Tag Archives: affect theory

Unified, lawful, intelligent

It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?–Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.–It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

—Abraham Lincoln, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. January 27, 1838.


Libri periculosi

Two from Aeon:

Storytelling is inextricable from power: the act of reading is, for better or worse, an act of submission to an external force granted the privilege of language, of narrative organising. At its best, reading novels might be as salutary as recent studies allege. But at worst, novels – in all their dangerousness – can erode at our sense of self: a woman who reads Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) could find herself accepting a world-narrative where rape is justifiable; a person of colour, growing up on Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), might internalise as normative a world of white power, just as Dorian Gray, through reading Huysmans, normalises the debauchery that is to come. […]

At its most fundamental level, to read is to put our selves at risk, to make ourselves vulnerable by welcoming the presence of an other into our psychic space. This can be a radically transformative experience, challenging us to reformulate our own self-understanding. But at worst, we become like the dinner-party guests in The Torture Garden or Don Juan ­– our ‘possession’ by a storyteller awakening our inner violence. Or else we become like Johannes’ Cordelia, the books we read reinforcing existing societal threats to our being. Either way, the act of reading is an act of acceptance of power: a power that, if not god-like, is nevertheless – within the sphere of the text – absolute.

— Tara Isabella Burton, Dark Books (7 January 2016)

Today, it is not puritanical religious moralists but undergraduate students who demand that Ovid’s poem should come with a trigger warning. For the first time in their career, my academic colleagues report that some of their students are asking for the right to opt out of reading texts that they find personally offensive or traumatising. This self-diagnosis of vulnerability is unlike the traditional call for a moral quarantine from above. Once upon a time, paternalistic censors infantilised the reading public by insisting that reading literature constitutes a serious risk to its health. Now young readers infantilise themselves by insisting that they and their peers should be shielded from the harm caused by distressing texts.

The campaign for trigger warnings represents its cause as an attempt to protect the vulnerable and the powerless from any potentially traumatic and harmful effects of reading. Those who are opposed or indifferent to the call for these warnings are condemned as accomplices in the marginalising of the powerless. Paradoxically, censorship, which once served as an instrument of domination by those in power is now recast as a weapon that can be wielded to protect the powerless from psychological harm. […]

There is one point on which the crusade for the imposition of trigger warnings is absolutely right. It is not for nothing that reading was always feared throughout history. It is indeed a risky activity: reading possesses the power to capture the imagination, create emotional upheaval and force people towards an existential crisis. Indeed, for many it is the excitement of embarking on a journey into the unknown that leads them to pick up a book in the first place.

— Frank Furedi, Books Are Dangerous (6 November 2015)

79 Theses on Technology: Remember the Titans

Ned O’Gorman takes issue with Theses 40-46, in which Alan Jacobs critiques our modern characterization of technology as having agency independent of conscious human will:

Things, in this instance manuscripts, are indeed meaningful and powerful. Why would we want to divest things of their poetic quality, their meaningfulness, and indeed their power? Kevin Kelly may be off in his aims or misguided in his understanding, but he’s right to recognize in things, even and especially in technologies, sources of meaning and meaningfulness.

Of course technologies want. The button wants to be pushed; the trigger wants to be pulled; the text wants to be read—each of these want as much as I want to go to bed, get a drink, or get up out of my chair and walk around, though they may want in a different way than I want. To reserve “wanting” for will-bearing creatures is to commit oneself to the philosophical voluntarianism that undergirds technological instrumentalism.

Jacobs responds to O’Gorman:

I believe I understand why O’Gorman wants to make this argument: The phrases “philosophical voluntarism” and “technological instrumentalism” are the key ones. I assume that by invoking these phrases O’Gorman means to reject the idea that human beings stand in a position of absolute freedom, simply choosing whatever “instruments” seem useful to them for their given project. He wants to avoid the disasters we land ourselves in when we say that Facebook, or the internal combustion engine, or the personal computer, or nuclear power, is “just a tool” and that “what matters is how you use it.” And O’Gorman is right to want to critique this position as both naïve and destructive.

