Banality Creep

Bradley Manning, If You See Something, Say Something ... Unless It's U.S. War Crimes

The thing to know about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is Sir Thomas Gresham’s principle that bad money drives out the good. So long as the government continues to prosecute a secret war beyond the principles on which this country was founded, people of conscience will continue to come forward with these kinds of revelations. We cannot drill into young people the American mythos and require new recruits into government service to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic without planting the seeds of the very dissidents we now simultaneous seek to suppress. At some point the government will figure out how to screen out people of conscience, after which time our secret wars abroad and the surveillance state will be administered by scoundrels and unthinking bureaucrats. That power corrupts is as true of institutions as it is of individuals. Bad money drives out the good.

Marxism and Existentialism, the Made and the Born

Blade Runner, Pris and Roy Batty

In two brief epigrams, why Sartre had such a hard time in Critique of Dialectical Reason trying to reconcile his existentialism with Marxism:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

~ Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

“Freedom is existence, and in it existence precedes essence.”

~ Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (1946)

It is a wonder Sartre so hated psychoanalysis and the unconsciousness for the suggestion that freedom was anything other than absolute, but Marxism he could work with.

Martin van Creveld’s Simulacra and Simulation

Here is Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War (1991) essentially agreeing with Jean Baudrillard, that not just the Gulf War, but nearly every conflict of the post-nuclear era, did not take place:

One factor affecting conventional war as waged by both the super-powers and, increasingly, by other countries, is that nuclear weapons make their dampening effect felt in such wars even when nobody threatens their use. As a result, the United States for one has only been able to employ its conventional armed forces in cases where its vital interests were not at stake. The war fought in Korea, a small appendix of Asia several thousands of miles away, provides an excellent case in point. The American Chiefs of Staff recognized this even at that time, emphasizing the fact that the really significant areas were Japan and the Philippines. The same also applied to Lebanon (1958), Vietnam (1964-72), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1972-75), Lebanon (1983), and the Persian Gulf (1987-88). Looking back, so microscopic were the stakes for which GI’s were supposed to shed their blood that most of the cases could hardly even be explained to the American people. On occasions such as the Mayaguez Affair (1975) and Grenada (1983), so puny were the opponents against which American forces pitted themselves that hostilities took on a comic-opera character. (p. 14)

In the convoluted logic of the post-nuclear world, if a state goes to war, it is prima facie because it is an objective not a vital national interest. Any interest that is actually vital would involve levels of determination that are simply too dangerous to test. Vital national interests are those interests for which states were willing to pay prices in other ages that can no longer be afforded in an era of total annihilation.

Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps, Part II: Thank God for Economic Destitution

A few months ago I pointed out that while more mainstream evangelicals may know better how to couch their statements so as not to be so vulgar, there is really little difference between their widespread beliefs and those of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (“Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?, 31 July 2012). Adding to this litany, Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, had the following to say shortly after the reelection of President Obama (Beamon, Todd and Kathleen Walter, “Franklin Graham to Newsmax: ‘We Have Turned Our Backs on God’“, Newsmax, 15 November 2012):

Maybe God will have to bring our nation down to our knees — to where you just have a complete economic collapse. And maybe at that point, maybe people will again begin to call upon the name of almighty God.

In Christian apocalyptic fantasies, ten percent unemployment, diminished lifetime earnings, lost homes, trillion dollar deficits and worse aren’t economic happenstance or the work of the greedy and short-sighted on Wall Street. They are the just deserts that a jealous god reigns down on those who would create a pluralistic society. One can almost see the Reverend Graham with one of those brightly colored signs outside the house of a poor family being evicted: “Thank God for Foreclosures.”

Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?

What makes the recent comments of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan T. Cathy regarding homosexuality, as well as Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert regarding the Aurora shootings particularly galling is just how close they are to the sentiments of Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Consider: here is Mr. Cathy’s remark:

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, “We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

And here is Rep. Gohmert’s assessment of the mass shooting in Aurora:

We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country and … what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless, crazy act of terror like this takes place.

You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? … where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present.

In Rep. Gohmert’s mind, mass shootings aren’t chance, or human actuated events, but specific, willful, malicious omissions on the part of God.

How else are we to interpret this than as saying that God will indiscriminately strike down your fellows should a nation defy his will? And how is this anything other than the unavoidable opposite of the notion that God takes favor on those who obey him? But insidiously, how far is it from statements such as these to Pastor Phelps’s “Thank God for IEDs”?

For the remainder of this argument I defer to a thousand years of disputation over the incompatable triad.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Squelch ‘Em

There are two major points — one lesser, one greater — to Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning … was the Command Line (Wikipedia | Amazon). The lesser point serves to feed the superiority complex of computer geeks, namely that people who work closer to the machine are more awesome than people who work with their machines through layers of mediation. The greater point is that maintaining a high degree of control of the devices that shape our lives is a critical element of freedom in the information age.

It’s not about turning your nose up at GUIs and other user-friendly efforts in favor of arcane monochrome text interfaces. The point is that when you cede control of the devices that comprise your environment — that serve as the basis of your personal capabilities — when you cede these to manufacturers, marketers, designers, content providers, legislators, then the limits they seek to impose become your limits as well.

It is as extending and impacting this point that I think Cory Doctorow’s talk, “The Coming War on General Computation” is so important (28th Chaos Communication Congress, Berliner Congress Center, Berlin, Germany, 27 December 2011).

