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Some of my colleagues, like Seth Kahn and Steve Krause, have written about DeVoss’ comments at CPAC. It’s all very much a rehearsal of the same old conservative red meat about liberal professors indoctrinating students. Like many such criticisms, I think they often reveal more about the critic than the object of her criticism. That is, as a conservative ideologue perhaps you could not imagine not insisting that your students thought the same way as you and punishing them if they did not. After all, considering the way the administration treats journalists who ask questions, one could easily imagine how students would be treated. Also, this is the pedagogical operation of religious indoctrination, which is the primary education model of conservatives. So I would guess that conservatives imagine that professors just act the same way as they would but on the other end of the political spectrum.
One of the frustrating things for conservatives is that higher education is a complicated entity. Even one university is a complicated entity. Take UB for example. We have a UB Council, appointed by the governor, and basically these are business people (e.g. the president of M&T Bank). Needless to say we also report to the governor and other elected officials. We’re a tuition-driven university, like most are, which means we largely thrive (or not) by serving students. Many of the things we do institutionally (for good or bad) are based on decisions of attracting, keeping, and supporting students. When you look at the research and curriculum of the university you’ll see several things. First, most of the research grant money comes from the NIH or the NSF. These and related federal agencies go a long way to establishing the research agendas of universities because, at least in STEM fields, you can’t really do research without funding from external sources like this. Similarly the curriculum of universities in many majors is managed by large accrediting agencies that oversee say Engineering or Nursing or whatever. Like many public research universities, we have a lot of Engineering majors. So let’s say you’re studying mechanical engineering at UB. Driven by accreditation requirements this major requires 111 credits. Then there are 17 additional credits of general education. That’s it. No electives. So maybe “MAE 204: Thermodynamics” is some kind of liberal conspiracy (since evolution and climate change are, I don’t know, maybe), but I would tend to think not. I mean if you think thermodynamics is a liberal conspiracy then do you drive your car Fred Flintstone style? In short, there are a lot of things going on at universities and many different people there, so it’s hard to paint them all with the same brush.
Of course these liberal indoctrination accusations are typically reserved for a particular segment of professors typically on the non-STEM side of the campus. So let’s start with one thing. People, including professors, are allowed to have and express political opinions. It’s against the law to discriminate in hiring based on political affiliations (as some recent crackpot state legislators want to propose). In New York state, at least at SUNY, it’s against the law to advocate for a political candidate in the classroom. I.e., it would be illegal to try to convince your students to vote for Clinton or Trump. Outside of the classroom you’re like any other citizen.
But let’s get down to brass tacks and I’ll give you a personal example. My first job out of graduate school was at Georgia Tech teaching a required first-year writing course all “Introduction to Cultural Studies.” The task really had two parts. One was to teach students how to write academic essays. The second was to introduce them to the field of cultural studies. Undoubtedly cultural studies draws on a body of theories and methods largely associated with the political left: Marxism, feminism, postcolonial theory, etc. Many of the faculty who teach cultural studies are politically active, outside of class, and these theories inform their actions. Also many scholars employ these theories in their research as they see such approaches as producing valuable insight into various aspects of culture. That said, in a class like this one, what the students need to do is demonstrate an understanding of how the theories work on their own terms. They certainly do not need to agree with them. To the contrary, their inclination would more often be to disagree (or to be indifferent). In those disagreements the conversations we would have would often be about refining their understanding of the theories (e.g., explaining how their criticisms were based on faulty understandings, which is not to say there are not legitimate criticisms to make).
Is that indoctrination? I don’t think so. It is an introduction into a disciplinary body of knowledge, which is basically what all college courses do. Every discipline has its own theories, methods, interests, and ways of looking at the world. And I’m guessing this is what pundits imagine is a liberal conspiracy. The idea that the world is complicated, that there are many ways of examining and understanding it, and that there is some fundamental educational value in encountering that pluralism, challenging those ideas and challenging one’s own ideas. I do think there are conservatives who agree with this premise and when one looks at the university there really is a broad range of different ideas going on there, but when it comes to appealing to the base, not so much.
A recent article by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker seeks to explain “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” The article is in reference to several new books written by cognitive scientists. The first, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, called The Enigma of Reason recounts numerous psychological studies examining the various ways in which people hold on to their views even when presented with evidence that those views are totally incorrect. This includes familiar problems like confirmation bias and forms the groundwork for familiar pieces of advice such as the importance of making a good first impression. Mercier and Sprerber’s contribution to this topic is to provide a kind of evolutionary explanation for why human minds work this way.
Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.
(I have no idea what the “ö” is about.) And what are those problems? Essentially “to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.”
I’ll get back to that in a second.
The article then turns to another book by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach called The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone and specifically a concept they term “the illusion of explanatory depth.” Their first example is the toilet. Most people imagine they know how a toilet works, but it turns out to be quite complex. As I would put this, this is how technologies, discourses, and institutions are meant to function. They expand our capacities for thought and agency by embedding these capacities into networks. I do not need to know how to build a computer or a network in order to write a blog post. That’s how knowledge works among bees, you know? A bee finds a flower and it can instruct another bee through a dance where to find that flower. But the bee that learns that dance can’t teach it to another bee. (I’m channeling Kittler here, I think.) For us, information works differently. Technologies work differently. I’m not exactly sure what the illusion is however. Do people really think they know how the technologies around them work? Kostler goes on to bring this to a kairotic moment:
If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.
One more step. Kostler turns to a third book by Jack and Sara Gorman, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, which tries to figure out how to overcome problems like confirmation bias and its physiological foundations (as they see it). It turns out not to be that easy. As Kostler concludes, “Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.”
Gee, that is a poser. But maybe we can start with some of the built-in confirmation biases at work here.
- Reason doesn’t work the way that it is imagined to function here.
- Because reason doesn’t work that way, science doesn’t work as it is imagined here either.
- If you have a poor model of science and reason then it isn’t going to be very effective in addressing this concern about how people become convinced and then hold on to views in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.
Let’s return to Kostler’s ACA example and insert the most inane version of it. Let’s say I am opposed to “Obamacare” (because I hate anything with Obama’s name attached to it) but have no idea that Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing. I rely on the ACA and I’m happy with it, but I hate Obamacare and what it done away with. Can you get any stupider than that? I don’t know. Are there warnings on gas pumps not to drink the gasoline? Despite this, this imagined person’s position is not “baseless.” There is reasoning. It’s a straightforward syllogism.
- I hate all things related to Obama.
- Obamacare is related to Obama.
- Socrates needed better health care.
Maybe when this person figures out ACA and Obamacare are the same thing, that opinion shifts, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. This is the underlying issue with all of the major areas of political disagreement: education, health care, human rights, climate change, economic regulations, foreign policies, etc.
Effectively the modern state insists that citizens must accept that their world operates in ways that they cannot directly experience and can never fully understand. Even the most fully educated person in the world can only have understanding in a very narrow slice of the world and only then through ongoing participation in a complex and extended system of human and nonhuman partners. Even with this, the knowledge we produce is never fully “true;” it is only the best construction that we can manage. It’s a construction over which experts disagree and which is continually revised and refined. This comparatively fragile and carefully wrought expert knowledge then butts up against the felt, but also reasoned, sense of reality as it is directly experienced by citizens, both individually and in small communities (families, friends, co-workers, etc.).
