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Is Everything Political?
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My cover story, “Permanent Pandemic”, is now out in the June issue of Harper’s. Go read it, and be sure also to subscribe to that venerable publication. I also recorded a Harper’s podcast episode with Violet Lucca about the genesis of the piece, and that should be appearing soon. I certainly don’t want to say anything more, here, about covid. I have always found the topic uninteresting, and the fact that I have a long essay out in Harper’s that apparently treats of it changes nothing in this regard. My real interest in the essay, as in my most recent book, and as, frequently, in this space, is the threat to human thriving posed by new technologies. You are invited to explore the now rather extensive archive of Substack essays that address this interest. What I would like to consider, in this present paratext to the Harper’s piece, is the perceived political valence of this interest of mine.
So far, I have had one request for a media interview from the piece: it was from a guy named Dan Ball, who hosts a show called Real America. I really don’t think the America I take to be “real” —founded on genocide and slavery; sustained by greater brute force and glossier propaganda than anything the second-tier global powers have been able to conjure; belovèd by me like an imperfect parent, only because it’s the place that shaped me, but in fact not one iota better or worse than any other empire in human history— is what Dan Ball had in mind when he chose that name for his show. In any case I was not available for the proposed time-slot, so we avoided a conflict of perspectives on “reality”. Otherwise, I was told by my Harper’s editor that “for obvious reasons” I should not expect progressive media to touch the piece. I find myself wondering why that is, and not for the first time over the last many years feeling, in relation to the educated bien-pensant progressive class that I will always see as “my people”, something like a lover scorned.
I have never been able successfully to complete a questionnaire meant to plot me on the political spectrum by soliciting my views on a range of subjects. I find when I try to do this I arrive at one of two outcomes. Either I subconsciously decide in advance where I would like to be on the spectrum, and I answer each question in a way that brings me to the desired result; or, if I am able to suppress that vitiating impulse, I end up clicking “not sure” on almost all the questions and the result I end up with is accordingly all but worthless.
The problem is not that I have no convictions, but only that the questions on these quizzes are seldom formulated in such a way as to elicit them. For example, I would like to see the world transition to a plant-only food system. But if I am asked whether I believe “very strongly” or only “somewhat strongly” that “it is wrong to eat meat”, I just don’t know what to say. Human beings have eaten meat for the vastly greater part of their history; in the ordinary course of things, it’s just what we do — but we’re no longer in the ordinary course of things. Even at present, if meat production were to be abolished today we would have several billion superfluous cattle lingering around, and their population would have to be drastically reduced for the sake of the planet’s future; if we’re killing them, we may as well eat them.
Similarly with prisons and law-enforcement. I would like to see a future in which the great majority of people currently incarcerated are returned into their communities for genuine rehabilitation grounded in loving support, rather than the spurious and insincere promise of “correction”. I would also like to see those same communities become the source of the coercive pressure currently applied by the police that dissuades community members from harmful or criminal behavior, though much more softly and even imperceptibly. Do I think then that the police should be “defunded”? No, I think that would be reckless, at least if the defunding is supposed to be the first step in bringing about the transformation I have just said I would like to see. I acknowledge I do not know how, practically, to bring it about, yet typically neither these questionnaires nor the broader discursive culture in which they circulate is interested in the distinction between the world we would ideally like to see and the changes we are demanding post haste. It often seems to me that a large part of the discursive game by which one establishes oneself publicly as a progressive consists in speaking and acting as if this distinction, between the desirable and the feasible (this latter being “the most neglected modal”, as I once heard the rational-choice theorist and pragmatist Isaac Levi remark), did not exist.
I usually describe myself as a pacifist, and am convinced that no action resulting in the loss of life of any creature can ever be characterized as morally neutral. But this does not mean that I think no such action should ever be undertaken. From this general pacifist conviction there follow a number of more particular commitments about, e.g., war, capital punishment, and abortion, but these convictions are tempered by considerations of feasibility. Do I think war is wrong? Yes. Do I think Ukraine should not defend itself? No. Do I think the US should not provide arms to Ukraine? It’s complicated. Do I think Finland and Sweden should join NATO? I don’t know. Do I think human fetuses are morally irrelevant? No (for that matter I don’t think plants are morally irrelevant). Do I think Roe v. Wade should be (should have been?) overturned? Likewise no.