You should definitely watch the whole thing: it’s entertaining as well as one of the most cogent talks I’ve heard in some time. To me his outstanding points are two:

1. The never-ending desire for a certain kind of ease of use that comes through circumscribed functionality is an invitation to, a kind of lazy collusion with, the likes of Apple who are more than happy to sell you a device hobbled in a way that maximizes corporate returns (the walled garden):

So today we have marketing departments who say things like “we don’t need computers, we need … appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits”. And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea — just a program that does one specialized task — after all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re making a computer that can run every program, but which uses some combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer — it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

2. Media copyright is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incentive of corporations to turn to political-legislative attempts to prevent the disruptions to their business models that result from technological change:

And even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year in which we saw the debut of open sourced shape files for converting AR-15s to full automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded open-sourced hardware for gene sequencing. And while 3D printing will give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D printing will most certainly raise real grievances, from solid state meth labs, to ceramic knives.

And it doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really… really… important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch… literally. Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best days, and every one of them will arrive at the same place — “can’t you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The way to think of all of this is as akin to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. There’s no reason to think that an information economy will be just more capitalism (to think so is a contribution to capitalism as the end of history). That a growing list of industries face disruption on a scale where it’s hard to see their business model surviving in absence of ever escalating state measures to construct markets that otherwise would fail (a point well made by Mr. Doctorow with his wheels analogy) suggests significant incompatibility between capitalism and the information economy.

The retort of the defender of capitalism here would be that the information economy is a creature of capitalism — without chip fabricators and integraters and intellectual property and venture capital and server farms, the information economy doesn’t happen. But of course the feudal baron would have said the same of the capitalist upstart. History is a realm of contingency. It is not a logical system. Contradictions — and the deleterious eddies that result — are perfectly possible. That the information economy might end up destroying the very basis for its existence is within the realm of possibility.

Or perhaps this is perfectly compatible with capitalism and effected sectors are merely the cracks through which we can see the lie of laissez-faire throughout the rest of the economy. The government takes a heavy hand in constructing markets everywhere they exist.

But the point is that previous economic transformations weren’t tranquil evolutions, didn’t happen in a discrete moment. The social transformations that we today package under the rubric “capitalism” benefitted some, but came at terrible consequence to others. Those who stood to lose prestige, revenue, power, opposed these changes, frequently by violence. For them, capitalism wasn’t just social change, it was immoral. Ownership of property by those who did not directly fight for it, property as a transferable abstraction, rootlessness, equality among the classes, attacks upon the ancient privileges of nobility, the undermining of seigniorial obligation, the money economy, the violations of guild oaths, the codification of techne (craft), the insolence of entrepreneurs: these were violations of the moral order of society.

The practices that have grown up around the frictionlessness of the information economy’s core commodities are called piracy by the partisans of our present order. It is immoral. It is theft of property (property is here an analogy growing threadbare at the margins from being stretched too much). It is the collapse of the basis of prosperity. But how is a system of constant content theft to be harnessed to our system of material progress? I haven’t the foggiest notion. But capitalism too was a post hoc ideological construct. At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Remember that by the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, such processes were already far along. Smith wasn’t envisioning future pin factories: he was describing existent ones that he had recently visited.

Besides, if it is not within the scope of power to achieve these things, it does not matter the machinations of ideology. Ideology adapts. Moral and immoral will be renamed to accommodate the new arrangement of factors.

Obama’s Debord-ian Dog Whistle

I have previously suggested that in not releasing the photographs of Osama bin Laden’s body, President Obama was deliberately seeking to break out of the logic of bin Laden and the Bush Administration’s war of dueling spectacles (“World History, As Pantomimed in the Facial Expressions of Hillary Clinton, 20 October 2011). I made this suggestion somewhat farcically. Has President Obama set himself against the spectacle? Effectively he may have — and that’s intriguing in itself — but has he done so consciously, intentionally? Has the President read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle? Or does the President have some ideas whose provenance is unknown to him? Are French Marxist theories of capitalist propaganda and false consciousness influencing U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism? It doesn’t even rise to the level of surmise.

But then last night I was listening again to then candidate Senator Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech (Wikipedia | YouTube), delivered in response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy (National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 March 2008), where he says the following about racial controversies (starting at 28:56 in the video):

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the OJ trial — or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

Two points:

  1. In common use, the word “spectacle” is an indefinite noun. People who aren’t invoking the theories of Debord would say, “We can tackle race only as a spectacle”. “Spectacle” used without an article, or “the spectacle”, with an article indicating a proper noun, are how people with Debord on the brain use it.

  2. As a brief explanation of the machinations of the spectacle, one that appeals to common language and experience, this is not bad.

At this point I think it is within the realm of possibility that President Obama has consciously and intentionally set himself against the spectacle. Of course President Obama is not a radical, but a meliorist and an incrementalist (“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice”). He is not about to explode the spectacle tomorrow. Audacity is apparently formal; it is for hope, ambition, dreams. Small opportunistic (almost Clintonian) victories are for real-world policy. But I think when the opportunity presents itself, President Obama does seek to reject and counteract the logic of the spectacle.

I don’t want to throw fuel on the right-wing illuminati — this is like my own little D’Souza-esque conspiracy — but how strange would it be if President Obama were engaged in covert acts of sublimated high philosophy, if the ideas of Guy Debord were actually influencing the President’s thinking about strategy in the war on terrorism and cultural narratives in media? If the U.S. had actually, explicitly (at least in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief) broken with the logic of dueling spectacles, to — I don’t know what — something else, it would as if Nietzsche’s “the greatest thoughts are the greatest events” (Beyond Good and Evil §285) were playing out right here in the Capital today.