So on the one hand you have dozens of people from a variety of intelligence agencies reviewing hundreds of reports and thousands of data points to determine the likelihood of an immigration ban based on nationality being an effective deterrent against terrorism in the US. You end up with lots of conversations and data, and conclusions that are carefully parsed and reasoned. But even though the conclusion may be straightforward (i.e., this won’t work), working through the reasoning is hard if not impossible if you aren’t an expert. On the other hand, you have citizens and their friends who feel threatened, whose direct experience with Arabs is quite limited if non-existent, and have a logical argument (albeit one that is based on misinformation and predicates). If you want to compare it to some technological arguments. People might feel that seat belts in cars or motorcycle helmets are unnecessary or that owning a gun makes them safer. These are equally examples of how people have an illusion of their depth of knowledge, believing they know how these mundane technologies function (and their dangers) when they do not.
None of that answers the question of how to change people’s minds. Obviously it isn’t easy. But if you realize that people gain confidence of their worldviews through networks of humans or nonhumans then shifting that confidence probably means altering those networks and their strength. One might say that the Trump administration is seeking to weaken some networks supported by mainstream media. Of course that’s not very subtle and probably only serves to strengthen the faith of his opponents in those networks. Different exertions of political power might work. If you’re not the president however you will need a different strategy.
Maybe you saw John Oliver on Last Week Tonight describe his plan to begin airing commercials on morning shows Trump watches in order to educate him on a few key points. If you haven’t, it’s worth a laugh.
Oliver’s basic argument though is that we have a president who doesn’t believe that an agreed upon reality exists. Instead, he gets to believe whatever he wants, his supporters get to believe whatever they want, and his critics and opponents are simply people with a different set of beliefs. But none of us has access to reality. In this context, Oliver argues, as many have, that we must have a basis for establishing facts, and without such a basis we’re in serious trouble on many levels.
Of course it is not just Trump supporters who believe in conspiracies. In the NY Times, Sydney Ember points to an increasing number of democrats embracing conspiracy theories. As Ember points out though (and which sounds to me like an echo of Fredric Jameson), conspiracy theories arise as a way of asserting some control over a situation, of making something vast and complex more understandable by depicting it as the actions of a group of people with recognizable motives. On the other hand, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid…
As is obvious, I have no more idea than you what is going on with Trump, the White House, the Russians, and so on, though all of this does make me think there should be a new version of The Americans set in the present day. Of course, I can offer you a theory. I’ve got a whole bag full of hermeneutic strategies, plus I’ve been to the movies and read spy thrillers and cyberpunk dystopia novels. I think I’ve seen every James Bond film. I could go on all day: white supremacist militias, egomaniacal theocrats, oil magnate star chambers, genocidal fascists, tripped out technocrats, disgraced generals, rouge spy networks, etc. etc. What do you want?
Here’s the thing though… there is something or some things that are actually happening in reality. We need to know what they are. That knowledge has to be built. If something happens right before your eyes, your mind makes sense of it. Even knowledge from direct observed experience is built. And when you’re trying to construct knowledge of something that cannot be directly observed–because it is distributed or hidden, too big or too small, and so on–then constructing that knowledge is harder. It requires time, effort, and material resources. Often it requires the collaboration of multiple people. And in our culture that means it takes money.
As a result a reality check is also a bank check: knowledge has to be paid for. Because that’s true we can always doubt the motives of the people constructing the knowledge. They are researchers working for a chemical company or bank executives or government officials. Scientists at universities do the research that funding agencies will support. Journalists report the stories their editors will publish or air. Politicians tell you the things they think will get them re-elected. But there is no undoing that. When it comes to knowing about the world, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That said, we can evaluate the strength of the knowledge we produce though in doing so we must write another check. This is where we find ourselves in Latourian matters of concern.
Some might say that our democratic republic is coming to an end. Again, I can offer you many interpretations and stories about that. To me though the failures of our government begin and end with our not understanding well enough how the thing works on a material level. As a result we get all these conspiracy theories, and even though those things are poor constructions of reality, they are more than powerful enough to elect presidents, topple governments, start wars, and worse.
As I sit here, I am honestly mystified by what goes through people’s minds. Certainly, I have values which may be different from yours, I have a vision of the society in which I’d like to live, and I would and do work toward creating that world. At the same time, I can distinguish between what I’d want and what is. Similarly, though I can interpret the world (and we all must do so regularly in order to live), I can recognize that my interpretation is always limited and can be wrong. These must be recursive processes. That is, as I refine my understanding of the world, my values, vision, and actions must also be refined. However these processes can get all confused, so that for example one’s interpretation of a religious text can drive a systems of values and an understanding of the world. If those interpretations are flawed but cannot be revised because of belief then one ends up with some serious cognitive shortfalls.
In other words, shoehorning the world into one’s existing belief structure is a bad long-term survival strategy. That’s what we might call knowledge on the cheap. It works fine for simple, reliable stuff like gravity. In fact it probably worked just fine for most purposes through most of human existence. But not for stuff like this. Not for constructing knowledge about networks of dozens and hundreds of actors distributed around the world. Not for running a government with thousands of employees, representing hundreds of millions of citizens. Knowledge like that comes with a big bill and must be carefully constructed and tested, but it can’t take forever to make either. You need to have systems in place. You need elaborate institutions with trained professionals to make those institutions work. If you don’t have those things, then all you’re left with is bullshit conspiracy theories constructed by jamming into your brain whatever random knowledge you encounter and spitting out some preconceived notion.
Long ago, when I was an undergrad, I learned how to read Tarot cards. (Hey, stop rolling your eyes; I saw that.) I haven’t done it in years, though when I was a professor at Cortland we’d go on writing retreats to this Adirondack camp with our students and my colleague, Vicky Boynton, and I would do readings for students for a laugh. No one I’ve ever read cards for believes they are magical or that I am psychic. At the same time, very often people who were generally strangers to me would remark on how uncanny the experience was, how I seemed to know things about their past, and how the predictions of the future made sense. The immediate explanation one might want to offer is that I was conning them, that it was a sly rhetorical performance where I read their reactions, fished for information, and other things like that.
But I’ll be honest: I wasn’t working that hard.
A better explanation is equally obvious and even less magical than that. If you know anything about Tarot cards, you’d know that the various suits and the major arcana have story arcs to them and that there’s a great deal of structural similarity among the story arcs (e.g. the aces always have something to do with beginnings and the tens always have something to do with endings). On top of that, the various patterns in which the cards are laid out (the Celtic cross is the most recognizable) also have a story structured into them (some spots are about the past, others about the people around you, your hopes and fears, etc.). In short a Tarot reading is a pseudo-random story generator where all the stories fall within a particular set of plots and themes. And then the people getting their cards read do the rest. Just as you might read a novel and get taken up in the story, people who are willing can see themselves in the story of a tarot reading. And since the built-in morality of the cards (what you should or shouldn’t do, what to be careful about, what an opportunity looks like, etc) are culturally familiar, the inherent lessons aren’t hard to follow or at least see as meaningful and sensible.
So that’s Tarot cards. I’m assuming I didn’t give away any secrets there. Here’s the more difficult step. Critical theories work the same way as Tarot cards. They are heuristics, sets of procedures, for constructing interpretations. They feel true in the same way Tarot readings feel true, because while they rely upon known and predictable structures of meaning in the theory (which, for example, help readers identify the symptoms of various cultural-ideological structures as they manifest in a text), they also almost invariably generate some unexpected connections. We call these insights, and they strike us with the power of truth. I often tell graduate students about the first time I read A Thousand Plateaus and I was seeing rhizomes everywhere for weeks. What was compelling for me about that book and a lot of postmodern theory was how it would generate that affective/aesthetic experience of the truth. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a “religious experience.”