The one practical “demand” I am confident in making, in light of my broadly pacifist convictions, is for the immediate abolition of capital punishment. Here, unlike with fetuses or cattle or human cannon-fodder, the actual numbers of beings involved are (thankfully) vanishingly small, while the symbolism of the ritual is, so to speak, larger than life. In all the other cases, it is exactly the reverse: the numbers of lives lost are staggering, while everything possible has been done to ensure that no individual death be processed ritualistically at all, that death be euphemized beyond recognition so that it appears as mere procedure, that there be no thought of that archaic and unfashionable category of sacrifice, with the result that death, or certain kinds of death, are rationalized within a mass-scale, streamlined, and barely perceptible system that feels so contemporary, so built into the landscape of modernity, that we have trouble cognizing it in any other way than as morally neutral.
I have said that I am a pacifist, and yet have at least partially “excused” such instances of human violence as war and the mass slaughter of animals. If it appears that I am contradicting myself, this is in part because the way we frame our political views, the way political-compass questionnaires are written, for example, implicitly involves the presumption that what it is to have a political view is, first, to identify the things that are bad, and to seek to eliminate them; and, second, to identify the things that are good, and to seek to foster them. The first part of this presumption in turn compels those who accept it either to explain any lingering bad things in the modern world as the result of some current injustice enacted by a small minority of the powerful, or to rationalize those same things to a point where they can plausibly be seen as morally neutral.
But to live is to usurp the lives of other living beings, and no amount of fine-tuning of our habits, say, of “ethical consumption”, is ever going to reverse this bedrock truth. A person who believes that a fully ethical life is attainable —by careful reading of ingredient lists on product-packaging, by carbon-offset purchases, by eating only free-range eggs, by giving a dollar a day to homeless people, but not giving up one’s savings and investments and becoming homeless oneself, as one influential interpretation of the Gospels says we are required to do— cannot sustain this belief without a significant degree of self-delusion. Yet a typical progressive can read the line about rich men entering heaven as rarely as camels pass through the eye of a needle (what an image! what poetry, the Bible!), and immediately shrug it off as a warning that concerns only those one tax bracket or higher above themselves.
These then are my deepest convictions: human beings are inextricably mixed up with the “dark matter” of nature; as Joan Didion understood (of women only, but the point is to some extent universalizable), to be a human being is to have a sense of “that dark involvement with blood and birth and death”. If you are a Christian, you will see this involvement as the source of sin, but whether you are Christian or not, whether you call it by this name or not, if you are honest with yourself you will understand that the greater sin still is to refuse to recognize the way this involvement compromises any effort to lead a life that is entirely exempt from blame to the extent that it concerns itself only with the approved instances of blood and birth and death and has nothing to do with the prohibited ones. It’s all prohibited, and it’s all unavoidable; and the sanest human cultures are the ones that process this paradoxical predicament through ritual — through the form of rationality that lies deeper than any rationalization in language.
These deep convictions predispose me, characterologically, to a philosophical anthropology informed by the ideas of original sin and fallenness. Such a character type can easily be read as “conservative”, even if it predicts next to nothing about what a person’s concrete “views” will be. As for concrete views, there have been some periods of my life in which I have actively undertaken something like a Pascal’s wager, or perhaps a “reverse-Pascal’s wager”, wherein I go through the motions that might be hoped to be propaedeutic to sincere belief in the safest gamut of secular progressive beliefs held by the majority of those in my social class — or in the social class I was at one point actively seeking to join. That this never really worked, however sincerely I went about it, strongly suggests to me that what get expressed as our “political views” really are just epiphenomenal expressions of our more or less fixed character, and that therefore seeking to change them is a task more like gay conversion therapy than like Pascalian strategies for arriving at true belief (I should note that I think both are futile).
What is it to have a “fixed character”? Where does this come from? To some extent I think it can be explained by a relatively greater preoccupation with agnotology — I would sincerely like whichever political system brings about the greatest amount of thriving and self-fulfillment for all people, but I sincerely have trouble convincing myself that I am in a position to know what that would be. It would surely involve significant economic redistribution, as the greatest injustices in the contemporary world are directly rooted in wealth disparities. But I have never seen a revolutionary sincerely seeking to dispel the concern of the wary and cautious that revolutions are regularly followed by reigns of terror and by the emergence of a new privileged class of the nomenklatura, or, as it was vividly called in Yugoslavia, the “red bourgeoisie” (you don’t need Orwell to learn this lesson; Milovan Đilas makes the point just as compellingly).
