ball-and­-socket joints, etc. (124)

He quotes a psychologist (Kraik) who in fact states this quite explicitly:

" ... as an element in a control system, a man may be regarded as a chain consisting of the following items: (1) sensory devices ... (2) a computing system which responds ... on the basis of previous experience ... (3) an amplifying system-the motor-nerve endings and muscles ... (4) mechanical linkages ... whereby the muscular work produces externally observable effects."

[This is immediately reminiscent of Wiener, who would no doubt wonder just what the objection is to this way of thinking. Per Braverman’s discussion, it is in part the critique of the "partial identity" in contrast to the whole or species being; or more generally, a freedom to create oneself (whether this is or is not seen as part of a "whole," it is about not being objectified or "humiliated" in Vaneigem's terms); and, of course, the struggle over control of the production process and knowledge, identity, etc.].

This attempt to conceive of the worker as a general-purpose machine operated by management is one of many paths taken toward the same goal: the displacement of labor as the subjective element of the labor process and its transformation into an object.

This means that a predetermined rate can be decided or engineered (based upon the authority of the data) and then imposed on actual workers:

In this, the manager counts not only upon the physiological charac­teristics of the human body as codified in his data, but also upon the tendency of the cooperative working mass, of which each worker is, along with the machines, one of the limbs, to enforce upon the individual the average pace upon which his calculations are based.

But, as Braverman notes in a lengthy footnote, workers are rebellious and the actual production process "assumes the form of a struggle, whether organized or not." Humans, like other machines, have "internal friction" which prevent them from working exactly as imagined or engineered.

In conclusion, Braverman observes that the process of abstracting and dividing labor into classified and generalized types of motions, is a process of making it abstract; this corresponds to Marx's concept of abstract labor, completely interchangeable, and shows that actual capitalist thinking confirms Marx’s analysis.


Monday, March 21, 2022

Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: Ecology and Revolutionary Thought


The three planks of Bookchin’s argument in this book are laid out in the first three chapters, in turn: 1) the specific revolutionary potential of the post-scarcity condition; 2) the link between ecology and anarchism; and 3) the possibilities for the development of technology in an anarchist, rather than a capitalist, social context. In this chapter Bookchin lays out the second plank, making the argument which can be summarized as “red and green make black,” (i.e., a socially egalitarian and ecologically sustainable society will necessarily be an anti-authoritarian one).

He begins by discussing the links between the development of science and of revolutionary thought: “In almost every period since the Renaissance the development of revolutionary thought has been heavily influenced by a branch of science, often in conjunction with a school of philosophy” (79). He discusses the historical influence of disciplines like astronomy, mechanics, mathematics, biology, and anthropology in delivering shocks to the consciousnesses of society, undermining the complacent ideologies of earlier times, and spurring idealistic and progressive movements. However:

In our own time, we have seen the assimilation of these once-liberatory sciences by the established social order. Indeed, we have begun to regard science itself as an instrument of control over the thought processes and physical being of man. This distrust of science and of the scientific method is not without justification. (79)

[There is here a direct link with Foucault’s discussion of the history of the critique of the Enlightenment, in “What is Critique?”]

What is perhaps equally important, modern science has lost its critical edge. Largely functional or instrumental in intent, the branches of science that once tore at the chains of man are now used to perpetuate and gild them.

[and here, also interesting in relation to Wiener's mid-century complaints about intellectuals of his time, in the context of the growing subordination of academia to capitalist interests and models.]

Even philosophy has yielded to instrumentalism and tends to be little more than a body of logical contrivances; it is the handmaiden of the computer rather than of the revolutionary. (79-80)

[I imagine a lot of people today would object to the characterization of “the computer” and “the revolutionary” as categorical opposites; however, the point Bookchin is making needs to be recognized. The importance of the rise of computing in the expansion of late 20th and early 21st century governmentality cannot be overstated. Hence, it is reasonable to suspect philosophy in the service of “the computer.”]

Despite the subservience of science to capitalism and the state during this "period of general scientific docility," one modern scientific discipline holds out hope, and that is ecology. Its implications are in fact "explosive" and revolutionary; it is on the one hand critical and on the other “integrative and reconstructive.” [Bookchin does not state this here, but this two-sidedness is an important aspect of critique as part of a unified praxis.] Ecology shows the limits of human mastery, over both nature and humanity. Bookchin explores the analogy of humans as parasites: humans have become insanely destructive, and this makes them similar to parasites; yet, according to Bookchin, parasites aren’t inherently destructive in this sense but only become so, due to some disruption in their environment. The question then is, what is the change that has happened in the human social environment, which has caused humans to become parasites? The answer is of course the growth of the state and of capitalism over the last few centuries.

The imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world. (84)

He places part of the blame on "urbanized and centralized society":

If we put all moral considerations aside for the moment and examine the physical structure of this society, what must necessarily impress us is the incredible logistical problems it is obliged to solve—problems of transportation, of density, of supply (of raw materials, manufactured commodities and foodstuffs), of economic and political organization, of industrial location, and so forth. The burden this type of urbanized and centralized society places on any continental area is enormous. (84)

[cf here Merrifield's accusations of anti-urbanism; yet Bookchin’s complaints are technical and logistic. Couldn't the same kind of developments that produce "post-scarcity" also correct some of these problems of distribution? In other words, if the problem is no longer production but distribution, couldn't a large-scale society (economically, not necessarily politically centralized) find technological solutions?]

Bookchin returns to the question of the emergence of hierarchy, as the cause for human parasitism:

The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man. (85)

It starts with the patriarchal family, and leads to the split between "mind and labor" and "spirit and reality," and the “anti-naturalist bias of Christianity;” this comes to a head during and after the Industrial Revolution when market relations replace "organic community relations" and nature becomes a "resource for exploitation." [This is what Marxists call the "metabolic rift."]

In  addition to the industrial order or production, Bookchin identifies another order or aspect of society, the "consumer society," in which a parallel process (though this time plundering the “human spirit” of desire, needs for identity and creativity, connection, etc.) takes place that exacerbates and drives the former plundering of nature:

Needs are tailored by the mass media to create a public demand for utterly useless commodities, each carefully engineered to deteriorate after a predetermined period of time. The plundering of the human spirit by the marketplace is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital. (85)

He points out that the contemporary discourse on overpopulation blames countries like India, when the real culprits are the over-producers like the US, wasteful in production  and pollution (waste meaning both excess, and the inefficiency/toxicity of the production process); also the need for economic growth means this will continue to get worse. In addition to literal waste and destruction, there is an argument about objectification and simplification that drives this and/or makes it possible:

From the standpoint of ecology, man is dangerously oversimpliflying his environment. The modern city represents a regressive encroachment of the synthetic on the natural, of the inorganic (concrete, metals, and glass) on the organic, of crude, elemental stimuli on variegated, wide-ranging ones. (87)

In discussing this simplification, he returns to his massification/urbanization argument, that large populations are difficult to manage, creating bureacratization, centralization, standardization, etc. This "mass concept of human relations" is “totalitarian, centralistic and regimented in orientation" (87).