The difference is that about a year into graduate school I caught on to the trick. After that, I could still appreciate the power and usefulness of theories and interpretations. That’s like the part where as a reader of Tarot cards you recognize that actually you can make a single layout of the cards tell different stories if you like. And each of those stories has the same capacity to impart that experience of “truth,” provided that you tell it well enough. All of that lead me early on to view theory as a heuristic for composing rather than a hermeneutic for revealing. That the results could be valued for their significance, what they were about to do, rather than their signification, what they claimed to represent.
So let’s turn this toward current events… Perhaps you have seen some interpretations of, oh I don’t know,
- why Clinton lost
- why people voted for Trump
- why people still support him
- what Trump’s actions and plans will mean for American and the world
- what those who oppose Trump should do next, etc. etc.
Am I suggesting that we should stop interpreting? Of course not, as if such a thing were possible. I am suggesting that one might view the ontological status of interpretations differently, not as revelations of the truth but as tools that create capacities. This is not as dramatic a difference as it might first seem. At the core, representations of truth (or claims to such) have value because decisions and actions we take based on them work as we might hope. (Or at least that’s my argument here.) I’m saying something slightly different which is that knowledge that we construct has value if it allows us to do things. We draw a map through the wilderness. Does it “truly” represent the wilderness? Maybe. What do you mean by true? If we follow the map, do we get to the other side? Yes. Well, okay then, that’s what we’re after.
Are the Trump administration and its supporters truly racist, religious extremists? Maybe. If it quacks like a duck, etc. Perhaps such an interpretation strikes you with the ringing power of truth. Maybe it pisses you off. Here though, the question is what does such a construction allow us to do? The difference is that claims to represent the truth lock you in. If you believe in a particular interpretation of the Bible, for example, you’re locked into those capacities. You can’t even consider a different interpretation of the world. The same thing can happen, though perhaps with not quite the same degree of intransigence, with critical theory (though critical theories have their true believers as well).
The dangers with such things, as we’ve already seen, is that people take all this to me that there’s no such thing as truth, that one can pick whatever “alternative facts” suit their purposes, and, when necessary, wholly fabricate statistics (or terrorist attacks that never happened). Not to psychologize this business, but that’s kind of like truth withdrawal or something. If we can’t have the Truth then we know nothing but lies and all lies are equally untrue. Yes, it is crazy but one hopes it’s a temporary insanity that’s part of the recovery process. The tough part is that when you can’t rely on truth, when you can’t expect some pre-formated procedure to spit out truth like pressing keys on a calculator, then you have to work a lot harder. Every connection, every mediation, must be tested and made strong. And ultimately the interpretation will need to prove itself in the capacities it offers us.
In short, instead of telling me what you think is true, make something useful.
Sometimes (well most of the time) a blog is means for exorcising and exercising one’s thoughts. Sweating them out of the mind, where maybe you can return to them later. It’s the “beware the ides of Marching” as we’re in the middle of it now and perhaps some caution is warranted.
David Brooks has a piece in the NY Times following on the Women’s March. Brooks and I would agree on very little. He has no love for Trump; we agree on that. Below might be some more minor points of agreement, akin to things like agreeing on whether it’s Thursday or not.
Brooks identifies the following as the key problems we face, and I agree these are serious problems. “Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace. All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order.”
However Brooks asserts that the Women’s March focused on the “wrong issues,” that it was “built, oddly, around Planned Parenthood, and lots of signs with the word ‘pussy’ in them” and thus that “the marches couldn’t escape the language and tropes of identity politics.” He then goes on to reference Mark Lilla’s op-ed from November on the subject of identity politics. Half of this is little more than trolling in my view. I’m not sure what’s so “odd” about the idea that a “Women’s March” would centrally feature concerns about health, reproductive rights, and sexual violence.
As for the “identity politics” issue, maybe there’s a rhetorical problem and maybe it’s a rhetorical problem manufactured on the right. Brooks identifies the problem of ethnic populism. Of course, it’s not just “around the world.” Ethnic populism (which is a soft, obscuring way of saying fascism) is what brought Trump into office. It’s the basis of his social agenda (if you can call not having a society a “social agenda”). In my view, the March and the political action that will follow on it are battling to protect, restore, and expand human rights. Women, children, immigrants, refugees, people of color, lgbtq people: these are humans whose human rights are threatened by ethnic populism. I’m not sure how that’s a “wrong issue.”
The political opponents to such human rights measures fall into a couple categories.
- There are those who believe that beings who do not look like them or share their beliefs are not fully human and thus have no reason to expect to receive human rights. We can call these people “ethnic populists” but probably white supremacists or fascists would be more to the point.
- Those who believe human rights are a zero sum game so that when other people get rights then they lose rights. As such, they think they are protecting their rights by taking away the rights of others. I’m tempted to call these people idiots. I realize that’s cruel and unfair to idiots everywhere. I really don’t know how else to explain it though. Should I say people whose fear and desperation has paralyzed their capacity for rational thought? They just don’t understand how human rights function. They’re holding to the equivalent of saying 2+2=5.
- Those who believe any call for human rights is superseded by religious morality. E.g., every human has rights but homosexuality is a sin and cannot be included as a right. I believe the term “radical Islam” is misleading for a variety of reasons I won’t go into right now, but if you’re willing to use that term then analogously I would term this group “radical Christianity.” However I would prefer a less inflammatory term and call them religious extremists.
- The last category that comes to mind right now (maybe I missed some?) are those who do not believe the government has a capacity or responsibility for ensuring human rights or at least that such responsibilities are superseded by the imperative that states make way for capitalism. This is probably a mix of liberatarians, anarcho-capitalists, and the corporate elite: people who believe that their money and/or guns are enough to protect them and see some financial or cultural advantage in limiting the power of the state to ensure the rights of citizens to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Primarily I think this is about the 1%ers.
So it’s not just fascism (ahem “ethnic populism”) that’s operating here, but rather this brutal cocktail of social-political violence that must be confronted by a human rights movement.
In constructing the strategies and tactics for the movement, I do think it’s important to recognize that the groups mentioned above have always been around and are likely to continue to exist. The question is what has inflamed and galvanized them in this particular moment? Here is where we might look at the problems Brooks identifies: globalization, technological change, migrant populations, and the breakdown/failure of nation states to collaborate in maintaining peace among themselves. If you’re thinking, “Wait, weren’t those the causes of the rise of fascism and WWII?” The answer is, yes, basically.
In the 1920s and 30s we failed to find a good response to those conditions and we ended up in a horrible war. However, I don’t want to be alarmist. I think good responses exist. We aren’t doomed to repeat history. Regardless it won’t go down the same way as before as the other conditions are quite different now. The specific causes and effects of our current economic problems are for more diffuse. Nevertheless, the days when Americans worked in factories and had secure “middle-class” lives are over. They’re as gone as the days of the Jeffersonian gentleman farmer and the manifest destiny homesteader. So what happens next? I don’t know, but when people are living secure and meaningful lives then they’re less likely to be so energized to find other people to blame for their situation. Maybe that just means better bread and circuses. Maybe it’s a better redistribution of wealth without much other change. Or maybe a more substantive transformation, akin to the one that created a manufacturing-based middle class in the 50s, is required.
While we come up with the answer to that question, I think it is a crucial rhetorical move to communicate that a human rights movement is a part of that solution, a part of making all people’s lives secure and meaningful, not a list of demands that are in competition with it. Maybe Brooks would agree with all that. Maybe not. Who cares, really.
