I just went and beat back the lawn, which was a demeaning and long-overdue task. And one that is fundamentally fruitless at best, because it will only grow back. If I were in charge (I rent, and so am not) I would tear the entire lawn up, and put in a garden, or gravel, or used auto parts, or anything not grass, which I consider a weed for its rate of growth and relative uselessness. But I’m not, and so I slog outside, to cut back the biomass that seeks to encircle the back porch.
Having raked the zen rock garden of that vine-choked lot with a power trimmer, I was able to let loose some of the anger welling up in my spleen from a similarly endless task at which I throw myself time and time again, though not to avoid fines from any rental agreement. I type essay after long essay in Sisyphean exercise, ranting against that which I disagree with, desperately trying, through the pains of logic and theory to beat back that which I find misconstrued, illogical, syllogistic, and wrongheaded. My motivation for this self-inflicted punishment is an imp that gnaws upon the base of my brain. It’s name is truth. Little “t”, of course; it is more yeasty infection than incubus. And yet, it grows. And as it grows, I type.
And I know I ought to quit. I should produce something that gives a bit more joy, that might be received a bit more easily than “reading,” which seems so much like hard work. Why paint a picture too large for most to view it? What good is a six-hour film epic no one will view past the first half an hour? Why pen a book when the readers will wait for the movie, or wait for the two-minute internet video summary, or simply read the title and consider the point absorbed?
Why should I write an article, finely mincing dense philosophical ideas into something the average palette might enjoy with a little open-mindedness, when I still end up with an essay 3500 words long, that being 2000 words longer than the standard piece of intellectual writing on the internet? Not to say that the few hundred page views that it might receive, whether from the number of regular readers or from Google Image Search tourists are not worth nothing. I just know my own choir. And though there is perhaps no greater pleasure than having a conversation between friends, maybe it isn’t necessary to yell so loud, and for so long. But this very dynamic is what brings on the yelling; I’m trying to draw in from the street the people who need to hear this. And so I call to them as they wonder what all the screaming is about, and move a little quicker down the road.
It is that there is not only an infection in my logic brain centers driving me to attempt to express myself in abstract language, it is that there is a desperate need for it in the world. Or so I would tell you. It is that there is such a need to explain the function of the world, and such a small number of good explanations currently accessible. It’s the need for a technical manual, but only having a typewriter cast in unknown script with which to write it. It’s that I could pour all of my skill, my craft, my education, and my talent into an attempt to guide us towards a better interaction with the world around us, and it would still be insufficient. No matter how measured my tone, and how melodious my words, how sharp my rhetoric and how aimed my logic, hitting the brief ring between abstract and obtuse is near impossible. My words either wash away, or are treated as stain. They either become dust, or they gather it.
It would be easy to blame those whom I try to reach. Goodness knows that others have. Nicholas Carr, Martha Nussbaum, and others have railed against the lack of audience for the finer, more delicate arguments and subjects in the world. They preach for what is important, and seems, in light of its recent popular reception, less so. In doing so they are easily mocked for sounding desperate, and for sounding mournful. They sound annoyed that no one is listening to them, and it is easy to reduce their points to that. And in so doing, make the inevitable mocking response flow so much more easily and overwhelmingly of a deluge.
Larry Sanger is the most recent to accuse the modern-day audience of not paying close enough attention. (And secondary reiteration, here.) And you know, he’s right. He is so right. But what does it matter, when it is phrased like this? Is it better to write the theoretical essay and be ignored, or to write the easily understood essay about why the theoretical essay is ignored, and to be mocked and derided? Which is more depressing? Which is more hurtful to the intellectual soul?
There is nothing that hurts me more than that. It hurts because there is no intellectual response to it. There is no argument that can overcome that, no rebuttal that stands up to it. “I know you are, but what am I.” It makes the intellectual anger rise. It makes the brain wish to ball into a fist.
You’re An Idiot; Release The Kraken.
But I don’t have a Kraken. All I have are more words. All I have is a lawn that keeps growing. And I have this yeasty imp, fueled by the anger-agar that seeps from my optic nerve to the embryonic root of my brain. There it grows, and begins to stink.
Let me share some of this stink with you.