[This is one of the aspects of Bookchin’s thinking on cities that Merrifield was criticizing. In Bookchin’s defense he is making an argument about a certain approach in modernism, which he elsewhere defines as “urbanization” and defines in contrast to the “city,” which in his terms is a true community on an idealized Athenian model. A problem with Bookchin here is that, in this rant against standardization, etc., he seems to be oversimplifying (ironically enough) and not taking into account the individualistic side of capitalism, which of course has become more pronounced over the later decades, in part as a response arguably to this very sort of critique of mass media and consumerism (which was recuperated into neo-liberalism as a means of asserting a distinction between capitalism and the state).]

Authoritarian thinkers (which includes liberals, Marxists, and conservatives) used to deride anarchists as idealists, but this has changed, due to the threat of ecological disaster, and the possibilities of the post-scarcity condition: “historical development has rendered virtually all objections to anarchist thought meaningless today” (91). He claims that the “intuitive anarchism” of the youth of his time, is a reaction against everything that is wrong with society today; ecological thinking [with its reconstructive praxis] can "convert this often nihilistic rejection of the status quo into an emphatic affirmation of life" (92).

The opposite of standardization/simplification (which is what has created the human-as-pest conditions) is "organic differentiation,” and this is something that is a central feature of both anarchist and ecological thinking. He discusses going back to the small-scale farming of the past, which resulted in the development of [traditional ecological knowledge]; we also need more diverse fuel sources, such as were used before the Industrial Revolution reduced everything to coal, then to coal and petroleum [and the argument here is an example of Bookchin escapes the binary rhetoric of past vs. future, with such a call for an integration of past practices with new technologies:]

We could try to re-establish earlier regional energy patterns, using a combined system of energy provided by wind, water and solar power. We would be aided by devices more sophisticated than any known in the past. (95)

Bookchin’s call for a “mosaic” of fuel sources parallels the ecological call for “organic diversity” and the anarchist call for self-directing individuals and communities. Bookchin does believe that urban decentralization will be necessary to use renewables, based on, for example, the solar and battery tech of his time; but this fits as well with his argument that small-scale, largely self-sufficient communities could be more locally environmentally conscious and responsive, and this in itself would lead to a healthy diversity of local approaches to social organization and morphology, each fitting their own environment.

Bookchin criticizes the use of engineering "gimmicks" to marginally reduce pollution in cars, etc. The real problem is scale and growth, which will overrun these incremental advances:

there is a strong sentiment to "engineer" the more noxious features of the automobile into oblivion. Our age characteristically tries to solve all its irrationalities with a gimmick--afterburners for toxic gasoline fumes, antibiotics for ill health, tranquilizers for psychic disturbances. (97)

For the rest of the chapter he basically reiterates his main points again, that both ecology and anarchism call for spontaneous diversity rather than the destructive simplification and homogenization which has been the product of the current state capitalist system. He quotes the anarchist Herbert Read that “Progress is measured by the degree of differentiation within a society” as individuals are given freedom to be themselves and find their own paths; according to Bookchin, this is a common approach of both anarchism and ecology: you don't control or micromanage a system, but allow diversity to form spontaneously. “Their object is not to rule a domain, but to release it” (100).

He repeats the call for decentralization: cities should be reduced in size in order to “create real communities;” the model is the Athenian ecclesia, a face-to-face democracy in which everyone has an opportunity to be involved and contribute.

Electronic devices such as telephones, telegraphs, radios and television receivers should be used as little as possible to mediate the relations between people. (101)

In a true, face to face democracy, political relations can become personal ones (an interesting revision of the term “the personal is political”):

all members of the community should have an opportunity to acquire in full the measure of anyone who addresses the assembly. They should be in a position to absorb his attitudes, study his expressions, and weigh his motives as well as his ideas in a direct personal encounter and through face-to-face discussion.

Members of these communities should not merely be limited to specialized trades but should experience a wide variety of trades, etc; the epitome of Marx's “hunt in the morning, criticize after dinner” ideal:

To separate the engineer from the soil, the thinker from the spade, and the farmer from the industrial plant promotes a degree of vocational overspecialization that leads to a dangerous measure of social control by specialists. (102)

[The above is roughly Bookchin's version of Braverman's thesis.] The anarchist society would form an "ecosystem" of small-scale, self-sufficient communities, with "moderate population size" centered on the local ecosystem, basically an "ecotopia" idea. Local communities will take different forms, in adaptation to their environmental circumstances:

an exciting, often dramatic, variety of communal forms—here marked by architectural and industrial adaptations to semi-arid ecosystems, there to grasslands, elsewhere by adaptation to forested areas. (103)

In a non-hierarchical society, differences will be valued and encouraged instead of subsumed under a hierarchical model of superior and inferior; individuals will be able to achieve their full potential (104).



Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, Part 3


Summary of Part III: Modernity

In this section, there is a strong feeling of Benjamin’s mode of composition of the essay from his clippings gathered in the Arcades Project. You can see him gathering his clippings and quotations into groups, first under the higher headings (Bohemian, Flaneur, Modernity), then here, under "Modernity," into further subheadings (writing as work/fencing, the ragpicker, the apache, antiquity as modernity, etc.) which he strings along in turn. Since he rarely gives an overall summary of how these are related to each other, the reader is left to infer this for themself.

The first point has to do with Baudelaire’s writing and representation of the city as a kind of dangerous, even perilous labor. Baudelaire saw writing poetry as work, and Benjamin compares it to the labor of Guys in painting (as described by Baudelaire in the Painter of Modern Life). Though Baudelaire wrote favorably of the flaneur, he himself was not one. The [modern hero or representer of the city] is distinguished from several types of "observer:" first the flaneur, also the "amateur detective" and the badaud, or rubbernecker (98-9); observation is a "priggish habit," per Chesterton. In contrast, Baudelaire and Dickens are absent-minded dreamers who wander the city: "Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped his mind on these places."" (99, quoted from GK Chesterton)

Benjamin uses the language of "shocks" and "parries," and fencing,  though not referencing urban environment but events of Baudelaire's life, and his writing in response:

The shocks that his worries caused him and the myriad ideas with which he parried them were reproduced by Baudelaire the poet in the feints of his prosody. Recognizing the labor that he devoted to his poems under the image of fencing means learning to comprehend them as a continual series of tiny improvisations. (99)

 For Baudelaire the street became a place of refuge from creditors, this he made a "virtue of necessity":

But in flanerie, there was from the outset an awareness of the fragility of this existence. It makes a virtue out of necessity, and in this it displays the structure which is in every way characteristic of Baudelaire's conception of the hero. (100)

Baudelaire was "overtaxed," and lacked control over his own means of production, or an apartment, good clothes, etc. Through an emphasis on Baudelaire’s hard work and penury, Benjamin establishes links between Baudelaire as poet and the lumpen, "dangerous classes" etc. – though he will later pull Baudelaire back from this linkage, in a sort of dialectical move. In any event Baudelaire portrayed proletarians in their everyday lives as being as brave as gladiators.

