The New Eliminationism
Notes on the Economics of Cancel Culture
I recall an illuminating moment a decade or so ago. Cathy Guisewite had just announced she would step back from creating new instalments of her long-running Cathy comic. The blogosphere, as it was called then, was all revved up, heatedly discussing the legacy of the perpetual dieter, hen-pecked by her mother, conflicted about her low-energy boyfriend Irving, never able to resist a box of chocolate, always discovering runs in her pantyhose, always frazzled. An acquaintance of mine, an up-and-coming journalist whom I knew in real life to have subtle opinions and an appreciation for the complexity of life, entered the online conversation. Cathy, she judged, was harmful to women’s self-image, and it is therefore good that she is —in the old sense of the word— to be cancelled.
Few people will know this about me, but I happen to like Cathy. I don’t think much about her, but to recall her to mind does make me happy for at least a moment. In fact I have to admit that I like all those comforting and mediocre representations traditionally and perplexingly known in the US as “the funnies”. What I wouldn’t give to read the Sunday comics in some hokey local American newspaper! Marmaduke, Ziggy, Garfield, Family Circus: none of them transformed into next-level memes on the internet, no Nietzsche Family Circus or Lasagna Cat, but just as they were meant to be by their hokey normie creators.
Yes indeed, I like Cathy. She reminds me of all my mom’s endless weight-loss strategies, and of rushing to the supermarket with her in the 1980s for an emergency plastic egg full of L’eggs. Was Cathy giving eloquent voice to the unjust expectations women face? Or was she reinforcing these expectations? I don’t know! Things are complicated! (Ack!) What I do know is that a decade or so ago I found myself experiencing a feeling for the first time that would become all too familiar over the following years: disappointment in my friend, the journalist-blogger, for believing she had to take a stand on an issue such as this, for abandoning critical engagement with our culture in favour of binary judgment. I mean “critical” here in the broadly Kantian sense of operating at a level where there is no compulsion to take up and defend either horn of a dogmatic antinomy. As Kant understood, if you find yourself facing an antinomy, this is probably because you’re thinking about things in the wrong way.
Something else I like: Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion. Before the bard of Minnesota was cancelled —in the old and new senses—, I recall hearing some routine of his during a long drive across Indiana where he was going on and on (and on) about his own listening to the radio as a child, and his memory of being particularly enthralled by the fire-and-brimstone preachers, the psychotic yokel evangelists of the airwaves shrieking and flapping about the wages of sin. Keillor admitted outright to drawing inspiration from these men, to studying at their feet as if they were his masters, to experiencing these broadcasts as lessons. Lessons in what? How to avoid eternal damnation? Hell no, of course not. He was never so gullible. These were lessons in the astounding diversity and range of our species.
When I say I like Cathy and A Prairie Home Companion, this really just follows from the much more general fact that I like pretty much everything. I have often said that sitcoms were the canon of my first education, and I mean this without exaggeration. The opera buffa of Jack Tripper and the girls; the tragic sacrifice of Edith Bunker: there was quite enough in these rudimentary figures from which to build out a picture of the whole world. I liked Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker too, and the grotesque spectacle they staged for us with all the tears and prostrations and streaming mascara, as if in a spirit of generosity. I learned at their feet.
I recall riding around Sacramento in a friend’s VW bug circa 1990, handing out flyers for an upcoming show at the local indie concert venue. The show was Nirvana (opening for the better-known Tad (or perhaps I’m misremembering and that night it was The Horny Mormons opening for Primus)), but in the car we were listening to a CD of Frank Sinatra, The Capitol Years. There was some frustrated and fairly inarticulate discussion that night about the nature of this musical selection. Was it, the punks in the back seat wanted to know, you know, ironic? Our driver, the legitimately employed concert promoter, who was 26 and seemed to us adolescent hangers-on to have been around forever, reproached us sternly for even considering the question. You listen to Frank Sinatra because he is good. That is the only reason you listen to anything at all: because it is good. What would later be called “the new sincerity” was still years away, but the dogmatic antinomy between the ironic and sincere modes of engagement with the popular productions of our culture was nonetheless already set up for me as clear as day.
Shortly before old Keillor got canceled, I recall reading on the internet —perhaps in McSweeney’s— some young smart-ass’s bit about the elder’s distinguished radio show. The conceit in the bit was that no one can ever know when an episode of A Prairie Home Companion starts or finishes, or indeed even whether it simply goes on forever. I liked this little routine too, but it also made me sad; what one person perceives as droning is another’s finely honed craft. I liked it at the time, but when I think about it now it strikes me as the prodrome of Keillor’s coming cancellation. This is how death-by-internet happens. It begins by wearing down the sincere old normies with ironic mockery, but there is nothing ironic about the coup-de-grâce it deals in Phase 2 of the process, when it sends the weakened old icon down the memory hole. The internet’s real function is binary, yes or no, thumbs-up or thumbs-down, like an all-powerful emperor whose slightest gesture determines whether or not a prisoner will be spared. AI may now be able to simulate an ironic personality, but this is a trick. Nothing binary can have any real share in irony.
