Note VII

Originally posted on Medium as a response to Will Franks post Notes on Counterculture

One potential pitfall I can see in making comparisons between present and 60’s counterculture is that not only are the mainstreams they react against very different, but the present mainstream is in many ways a product of the ideas of selfhood that emerged from the 60’s (or an appropriation of them, depending on where your allegiances lie). If the 60’s counterculture can be seen as reacting against the regimented blandness stereotyped in modern portrayals of the 50’s, then a modern day counterculture must surely be a reaction against the norms of neoliberal individualism and its promise of self-realisation in consumption.

If there is a common thread in these projects it is that they attempt to resist commodification, understood as an inertial force that stifles human potential. In the 60’s this took the form of an injunction to authenticity, accompanied by some fairly clear ideas about what that might involve: lose the suburban aspirations, don’t become the housewife in the home environment with its matrix of consumer objects — go take acid and run naked in fields instead, you’ll discover who you truly are. What’s different about the present situation is that the circuits of capital accumulation have long since diversified and learned to integrate these kind of experiences and practices. Taking acid and running around in a field can easily be packaged up as a commodity and sold as a form of neoliberal self-realisation. Surrealist techniques once thought to be revolutionary can now be effortlessly mobilised in advertising campaigns. Anti-consumerist messages are rendered consumable in the plot lines of Hollywood films. In many ways, the story of how the destabilising energies released in the original counterculture were neutralised is the story of how capital learned to appropriate its own subversions.

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Meditation III

Anger is socially heavy, and so morally unthinkable. Anger must be muted and contained, suspended as contempt. It is required of all affects that they be substituted for their lightest operational equivalent, a least energy principle with minimisation of social noise as its boundary constraint. Relations of interiority are folded into exteriorities, lighter because interiority implies weight of involvement. Interiority is involvement, and involvement is nothing other than concrete social labour, inseparable from risk. Risk and labour are heavy, and therefore condemned. There is a fractal decomposition of social space into distinct micropods, the residue of this exothermic mitosis gathering in salvageable droplets across the growing surface of the membrane1. At last everyone can relax: nowhere is lighter than outer space.

A synthesising dialectic of anger and guilt is switched for a non-synthesising dialectic of contempt and shame, a closed and self-stabilising circuit constrained to the plane of affect. The link between thought and action is severed at its centre, belief rendered impossible as thought becomes mandatory2. Thought persists, but only as epiphenomenon. What is no longer possible is to participate in thought, since participation is made possible only by affective substructures always-already immobilised. What remains is an aesthetisisation of thought: the Idea receives its gilded frame, encircled and beautiful, liberated from risk. Ouroboric thought short-circuits motive outputs, all categoricals diffracting into non-completing series of hypotheticals. A critical theory approved by capital impresses itself with its capacity to create space for the last word, always doing so faster than the space can be filled. Discourse is free to proliferate without the faux pas of judgement. Careers are made this way.

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Note VI

At the heart of Hegel’s philosophy of mind is the idea that self-consciousness is essentially mediated: that a self’s recognition of its own selfhood is metaphysically dependent on its recognition of others and the reciprocation of such recognitive attitudes. This is a rejection of the foundational Cartesian doctrine of given self-consciousness—the idea that self-consciousness can be read off directly from consciousness. Brandom’s approach to this mediation structure is to consider the logic of the recognition relation itself. We say that x recognises y if x takes y to be a self. To say that x is self-conscious is then just to say that x recognises themselves.

Both the Cartesian and Hegelian perspectives insist on the reflexivity of the recognition relation. This is the property that for all selves x, x recognises x. (i.e. Both think that consciousness entails self-consciousness.) Where they differ is in the place they assign to reflexivity in the order of explanation. The Cartesian perspective takes reflexivity as given (via the cogito—more on this below), while the Hegelian sees it as something that must be derived from other properties of the recognition relation.

Brandom’s gloss of this derivation is rather neat. He notes that the reflexivity of a binary relation will follow if it can be shown that it is both symmetric and transitive.

  • symmetry: x recognises y implies y recognises x
  • transitivity: whenever x recognises y and y recognises z, it is also the case that x recognises z.

If both of these conditions are met then reflexivity follows by substituting “x recognises y” and “y recognises x” into the antecedent of the transitivity condition.

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Note V

Brandom begins his exposition of the Self-Consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology by considering “essentially self-conscious beings.” These are beings whose self-conception forms an essential part of what they are in themselves1. Since for them a change in their self-conception can bring about a change in what they are, they are capable of “making themselves different by taking themselves to be different.” If they do so, and the change then provokes a further update to their self-conception, this will begin a cascading developmental process moving through sequential alternating modifications of what they for themselves and what they are in themselves.