Benjamin discusses the idea of suicide as a noble gesture, practiced by the proletariat as a form of resistance to the brutality of modernity; according to Benjamin, this is different than how suicide was seen in ancient times, in which the suicides were somehow noble or exceptions of some kind. Suicide is a distinctly modern thing; [though this complicates the opposition Benjamin has already made between Baudelaire and Balzac etc. as [realist-era] moderns in an opposition against the preceding "romantics," of whom who could be more a clear example than Goethe's Young Werther?]

Benjamin gives a nuanced discussion of how somber blacks and greys came to dominate men’s clothing during the 19th Century. This is on the one hand part of the beautiful aspects of the specifically modern which Baudelaire wants the painter of modern life to illustrate: yet there is also a mocking aspect to his description of a nation of everyone dressed as undertakers, as if “We are all attendants at some kind of funeral” (106). Benjamin describes the later critique of men's fashion by Friedrich Theodor Vischer and its similarity to Baudelaire’s in emphasizing the ridiculousness of modern somber fashion as also at the same time somehow democratic, or at least moreso than the earlier eras when the wealthy emphasized their difference through the richness of their clothing [procession to circulation here]. [Nevertheless there is a contradiction here which Benjamin does not seem to fully emphasize, not to mention that while he situates the origin in the contest between democratic and monarchist regimes in 19th century France, there is an earlier history coming from the Protestant Reformation. I am thinking of Rembrandt's group portraits of Dutch bourgeois men, all nearly identical in their somber democratic Protestant black, which they nevertheless distinguish by the finery of their textiles, showing that they are in fact wealthy and not commoners. Or in the 19th and 20th Century American cities, in which most men dressed practically identically in suit, tie, and hat, but the wealthy are wearing tailored suits from prestigious makers, and the poor are wearing mass-produced suits off the rack. Or in 21st Century Silicon Valley, etc. culture, which adopts the democratic hoodie and jeans, but then these are super-expensive designer hoodies and jeans, and so on.]

Benjamin turns to how Baudelaire and writers like him celebrated the “apache” (an urban ne'er-do-well)  or the chiffonier or ragpicker as hero; [the key question is, how is this personage presented differently as "hero," than in the panoramic/flaneuristic literature? The difference appears to be that there is a parallel between the ragpicker and the poet who is describing them, in terms of their activity: Baudelaire sees himself in the ragpicker, or vice versa? There is apparently at least a respect for these urban characters as “heroes,” as opposed to the flaneuristic representation of them as images for bourgeois consumption, but frankly Benjamin may assert this but does not go far to demonstrate it.]

The poet and the ragpicker are linked in an “extended metaphor.” Even their gait or way of movement through the city is equated:

This is the gait of the poet who roams the city in search of rhyme-booty; it is also the gait of the ragpicker, who is obliged to come to a halt every few moments to gather up the refuse he encounters. (108-9)

According to the translators, Benjamin here borrows a term from Brecht, "Gestus," to describe this gait or characteristic [in the original German, but translated out as “gait?” It is unclear]. (252n221).

Baudelaire felt some need for modernity to become antiquity, meaning apparently to achieve greatness in art etc., sufficient to be admired by later epochs. This is linked to his valuation of modern life as subject matter for art, and the idea that antiquity should “serve as a model only where construction is concerned; the substance and the inspiration of a work are the concern of modernity." (110) In the Guys essay, Baudelaire defines modernity as "the transitory, fleeting beauty of our present life." [Benjamin’s interest in drawing out and emphasizing Baudelaire’s juxtaposition and mixing of modernity and antiquity is perhaps an example of his practice of the dialectical image, a way of destabilizing the categories of modern and ancient, more particularly the modern?]

Baudelaire's theory of beauty, from the Painter of Modern life, regards the interaction of two elements: one is "constant, immutable," and the other is "relative, limited," derived from the current milieu (i.e., the modern) (110, quoted from Baud). Benjamin adds, hysterically: "One cannot say that this is a profound analysis" (111). Benjamin criticizes Baudelaire's theory of art as not living up to his own work, and being inadequate for the time: the poem "Le Cygne" is presented as an example, with the city as brittle and changing, with the famous line about the city changing faster than a mortal's heart. Benjamin quotes Peguy about Hugo, to show what Baudelaire wanted: Hugo could see in the beggar on the street, the ancient beggar; in the modern fireplace the ancient hearth, etc.

Benjamin discusses the Victorian fascination with visions of Paris, London, etc. as future ruins, and also the city as doomed [Baudrillard's much later concept of “exposure” a la the WTC fits here] and as involving some impeding urge to suicide, which is the "passion moderne" (114). Maxime Du Camp has a vision of Paris as future ruins, and is moved to write a description of the city as the ancient authors had failed to write of their now ruined cities, in the past. Benjamin links this to the concurrent destruction and rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann. [Thus it is the changing nature of the modern city which compels the writers to try and capture it for the future; there is a need for a sense of fragility and vanishing, in order for this momentary capture to be understood as desirable or necessary/urgent]. This is in fact what Benjamin means by an "image":

"Les poetes sont plus inspires par les images que par la presence meme des objets;" said Joubert. The same is true of artists. When one knows that something will soon be removed from one's gaze, that thing becomes an image. Presumably this is what happened to the streets of Paris at that time. (115)

However, Baudelaire himself is not impressed with the future ruins image so much but the idea of [a living?] antiquity springing directly out of modernity, and thus he prefers the detailed engravings of Charles Meryon that gave a sense both of detailed lifelikeness of the modern, and the timelessness of antiquity. Benjamin makes a reference to "allegory" as the form or means of "interpenetration of antiquity and modernity": 

For in Meryon, too, there is an interpenetration of classical antiquity and modernity, and in him, too, the form of this superimposition – allegory – appears unmistakably. (116)

Modernity's constant renewal and consuming of itself means that the modernity of Baudelaire's time is indeed already antique:

To be sure, Paris is still standing and the great tendencies of social development are still the same. But the more constant they have remained, the more everything that stood under the sign of the "truly new" has been rendered obsolete by the experience of them. Modernity has changed most of all, and the antiquity it was supposed to contain really presents a picture of the obsolete. (118-9)

The next pile of clippings Benjamin assembles are on the subject of lesbians as modern heroes (119). He links this to Saint-Simonianism which celebrated the image of the androgyne or hermaphrodite, and discusses Claire Démar's early Saint-Simonian feminism, and her plan to abolish motherhood through a [Spartan] style system (119-20). Benjamin situates this historically, talking about the "masculinization" of the "feminine habitus" through factory work, and in "higher forms of production." Baudelaire had a fascination with this, his stance was ultimately contradictory, as revealed through his poems. Benjamin quotes Lemaitre on Baudelaire’s contradictory attitude toward women and to modernity; yet, according to Benjamin, this contradiction was what Baudelaire was aiming for:

To present this attitude as a great achievement of the will accorded with Baudelaire's spirit. But the other side of the coin is a lack of conviction, insight, and steadiness. In all his endeavors, Baudelaire was subject to abrupt, shock-like changes; his vision of another way of living life to extremes was thus all the more alluring.