I will end with one point where I most strongly disagree with Brooks. It’s basically his conclusion: “If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a central mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.” OK, yes probably the movement will be more effective if it can remain cohesive (or become more cohesive). I’m not sure what “better nationalism” means. If it means “less nationalism” then I agree. If you want to say “patriotism” and by that mean a belief in the promise of a country that values the inalienable rights of all humans, then sure.
But my real problem is with the idea that we must balance “the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.” First off, that’s just nonsense, by which I don’t mean that it’s a bad idea but rather that it is an empty, meaningless statement. At best capitalism is a machine that encodes material forces into abstractions (e.g. money) allowing for circulation. We live in a capitalist world and almost all humans live in extreme poverty in comparison with Americans. There’s absolutely nothing in capitalism (or whatever its “dynamism” might be) that would insulate us from the same fate. In short, capitalism is disconnected from and unconcerned with the well-being of humans. It offers us nothing. On the other hand, in my view, “biblical morality” is far worse. I’m not going to go into a rant about that, but there’s a long historical record demonstrating that biblical morality can mean almost anything you want. All it really means is that one is seeking to authorize one’s claims by saying God requires them. We need a different foundation for ethical practice, one that is not grounded in supernatural beliefs but rather is located here. “Because God said so” cannot be the authorizing principle of our values.
Think about it this way. It’s the Bible and capitalism that got us in the situation we’re in now. That’s like saying we’re going to stop being drunk by drinking more whiskey. In its place we need a new mechanism for community and country that better secures human rights, material security, and human flourishing (i.e. pursuit of happiness, making meaningful lives, etc.).
In all that a March in the name of human rights seems like a good place to start, wouldn’t you think? The other parts will be more challenging and demand greater acts of invention, discovery, and experimentation on our parts.
Baudrillard’s America was one of the first books of “theory” I encountered as a student. It’s a weirdly poetic, aphoristic book. I honestly can’t tell you what to make of it, but here are few bits.
Deep down, the US, with is space, its technological refinement, its simulation is the only remaining primitive society. The fascinating this is to travel through it as though it were the primitive society of the future, a society of complexity, hybridity, and the greatest intermingling, of a ritualism that is ferocious but whose superficial diversity lends it beauty, a society inhabited by a total metasocial fact with unforeseeable consequences, whose immanence is breathtaking, yet lacking a past through which to reflect on this, and therefore fundamentally primitive… Its primitivism has passed into the hyperbolic, inhuman character of a universe that is beyond us, that far outstrips its own moral, social, or ecological rationale.
The only question in this journey is: how fare can we go in the extermination of meaning, how far can we go in the non-referential desert form without cracking up and, of course, still keep alive the esoteric charm of disappearance?
Utopia has been achieved here and anti-utopia is being achieved: the anti-utopia of unreason, of deterritorialization, of the indeterminacy of language and the subject, of the neutralization of all values, of the death of culture. America is turning all this into reality and it is going about it in an uncontrolled, empirical way. All we do is dream and, occasionally, try and act out our dreams. America, by contrast, draws the logical, pragmatic consequences from everything that can possibly be thought. In this sense, it is naive and primitive; it knows nothing of the irony of concepts, nor the irony of seduction.
What is Baudrillard’s America? It’s the evangelical huckster driving a van filled with noxious, ersatz cure-alls down the highway at 100 mph with a loaded shotgun in his lap, drinking beer from some hat-straw contraption and slamming the whole thing into a 50-car pile-up, the cure-alls spilling out into some toxic event. It’s DeLillo’s White Noise to the nth degree. Baudrillard was writing about 80’s Reagan America but, absurd as the book often is, I think that in many respects it’s more accurate today than ever.
One could look at Trump’s America as the beginning of the end, but it strikes me to say that it is more reasonable to see it as the end of the end. To take Baudrillard seriously would be to consider that the beginning was at Plymouth Rock. However I think it’s easier to imagine a beginning in the post-industrial era, in the rise of other world economies (Germany, Japan, and now China), in the after-effects of “winning” the Cold War: so somewhere in the 70s or 80s. It’s the beginning of the end of a version of the American dream that led to the country as some egalitarian, cosmopolitan global leader. From Baudrillard’s perspective we were never meant to be that.
Of course all endings are also beginnings of a sort, a post-America to come. What would Baudrillard imagine it to be? Perhaps like The Matrix inspired by his work: an illusion covering brutal, systematic exploitation, a fantasy of messiahs and revolutions that never really emerge. What else? A brutal, incoherent theocracy. An inhuman corporate machine. Unrestrained scientific-capitalist, techno-entrepeneurial adventurism. Military-entertainment complex. Each one, in a series, geographically linked. I imagine you can see your state in one of these. To be sure, none of these are interested in justice, rights, or ethics–at least not in a sense that the other American dream would have imagined. Perhaps you still want to fight for that America. I don’t blame you. And that’s partly what led to the rejection of Baudrillard in cultural studies: his work is antithetical to such political projects. For Baudrillard, our primitivism is to be celebrated.
Asao Inoue has a thoughtful post here revisiting James Berlin and the idea of composition as instruction in democratic citizenship. Undoubtedly there is a deep connection to classical rhetoric in this connection, though Berlin revitalized that link for the postmodern era. Like Inoue, I was also strongly affected by Berlin as a grad student in the nineties, though perhaps in a slightly different way, and that difference may be at the heart of what I want to discuss here. Looking back at Berlin, Inoue observes
Berlin couldn’t see his own whiteness, or masculinity, or abledness. He surely could not incorporate some way to talk about his own white, male, middle-class subjectivity into his good call. I have often feared that the only critical pedagogy available to writing teachers and students in most places in the U.S. is a white critical pedagogy, or a critical pedagogy unable to see its own raced, classed, ableist, and gendered subject position. Many have made such critiques of Berlin and the kind of social epistemic rhetorical pedagogy he offered, but I’m not sure if as a field of teachers we’ve done much more than what Berlin has offered us.
I don’t think there’s anyway really to refute this observation. Fundamentally, all critical positions are first and foremost positions. To be one place is to not be somewhere else. Though I’m not sure this is necessarily all that prevalent in Berlin, in some critical pedagogies there lies an insistence that one is producing a kind of global knowledge that is true from everyone everywhere. There are some versions of Marxism that work that way, for example. While I’m not quite sure where Berlin would have come down on that matter, we are left with addressing the challenges of positionality.
This leads Inoue to the following questions and conclusion
What are the kinds of labors that make up citizen building? How do we read and judge — and teach students to read and judge — in ways that serve critical, democratic citizen building? How do we deal with judgment without falling back on white, middle class standards? Does Berlin offer ways to think about subjective judgment — that is, judgment that always necessarily comes from a subject position in time and space, which must be explained? We ask students to judge, we judge, and the rock bottom of the matter is, to teach writing is to teach judgment — that’s teaching how we are subjected to discourse, to echo Foucault. I missed this in my initial enthusiastic response to Berlin, but by the same token, he helps me see this issue today.
I think our job now as rhetorical scholars, writing scholars, and writing teachers is to draw out the learning-labors that build citizens, each of whom hold unique subject positions, but are learning in relation to larger structures of languaging, to academic discourses, to the hegemonic.
I am interested in this line: “to teach writing is to teach judgment.” Yes, of course: writers make decisions. However I would say that decision making is distributed. The selection of words in a sentence, the intuition/inspiration to write this post, and the decision to compose it this morning: how are those judgements formed? Surely not in some pure subjective space. Nor are they easily or even credibly mappable to these larger structures Inoue mentions. If we want to investigate the mechanisms of judgment, we need to begin with the mechanisms of cognition, starting with “where does cognition occur?” What is its position?