Sanger is correct, but he writes in a way that will obviously offend, and thereby make his point mute (yes, mute, not moot). Not that he oughtn’t to tell it how it is, but using very generic terms like “geek” and “intellectual”, in my opinion, allows more excuses than accusations, because responders quibble and evade on these points, rather than dealing with the root of his argument. The same thing with tossing Higher Education on the table: an entirely different Gordian Knot, that has connecting lines to be sure, and yet isn’t the same problem.
So let me rephrase, or remix if you like, what is basically his argument, but from my own perspective, using words I hope are more helpful.
Here is how I would phrase the problem:
The respect and credence given to technical knowledge and expertise is limited to those technological fields that are capable of producing marketable product.
In a sense, I’ve made the issue much more complicated, because I’ve linked anti-intellectualism to my own brand of technological Marxist critique, which is to splice two very different and equally controversial arguments together. But I believe that it simplifies the issue as well, by pointing at the real determining factor behind what has been largely acknowledged as a changing paradigm of public opinion, but misidentified as everything from “getting stupider” to “intolerance” to “peak attention span”.
It is not that geeks are anti-intelligence. “Geek” now describes wonky, technically-minded folk from every discipline and genre of knowledge you can imagine, from programming language to dead language, to library science, economics, literary theory, medicine, cultural studies, astronomy, and higher level math. Because of the proliferation of these serious lines of inquiry, there has been a Balkanization of knowledge. Geeks are allowed to immerse themselves in the most concentrated areas of their particular field, and can communicate with others as deeply steeped as themselves. Geekdom has allowed knowledge to intensify to previously never before experienced degrees. Everyone has a conference these days.
But what has changed is the intercommunication between the fiefdoms of Geek. Why would you want to share your deep knowledge by making it accessible to those outside the fold, when you can concentrate your efforts among those who know what you’re talking about? And moreover, why would you want to learn about anything you were not already deeply familiar with, and have to once again become a noob, with a user profile page showing to anyone that you have only been a member for a few paltry weeks?
There are exports by the Geek Guilds, to be sure. But these exports are only products. If you can sum your architectural knowledge into a fifteen minute keynote, we can sell that as product. If your astronomical research spanning years can be compiled into an animated video of five minutes or less, that can be uploaded to Youtube. If your philosophical theory can be applied to social media so that pre-conceived understandings of that media are reinforced, then by all means, name-drop and share. But if your work is somehow more nuanced, more difficult to grasp, or more requiring of deep study and understanding to be conceived… well, then forget it. A picture of a kitten is the common denominator of the internet. If it requires more background knowledge to grasp than that, it better pay off in equal magnitude. Otherwise: TL; DR.
The epitome of this tendency is, of course, the Gadget. The Gadget is technology that is in an easily conceivable, direct to market, product package. No one cares how an iPhone works. All that matters is what it does. The Gadget need not even exist in a physical sense. Gadget blogs have made it abundantly clear both in their content and in their form, that all you need is a clean-looking mock-up of the product and a blurb about what it does to garner clicks and re-posts.
But good for the Gadgets! I wouldn’t begrudge them their own domain. That this consumer-tech domain is particular ripe for commodification ought to surprise no one. But, it does attract the ire of Larry Sanger and other confederates towards the technosphere, or whatever the so-called media theorists and technorati would name the disparate amounts of networks and techological infrastructure making up a certain evolving aspect of our culture. As the elements of our society that most easily conform to exportable knowledge-products and aid their outsourcing, marketing, and distribution celebrate their own intellect-economy Golden Age, it only makes sense that those knowledge-guilds that are losing influence as a result would be bitter, and point their privateers towards the flags that spite them.
If the problem was limited to sour grapes, we would be lucky, and we could shrug off this issue as the technosphere does, by hoping that the ease of export of knowledge-products translates into the ease of its manufacture. The world is changing! And with this change, with improved information gadgets including all kinds of features for sharing knowledge-products, everything should be better for intellectuals! Right? Of course, I’m here to tell you no.
What’s more, the manufacture of knowledge-products is the least of our worries. As if the budgetary downfall of NASA only threatened our supply of totally sweet YouTube videos. And it is not the Balkanized guilds I’m worried about either. Luckily, (for the guilds themselves, at any rate) there are more qualified Ph.D graduates out there than there will ever be jobs. There are plenty of knowledgeable, well-trained, motivated people out there willing and ready to further the most diverse aspects of technical knowledge that we can imagine. The Geeks will remain strong, if isolated except by the camel trains of their products, flowing out into the vast market of culture as the commodified demand of curiosity dictates.