[The overall fascination Benjamin has with Baudelaire and his time seems to be with its incompleteness or unachieved possibility. Baudelaire achieves partial insights but then draws back from them or rejects them. This was prefaced earlier in the essay in the context of Baudelaire’s class position and his linkage with the bourgeois “professional conspirators,” who, not truly linked with or representing the truly revolutionary class, were doomed to fail. This link will return at the end of this section when Baudelaire is compared again to Blanqui, whom Benjamin treats as the exemplar of this conspiratorial type, both admirable and pathetic at once.]

The subject of poetic rhythm comes up in a discussion of Baudelaire’s poem, “L'Invitation au voyage:”

This famous stanza has a rocking rhythm; its movement seizes the ships which lie moored in the canals. To be rocked between extremes: this is the privilege of ships, and this is what Baudelaire longed for. (124) 

[In this reference to rhythm Benjamin contradicts Bakhtin's claim, according to which rhythm is a form of stylization which removes the poem from reality, and monologizes it under the voice of the poet. Here, in contrast, rhythm is affective, an impress of the actual view or experience of the rocking boat, into the poem, and into the experience of the reader or listener [i.e., something analogue is carried through]. This in turn perhaps demonstrates Baudelaire's susceptability, his openness to shocks, etc., and even a place for the non-human in the “polyphonic” and “heteroglossic.”]

The image of the boats is significant to Benjamin’s argument, because they embody a contradiction, in that that they are tied up, yet beckoning to sail away; this is like the modern hero:

The hero is as strong, as ingenious, as harmonious, and as well-built as those boats. But the high seas beckon to him in vain, for his life is under the sway of an ill star. Modernity turns out to be his doom. There are no provisions for him in it; it has no use for his type. It moors him fast in the secure harbor forever and abandons him to everlasting idleness. Here, in his last incarnation, the hero appears as a dandy.

[With this description of the hero as dandy, we are of course reminded that we are in the Second Empire, in which there is considered no hope, no room for innovation or advancement, etc. [one of the “No Future” generations, at least in Benjamin’s telling]. This somewhat constrains the overall applicability of the "modern hero" as described here, to other stages or periods of the modern, does it not?]

Benjamin describes the modern hero with a quote from Baudelaire: "a Hercules with no labors to accomplish" (124). Benjamin links dandyism to bourgeois merchants, who desire to avoid or not show the shocks of trade, and changing fortunes [it is a pretense or artifice that covers one up]; Baudelaire himself was not a successful dandy because he was too strange, when it requires a balancing act. [The discussion here of the dandy is very short, and little of the complex class issues are gone into]. The point seems rather to raise and then dismiss the equivalence of the writer-as-modern-hero with the dandy (whom Baudelaire had described as the last of the heroes) because the "modern hero" is in fact not a "hero":

Because he did not have any convictions, he assumed, ever new forms himself. Flaneur, apache, dandy, and ragpicker were so many roles to him. For the modern hero is no hero; he is a portrayer of heroes.  (125)

So now we see the list of (proletarian and bourgeois) heroes, oppositional to modernity (apache, ragpicker, flaneur and dandy) are pulled back away from the modern hero, who either fails to become one or never could have been one of them. The “extended metaphor” ends here.

Turning to the subject of poetic language, Benjamin asserts that Baudelaire, like some other writers in his time, fought against the "segregation" of words into those worthy of lyric or tragic poetry ("elevated speech") and those words which were not, being too urban, modern, intimate, or crude. Baudelaire also pursues this line in his use of words and images for allegories and metaphors, which is part of what makes his writing surprising and effective. Benjamin ends this section by comparing the effect of Baudelaire’s writing to a protest march by Blanqui and his forces in 1870 during the funeral procession of Victor Noir (about a year and a half before the Commune): "Baudelaire's poetry has preserved in words the strength that made such a thing possible." (129)

With this comparison of these two figures that Benjamin had begun the essay by contrasting, the image of the modern hero becomes that of someone produced by, trapped in, and fighting against their own time:

But the differences between [Baudelaire and Blanqui] are superficial compared to their profound similarities: their obstinacy and their impatience, the power of their indignation and their hatred, as well as the impotence which was their common lot. (129)

[It seems there may also be something in this regarding Baudelaire and Blanqui being limited to their own class perspective and position, despite their empathy for the proletariat.]





Friday, March 11, 2022

Discourse in the Novel, Part 2


Part 2: Discourse in Poetry and Discourse in the Novel

In this section, Bakhtin explores the differences he posits between how discourse and heteroglossia are treated in poetic genres, as opposed to in novelistic prose. He occasionally notes that these are in fact ideal types – not all poems are exclusively monologic, and not all novels polyphonic – these are, rather, inherent tendencies that each genre reveals in its purest form.

He begins by distinguishing several dialogic scales which, he argues, the traditional philosophy of language has neglected completely. These are 1) “a single language” (this appears to mean the language used by a specific author or speaker, or possibly by multiple speakers in a dialogue); 2) “social languages” of different groups within a “national language,” and 3) that of “national languages” (like English, Russian, etc.) in relation to each other. These are contexts in which to study “the dialogical orientation of a word among other words” (275). Words always exist in “an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme” (276); a word “cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue.”

He discusses several “dialogic relationships” which words possess, the first in relation to the object being described (or rather, in relation to other words describing the same object). In poetic language, the word “forgets” this dialogic context; the prose writer, in contrast, must witness “the Tower-of-Babel mixing of languages that goes on around any object” [“languages” here in the sense of discourses or competing articulations]. The “cannot fail” wording repeats: prose discourse “cannot fail to be oriented toward the ‘already uttered,’ the ‘already known,’ the ‘common opinion,’ and so forth” (279). Thus in terms of this dialogical relationship to the object, the inter-orientation or [citationality] of words is about the relationship to the previously said (the dialogical relationship to future responses or rejoinders will be discussed further on). This dialogical relationship to the discursive context is not just external (as Bakhtin suggests other linguists think it is) but internal to the word itself, this is internal dialogism (hence the “cannot fail” dialogism of the word, it is never outside of such dialogical interrelations).