All of that is still a long conceptual hike from the idea of building democratic citizens. So, as we say in biz, let’s unpack that. First, all the students in FYC who are US citizens walk into the classroom as “democratic citizens.” Also, depending on the country from which they’ve hailed, international students might also be citizens of other democracies. Strictly speaking, they do not need to be “built.” That said, the particular characteristics of each student as a citizen are constructed over time, and undoubtedly we’re talking about the kinds of citizens they are, the subjective-ideological qualities they embody. For Berlin, essentially, this meant helping students acquire a neo-Marxist, postmodern cultural studies critical understanding of representation, discourse, and ideology. As Inoue points out, it’s an approach that remains very influential in FYC, even at the level of textbooks. I suppose the idea is that such an education would change student practices as citizens, leading them to be more skeptical-critical of hegemonic messages and more accepting of cultural heterogeneity. It’s that second part that I have always doubted. That is, I’m not sure subjectivity functions in such a way that it can be altered so by pedagogy, particularly not in any long-term fashion. I think classroom pedagogies and discourses can be fashioned in such a way as to influence student behavior during a semester, but without those structures in place, I would think other networks take over and then students are made to act in new ways.
We’re entering uncertain times in 2017. At minimum one could say that feelings are running high. One prevailing story of the election is that it is an explicit reaction from the right against the implicit politics of a position like Inoue’s, one that seeks to recognize and protect those who are not white, male, straight, abled, etc. Out in mainstream and social media, there are those who would call for an even more strident opposition to white supremacy. Elsewhere are those who would suggest the need to better understand those who voted for Trump and see a more complicated picture. Perhaps these are not opposing strategies, but they often seem like they are.
I understand and respect my many colleagues, including many of the instructors in my own composition program, who view their teaching as an explicitly political project that seeks to alter the cultural-ideological values of students in specific ways. Ethically, at the core of such a view, I imagine, is the understanding that education is always, already an ideological operation. No pedagogy is ideologically neutral but only seems that way when it rests comfortably within the background assumptions of hegemony. To imagine that only courses that push against those assumptions are political is to fail to recognize what is actually happening in pedagogy. At the same time, I tend to agree more with others in my field who have investigated the limits of such approaches and their underlying understanding of ideology, subjectivity, and institutions. Some might argue that we’ve gotten to this point because of postmodern cultural studies. It’s radical doubting of science and fact and it’s deep commitment to particular leftist identity politics might certainly seem to have foretold this dramatic reversal where right-wing ideologues build apparent legitimacy and ethos from lies, fears, feelings, and values. But I think that ascribes far too much influence to these academic discourses. This shift is more likely explained by viewing these responses both from the religious right and the academic left as products of some other common context.
Still that leaves us with what to do in FYC in 2017. How do we contribute to our students understanding of the rhetorical operation of citizenship? Do we push for a particular political perspective? Is it possible to do otherwise? Do we “teach the conflicts” as Gerald Graff suggested nearly 30 years ago? For me, the answers to these questions have to begin where I began above with understanding the construction of positionality and distributed mechanisms of judgment. I’m sure I have a different understanding than Berlin did, which leads to different judgments and actions. I hope that one can read in Inoue a call to open up investigations at that level.
Two weeks ago I wrote a post about Mark Lilla’s NY Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism.” As I noted then, I did not imagine many of my colleagues would share his views (and neither do I, as I think that post made clear, though perhaps I had different objections than other academics). Chris Newfield offers a particularly worthwhile response to Lilla, and I want to consider it specifically in relation to teaching FYC.
First though I need to pay some direct attention to Lilla and Newfield and start by differentiating goals from methods. That is, should we imagine their differences lie in having different goals, different visions, of the future of America? Or do they share a vision but differ over the means to get there? In my reading of Newfield’s argument, it’s the former. In writing about the emergence of Clintonism, Newfield writes, “The basic stakes were whether whites were going to demand that post-1960s ethnic groups assimilate to a common culture that whites defined, or, on the other hand, move toward a polycentric society in which fundamental values would be achieved through negotiation within shared legal ground rules.” He contends that for the Clintons, it was the former, what he goes on to call “cultural unionism,” a position he then attaches to Lilla. Where Eurocentrism insisted other cultural groups assimilate to Western, white culture, cultural unionism offered a softer touch: “The crucial compromise of the latter was that it offered flexible tolerance while still rejecting cultural parity or equality, and insisting instead on unity and shared foundations. The unionists trained their fire on calls for cultural autonomy (like Afrocentrism) that seemed to them to reject their kinder, gentler version of assimilation to an implicitly rather than aggressively white common culture.” As almost goes without saying, the Trump ideology assumes the superiority of Euro-American culture. Perhaps Lilla is a cultural unionist. He certainly wants to argue that an effective liberal politics moving forward is one that emphasizes common interests among Americans rather than what he perceives (or at least what is perceived by many) as the interests of particular groups.
In any case, I share Newfield’s closing observation, quoting Stephen Steinberg that “where there is social, economic, and political parity among the constituent groups, ethnic conflict, when it occurs, tends to be at a low level and rarely spills over into violence.” I would put it this way: we are in the situation in which we find ourselves now because many “constituent groups” view themselves as having been treated unjustly, that there is a lack of parity. I will leave it to someone else to judge those claims of injustice, rank grievances, and so on.
Instead I want to turn to higher education’s role, especially the role of FYC. I think Newfield does a good job of briefly describing the role higher education has played in the last 20 years as a mechanism of neoliberal capitalism: developing the individual human capital of STEM-trained professions; creating culturally-tolerant office workers for a global economy; and preparing flexible subjects for a lifetime of retraining, part-time “freelance” work, and geographic relocation. We become always connected contingent workers whose cultural-subjective differences can be tolerated and even celebrated as long as they don’t amount to anything beyond an expression or style. Whatever higher education’s complicity in such goals as an “industry,” in more local terms colleges and faculty have also resisted and critiqued such efforts, developing curricula along those lines. The rise of cultural studies in the composition classroom is one such development, though I think there’s always been some tension over whether such pedagogies manage to create truly resistance critical thinkers or rather only strip away some of the hometown, parochial prejudices of students in preparation for their roles as tolerant global workers. It’s probably not an either/or proposition.
It’s inevitable that higher education has a massive, though variable effect on American culture, so I think generalizations are difficult. Newfield ends with this claim, “The public university can either stand for racial and economic parity as a unified project, or it can continue its decline.” I think this might mean many things. For instance, one could argue that a cultural unionist position seeks racial and economic parity through higher education. It says “come to college and learn to be one of ‘us,’ so you can make a good living.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what Newfield has in mind. So what we have here is a common means–college education–put to presumably different ends. I’m assuming that Newfield’s ends are, roughly speaking, in line with the “polycentric society in which fundamental values would be achieved through negotiation within shared legal ground rules” mentioned above. In that case, I would think the role of FYC would not be to argue for a particular set of “fundamental values” but rather develop rhetorical capacities for citizens to participate in that negotiation irrespective of the position they would bring to the negotiation table. That’s a different role than the one generally ascribed to the cultural studies composition classroom.
Perhaps this is a departure from concerns of distributed deliberation, fake news and such. Perhaps not. Here though I begin with the rhetoric of an emerging sub-genre regarding humanity’s slow, dismal apocalypse in the wake of intelligent machines. I offer two examples, one from the New Yorker, “Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Problem” by Om Malik and the other from The Atlantic, “Watching the World Rot at Europe’s Largest Tech Conference” by Sam Kriss. Viewers of HBO’s WestWorld (like myself) should have a good sense of the tone of such work but to offer a taste.
when you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you can’t really wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society. We are not just talking about the ability to influence voters with fake news. If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travelers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.