The real problem is for people like me.
And here you would be more than welcome to disagree, by arguing that my issues are not a real problem. Perhaps the age of the Renaissance Wo/Man is over, and there is no need to mix and sample different realms of knowledge. Specialization could be the way of the future, and people like me, who made their domain out of the hybridization of different networks of knowledge, are in fact obsolete, no longer bringing any value to the market.
Indeed, we always were a little hard to reach for the average person: specialist or merely part of the common cultural audience. Our references are hard to place, and we leap from metaphor to metaphor as if swinging from the branches of a tree. We make odd, artistic comparisons between the world of art, and microbiology, or computer science, and particle physics. We know enough of the local dialect to get us in the door of the clubhouse, but as soon as we got a few drinks in us, our accents become almost impossible for the locals to decipher. We are untrustworthy, jumping disciplines like ships or trains, never in one place for more than a season, before dropping the work with which we were entrusted for something that, to our former employers, seems no more than a game. Some even suspect us of witchcraft, blending unholy syncretisms of canonical theory with local folk beliefs, chanting in tongues and miming archaic symbols, summoning dead spirits to affect the living, for a cost.
So maybe our time is past. Or, maybe, as Larry Sanger says so ineloquently, if you are opposed to those of us that marry the middle-levels of disciplines together in an obscure blend of unprofitable knowledge muck, then “you are opposed to knowledge as such.” (Emphasis his.) It is not just our jobs that we are worried about, our audiences, and our students (I have none of these things, and so I extrapolate to others’ concerns.) The real danger in our neglect is that we understand, or at least think we understand, how it is that knowledge works.
It isn’t mysticism, and it isn’t ideology. It is the mechanics of knowledge. It is the praxis of knowledge, the infrastructure on the ground. The craftspersonship. You might be a genius of economics, working the markets both micro and macro. But it is on the backs of those experimenting with knowledge, from the sweat of our labors, that the products consumed by culture are derived. I hate to make it into something as abstract as “political”, because it is fiercely more than that. This is how people learn. You don’t learn electronics by using a cell phone. You learn electronics by breaking a cell phone. You learn by mucking about with spare parts and with tools, by fucking up and by taking your time and by pursuing things that don’t make sense to anyone but you. You learn by making “art”, not products. The only thing you can do with products is make money.
Supposedly, this culture privileges creativity. It supports breaking down boundaries, it applauds those who think like children, who set aside “time to play”, who start out with tiny blocks, and build up from there. Our culture privileges this, but only once the IPO hits. Once you’ve demonstrated profitability. They don’t respect the act of play, they respect the product of play. And hence, no one actually understands how to do it. If you think that dropping out of college will make you a genius because a genius dropped out of college, you obviously skipped introductory logic, and never learned what a false syllogism is. People are not smart because of the products that they create. They are smart because they messed around in the creative process long enough that from all that mucking about, a product actually crystallized.
Because very few people will talk about the actual act of being interested in breeding and branching and building with broken knowledge products, it is no longer accorded much value. That value is channeled towards marketable products, and the technological specialty that is believed to have delivered those things immaculately. The person who makes a classic work available as an eBook is considered more of a genius than whomever wrote the words. That person has what we want–the product, not the knowledge. It becomes superfluous to even sit and read the book, because it can be referenced and searched at whim. The book is owned, and in this way it is consumed. And so it never has to be studied.
Here, at somewhere North of 2500 words, I could tell you whom you ought to read. That rather than watching some asshole shill his product in an hour-long self congratulatory “speech”, you ought to read Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Kristeva, Marx, and Freud. But what would be the point? These are just products, now. You could download the ebooks. You could even read them. But what would you gain, other than checking off the names that I listed? Would you take from each of these writers, as I did (because I named these authors specifically and not on a whim) that it is not the knowledge you accumulate, but what you do with it? Probably not. That is only my opinion, and probably a cognitive bias echo chamber, as the technorati has so kindly “discovered” for us (though we’ve known that for thousands of years). You would probably take whatever it is you would take from it, and then cross it off your list. And who would I be to blame you?