He turns to the dialogic relationship with the listener and the intended or expected answer which an utterance is oriented toward. He castigates linguists who fail to take the active influence of the listener into account: they focus only on “demands for comprehensibility and clarity” of a passive listener like a receiving device, instead of “one who actively answers and reacts” (280). [This bears an interesting relationship to Wiener’s (or is it Shannon’s?) discussion of communication as a fight against noise; for Wiener “information” appears to subsume all other categories that might move from system to system (e.g., energy, labor, affect, agency) and here Bakhtin is arguing against linguistic approaches that are based on just such a limited focus on comprehensibility or communication.] Bakhtin makes a distinction between the “neutral signification” of a word (as studied by the linguists he is arguing against) and its “actual meaning” which is “understood against the background of other concrete utterances on the same theme, a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view and value judgments.... that, as we see, complicates the path of any word toward its object” (281). [From this point of view, something like a dictionary would be impossible, because it would be incapable of keeping up with the changing context and meaning of words (and itself would be altering them). (cf. again D&G’s abandonment of a search for “exactness” such as this impossible dictionary would seek; instead actually existing dictionaries are anexact.] This “subjective belief system of the listener” is part of the second internal dialogism of the word.

He returns to the idealized opposition between poetry and prose. Poetry is completely monologized, so words appear “without quotation marks” as the direct voice of the poet (285). “In poetry, even discourse about doubts must be cast in a discourse that cannot be doubted” (286). “Whereas the writer of prose, by contrast... attempts to talk about even his own world in an alien language” (287).

In Bakhtin’s usage there is a great multiplicity of “worlds” and “languages,” corresponding to the worldviews and ways of speaking and writing of individuals and groups. This means that when we move up the scale to social and national languages, language is still never unitary, or at most “abstractly unitary” like a national language, which remains in fact “a multitude of concrete worlds, a multiple of bounded verbal-ideological and social belief systems” (288). He talks about the stratification of language, a word which he uses similarly to D&G [and apparently Deleuze’s view on language was influenced by Bakhtin], meaning he is not focusing primarily on a hierarchization, but on the distinction or formation of different “strata” in relation to each other, as created, bounded entities existing in contrast to other strata. These are the strata of the languages, jargon, cant, and discourse of different social groups, professions, classes, and so on. As the translators note in the Glossary, “For Bakhtin this is a process, not a state” (433). He emphasizes the importance of the “intentional dimensions” or “intentional possibilities” of language (289). He is here using “intention” not so much in the sense of intension or reference (though it is linked to a metaphor of “directionality” of words aiming at objects) but rather to mean the agency of the speaking subject in trying to [do things with words]. A given professional or social language, it seems, makes certain particular intentions possible (as that language is being shaped by the intentions of those using it); it is only to outsiders that these intentions become “things.” He is thus aiming for and privileging an insider’s subjective view of language formation as opposed to the objectifying view of language as a system, favored by the linguists he is arguing against. He wants to keep in the fore the “referential and expressive—that is, intentional” forces shaping language, as opposed to the linguistic markers used by other linguists to distinguish languages: these are merely “the sclerotic deposits of an intentional process” (292). Such reification of course plays an important role in how languages are stratified, and how speakers and groups put their own accent or style on words, and in the operation of certain genres such as poetry; however, it is a mistake to take these sclerotic forms as language itself, and they are continually challenged and changed by the same process which formed them: “if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word” (292) [aka the impossible dictionary].

He spends much of the chapter returning to this theme again and again with new metaphors. A profession, group, or individual can “saturate” language with “specific (and consequentially limiting) intentions and accents” (293), which leaves words with the “taste” of a profession, group, etc. [And this is an important, affective part of re-articulation; consider how the term “sharing economy” or even just “sharing” was transformed by the taste/saturation of the app-work startups]. Individuals, seeking to create their own voice, must take words out of others’ mouths and make them their own (294); “Consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language” (295). Some words however retain their alienness from a given speaker, who cannot really place them into their own voice or language: “it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker” (294).

He paints a picture of a [code-switching] peasant, who speaks different languages in different contexts (familial, religious, legal, etc.). He starts out unconscious of this diversity but

As soon as a critical interanimation of languages began to occur in the consciousness of our peasant, as soon as it became clear that these were not only various different languages but even internally variegated languages, that the ideological systems and approaches to the world that were indissolubly connected with these languages contradicted each other and in no way could live in peace and quiet with one another—then the inviolability and predetermined quality of these languages came to an end, and the necessity of actively choosing one’s orientation among them began. (296)

[This is a classic iteration of the idea of a critical consciousness emerging from an experience of contradiction, a la Gramsci. And it is one of the aspects of critique (as leading to a revolutionary consciousness) that the postcritique critique is targetting as illusory or non-inherent. Note the similarity also to Debord’s working class shrugging off the spectacle and thus becoming makers of their own history.]

Returning again to the contrast between poetry and prose, Bakhtin ends this section with a few more observations and the introduction of some further terminology. Rhythm appears to be an enemy of heteroglossia, since it unifies the feel of a text and the monologizing voice of the poet [and this is relevant also to the process of entextualization identified in my chronotopes paper]. Characters in prose are identified as “potential narrator-personalities,” an apparent restatement of the observation from the Dostoevsky book (iirc) that all of Dostoevsky’s characters could be authors (part of the concept of their unfinalizability in the image presented by the narrator).

Three different verbs are used to describe the range of relations between a writer and their language (299): 1) words can express the intentions and voice of the author, directly; 2) words may also refract the intentions of the author, which appears to be the fully heteroglossic position, in which the author’s voice interacts with other voices and languages, and the refracting bouncing of rays of light/intention off multiple surfaces provides a fuller, deeper view (earlier he has described this sort of language as having “finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones;” “finished” in this regard appears to mean rounded rather than fixed or pre-determined (278-9)). And 3), the author can exhibit the words of others in a completely reified way, not mixed at all with their own voice. This is ventriloquation.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 8


Summary of Chapter 8: The Role of the Intellectual and the Scientist

Despite the title, this very short chapter is less about a proposed role for “the Intellectual and the Scientist,” than a general bemoaning of the conditions of intellectuals in mid-20th century America. Starting with the ultra-cyberneticist assertion that “the integrity of the channels of internal communication is essential to the welfare of society” (131), Wiener describes the forces which have undermined this internal communication – first off, the growing cost of communication which has led to a decline in small newspapers and publishers, and the growth of a bland movie industry which cares only if its movies will sell widely, not if they are any good. This is also true in radio, tv, and books:

More and more we must accept a standardized inoffensive and insignificant product which, like the white bread of the bakeries, is made rather for its keep­ing and selling properties than for its food value. (132)

This is fundamentally an external handicap of mod­ern communication, but it is paralleled by another which gnaws from within. This is the cancer of creative narrowness and feebleness.