By chance a few years ago I had breakfast with Douglas Coupland at a hotel in Brussels. The conversation was pleasant enough, but the whole time I sat there burning to tell him how much I resented him for having unleashed on the world that horrendous label, “Gen X”. I was born in July, 1972, thus by some measurements at exactly the middle of this generation’s era between the “Boomers” and the “Millenials”. But I never had any faith in astrology, and barely any in demography, and so I never imagined that the moment of my birth held much importance for making sense of my temperament and my outlook.
Yet I have to admit I have spent the last few years, roughly since that breakfast, with an emerging consciousness of generational solidarity. It is hard, though, to distinguish this consciousness, a positive feeling, from the strictly negative alienation I feel when surveying the cultural productions and attitudes of the ascendant generations.
This feeling hit me particularly sharply when I was reading, recently, the discussion surrounding Vicky Osterweil’s In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. One thing to note about this book is its inane marketing-department-imposed subtitle, the same in spirit as what you’d find on a non-fiction bestseller by Simon Winchester or Malcolm Gladwell. Another thing is the obvious incompatibility of title and subtitle: a “history” of something cannot be a “defense” of it. Was The Great Cat Massacre a defense of cat massacres? No, it was a history: it laid bare the causes of this social phenomenon, and left readers to form their own judgments, should they wish, about whether the actions under investigation were “right” or “wrong”.
It is nothing less than infantile to imagine that the study of history is a normative undertaking, in which we hand out laurels to certain figures from the past, and withhold them from others, in which we proclaim our love for the year 1776, say, or our rage at the year 1619. It is no less infantile to study a complex social phenomenon such as looting, a phenomenon with objective economic and political causes that may be investigated and understood, and to ask whether it is good or bad. Serious people should be thinking and talking about looting in the same way they think and talk about earthquakes.
One is right to feel some compassion for Osterweil however, and that Gladwellian subtitle of hers is a hint as to why. Though I am all too easily exasperated by the binarism of the younger generation that is thought increasingly to be defining the terms of political debate, in fact, properly understood, this generation is not really so powerful at all. The real power is the market, and in order to insert an idea into the market in the form of a book-length attempt at an argument, you have to agree to the relevant marketing department’s terms.
These terms are not just binarist, but, you might say, eliminationist. Looting, for example, must be either good or bad. Your book needs to hitch a ride to completion on one of these two horns. Your job, if you’re Vicky Osterweil, is to defend the hell out of the “for” side, and to presuppose that any charity to the “against” side is motivated by a combination of bad faith and class-based wagon-circling. The path to this moment was already being opened up in earlier days of online discourse, when journalists were learning to build their careers on the memory-holing of Cathy. And now we have arrived at the patently absurd moment in this process where the most extreme points of view are defended with painfully sincere high-school debate-club spirit, and packaged and marketed like any other commercial product of the publishing industry, destined for the self-help/business shelves of an airport gift shop.
Thus market forces instaured principally by decisions made by Boomers decades ago, along with the desperation and naïveté of Millennials, are coming together to somehow make our culture’s productions far more radical and far more conventional at the same time. The Lululemon company is now putting out advertisements that call for the destruction of capitalism. The MarketWatch website is similarly offering up critiques of the private ownership of wealth. These critiques are written by human beings (I even interacted with one of them a few years back, and can attest that he is human), who seem for their part to just be trying to insert their voices into the giant voice-amplifying engine of the internet wherever they can. But altogether they leave us with the same general feeling we might experience on a virtual visit to Amazon in search of an inexpensive edition of a classic work of philosophy, only to find that for some reason there are now machine-generated, print-on-demand editions of Kant’s Prolegomena or Hume’s Treatise with covers that appear more suited to a softcore erotica novel (I have a distinct memory of seeing such things, but now when I Google nothing turns up). It is the feeling that nothing makes sense anymore.
But it would be giving up too easily to stay with that feeling. We have so far traced the paradoxical production of products such as Osterweil’s book to “the market”, but we omitted to emphasise that this is a market overwhelmingly dominated by new information technologies, in which books only have a vestigial place, like a whale’s hip bones. And it is the economic system defined and imposed by these new technologies —or to put that differently, it is the way the internet works— that principally explains the rise of eliminationism as our era’s primary mode of engagement, as well as explaining the occasional absurdities, such as the Lululemon campaign, that this mode produces.
To say that the market is dominated by the internet is not just to say that Amazon, Facebook and the others are among the world’s largest corporations. It is also to say that the logic that governs the internet, the logic of constant engagement metrics and of real-time shaping of all “content” in response to “user” preferences, is one that has jumped the fence around the virtual world and is now running freely through our brick-and-mortar reality and fomenting chaos in all the old institutions it finds there. Publishing is one such institution.