Because it seems that people of my opinion are few and far between. Perhaps we’re a dying breed, or maybe we were always rare. Maybe we are useless, never being Great Persons of note, or at least never birthing a Great Invention into the world. Who can really say. All I do know, for all of this knowledge I have acquired, is that I can still see the snarls in it; that there are great whorls and vacancies between the so-called markets of the value of knowledge, and we could build something truly wonderful and great in that space, if only we took the time and the effort to see it.
But soon again, it will just be time to cut the grass.
Posted: June 12th, 2011
Comments: 1 Comment
Part Two: The Political Tract
When I crafted a response to design-fiction from the perspective of fiction, I knew there was a good chance I was going to raise some hackles. I had decided to stand behind the line of fiction, and from there, fling over the wall a quasi-action-adventure essay, in which the noble forces of fiction were beset on all sides by the cannibalistic hordes of capitalism and design. All of which makes a good story, and a good missile. But is it correct? Or was I disingenuous, playacting with straw men, lighting off pyrotechnics without warning my audience to the presence of smoke and strobe affects in my performance?
My response was always intended as a first step: the Devil’s Advocate position. A method truly less and less reputable in this era of networked cells of concerted, street-level optimism; something somewhat out of fashion without the old grand narrative to rebel against. And yet, I wanted to turn the tables, and break down some of the current conceptions about what design fiction is, and how it works. Then, with stability shattered, propose the way forward. Which I did, but only at the very end of the essay.
But it seems that was not enough. How could it be? After I stormed in with much light and noise, how could I attempt to redeem myself in a couple of tack-on paragraphs? Could I really just set the cart back on its wheels with a gesture and depart from the room as if nothing was wrong?
The conclusion of the fiction I wrote was that design and fiction ought to work together. They ought to unite their combined mechanisms and critical eyes, and proceed in alliance to creatively map the dense network of technology that defines our present and our path towards the future. In furtherance of that goal, and to not only mend the bridge but build a better one, I wish to explain exactly how it is that design and fiction work as creative acts; and then from this, show how they might work in concert. And so, let us move on from the fiction, and begin the political tract.
The So-Called Imaginary
Time, being the dimension upon which the past and future run their spectrum in either direction from the pivot point of the present, is not an easy tightrope on which to walk. Today our technology is more grandiose, and yet more intricate than ever before in history. Our position as subjects in this time is tentative at best, evolving in tandem and in opposition to the nodes of the technological web of the material world which is always changing, even the most concrete plateaus being only as stable as fluid underneath. But we have the tools to negotiate this. We are the tools to negotiate this. Our sense of history, through which we perceive and interpret the world, is as much the network of time as the tools that built it. We’ve only ever had these tools, and with them in our hands we’ve built the whole thing, as far as we can see. These tools can be used to destroy it, to fix it, to control it, and to build it even bigger.
It is difficult to begin to move forward without assessing where we are now. And it is difficult to say where we stand, without either taking a pithy few examples as the whole, or creating a generic “average” standpoint that doesn’t actually exist: the well known fictional format I like so much. But the state of things is difficulty, and it can’t be avoided. As such, I wish to imagine an average description of the popular way we might construe the current cultural state of affairs and our historical matrix: the so-called, the Imaginary.
The Imaginary as a proper noun was most notably formulated by Lacan, as a domain of his psychoanalytic theory. The Imaginary is a ghostly realm, the place of dream, imagination, and image, set apart from the language and logic we might use to describe such things. It is differentiated from the Symbolic domain of signification; the logical structure of language that organizes, compartmentalizes, and gives form to the Imaginary. The Symbolic is the means by which we express things, but the Imaginary is the font from which ideas well.
This structural differentiation will no doubt sound familiar to many, as it is a common schema found in various philosophical theories of the Twentieth Century, with precursors extending back to Classical Philosophy. It is two-part: there is the firm, formal plumbing of the Symbolic, and there is the Imaginary flux within that conduit. The structuralist metaphor fits bipartite imagery according to a number of metaphors, rendering it to our understanding quite easily.