In the accounts given by philosophers like Bernard Stiegler, the human stands on the point of vanishing entirely; we become something incidental to a total technological system. As he points out, a human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society. We create tools, but technical apparatuses and their milieus advance according to their own logic, and these non-living objects have their own strange form of life. Our brains developed to control our hands; human consciousness itself was only the by-product of a technical evolution that moved from flint-knapping to the hammer to the virtual bartender; its real job isn’t to perform any particular task but to perpetuate itself. “Robots,” he writes, are “seemingly designed no longer to free humanity from work but to consign it either to poverty or stress.” Whatever illusion of predominance we had is fading: For others, like Benjamin Bratton, the real political subject is no longer a human individual but a “user,” which can be any kind of biological or digital assemblage. With production automated according to algorithmically generated targets, with the vast majority of all written language taking the form of spam and junk code, this system has less and less use for us—even as a moving part—with every passing day.
Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.
There’s some perhaps gallows humor in the notion that the qualities that are supposed to separate us from machines like intelligence, empathy, and ethics are qualities we so often fail to display. But let’s press on. One point shared by Malik and Kriss that connects with the election is the way technological developments are making human labor obsolete. In many respects, this is not a new story. Think of the story of John Henry. Indeed many have argued that we are entering a historical period when we will no longer be able to define ourselves by the work we do or place so much moral value on labor. Read this article for example, where James Livingston suggests that we “Fuck Work.” Or you might consider these articles on the 538 Blog and in The New Yorker on the idea of having universal basic income (i.e. where every citizen gets sent a check each month). Regardless of whether or not you think basic income is a good solution, the problem it seeks to address is plain. We may not need people to work as much as we once did. More poignantly, we don’t require people to do the same kinds of work.
In another example Malik offers
Otto, a Bay Area startup that was recently acquired by Uber, wants to automate trucking—and recently wrapped up a hundred-and-twenty-mile driverless delivery of fifty thousand cans of beer between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. From a technological standpoint it was a jaw-dropping achievement, accompanied by predictions of improved highway safety. From the point of view of a truck driver with a mortgage and a kid in college, it was a devastating “oh, shit” moment. That one technical breakthrough puts nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk.
One of this year’s primary election narratives is of Trump supporters’ hope that he will keep his promise to bring back their lost factory jobs. Those lost jobs are blamed on trade agreements, which leads to other kinds of political-ideological affects, but many have been lost to technological change. Read about it in The Economist, The Washington Post, and Fortune. Citing this report, the Fortune article notes that only about 13% of lost manufacturing jobs are a result of trade agreements. The rest are a result of domestic shifts, primarily the increased productivity per worker of factories as a result of automation (i.e. robots). However, if the truck driver didn’t need the truck to have a home or pay college tuition, then would s/he care about the robot getting behind the wheel? One might believe that an idea like basic income is far too socialist for American tastes, and that’s likely right. But government intervention in technological development to ensure that truck drivers or factory workers aren’t replaced by robots is really no less socialist in the end, right? The only other option is training/education for those displaced workers (and hopefully not just into another industry that is soon to be automated).
So this is where I depart from the spirit/tone of Malik and Kriss’ articles. There’s no doubt that they are describing a real problem. And do we need to think more carefully and empathically about the ethical implications of technological developments. Sure. I mean, who’s going to say “no we don’t” to such a proposition? When I hear such conversations, I think about the Italian Futurists fascist aesthetics or Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. There are many challenges and pitfalls here. However, I also think of how Fredric Jameson defined modernity in Postmodernism as “the way ‘modern’ people feel about themselves: the word would seem to have something to do not with the products (either cultural or industrial) but with the producers and the consumers, and how they feel either producing the products or living among them. This modern feeling now seems to consist in the conviction that we ourselves are somehow new, that a new age is beginning… we have to be somehow absolutely, radically modern; which is to say (presumably) that we have to make ourselves modern, too; it’s something we do, not merely something that happens to us” (310). Writing in the eighties and early nineties, Jameson suggested that we no longer felt this modern feeling in the postmodern era. But now I think we might once again. It’s fair enough to point to the insensitivity of developers, tech designers, Silicon Valley investors, and so on. They have a part in this. So too do the engineers, computer scientists, and corporate executives automating one industry after another. But the largest burden falls on all of us to build new subjective relations among these new systems. The question should not be what use the system has for us but rather what use we have for the system. Perhaps like the moderns of a century ago who met the challenges of the second industrial revolution, we have our own technocultural challenges to face.
We can see robots as mechanical, as incapable of empathy or ethical choices beyond those their programming forces them to obey, but if we view empathy and ethics as emergent network effects, then we can recognize that nonhumans have always participated in our capacities for empathic, ethical actions. Moving human labor out of the factory can be an empathic and ethical act enabled by robots as long as the humans affected are not relegated to “poverty or stress” as Stiegler and Kriss would suggest. That’s the political problem that needs solving.
In Neuromancer William Gibson famously described cyberspace as
A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.
In my last post I wrote about “distributed deliberation:” a recognition of the way in which our capacities for deliberation, like our capacities for cognition, rely upon our relations with our media ecology. Understanding the role information media technologies play in deliberative processes is the first step toward addressing problems like fake news and echo chambers. Of course it’s not really that simple. Yes, there are stories like this one in The New York Times about a college student in Georgia (the Russian one) and his fake news site. He’s freely acknowledging that he is producing fake news and doing it to make money. Alongside those who are indifferently but intentionally presenting false information are those who might be propagandists who also intentionally present false information but for specific political purposes. As tricky as it may or may not prove to be to identify such content, at least I think we can all agree in our desire not to be deliberately deceived. Whether or not we can agree that it is unethical to use deception to further our own political ends against either foreign or domestic political opponents is another matter.
From there the territory gets murkier. The Washington Post published a widely-shared story on fake news a few days ago. It reports on a number of events and refers to a series of sources. One of the sources is an anonymous group of “researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds” who call themselves PropOrNot. Here’s their website, which includes a list of publications they deemed to be propaganda. This article prompted a number of responses from publications and others who asserted they had been unjustly identified. Two examples are here and here. I would suggest that you take a look at them and make up your own mind about what’s going on there. I just want to talk about one aspect of it. In one of the two articles linked above, Caitlin Johnstone describes the Post‘s interest in fake news as “their latest frantic attempt to claw power back to the neoliberal establishment.” In the other, Newton and Greenwald write,
The Post story served the agendas of many factions: those who want to believe Putin stole the election from Hillary Clinton; those who want to believe that the internet and social media are a grave menace that needs to be controlled, in contrast to the objective truth which reliable old media outlets once issued; those who want a resurrection of the Cold War. So those who saw tweets and Facebook posts promoting this Post story instantly clicked and shared and promoted the story without an iota of critical thought or examination of whether the claims were true, because they wanted the claims to be true. That behavior included countless journalists.
In short, these claims introduce what I would consider a more difficult challenge. As you know, those on the right would name the Post and the NY Times as prime examples of liberal media (just as those on the left would look at Fox or Breitbart as conservative media). Here we have those further on the left seeing the Post and Times as centrist, neoliberal media. For what it’s worth, here’s another article (this one from the right) making the same basic claim about PropOrNot (that it’s a liberal centrist conspiracy). Let’s assume they are all correct and all news, all sources of information, are always already overdetermined by ideological commitments to the point where no information can be trusted. I would assume one couldn’t even trust oneself as you’d have to be the biggest megalomaniac ever to believe you were the one person on the planet immune to this overdetermination.