Another is academia. It is now generally agreed that course syllabi, for example in the history of philosophy, should be more “diverse”. An implicit premise of this normative judgment is that it is a good thing for a thinker to end up on a course syllabus, a sort of posthumous prize handed out to the dead by the living. Thus it is presumed that to study the old canon, as we inherited it, the canon of dead white men, is to honour these dead white men.
But scholarship is not a fan club, and to read Descartes or Kant is an undertaking that is entirely neutral with respect to whether they are praiseworthy as thinkers (a fortiori whether they are praiseworthy as people). When we study the history of philosophy we want, first, to know what happened, and second, to know how what happened shaped the world we inherited. This is not a celebration, but a solemn duty. Yet this point has been entirely lost in an era in which “engagement” can only be conceptualised after the manner of online “engagement metrics”, where even to mention someone is to increase their standing, to amplify their voice. (Incidentally, if you’ve read me for a while you will know that I in fact support extreme diversification measures for the study of the history of philosophy that make most other such measures seem tepid by comparison. I support including the study of Indigenous Amazonian ritual dance, or Siberian oral-epic recitation, among the expressions of philosophy stricto sensu. However, I support such inclusion not as an honour bestowed, but only because these are human beings, and their articulations of their own being in the world is very much part of “what happened”.)
This is the inevitable outcome of a system that outsources so much of the work of assessing “standing” to machines, which, however good they may get at imitating us, in the end really only know how to count. Thus scholarly citation metrics are ultimately only another species of the genus that also includes Facebook likes or Twitter faves. In virtually every field of activity, these are the units that sustain the new economy, and they are suffocating everything about these fields that was discernibly human.
You might wish to reply that I am exaggerating, perhaps because, you will say, these likes and faves and follows aren’t the real economy, but only a collection of optional subsystems of our society. But this argument is growing increasingly strained. The tokens collected in these subsystems can in fact be redeemed for real money, if often only through a complicated series of steps, like the tokens won at pachinko in Japan. There is no reason not to suppose that these steps will grow increasingly easier, and that as this happens the difference between the tokens and real money will correspondingly diminish. And in any case even if any given subsystem is optional, it is by now already plainly not an option to participate in none of them at all. You cannot simply “delete your social media accounts”, as Jaron Lanier asks you to do. Our entire social reality is built on the model of social media, and if we wish to be part of it at all, we have no choice but to collect those little tokens of social worth.
Michel Foucault famously argued that the project of modern liberalism facilitated a gradual transition from the torture and domination of our physical bodies to a much more subtle torture and domination of our souls. It were better, he seemed always on the brink of declaring, to have been given a thorough whuppin’ by the State, and then to be done with it, than to spend a good portion of one’s life in a modern “correctional” institution, where, even if it lives up to the promise of correction (a big “if” in the United States), still amounts to a low-frequency form of spiritual deformation.
As if to confirm Foucault’s analysis of the course of late modernity, the new eliminationism, too, extends its reach into our very souls. Stokely Carmichael had wanted weapons and structures to ensure that no one who hates him or his people might ever be in a position to do him harm. Ibram X. Kendi, by contrast, wants new structures and institutions to ensure that hate is eliminated from our innermost selves. But this is bound to fail. A liberal order is one that recognises the profound anthropological truth that human beings are vicious creatures, and that therefore peace is always fragile. It is thus an order that inherits and conserves the older theological model of original sin, of human fallenness, and seeks to channel our viciousness through ritual, sublimation, and shared commitment to ideals that are acknowledged to never be fully attainable. Ritual and sublimation are not meant to rid us of our desire to hurt others and to cause harm; they are rather a facing-up to this desire, a confrontation with our nature.
In a culture such as ours that no longer really understands what ritual and sublimation are for, and believes ever more strongly with each passing month that artistic expression in particular is meant to hold up positive exemplars for good conduct and right thinking —as if bad conduct and wrong thinking could be chased from this world—: in such a culture, I was saying, the harm will continue, but we will not even have the comfort of understanding why.
Nowhere is the soul-shaping character of the new eliminationism more evident than in the current zero-sum pseudo-debate over the nature of gender identity. We hear constantly that to deny, or even to question or to annotate, the stark claim that “a trans woman is a woman, full stop,” is to “deny the right to exist” to trans people. But that’s just not how it works. Compare the humanist philosophy of toleration as it emerged in the late Renaissance, achieving its fullest expression in authors such as Erasmus or John Toland. Abandoning the medieval principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, which compelled anyone residing in a given place to hold the faith of its sovereign, the idea of a neutral secular space came to be valued, one that could accommodate all confessional identities. Jews and Christians, and potentially atheists too, could now be concitoyens in the same earthly realm, even though each held the members of the other group to be dead wrong on certain weighty spiritual matters.
