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The forms of late modernity

July 14, 2014

I’ve been in England for a seminar for the last week, so this week’s post will consist, not of any substantive writing of my own, but of a handful of links to recent articles I find interesting. The theme: the concept of personhood, and its relevance to the difficulties of what English professors like to call “Late Modernity,” and which I might prefer to call “what happens when we invent new ways of imposing form on matter, and must deal with how the facts of the matter sometimes resist the reformation.”

First up, The View from Hell, in “Why People Used to Have Children,” answers the question thus:

It’s hard for us even to imagine, but children used to be valuable – they used to be much more like slaves or farm animals, which are both very valuable. They were also treated much more like slaves, with patriarchs (at least) maintaining distance from children, as Caldwell notes. Consider the history of the study, compared to the lowly and shameful “man cave,” for a sense of the old style of family relations. A wife was not only a valuable RealDoll, but also a valuable slave factory. Making a new “person” – on which the state has claims, but you do not, and toward whom you have (class-dependent) obligations – is a much less economically attractive proposition than making a new slave.

The point is that “personhood,” while not “fictional,” is nevertheless an artificial category; and moving from a world of humans to a world of persons changes a number of things, some for the better–it’s surely an improvement that we no longer keep children as slaves–some not. But it doesn’t just complicate things on a practical level, it completely changes what it’s like to be a self at all; in Charles Taylor’s terms, it becomes buffered rather than porous. Alan Jacobs in “Fantasy and the Buffered Self” asks:

Might it not be possible to experience the benefits, while avoiding the costs, of both the porous and the buffered self? I want to argue here that it is precisely this desire that accounts for the rise to cultural prominence, in late modernity, of the artistic genre of fantasy. Fantasy — in books, films, television shows, and indeed in all imaginable media — is an instrument by which the late modern self strives to avail itself of the unpredictable excitements of the porous self while retaining its protective buffers. Fantasy, in most of its recent forms, may best be understood as a technologically enabled, and therefore safe, simulacrum of the pre-modern porous self.

There is, I think, a lot to this. And I would compare it to how our acceptance of artificial online territories–Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc–are a response to the complete ungroundedness of much of our everyday lives. The natural world is full of dangers, and so we create systems to protect us from it; but our life within these systems is completely abstract, taking place in legalese and economese; and so we accept the creation of new, safe, worlds, which excite in us a kind of nostalgia, and in which we now conduct our lives. The problem is not that the new world is new. Rather, it is that it we must cede ownership of the new world to the ones who create it. Hence jay in “Colonising the Clouds” argues that, if we treat information like territory, then Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc–what he calls “stacks”–are more like states than like corporations:

So the idea that Facebook has territory, is like imagining that when I log in to Facebook, I cross some kind of psychogeographical border and am now on Facebook’s turf

There are, however, important dissimilarities between real and simulated territory. The real need only be defended; its simulacrum, on the other hand, will simply vanish if work is not put into its constant maintenance. The work comes in many forms: generating electricity, laying cables, calculating prime numbers, generating user feedback.

Consider, for example, this newly invented app. The goal: to algorithmically determine the most aesthetically pleasing route from A to B. But the very idea of an algorithmic, i.e. effortless, aesthetics contains a hidden contradiction. The app can only create a simulacrum of an aesthetic judgment, by means of a statistical survey; and it does so by constantly forcing on the user the question: Do I agree with the algorithm’s decision? If so, is it only because everyone else does? If not, is it only because my tastes are perverse? What is the difference between what is good and what the algorithm says? In other words, the forming of the algorithm–

To work out whether the routes chosen by the algorithm are really more beautiful, Quercia and co recruited 30 people who live in London and are familiar with the area, to assess the recommended paths. And indeed, they agreed that the routes chosen by the algorithm were more beautiful than the shortest routes.

–is not a prelude to the algorithm’s use, but rather a description of it.

“But,” you say, “that’s true of all aesthetic judgment; just replace ‘the algorithm’ with ‘other people.'” Yes: but unlike algorithms, people I can talk to. When I can’t talk to someone else about whose reasons are better, I cannot, as the algorithmic method imagines, give feedback unconsciously, letting the A/B testing make my life effortless. Rather, I’m forced to talk to myself, to scrutinize my own judgment to see whether it was authentic. But discussing reasons, not achieving “authenticity,” is what gives aesthetic experience its real value.

The algorithm replaces the giving of reasons with the gathering of evidences. From the algorithm’s point of view, we cease to be persons, and become slaves. Our task: to walk the various routes and report back on the gap between reality and what the algorithm says of it. Our pay: aesthetic “pleasure,” and its accompanying anxiety, without the happiness of engaging in the aesthetic agon. The algorithm’s goal: dominion.

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