What do we do next? What we have done is pick a side and decide that it is the most true. (Or maybe one might say that even the act of picking a side is itself overdetermined.) I’d call this consensual hallucination. News and facts become tools and weapons in the political conflict that ensues. They become intertwined with analysis and polemic in such a way that it becomes very difficult to distinguish among them. The thing about such practices is that the facts employed do not need to be fabricated. One just needs to be selective about facts and then rhetorically skilled to build an argument around them. Once one sets aside the profiteering fake news hucksters and shadowy enemy state propagandists, one might still find cynical manipulators of news production at media outlets but one also finds many people who firmly believe in the work they are producing and view themselves as ethical, even though their opponents do not see them as such. So if you look at an organization like PropOrNot, do we imagine it is a cynical operation designed to mislead readers for specific purposes or an organization genuinely attempting to identify and limit the effects of Russian propaganda? If it’s the latter, then we could still say “Well, you’re not going a very good job of it.” As far as that goes, what about The Washington Post or any of these other authors or publications?
In this situation what we have is a fundamental breakdown of institutional function. If news is fundamentally ideological, then you’d be a fool to believe it, even the news that reflects your own views, maybe especially that news. In theory, the news media, as a collective institution, is supposed to do the work for citizens of ensuring that news reporting, while always limited and open to error, is as fair and accurate as we can make it. It does that work, so we don’t have to. If you want to be really gloomy about it, you can add all the other social institutions along with it: government, law enforcement, education, corporations, religion, healthcare, etc. etc. Why believe anyone is out there doing anything other than promoting their individual interests in a free market capitalist environment devoid of any values and/or being suckered into serving someone else’s interests? Perhaps that is the case, though if so we are probably screwed.
Personally I’m not that cynical. However, we do need to rebuild these institutions. I’m not going to talk about how here in a post that is already far too long. The obvious first step though is deciding that we want to rebuild them. We need to recognize that while we will continue to disagree about many things that we would all benefit from a news media whose practices made visible their own limits and made explicit efforts to reduce bias within those limits to produce news that was as trustworthy for citizens as possible. To me that doesn’t mean inviting two or more hopelessly partisan hacks to offer dueling “spins.”
If some Americans are slowly rousing to the realization that getting information via social media resulted in a distorted (and sometimes completely false) view of past election, perhaps they might be able to extend that epiphany to recognize that the distortion is ongoing and not limited to presidential politics. It is also not limited to the specific social media effects of echo chambers and fake news or even strictly social media. I will talk about these things as available means of persuasion (they persuaded you, right?). The problem now is what to do. And it is a serious issue; one might say it is a matter of national security as other nation states employ social media and fake news to destabilize our democracy. Indeed as this Washington Post story reports, the boundaries between fake news and propaganda are blurry.
Before we can move forward though we’d have to agree on a few things. The first is that we don’t want to be dupes. There are plenty of pieces popping up about how to identify fake news when you encounter it. But the primary hurdle to that is whether or not you care about the accuracy of something you’re reading or sharing. The total fabrications are probably not hard to detect. Then there are things with some truth in them (analogous to political smear–ahem, I mean ad–campaigns) but are selective and slanted. Then there’s discerning the difference between an op-ed piece and a news piece. There’s recognizing that news can only ever tell part of the story and that in necessarily choosing to report on one story another goes unreported. (I.e., we have limits). Once we get through all of that, then we can start on figuring out interpretive processes for understanding the significance of a particular news report.
Before we get too overwhelmed though, we can recognize the elements of this challenge are longstanding. Maybe you remember Jon Stewart lampooning CNN’s Crossfire? Or maybe you read Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent from the 80s. Presumably we all know of the operation of Nazi and Soviet propaganda from the middle of the century (even if we sometimes failed to recognize it among ourselves) or the rise of advertising in the same period (you watched Mad Men, right?).And there’s the yellow journalism that dragged us into the Spanish-American War. You can go further back but once you start predating mass media the media ecological conditions are so different the comparisons are quite strained. The good news is that we already have some very good mechanisms for producing good information, not perfect information, but “good enough,” by which I mean information which, when relied upon for action, bears through. The scientific method and other research methods carried out by experts and professionals are some examples. And we have accessible strategies for critically evaluating media we encounter, as I mentioned above.
However none of that is really the problem I want to talk about. I really just wanted to point out that 1)we probably should want good information, 2) these things have happened before and 3) we already have some means for producing and evaluating good information. The obvious current problem is that not only that “good information” is mixed in with other types (faulty, maliciously misleading, playfully misleading, etc.) but also that there is an overwhelming amount of potentially good information and some of it exists in genres that are not easily understood by the citizenry as a whole. I say “potentially” good information because even if the information is well-produced it may not be the information you need for the particular question your asking. Just looking in English Studies, there’s a ton of good information about literature. Is it useful to you? Maybe.
So that’s where we get what I’m calling “distributed deliberation.” It’s a term the plays off of Edwin Hutchins “distributed cognition” (read about it in Wikipedia if you like). Basically the idea is that our capacities for cognition arise through relations with our environment, and we become capable of more and different cognitive tasks as we develop that environment. In this sense, we’ve “always already” had a distributed deliberative environment. We’ve relied on trusted friends, families, community leaders, and institutions to help us: churches and schools, even the media and government. In the contemporary media ecology, we also need to rely more directly and self-evidently upon machines. The processes (or procedural rhetorics to borrow Ian Bogost’s term) of Google, Facebook, Amazon or YouTube (just to name the four most visited sites in the US) must make choices for you; they must deliberate. Even some pseudo-random presentation of links, posts, products, or videos would be a form of deliberation, of choosing.
Certainly there are humans deeply involved in those processes. Humans write and manage the algorithms at work here, though that does not mean that they can fully predict how they will work. And sometimes when they do, some humans make calculated decisions that do not benefit the rest of us, as with Facebook’s actions related to fake news. But before we show up as Zuckerberg’s door with pitchforks, we need to understand that deliberation isn’t easy, as this Bloomberg article discusses. How do we teach machines to recognize grey areas when we have trouble doing so ourselves? Perhaps in another post I’ll write–half seriously–about the future of “artisanal information.”
So here’s the bottomline:
- We need to recognize the role of the media ecology in deliberation and that it’s not inherently bad that deliberation is distributed.
- We need to develop specific understandings of the deliberative processes of the sites on which we rely the most (e.g. when you look at your FB page or the results of a Google search, do you know why you are seeing the particular information you are seeing?)
- We need to re-articulate the specific epistemological methods–including their advantages and limits–that we will accept as legitimate constructors of knowledge.
- We need to understand the rhetorical features of the genres that participate in the construction and communication of that knowledge such that we can know when a particular piece of media has gone out of bounds.
- We need to build technologies that can allow us to reward and punish media appropriately so that our deliberative acts can shape the automated processes that build the media ecologies we experience.
But maybe before that, we need to agree on what a “fact” is, how facts are made, and how we judge whether or not a particular fact is well-made.
In a New York Times editorial, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Mark Lilla, a Columbia history professor, makes an argument that runs against much of the discourse I hear from the academic left. I am curious what others think of it. In part I’m writing this to work through my own thoughts on the matter. All of this stuff here is exploratory and rudimentary.
So Lilla writes the following, specifically targeting teachers and the press:
the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.