Needless to say, Brandom reads Hegel as understanding us to be such essentially self-conscious beings. If we are then we possess no essential features (other than our being essentially self-conscious), since what we are essentially is always subject to change as our self-conception is revised. Accordingly, rather than understanding ourselves as creatures with natures, we should understand ourselves as having histories2.

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Note IV

Writing in the introduction to his recent book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Brandom has this to say about the contrast between the modern and premodern experiences of normativity:

The implicit principle of traditional forms of life is the status-dependence of normative attitudes: the authority of how things ought to be over what we should strive to do. The founding principle of modernity is the converse idea of the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. At its base is the thought that there are no normative statuses of responsibility or authority apart from our practices and practical attitudes of taking or treating each other as responsible and authoritative.

This difference shows up in the historical transition from Aristotelean from modern science, during which teleology was drained from the scientific image of the natural world and replaced by law-governed efficient causality. The disappearance of natural telos corresponds to the loss of objective normative statuses—that is, natural facts about how things should be—which could provide objective reasons for judgements of correctness with regard to conduct or function. Among other things, the premodern recognition of objective normative statuses underpinned forms of social determinism, with individuals understood as bound to roles and duties fixed within an objective social order indifferent to preference. Governed by this picture, the tragic dimension of premodern life is characterised by the concept of fate.

In modernity norms are understood as products of subjective normative attitudes. The latent tendency hovering over this conception is the collapse of normative judgement into arbitrariness. If what is right is reducible to what one takes to be right, then in what sense can a judgement of rightness ever be binding? If a moral principle conflicts with desire, then on what basis should the moral principle be taken to be overriding, if its own authority is ultimately also licensed by subjective attitudes? If one has the authority to choose one’s own set of values, then one can also authorise oneself to swap them for another set at some later date. But if this is the case, then it seems that no-one can ever be unconditionally committed to anything. The tragic dimension of modernity is correspondingly characterised by alienation, as the attitude-dependence of normative statuses undercuts the stability of spaces of shared value, purpose, and meaning.

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Meditation II

In 1935 Walter Benjamin compared the performances of the stage actor and the film actor. He found two differences:

  1. The screen performance is less unitary than the stage performance. It can be pieced together from different takes and repeat performances, incorporate “real” footage, be altered, spliced and restitched. Unlike the organic unity of a stage performance, it is a patchwork of fragments sewn together into a synthetic unity.
  2. A screen performance is more readily susceptible to critical engagement. It can be rewatched by an audience many times over, slowed down and reversed, examined in its minutiae.

» mediations

Benjamin theorised that both differences are produced by the intrusion of the camera as mediating interface between actor and audience. It changes the relationship between them, restructuring the norms of performing and receiving1. A single reciprocal relation between performer and audience is replaced by two unilateral relations—between performer and camera and between camera and audience. The breakdown of reciprocity fixes the difference between producer and consumer, polarising their division of labour.

The camera’s role is surgical, dissecting the performance for inspection. Removing the audience from the performance space it removes the actor from their source of immediate feedback. Benjamin described a new kind of performance anxiety that arises for the film actor, likening it to the feeling of standing before one’s image in the mirror. The attitude of the audience shifts from reciprocal involvement to unilateral scrutiny. The camera tests; the audience test with it (there is nothing else they can do). The screen performance is tested for its “realism” even though its production for reproduction is always an act of artifice2.

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Note III

Brecht had some fascinating things to say about classical Chinese opera, and found within it many points of contact with his own “epic theatre”. Here are some snippets from his essay Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting.

[T]he Chinese artist never acts as if there a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him. He expresses his awareness of being watched. This immediately removes one of the European stage’s characteristic illusions. The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place.

What is important here is the link between the naturalistic illusion experienced by the audience—the sense that one is viewing a real event—with the “unseen” quality of the spectator, which is to say their complete uninvolvement. As soon as the artist involves the audience member as a seen spectator the audience can no longer encounter the actor as a “real” character, but only as an actor representing a character to them. To be involved in the narrative space of the artifice is to be robbed of one’s ability to witness it as a real event. The unconscious assessment of the action as real depends on a staging apparatus which places the audience in a position outside its sphere of involvement; expression of the awareness of being watched is one means the artist has to interrupt that positioning.

A further means is that the artist observes himself. Thus if he is representing a cloud, perhaps, showing its unexpected appearance, its soft and strong growth, its rapid yet gradual transformation, he will occasionally at the audience as if to say: isn’t it just like that?

The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely a himself and his work. As a result everything put forward by him has a touch of the amazing. Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic.

The involvement brought about by the fourth wall breaking techniques of the artist make strange what in the naturalistic mode would appear to be passive pieces of environment. They become strange in the sense of the stranger, the newcomer in social space with as yet no defined place within its dominant narrative. The object talks back.

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Study IX

I’ve finally got round to putting up some music on Bandcamp. All these tracks were made years back, but a long rainy walk along Regent’s Canal yesterday provided both a cover photo and the nudge I need to put it all online.