On the contrary, the typical reaction to the expression of such a concern is scoffing contempt, as if the person who raises it has just wimped out and bailed from his jalopy in the middle of a chickie-run. But a sizeable percentage of human beings will always be wimps. You can’t kill us all, while reeducation, as I’ve already suggested, is only ever skin-deep. And so any viable political strategy will be one that reassures the wimps, and those who for whatever other reasons are just not characterologically disposed to a life of political engagement (those who “just want to go to Applebee’s”, as Jason Brennan nicely puts it) that they have a bright future under the new regime too.
So the principal difference between me and the more zealous proponents of economic redistribution turns out to be that I place front and center my worry about everything that might go wrong, whereas people who are more proudly on the left, or on the left in a way that is constitutive of their social identity, seem to be following a tacit rule by which that worry must not be acknowledged. And yet in the end the difference between us has mostly to do with which sort of things we “get hung up on”, which sort of things we worry about, which sort of things we feel less than confident about. And this seems to have more to do with the prepolitical dispositions of our characters than with any “views” of the sort that might easily be solicited on a questionnaire.
But whether you are on the right or on the left, if your political views are constitutive of your social identity, in a way that mine are not, it is likely that you will also not get hung up on the inadequacy of questionnaires or Twitter bios for capturing or for transmitting an accurate or adequate signal about what you believe. Nor did we need to await the era of Twitter to learn this lesson. Decades-old obfuscatory terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are a vivid reminder that we did not need the internet to arrive at inane culture-war deadlocks; we were already there when the primary technology for sharing what passed as opinions was the bumper-sticker. Yet there is no denying that the internet has brought us much further towards a condition in which the entirety of political discourse is as limited as what can be put in a message stuck to the rear-door of a 1986 Volvo station wagon. Back then it was a particularly strident and partisan few who felt the need to engage in constant signaling about what sort of person they are, even to drivers who by chance ended up behind them on the highway for a few seconds. Today it is sooner the norm, and it is by now unmistakably normie, to let everyone know, in your initial “presentation of self” on social media, that you are “Resistance” or “MAGA”, that you are “trad” or an “ally” or whatever.
Whenever I see such auto-epithets, I think: Who cares who you think you are? You’re a nobody is who you are, to all but your parents and children and a few real friends if you’re lucky, and if you want to be something more than that to people who don’t know you yet, you’re going to have to articulate at least one coherent thought of your own, rather than simply getting on board with a key-word or two that the algorithm has delivered up to you. And even if you have come up with your views on your own, there’s simply something gauche in supposing that they are the appropriate material for an opening gambit with new acquaintances. Just as those who have properly learned the art of conversation will be discrete about the nature of their employment on a first or second or third encounter, neither will they rush to divulge their political allegiances. (I have not really learned that art myself, but unlike the majority of my contemporaries it’s an art I at least know I am lacking.)
In a culture without effective rituals for processing everything that lies beyond the ethical, the best ersatz we have is in our encounter with art. But art, too, now risks going the way of ritual, as increasingly the social-media mentality occludes from view any awareness or memory of what it is art at its most exalted might be expected to do for us. Art is going the way of politics, which is to say that both art and politics are becoming fandoms, where groups of people invest themselves affectively and publicly in IP’s or brands or parties that appear to them to follow the right set of rules.
There is a non-stop firehose of self-infantilizing testimonia on Twitter, of course, but one recent intervention, by an operation calling itself “Pop Detective”, still managed to shock me:
Sex scene discourse is back again, and once again missing the point. The question isn’t should sex be portrayed (yes), the question is how is sex portrayed? Is it consensual? Is it coercive? What are the power dynamics? Is it mutually satisfying? Is everyone having a great time?
What is this? What does this person think movies are? Does he think movies that depict murders are snuff films? Are government-issue educational shorts of the sort we used to have to watch in junior-high sex-ed the only genre to which the author of this strange tweet has ever been exposed? No, alas, in fact he is simply responding to, and actively shaping, the prevailing aesthetic sensibility of our age, where philistines crowd out properly critical voices with their constant “discourse” about what their beloved Star Wars and Marvel characters are up to, as if there were some prior agreement that these characters could only be moral exemplars rather than, say, tragic figures who teach us about the complexity of life through their moral blind-spots rather than through their rectitude.