And then later I believe this is his core thesis:
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)
Having attended a panel on campus on Friday on “healing the divide” after the election (the title was created at the beginning of the semester, btw), I don’t think Lilla’s argument would have been widely popular there, or indeed in many of the academic communities in which I’ve worked for really my entire adult life. With only a modest caveat about generalizations, I would say that quite clearly one of the expressed goals of pedagogy and scholarship (broadly speaking, but certainly in the humanities) has been to teach students not to be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Really the greatest tension I typically hear around this objective is simultaneously recognizing that one is unavoidably all these things, so that complicates teaching the mitigation of these problems.
My non-expert understanding of liberalism is that, in its Classical, 18th century-Enlightenment sense, it was grounded on notions of freedom: free speech, freedom of religion, free markets, secular government, and so on. It’s one of the forms of government that arises with modernity. In its later 19th-20th century forms as Social Liberalism, the concerns turn more toward equality. The notion I float in the title of a “nonmodern, nonliberal society” is an obvious gesture toward Latour. It would suggest that the ontological principles on which liberalism is based are misunderstood. What are the ontological principles? I suppose you could look at the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. To be clear, when I say these truths are misunderstood, I don’t mean that they are untrue but rather that we have a limited and problematic understanding of how these ontological conditions are produced and maintained. (After all the Declaration asserts that they were given to us by a “Creator.”) I’ll circle back to that.
Similarly I am employing a non-expert notion of pluralism to mean accepting that people in a community will have different values and objectives. The one common value/objective a pluralist society requires is that its members will not seek to impose their values or objectives on one another. In part, learning this value might emerge from a practical understanding of the impossibility of common values. It’s a game of whack-a-mole. Differences always arise.
What is necessary however is an ability to agree on common practices. Continuing my headlong tumble into areas in which I have little expertise, I think about this in terms of a non-zero sum game and cooperative gaming. In such a scenario, I do not need to share values or even objectives with my partners. As long as I agree that our actions are desirable for me (i.e., consonant with my own values and objectives) then our collective agreement to undertake this action is a benefit to me, even if the others are doing it for different reasons. Of course it only works with the basic agreement on pluralism, which I don’t think we have in our society right now, so this post shouldn’t be taken in any way as a suggestion for an immediate course of action (don’t worry, I didn’t really imagine you were reading it that way; it’s more of a disclaimer). In no way do I mean to suggest that this is easy. We all still have values and goals, and when those are very divergent, as they are now, mutually beneficial practices, or even tit-for-tat compromises, can be almost unachievable. In such scenarios we often begin by trying to appeal to common values but they may not exist or be common in name only. That’s why I think focusing on practices can be useful, and the more detailed and specific the practices are the better it is, as the lines back to values and goals become fuzzier. Developing, agreeing, and abiding to common practices can be a foundation for moving forward with people with whom you disagree.
Turning back to where I began with Lilla… I think he is arguing that we should minimize identity politics and emphasize our collectivity over our differences. I would look at it a little differently. Perhaps by “Americans” we mean to name a group of actors gathered around a series of matters of concern (as Lilla puts it, “issues that affect a vast majority”). Is it possible to explore those concerns and build practices we can agree will address them without shared values?
I went to see Arrival last night. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it fits into the subgenre of science fiction where scientists save the world in the face of aliens, panicked citizens, paranoid politicians, and trigger-happy soldiers. To be sure there are other kinds of contact movies (E.T. for example) where friendly aliens are met by kids or everyday folks, who protect them from scientists and government types, but the idea of scientists, engineers, and related experts coming to the rescue is a common sci-fi theme. One could say Star Trek is founded on that notion both as a setting (in a near utopian society founded on technoscientific solutions) and as a plot device (problems and solutions are articulated in pseudo-technical and scientific ways).
However, I’m not so much interested in talking about science fiction here as one of the aspects of our current political situation: the role of experts and elites, particularly those who might fall within the pejorative moniker of “liberal elites.” I would call liberal elite a category but I don’t think it really hangs together that well. The term is applied to people from many disciplines who have both disciplinary and political differences among them. And, as I increasingly tend to these days, I am interested in understanding this issue in a kind of Latourian, new materialist rhetorical way, which has the added benefit of pissing off almost everyone. But really what that means here in this most preliminary gesture is taking people at their own word when they account for how they were made to act.
So take, for example, this article in Politico, which is basically a series of interviews with folks in rural PA who voted for Trump. Really any cultural critic could make quick work of these folks, demonstrating the racist, sexist, homophobic (etc.) ideological foundations of their views. One could unveil how they misunderstand the nature of the problems they face and how they need to be solved (e.g., why environmental regulations are important for them even though it means they can’t work in the coal mine or why nationalized health care and regulated global markets are a benefit to them). One might even make appeals to history and the Constitution to show why we should be moving toward a more open and diverse society, even though doing so makes permanent cultural changes to the places where they have lived. Fundamentally it would be an argument about how government is best directed by the advice and knowledge of experts.
I’m not doing any of those things here. There are plenty of places to find such arguments. I’m also not saying that I don’t find many of those arguments convincing myself. But that’s not the point. Furthermore, to make this clear. One could equally go into black, Hispanic, Muslim, and LGBT communities and gain a parallel understanding of their own accounts for how they were made to act. And one could also do the same among liberal, college-educated whites. One could undertake the same critical moves, and there’s also plenty of evidence of people doing just that, as the various intersectional tensions of the coalition on the left burst at the seams. And just with the critiques of Trump voters, I find many of these critiques of Clinton, Bernie, and Green Party supporters equally convincing.
But what do I mean by convincing? Fundamentally I mean that I acknowledge that they conform to the rhetorical and discursive requirements of a genre that I recognize as having value in describing our experience. But what’s the limit of that?
Let me take a slightly less inflammatory part of this: climate change. I don’t want to get into this issue, but for basics, this wikipedia article cites a number of studies regarding the number of climate scientists who believe the human impact on climate change is “significant.” There are a number of polls out there about the varying attitudes of Americans. I don’t really want to talk about whether or not climate change is real or significant. I want to talk about the shape of the discourse. It’s perhaps understandable that disagreements over the particular policies and actions the government should take regarding climate change would be organized around the primary ideological poles in our nation. What is strange though is that acceptance of the scientific conclusions about climate change should also mirror the same ideological commitments. In part what’s odd about that is that in many other instances, my generally liberal-left colleagues in the humanities are skeptical and critical about the claims of science but not so when it comes to climate change. Similarly, people on the right are happy to endorse scientific methods when they are building our military-technological infrastructure or helping oil companies drill and frack but reject science as conspiracy when it comes to the climate.
Putting a rhetorical twist on a Latourian insight, part of the challenge for experts is convincing multiple, diverse audiences that the processes of scientific and academic knowledge-making result in constructions that have value. In a new materialist rhetorical perspective, this would include building human-nonhuman spaces that can facilitate this communication. I.e., it’s not just a matter of words. And it can’t just be unidirectional. That is, expert, academic-scientific discourses must contend with other discourses in this space and cannot expect to be able to demand recognition as truth. Clearly that has not worked in these communities, not only in terms of climate change but perhaps more importantly in terms of social policy and justice.
I have little optimism in the prospect of such things happening soon. We are far too divided not only on what the effects of proposed right-wing policies will be and the goals we should be seeking to accomplish but even fundamentally on the nature of the reality in which we are living. We can barely agree on the color of the sky, and we certainly cannot agree on why it is that color. Furthermore, I can’t even argue that we should be trying to overcome our divisions. This may very well be a situation of class-ideological struggle were one side is going to win out rather than there being anything like a compromise. It would probably take some singular event on the order of aliens showing up to unite us.
Really all I want to keep in mind is the limits of the expert discourses whose repudiation is one of the many apparent outcomes of the election.