[Presumably by "external handicap" he means this is not an inherent aspect of the technology itself, but of [capitalism]. Any to this "external handicap" is added a "cancer of creative narrowness and feebleness."] He blames the education system; also the lack of the apprentice systems which existed in the past [Braverman would have some choice comments in this regard, but Wiener seems to be referring specifically to communication arts]. So anyway the regular university education is insufficient, and the apprenticeships are gone, so higher degrees like the PhD are increasingly required to gain a basically sufficient training; this leads to careerists pursing scientific and academic careers, resulting in an overall debasement of intellectual production. Once upon a time, apparently, “the artist, the writer, and the scientist should be moved by such an irresistible impulse to create that, even if they were not being paid for their work, they would be willing to pay to get the chance to do it;” [which sounds like a description of the wealthy gentleman scientists of the past] but now these fields have been institutionalized, and careerists pursue these fields for their prestige, rather than out of the  "irresistable impulse.” They produce inferior work, because they are dilettantish and undirected, and don't passionately pursue whatever research they desire; instead big business finds tasks for them.

Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. (134)

This is essentially noise:

In other words, when there is communication with­out need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of be­coming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plummet.

[Of course, how is the worthy communication to be told from the unworthy? This may seem like an attack against the ivory tower; but Wiener, the highly influential MIT professor, is in fact at the height of that tower and is actually criticizing people below him, trying to climb the ladder.]

Wiener spends some paragraphs dismissing the abstract art of his day, which he thinks is an example of banality rather than creativity [and though it is fun and easy to bash on abstract expressionism, to simply dismiss it like this shows the foolishness of Wiener’s attempt to draw a line between worthy and unworthy acts of creation]. He gives some remarks on “beauty,” in a clear reaction to ab-ex:

No school has a monopoly on beauty. Beauty, like order, occurs in many places in this world, but only as a local and temporary fight against the Niagara of increasing entropy. (134)

[Fitting as it is to puncture the arrogant claims of the ab-ex movement to such a monopoly, Wiener himself limits “beauty” to the side of order against entropy; has he thought this through for more than a second?] There is a nice point in which he refers to himself as a "scientific artist" in contrast to a "conventional artist" so he is arguing that all these creative intellectual pursuits are "arts" (135).

What sometimes enrages me and always disappoints and grieves me is the prefer­ence of great schools of learning for the derivative as opposed to the original, for the conventional and thin which can be duplicated in many copies rather than the new and powerful, and for arid correctness and limitation of scope and method rather than for universal newness and beauty, wherever it may be seen. (135)

[What solution does Wiener propose? And doesn’t the behavior he is criticizing, in fact demonstrate the validity of his overall cybernetic theory? Surely bureaucratic institutions operate under the same basic assumptions he does: that they have to maintain order against the evil of chaos. But where else does this "beauty" and "newness" come from? Where does his whole valuation of beauty and newness, and relativity, fit within his essentially conservative scheme of maintaining order against inevitable entropy? Here would be a place for him to talk about the usefulness of entropy and chaos, as something to be brought into order and made productive (aka "the uses of disorder" a la Sennett). But I don't see him doing this here.]



Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 7


Summary of Chapter 7: Communication, Secrecy, and Social Policy

In this interesting little chapter Wiener turns the cybernetic lens to organizations, particularly nation-states, to address the issues of scientific advance, and of secrecy in the name of military advantage or national security. Essentially, secrecy is the enemy of communication and progress, and is typically based on an outdated or incorrect understanding of information and how it works. The US and USSR have brought back the Machiavellian politics and subterfuge of the Italian Renaissance; however, we now have a much more sophisticated scientific understanding of communication, and we can use this to analyze the present moment and see what we could do better.

One big problem that comes under Wiener’s scrutiny is the American propensity for judging the “value” of any thing by its value on the market. This is tied also to old-fashioned ideas, such as the idea that information can be treated like private property. He starts with the example of patent law; this made sense in age when inventions were made by skilled artisans working alone, but not today. He goes into the history of the changing relationship between artisan/inventors and groups of scientists.

He describes the qualities that make a thing a good commodity:

What makes a thing a good commodity? Essentially, that it can pass from hand to hand with the substantial retention of its value, and that the pieces of this commodity should combine additively in the same way as the money paid for them. The power to conserve itself is a very convenient property for a good commodity to have. (116)

A very cybernetic definition! He notes that gold makes a good basis for currency, because it is relatively stable (take that, bitcoin!). One presumes Wiener is not a big fan of markets, because of course these can cause even the value of gold to fluctuate wildly.

Information, in contrast, makes a bad commodity because it is subject to entropy – indeed, it is the opposite of entropy: “just as en­tropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order.”

He gives an example of competing measures of value: the value of a piece of jewelry has two parts: the gold, and the "façon" or workmanship [unfortunately I can't find other internet sources using this latter term, an interesting name for the imprint of labor on an artifact]. The latter leads to artificial markets such as stamp collecting, which depend on the existence of a group of buyers, and thus is open to dramatic swings in value, because “there is no permanent common denominator of collectors' taste.” A reasonable point so far as it goes, but can't even gold swing greatly in value? or more importantly, bread? It seems to me that trying to distinguish between “stable” and “unstable” commodities based on inherent qualities (derived from the theory of information) is not going to be successful.

“The problem of the work of art as a commodity raises a large number of questions important in the theory of information” (117). He moves into a discussion of art markets, noting that “the physical possession of a work of art is neither sufficient nor necessary for the benefits of appreciation which it conveys” [this is pretty much what Lady Philosophy tells Boethius regarding beautiful natural countrysides: you don't need to possess it to enjoy it]. Reproductions can give you a lot of the experience of the originals (even more so with music) – it is interesting what Wiener might have said about Benjamin’s theory of aura, perhaps this is relatable to his information theory of art? Reproduction is good because it spreads the enjoyment, though it also undermines the value of the original, and is furthermore lossy. (Wiener’s treatment of information here could benefit from some of the insights of the Innis school regarding space-binding and time-binding media). He derides derivative and second-rate copies.

 [The cybernetic theory of information may not be so good at explaining the value of art:]

What has been said before may not be worth saying again; and the informative value of a painting or a piece of literature cannot be judged without knowing what it contains that is not easily available to the public in contemporary or earlier works. It is only independ­ent information which is even approximately additive. The derivative information of the second-rate copyist is far from independent of what has gone before. (119)

[Scarcity of information = value, here. I thought Wiener was critical of such an idea? Or maybe he is not advocating such market reductionism, just describing it. And yet he seems to be taking it for granted as an aspect of the value of information.]

… a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community's previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. (119)

If the value of art can be reduced to “information” in this sense (and furthermore, simply novel or new information), then schoolboys who detest Shakespeare are quite reasonable to do so (until they are trained to see beyond the expected and cliché), and artists like Picasso can be seen as a "destructive influence" because they use up the available future positions for art [based on his later discussion of science, he is perhaps seeing art history as “path-dependent” here, an interesting idea but it seems just as easy to say that explorers like Picasso spur others to innovate as well. Then again I have actually made this argument myself, that the avant-garde is really about seeking out and pre-emptively using up possible future positions, in order to sort of suck the power out of these possible futures].