Now, what an atheist believes about a Christian should certainly count as “denial of existence” if anything should, as it is a rejection of the basic commitments that alone give meaning to the Christian sense of “existence”. A Christian holds herself to be a person strictly in virtue of the fact that, so she believes, she is in possession of an immortal immaterial soul. When an atheist tells her that in fact all she is is a mortal corruptible assemblage of organs, the atheist is flat-out denying her metaphysics of identity. Yet thankfully we live in a society, at least for the time being, in which such denial is protected by law and institutions, and given weight by centuries of liberal tradition. The space in which that denial can happen, and in which we nonetheless continue to live in peace and stability, is what is known as “the public sphere”.
In the case of both religious faith and the metaphysics of gender identity, it often happens that the “denier” is only withholding commitment, and may be doing so not out of stubbornness or malice, but only because he or she literally does not understand what they are being asked to commit to. And to commit to something you don’t understand is intellectually dishonest, and perhaps morally culpable. To withhold assent is good.
Among its countless deceptions, the internet loves to tell us that Aristotle once said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” He did not say this. If we are going to be making up our own quotes anyhow, it would be more fitting in the present moment to say that “it is a gesture of resistance to entertain a thought without accepting or rejecting it.” Resistance against what? Against the new eliminationism, and in defense of the embattled public sphere.
Resistance is hard. The disagreement engine that is social media will always seek to radicalise any view. If you try to carve out what you take to be a reasonable no-nonsense centrist view against the desire for elimination expressed by those at the extremes, the disagreement engine will turn you into an anti-non-centrist eliminationist. Kierkegaard saw it already, and it was always part of our human predicament: to insist until you’re red in the face that 2 + 2 = 4 is its own species of madness, a different species than the one that has some insisting 2 + 2 = 5, but madness nonetheless. Yet it took the disagreement engine to generate the force necessary to project all views out from the center to the margins, to give us the phenomenon of “radical centrism”. Radical centrism truly is a cowardly position to take up, something custom-made for minds easily pleased. Like the positions of those at the traditional extremes, it is totalising too. It imagines that you can find the right set of commitments and stick with them, rather than working to attune yourself to the fragility of all commitments.
Eliminationism, I have been suggesting, is a side-effect of the gamification of our social reality. Social media are the home-base and the incubator of this gamification, but it has already spread far beyond its point of origin. Uber nudges its drivers to work harder and longer by programming into the drivers’ apps features that are borrowed directly from video games. Academia.edu pushes precariously employed scholars to earn more points, in the form of downloads and follows, by writing about the kind of things people want to hear about. Everywhere you turn in the contemporary world, you find people developing new strategies to unlock prizes.
The olympic stadium was something quite different from the agora in ancient Greece, operating according to different rules. Similarly, today, everything that has been gamified is incompatible with the values and principles that have traditionally governed the public sphere.
In the present circumstances, any political view you share on social media, whether correct or not, whether righteous or not, contributes to the worsening of our political situation. This is counterintuitive for some of us, as it goes against the instincts we had inculcated into us in our 20th-century civics classes. But it’s true: when you share opinions on social media, when you share articles that affirm your opinions, when you “amplify voices”, you are not engaging in public debate. You are engaging in a simulation of public debate. Social media are not the public sphere. They are a public-sphere-themed video game, just like Grand Theft Auto is a car-chase-themed video game.
I don’t have any solutions, other than to affirm, again, the supreme importance of knowing your own mind and speaking in your own voice, despising all metrics, resisting all nudges. Do not pay attention to the “arguments from adjacency” that increasingly seek to discredit independent thinkers by showing that some of their ideas are one, or two, or three steps removed from some of the ideas of someone considered beyond the pale. Do not believe those who try to tell you there is such a thing as “unconscious dog-whistling”, where you unwittingly signal approval for the opinions of the wrong sort of people simply by using keywords that are statistically associated with them. If you are inwardly certain that you are thinking for yourself, then when you speak, too, you will not be speaking for anyone else. Thinking is not data-visualisation, and life cannot be reduced to a game.
Or can it? “Game” is a peculiar, Janus-faced notion. On the one hand, it suggests play and freedom; on the other, it implies a system of rule-bound constraints to which we may never have agreed to be subjected. I might be willing to concede that life is a game, but only in the former sense.
In German there is only one word for both notions: Spiel. What if the academic field of Spieltheorie had understood Spiel not in the sense of game but in the sense of play? What if it had taken not poker but peek-a-boo as the paradigmatic representative of the class? What if society, beginning with social media, were remodelled from the ground up, not on the principle of unlocking prizes, but on the principle of free and directionless play?
Our intellectual situation would certainly improve. For one thing, it would spell the end of the reign of the logic of elimination.