This reigning philistinism sends anyone who cares about art back into the past, excavating and unearthing art-works with real moral depth to them, which is to say art-works that were not afraid to depict moral ambiguity and moral transgression. This backward-looking stance can also come across as conservative, or even reactionary (think of the titular figure in Terry Zwigoff’s phenomenal Crumb (1994), who, when confronted with the prospect that his big-legged Amazonian creations might not exactly testify to his enlightenment, declared that he just wanted to be left alone to listen to his vintage Bessie Smith 78’s (if I remember correctly)). Of course it is likely that anyone who has backward-looking artistic sensibilities today would also have had them had he lived in the era he is looking back to, and when in the future Star Wars is forgotten (please, God) by the youth, it will probably come to have some vintage cachet to it and be found to be valuable in the same way an aesthete might value Hays Code-era remarriage pictures (see Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) for a profound philosophical treatment of these light entertainments), or Soviet musicals (see Sergeï Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944) for an example of just how great individual art-works can sometimes be even under the most off-the-charts philistine conception of what art is).
But history conditions aesthetic perception, and to acknowledge this is not to admit that our standards are ever-shifting and therefore ungrounded, but only to come somewhat closer to an adequate account of what gives art-works their value. What starts as cringe becomes retro soon enough, and whatever is retro has value as documentation of a lost world. I realize this compels me to recognize that someday Marvel superhero movies will have value, just like, say, Ohio Express’s bubble-gum hit, “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I’ve Got Love in My Tummy)” (1968) does now. This pains me, but I grant it.
I would not bother to gripe about this week’s “Worst of Twitter” candidates, if I were not convinced that the sentiments on display there accurately reflect what is also going on in “real” institutions. It is not just that social media are now part of “reality”, but more strongly, as I argue in The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, that “reality” itself is now a satellite of social media. That is, whether you are speaking in a classroom or a courthouse, or whether you are writing a Tweet, the range of things you are able to say is increasingly being shaped by the algorithmic forces that have been honed within the attention-extractive and engagement-maximizing economy of Twitter, Facebook, &c. In this respect, whether you are “on social media” or not, you are on social media. The world is on social media.
In the field of academic philosophy, to which I remain nominally attached, there has been, over the past years, a significant shift in the center of disciplinary gravity from metaphysics and epistemology to social and political questions. But for the most part the Anglo-American analytic tradition has not equipped its members with the critical tools to say much about the political in a way that elevates their visions of how society ought to be structured beyond the explicitation of the rules of bourgeois etiquette. I can recall a time twenty or so years ago when American philosophy seemed to be dominated by analytic metaphysicians, of the sort you might see giving talks about Lewisian modal realism, while wearing t-shirts with an arrow pointing to a dot in a galaxy spiral with the words “You Are Here”, in a spirit of pure geeked-out exuberance. This crowd, to say the least, was hardly engaging in ideology critique either, but at least they were accessing the depths of their imaginations, and it was creative and clever and fun.
When I try to isolate what is missing from the work that follows this social-political turn, it seems to me that while philosophers have become fluent fairly quickly in talking about society, whereas a generation ago they were talking about, say, gunk, they have still not made much progress, or even identified the need to make any progress, in talking about culture. If classic Hollywood comes up these days, it is not in the context of a deep Cavellian reading, but, more likely, it is for the decontextualized appropriation of a plot device —notably one from George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944)— in the exercise of some flat-footed moralizing disguised as argumentation. Many of the representatives of this social-political turn are former “theater kids”. But this is not exactly theater in the Sontagian sense, it is not exactly Jerzy Grotowski, or anything that bears even a faint trace of le sérieux that animated the twentieth-century avant-garde, for whom theater was electrified by such a deep preoccupation with ritual as to almost merit the status of worthy successor to religion in the secular age. This is, rather, Broadway musicals, schlock, the kind of stuff that graduates its kids into various fandoms, not least Star Wars and Marvel comics, which, as I have been suggesting, in turn serve as models for the conceptualization of political identity in the social-media era. Engagement with the arts is largely limited to questions of representation and rectitudinous messaging, questions that indeed have their natural home in politics, while political engagement, for its part, comes to look increasingly like the sort of boosterism that has its natural home in the fan-bases of popular entertainments.