An interesting disquisition on what Wiener believes that the "man in the street" thinks about "Maecenas" (an ancient Roman art collector whom, imho, the “man in the street” has almost certainly never heard of) leads into his criticism of the idea that information (including artistic value) can be stored. This in turn leads to a discussion of weaponry and military tactics, which cannot be reasonably stored (at least not in modernity) but must be updated: storage, as antithesis of the process of change, is destructive and wasteful. England and New England are given as examples of regions which are economically hampered by being over-invested in older models (because they were first to develop), while later adopters easily move ahead.

Quite apart from the difficulties of having a relatively strict industrial law and an advanced labor policy, one of the chief reasons that New England is being deserted by the textile mills is that, frankly, they prefer not to be hampered by a century of traditions. (121)

[A.E.J. Morris makes a similar argument, in his History of Urban Form, regarding the ascendancy of Birmingham over the older artisanal center of Coventry; though he then notes that "with hind sight" this resulted in Coventry being spared many of the ravages of the Industrial Revolution (Morris, p. 290).]

Thus, from cybernetic viewpoint, law, “advanced labor policy” (as in, worker’s rights and protections) and traditions are examples of “storage:” once again cybernetics takes the form of a deeply functionalist way of looking at culture. Now Braverman, who I am reading at the same time in part specifically as a contrast with Wiener, might actually agree about this storage idea; but the overall role would have to be understood within the context of struggle over who has knowledge, and whose interests technology and production serve. I am reminded also of Braverman’s observation that the theory of management could have developed differently in a society run by workers themselves, as opposed to the current society in which workers are a problem to be “managed” – the same holds true for Wiener’s cybernetics. Perhaps there could be a more subtle and complex conflict theory cybernetics, or conflict theory/agonistic view informed by the insights of cybernetics, but going beyond Wiener’s functionalist assumptions – such as that the country that will be most successful is "the country in which it is fully realized that information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it." (122)

This, in any event, brings him back to the question of military secrecy: there is no need or use for "storing" information using secrecy.

An example of the sort of description that must have influenced Silvan Tomkins:

I repeat, to be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transi­tional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unham­pered exchange. (122)

International relations involves bluffing, similar to litigation which was discussed in a previous chapter (and bluffing and misrepresentation is a bad thing, according to Wiener). Scientific military advance ends up being a paradox:

I have already said the dissemination of any scien­tific secret whatever is merely a matter of time, that in this game a decade is a long time, and that in the long run, there is no distinction between arming ourselves and arming our enemies. Thus each terrifying discovery merely increases our subjection to the need of mak­ing a new discovery. (129)

He ends with demonic images, such as summoning demons, and the "Gadarene swine" from the Bible. The link between military development and evil is two-fold, because this will increase entropy (which he has equated with evil, before), besides literally resulting in the world being blown up.



Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapters 5 and 6

Summary of Chapter 5: Organization as the Message

This brief chapter has as its key point the idea that what is most essential to a living organism is its pattern, which it maintains against entropy and which in theory could be sent as a message, reduplicating the entity. Various analogies from the real world of biology are listed, and sci-fi scenarios involving sending humans by telegraph are lightly explored as a “phantasy."”A comparison/contrast is made with the religious idea of a “soul,” apparently as an analogy for the “pattern” he has identified as the core of being an organism: “The physical identity of an individual does not consist in the matter of which it is made” (101). One difference would be that there is no reason why a living, copied individual could not fork into two individuals with the same past, growing different thenceforward like cells splitting in two. [iirc there was some story, possibly a Jack Vance story, in which this was possible: though the copies that had been sent for communication purposes were made out of perishable material and did not last long; their memories somehow had to be uploaded back to the original, or they would die without the original knowing what they had experienced]. Wiener seems to imagine something more like scanning the body and destroying it as it goes, so the replica becomes the only existing version, a sort of immortality through replication idea [immortality of the pattern, that is, since wouldn’t the consciousness be destroyed each time? I’m trying to recall what Chalmers would have said: for the consciousness evoked or whatever by another copy of the same physical pattern, to be the exact same consciousness (not just a replica) would be pure dualism]. Wiener makes a silly comparison to the amount of information in an Encyclopedia Britannica, which is obviously not even comparable.


Summary of Chapter 6: Law and Communication

In this chapter Wiener appears to be demonstrating the application of cybernetic theory by giving a cybernetic theory of law. Basically the purpose of the law is to communicate clearly the expectations of behavior (and punishments for bad behavior) that will be enforced by the "community" or "the state" in the name of certain cultural understandings of "justice." Such an idea of justice will vary cross-culturally: Wiener provides what he understands as the Western Tradition as an example. This appears to be a very typical functionalist theory of law. How law should work is obtained rationally from the definition: it should communicate clearly. Wiener notes that this is obviously not always the case, but exactly how and why intentional ambiguities or unfairness are introduced is not something he seems ready to analyze in any depth. Instead these are accidents or from some other effect external to the purpose of the law: indeed, "noise." He notes with some apparent disdain or irony that lawyers are allowed and encouraged to introduce noise as confusion, bluffing, etc. in the courtroom – he feels this is unusual in, or rather extrinsic to the proper functioning of, a communicative system.

Within a culturally relativist framing, he describes his understanding of the dominant tradition, of Western Civilization with some influence from the East) and what it entails:

The best words to express these requirements are those of the French Revolution: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. These mean: the liberty of each human being to develop in his freedom the full measure of the human possibilities embodied in him; the equality by which what is just for A and B remains just when the positions of A and B are interchanged; and a good will between man and man that knows no limits short of those of humanity itself. These great principles of justice mean and demand that no person, by virtue of the personal strength of his position, shall enforce a sharp bargain by duress. What compulsion the very existence of the community and the state may demand must be exercised in such a way as to produce no unnecessary infringement of freedom. (105-6)

[Summarized: 1) this is justified solely by tradition/cultural attachment to these ideals, they are not presented as natural or eternal; 2) each human is to be free to "develop" "the full measure of the human possibilities embodied in him" [a phrasing which could be open on the one hand to de facto inequality (as different persons have different "embodied possibilities;" I was going to say "on the other hand," an expression of the unique, but the measure is still the presence of "human possibilities," so this is a humanism, not a Stirnerian unique-ism.]. 3) equivalence of subject positions (A and B can be interchanged) [here we see an example of the “as if” that assumes that persons of any race, class, gender, sexuality and so on, are interacting in a world that is already equal or “as if” equal, and their actions can be evaluated in this light]; 4) no one can exert strength or duress to get a better deal; 5) a community or state enforces this, and can use force, but only in a way that avoids "unnecessary infringement of freedom," i.e., a subtractive view of "freedom" which in fact takes the existence of state power and “duress” for granted.]