But he is wrong if he thinks that this position is entailed in any way by my theses; and even more wrong to think that this position can be effectively combated by saying that technologies “want.” Once you start to think of technologies as having desires of their own you are well on the way to the Borg Complex: We all instinctively understand that it is precisely because tools don’t want anything that they cannot be reasoned with or argued with. And we can become easily intimidated by the sheer scale of technological production in our era. Eventually, we can end up talking even about what algorithms do as though algorithms aren’t written by humans.

O’Gorman and Jacobs may have a profound disagreement on these points, but I wonder if they aren’t also talking past each other just a little bit. O’Gorman cites Mary Carruthers, who argued that medieval texts were thought to contain meaning that must be explicated by the interpreter. Our more contemporary notions of texts as codes is much more in keeping with the anti-essentialism of our episteme, whereas many scholars in the medieval era may have thought of hermeneutics as a way of getting closer to the absolute, divinely-wrought truth of things. If you think about this debate in terms of conflicting epistemes, or ways of producing knowledge that are sanctioned by contemporary history, O’Gorman and Jacobs may be, in a way, disagreeing on the terms of this debate. (Just to be clear, I don’t think they misunderstand each other, but I’m intrigued by how the stakes for each of them seem to be somewhat mutually incompatible.)

O’Gorman is saying (or at least implying on a fundamental level) that it is incredibly useful to think of things as being invested with agency. In other words, we must acknowledge that, for a long time, even well before the advent of modernity, people thought of their tools as being invested with a certain amount of power or will or agency (or whatever terms you prefer) independent of their users. This has been a vitally important way of thinking about the human relationship to the world: a relationship mediated by tools, by things.

Jacobs is saying very explicitly that this way of thinking is not useful; furthermore, he’s saying that it invests far more perceived power in the role of the mediator than it should. If tools are our mediators between ourselves and the world, we ought not to trust them as implicitly as we do. Once a tool is invested with desire, it can be thought of as having motives. A mediator—a maker of meaning—with motives of its own is little different from another person or, given the amount of material power now possessed by our tools, a god. An incompetent god, as Jacobs says, but a god nonetheless.

(Even in my own rhetoric, it’s been difficult not to talk about tools as if they had agency; I just referenced the “material power now possessed by our tools,” as if tools were capable of taking possession of power. They’re not, but it’s dangerously easy to talk about them as if they did.)

The point Jacobs makes is that it is so incredibly easy to fall into habits of speaking about tools as independent entities, and that the first step in surrendering our sense of self is to render submission to an alien power. Jacobs is a Christian, so a distinction that he makes in Theses 44 and 45 is that the human submission of the self to the power of tools is a kind of idolatry—the worship of false gods. What makes this submission to a power outside the self idolatry, and therefore false, is that tools are made by people, and we, the the people, are not gods.

Nor is O’Gorman making the case that we are. My reading of his argument is that to strip technology of a capacity for desire is to strip it of our capacity to appreciate how much our own desires are layered into the technology by its construction, use, and place as signifier in our discourse. That would be another way to evade the human, as he says.

I think I agree more with Jacobs on what’s at stake on this point, even though I think I agree with O’Gorman that, if our discourse is any indication, things do possess meanings, just as they do desire things. That’s precisely the danger, and it highlights the radicalism of what Jacobs is proposing, which is that we need to realign the way we speak and think about technology, perhaps to the point of doing violence not only to technology, but to the discourse that has grown up around it and even made the development of new technologies possible.

At stake is that we (mistakenly) think of ourselves as Tom Swift, master of invention and futuristic lifeways, when in reality we are Victor Frankenstein (that modern Prometheus), creating something that is more than mere technology but—somehow—something less than human (at least as far as we permit ourselves to perceive it). For the consequence of failing to recognize the ways in which we unconsciously submit to our tools is that we bend our collective will to (the will of) our idols and not only mistake our tools for false gods but unconsciously think of ourselves as godlike in the process. Gods of human creation cannot help but reflect the nature of their creators. If we are to meditate on the fate of gods who gave birth to other gods, we would do well to remember the Titans.