The current generation of Anglo-American philosophers never had enough invested in the aesthetic to fully grasp what is at risk of being lost when the aesthetic is subordinated to the political. This is why so many philosophers end up echoing the stunning philistinism of Pop Detective, without any real awareness that there is a whole stratum of human experience they are leaving unsounded. It is not as if the left is intrinsically unable to engage with this level of experience. Indeed the very fact that the current progressive social-media-academic complex is unable to engage with it is in itself cause to wonder about its continuity with earlier generations of left-wing thinkers. Significant left currents in the West that emerged prior to the algorithmization and fandomization of politics, notably the New Left in Britain with its po-faced attention to le cinéma borrowed from the theorists of the Nouvelle Vague, have taken the arts at least as seriously as they deserve to be taken (and sometimes even, perhaps, more seriously than they deserve to be taken).
For the moment —and regrettably, in my view— the dissident right, or the post-left, or however you wish to put it, is somewhat better at engaging with culture, and has somewhat more successfully carried the torch of Adornonian criticism into our philistine age. I hope to see this change in the coming years, and when it does change I expect that it will be harder to mistake those of us who refuse to join fandoms of any sort for “conservatives”. There is a stratum of the human that is deeper than politics, and it is the calling of aesthetic education to help others to access it.
Among the more peculiar fandoms of our era —to return to the question of the political valence of my Harper’s piece— are the ones that have formed around N95 masks, lateral-flow home tests, this or that brand of vaccine, this or that hand-sanitizer. Let us, by all means, do what we have to do to fight the virus. But let us also be honest about the real human costs of this new form of life, the objectively hard trade-offs, the iron-law by which every technological solution is also a new problem, and generally one that long outlives the circumstances that necessitated it. This is just a matter of honesty, which, like art, also has no political valence.
POSTSCRIPT. You will recall that I was recently inspired to write about the nausea induced in me by the Auto-Tuned music I’ve been hearing at the gym. Some readers, predictably, wrote to tell me that this was just another case of “Old Man Yells at Cloud” syndrome (a meme, I gather, originating in a habit of cantankerous old Grandpa Simpson). But this, too, is a philistine dismissal, since what I hate about Auto-Tune is not that it is new, or that it is for the kids (I spend more time than I would like to admit listening to drill, with headphones on, when all have gone to sleep and I am “the happy genius of my household”; no one imagines this music was “made for me”, but it is hard and pure and I can’t stay away from it). What I hate about Auto-Tune is that it is the musical equivalent of Marvel Comics movies: it is the sound of giving up on the art-form.
Anyhow, I finally managed to identify a lyrical line long enough to Google it and to learn where it comes from. And sure enough, as I suspected, what I had been hearing was a reggaetón remix. The artist in question was Bad Bunny, as I had vaguely suspected. What I did not suspect, and what I am still stunned to have learned, is that the music is not at all “beyond the pale”, as I indicated a month ago, is not plotted anywhere near, say, MMA fighters from Uzbekistan or NASCAR on some imagined Bourdieuian coordinate system. This much can easily be seen in the video for Mr. Bunny’s song, “Yonaguni”, with over 650 million views, in which our hero is depicted moving through a series of aspirationally bourgeois pursuits: going to a meditation class, ordering a latté, walking a bunch of pure-bred dogs in an upscale neighborhood. This shows, among other things, how poorly tuned my cultural antennae remain in certain respects. From the sound of it, I would have thought the person responsible for this song hated the bourgeoisie, wanted to kill it off by inducing a bout of fatal nausea in it. It turns out he’s an up-and-coming member of the bourgeoisie, and he has used his Auto-Tuned voice as his carte d’entrée!
It also shows, I think, even more powerfully than I had previously detected, how exhausted we all are. The music is exhausted, it is the sound of giving up, and when I hear it at the gym I feel like giving up too. The music is also, it turns out, a suitable accompaniment to contemporary life — not just at the gym, where I had previously sought to quarantine it, but to all the things “one” does or is widely expected to do, not as an adolescent in the spirit of rejection, but as a full-fledged adult and member of the reigning class.
Anyhow, long live cultural studies. Now that philosophy has taken its social-political turn, let us hope the cultural turn will come next. There’s a lot left to learn.
I’ll be talking about my new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, at the New York Public Library (via video-call), this Monday, June 23, at 2pm New York time/20h Paris time. Please join us!
There have been a number of new reviews of the book, but I’m sure I’ve already forgotten about most of them.
There is a very compelling joint review by Will Davies, alongside Ben Tarnoff’s Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future, in The New Statesman.
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