[There is also clearly a limitation to the functionalism of the cybernetic theory of law, as presented in this chapter. It is presumed that since law should be clearly communicated/ing, by definition, then any examples of ambiguity must be explained away as aberrant and to be improved on. The interpretation of such ambiguity as intentional and exploitative is not seen as an inherent or essential aspect of the law as an expression of power or domination, but only accidental and peripheral to the true workings of law in the system.]

Monday, March 7, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 4


Summary of Chapter IV: The Mechanism and History of Language

In this chapter Wiener outlines his somewhat non-standard (and he later admits, "amateurish") theory of language. The key is that he sees three parts to language: 1) phonetic; 2) semantic; and 3) behavioral. The first part has to do with transmission; the second with interpretation. [From positing the semantic he turns immediately to memory and how this works in a machine model of the brain. The concept of culture, or of language/semantics as something which exists outside of the brain in relationships between thinkers, is not addressed that I can see]. The third is the problematic aspect because it refers to the behavior of machines, but presumably also non-humans of all kinds, which can be interpreted or received by another; any means by which information can be relayed. Wiener intends this to refer to the process of feedback, but I feel that, per his usage, if I look at my bookshelf and it appears black, this is its behavior in bouncing back the correct rays of light to appear black. This appears to fit his definition of behavior (though he applies it only to machines being controlled by remote operators); yet to call this “language” is a bit silly. Communication or interpretation or even just perception are already competent words for this phenomenon. Anyway this appears to be part of the reason he includes machines (or certain "new machines") as having language, but excludes, for example, ants:

It may seem curious to the reader that we admit ma­chines to the field of language and yet almost totally deny language to the ants. Nevertheless, in construct­ing machines, it is often very important for us to extend to them certain human attributes which are not found among the lower members of the animal community. If the reader wishes to conceive this as a metaphoric extension of our human personalities, he is welcome to do so; but he should be cautioned that the new ma­chines will not stop working as soon as we have stopped giving them human support. (77)

[This is another example of his practice of slippage; the ants don't "stop working" when we stop giving them "human support," either, so what gives? And since when would treating the idea of machines having language in a human way, to be a metaphor, be a form of "human support," and "support" in what sense?]

[Nevertheless where he will probably go with this is: ants have instinctual "taping," but humans are [culturally] adaptive; language is an important aspect of humans' ability to learn and adapt without or beyond the constraints of taping. Old machines are programmed like ants but new ones can learn; therefore they must have something like language.] [Or, to stray further from Wiener, since he does not say this: machines take part in human culture (or whatever the similar term is, used by Stiegler?) and thus have "language" as part of this human interaction].

Because of the way Wiener has defined “language” as anything that carries information, he then ends up using the word "speech" for what would normally be regarded as language per se; with all the limitations that confusing speech with language involves. He explores the reasons why humans have language (or “speech”) and chimps don't, even though humans have to learn it (and chimps seemingly could, but don't). Wiener's solution to this is that chimps don't want to talk: it is not in their nature, they are chimpanzees [his argument for this is laced with moralizing implications: they are good chimpanzees instead of becoming bad humans by learning to speak. He ultimately makes an argument similar to that of the Language Acquisition Device: humans are driven to learn language, and chimps and other primates simply lack this “built-in mechanism” (84). [A reasonable conclusion at the time, though more recent evidence that chimps and orangutans can approach language in other ways (e.g. through sign language) complicates this somewhat].

Wiener ends with interesting observations on the history of Latin and the superiority, due to testing through evolution, of real languages over invented languages. He refers to language as a “joint game by the talker and the listener against the forces of confusion” (92). [It is interesting that for cybernetics "confusion" or entropy is a purely external force (to be resisted); the inside of meaning/subjects etc. is purely about order.] Moving away from Latin was a “sin of pride;” we now have no lingua franca suited for the demands of the present global era and the potential, due to technological advances, of a coming world state.


Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 3


Summary of Chapter 3: Rigidity and Learning: Two Patterns of Communicative Behavior


In this chapter Wiener's point is to delineate two kinds of learning: one, with the example of ants, is rigid (instinctual or pre-programmed); the other, with the example of humans, is adaptive and capable of learning. He demonstrates with biology and actual bodily structures how and why the ant cannot develop the kind of memory and process of learning that a human can. Part of the point shows how human learning [and culture, though this is not raised] are made possible by our biology. There is a reversal going on in the language of this chapter: whereas in the previous chapter machines are being described as like living animals, now living animals are being described as like machines. Wiener talks about the importance of feedback, and that communication be a two-way phenomenon.

He briefly ventures into social organization with a simplistic typology from the Eskimo who are leaderless and apparently seen as living in a state of nature (though this is cooperative, not Hobbesian); through to the Indian caste system, and “oriental despots” (as the extreme example on the other end); to the US as a "moderately loose" structure somewhere in the middle. The US fails to achieve its potential because some people are psychologically attracted to fascism and "white supremacy.” In Wiener's account these seem to be individual psychological flaws, or errors in ways of thinking, rather than actually part of how US society works when it's at home.  Anyway these "worshippers of efficiency" want a society based on that of the ant, and fail to see that humans are distinct from ants.  Wiener details the differences between humans and ants, sticking in cybernetic pronouncements and lessons, such as “Cybernetics takes the view that the structure of the machine or of the organism is an index of the performance that may be ex­pected from it” (57). He talks about the wastefulness of telephone exchanges which take the same amount of time and technology to connect you with anyone on the network, instead of remembering who you call most frequently and connecting you more rapidly with them (60-1) [and from such thinking has been born so much that is crappy and manipulative about current internet design].

He talks about the difference between analogue machines that operate by analogy, and digital machines which work on a “yes-no scale;” the analogue are limited by their use of analogy while the more abstract and numerical operation of the digital frees it for more uses; however, pace Wiener this limitation seems to have more to do with the process of translating from the analogue into the digital. As an example of an analogue device he gives a slide rule; a slide rule is ultimately limited in precision because the numbers on it need to be large enough to read. However, this seems incorrect: the numbers on the slide rule are themselves digital, and so are in fact a translation from the analogic relationship into the digital language of numbers. So what is happening here is not in fact a demonstration of the limitation of analogue measurement per se (given for instance a more precise technology for reading it, than the human eye); but rather, a demonstration that translating from analogue into digital is inherently lossy.

Wiener provides a brief scheme of history, particularly the break between the old Aristotelian view in which the goal of science was to determine categories into which to put things, to the modern view that science conducts experiments and in fact breaks down old categories or invents new ones. Newton is the big figure of the change here. Wiener puts forward, then walks back, suggestions that the human brain could be seen as digital, or that emotions are similar to the responses also in machines (and thus may actually serve a purpose). One goal of what he is working towards: "I wish to give a method of constructing learn­ing machines, a method which will not only enable me to build certain special machines of this type, but will give me a general engineering technique for construct­ing a very large class of such machines" (66).