These are mostly tracks based on a single sound that has been chopped, looped, distorted and layered in various ways. While it was not a conscious motivation at the time, I realise now that the preoccupation driving these productions was the idea of “changing in place”, the kind of stationary motion that has always gripped me in music.

In Cormac McCarthy’s anti-spiritual journey novel Suttree, the repeated return to the river—the Heraclitian symbol of transience—acts as a stable point in the otherwise chaotic unfolding of Suttree’s life, holding in equilibrium a scattered bundle of narrative fragments with no particular start or endpoint. The river is what binds Suttree’s life into a unity without subjecting it to the violence of curation, of a process of exclusion through definition.

The constancy of the canal in the frenetic temporal and social dislocation of modern London touches something similar, and I like to think of this music as intimately bound up with that. The essence of the canal is its crustiness, a crossing point between the human sphere and its outside, where the decay of the artificial is revitalised in its reclamation by organic life.

Photos by Kallie Ennever.

Reflection VI

One aspect of Baudrillard’s thought rarely emphasised is its empirical content. I find this odd, given that his whole oeuvre is devoted to describing processes that give predictions and explanations of concrete social structures and events. (Where it has received attention, as with his claim that the Gulf War “never happened,” he has tended to be interpreted without much charity, in my opinion.) It is, after all, this empirical content that forms the bridge between the abstract core of his theory—revolving around the idea of “semiological reduction” (more on this later)—with his familiar proclamations that “events are on strike”, that “history is frozen”, or that the postmodern experience is at root a boring one, in which all the stakes of life have been abandoned and nothing ever really happens.

I want to approach this via a discussion about veganism, a topic which I suspect has rarely crossed paths with Baudrillard. This is for basically personal reasons. My first encounter with Simulacra & Simulation coincided with my own quiet backslide out of veganism, and I found his ideas helped enormously in making sense of the collapse of ethical will I was experiencing. Conversely, reading him in that mood of disillusionment helped me to situate Baudrillard as a thinker with much of value to say about the conditions of possibility of moral and political agency, and the state of these conditions in the contemporary moment. (For the record, none of the points in this post are intended to hinge on any particulars of veganism—I am hoping it will serve as an illustrative example of how ethical conflict plays out in general).

The peculiar thing about this collapse of will was that it did not seem to arise from any internal change of mind, but from some more nebulous external pressure. Roughly, my sense was that the ethical content of my decision had been stripped away by the reduction of veganism to a lifestyle brand. I think most people would recognise what I mean by “lifestyle brand” in this context. But there are at least two questions this raises:

  1. Isn’t it up to you whether an ethical commitment functions as an identity marker in your case or not? If you act with ethical reasons, how can the ethical content be stripped away by the fact that others appear to act from non-ethical reasons (virtue signalling, identity mongering, brand loyalty, etc.)?

  2. Even if it does, why should this matter? If the ethical content of the act ultimately lies in the extent to which it achieves ethical goals, then what does it matter how it gets there?

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Reflection V

The term “virtue-signalling” first appeared as a way of mocking the perceived insincerity of those who vocally advocate for social justice causes without making any real effort to effect them in practice, or doing so only insofar as they complement their own lifestyle choices. The anti-leftist sentiment baked into the concept is no doubt one reason why it was not initially taken seriously as a critique by its targets. Another might be that those whose sincerity is in question simply do not experience themselves as insincere. There are, after all, reasons other than self-interest to vocally espouse a cause—for example to persuade, to compel, or to mobilise. If the goal is collective action then mobilisation through discourse is its precondition, not its afterthought, and to criticise individual espousers on their lack of current individual action would seem to miss the issue.

Nevertheless, the suspicion that there is a cynical disarticulation of reasons from actions at work has not gone away, and while virtue-signalling may never have become a familiar expression in left-wing discourse terms like “performative ally” have arisen within it to describe something similar. So-called “woke capital” is guilty of this as well, with brands often producing the signs of diversity as little more than a marketing strategy. The underlying concern is that virtue-signalling does not merely mask a pre-existing absence of virtue, but actively corrodes virtue by replacing it with its performance; not just a deflection from the absence of resistance to power, but an active functional component in the auto-regulation of power relations.

This point about motive insincerity is one I’ve been chewing on a lot recently. On the one hand it seems pretty clear that virtue-signalling names a real phenomenon, and not a marginal one. On the other hand the typically left-critical explanation of it—that it stems from insincerity at the level of individuals, i.e. ostensibly selfless political or ethical expressions are actually in the service of cynical and calculated self-interest—just does not seem right at all. It seems equally clear that most people advocating for social justice are doing so from broadly sincere motives, at least in the first instance. If virtue-signalling is to be understood without appeal to motive insincerity on the part of individuals, then the puzzle is how to understand it as something more like a network effect.

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