And accordingly, we apply this metaphor to understand our technological invention. In fact, all creative disciplines are usually explained this way. That there is a flitting dream-world of ideas half-formed and interconnected from which we draw inspiration and shape this raw, creative material into actual invention seems not only mythologically relevant, but appealing to our sense of agency. Be it on the lips of the muse, through the mystic gnosis of juxtaposition and suggestion, or only as result of hard monastic study and meditation, our common understanding of the act of creation seems to fit to this notion of “channeling”. From the Imaginary to the Symbolic, we build ideas out into reality.
by Flickr user Glasseyes View
The Biologic Field of Cultural Objects
Unfortunately, this mythos does not bear scrutiny. There is an imaginary field of material that we access, but it is more real than this nebulous domain. If it was more ethereal, shrouded in the fog of sub-conscious and hidden within the dungeons of memory, it would be comfortably distant. It would be something we would not have to be acquainted with directly. And yet we regularly visit it for supplies, with the pedestrian ease of the massive suburban grocery outlet. It is a myth to think that it is both of the ethereally-beyond and simultaneously in each of our grasps. Perhaps similar, in this way, to the realities of the mega-store, disavowed by the average consumer more interested in a convenient bargain than in the dirty, often tragic mechanisms of world trade. The facts are blurred by the Imaginary, conveniently forgotten, and no less uncomfortably present when we finally clear away those metaphor-implied clouds.
If it were somehow inaccessible, we wouldn’t be responsible for an ethical relationship between ourselves and our creative raw materials. We could extract from the Imaginary at will, as if it were an endless supply, some sort of water from the rock. As a different dimension from reality, the Imaginary cannot be causally linked to reality. There is no measurable ecosystem between the Imaginary and reality. Even if one were to acknowledge they were connected, how can you begin to map the transversal connections if one half of the terrain remains obscured and conveniently unconscious? Our diagrams of the Imaginary rely on weak notions of spontaneous creativity, mythic inspiration, and the heavenly-dictate of random association. But there are real mechanisms at play in the field of “where ideas come from”, and we can’t overlook them.
This milieu from which ideas are drawn, call it an Imaginary or whatever you like, is quite real and close at hand. It is the field of Culture Objects: the pieces of media, story threads, narrative concepts, and instances of human desire that have been crystallized into that which we consume when we consume culture. There is nothing imaginary about them. They are as real as our books, music, film, art, technology, food, and everything else that we have glossed with meaning in our significant world. Naturally, their borders and divisions are in a sort of sublime flux, and that makes it difficult to apprehend them as objects. Is the folio Hamlet, by Shakespeare, reducible to the narrative of a son-murdering-his-adoptive-father? Or is that merely a major theme of that work? Or is it only an archetype found in Hamlet, among other many other instances? Is a snatch of melody a Culture Object? What about a chord? How about a particular tempo? At what point do we recognize something as an original work, a derivative work, an influence, a reference, or something related on so small as to be comparatively inconsequential for the purposes of cultural analysis? Rather than worry ourselves about the difficulty of analyzing and separating the complex web of Cultural Objects in play within our creative system, it is much easier to write it off as simply Imaginary. The fluid dynamics necessary to appreciate blowing smoke or murky water are easy, compared to the relativistic perspectives we must use order to perceive the multiplicitous nodes of the field of Cultural Objects. We are on the level of cultural biology, here. You look at a desert, and you see Nature. But describe what it is that you call Nature, and you see rocks, woody plants, succulents, the occasional animal hiding from the sun in the rocks. But look closer–inside those plants are insects evolved to live only in that one particular place. Creatures that look different than those anywhere else, in any other desert. And between the grains of sand: near-invisible lichens and bacteria, clinging to life and each other. The very sand of the desert is alive. Where do the bounds of biology fall? Like Cultural Objects, everywhere and nowhere. As a complex system, the field of Cultural Objects is far more complicated the Symbolic we so egotistically claim to master, and the Imaginary we tithe to heaven.
If we understand the Biologic field of Cultural Objects as being quite nodal, capable of complex evolution and yet simultaneously beholden to the present, we can begin to analyze how our present creativity might be able to transcend the present. We can begin to identify “The Future” more clearly. Within an Imaginary, The Future is desperately useless, as an undifferentiated blob of characteristics. But in the field of Cultural Objects, The Future is a critical, analytical technique.
If we believe that ideas are drawn from an Imaginary, a magically adjacent dimension to ours, then The Future becomes equally separate from our world. Mystically distinct from reality, we are unable to fully seize grasp of what The Future is, other than to call it out when we see it, with all the immaculate criticism inherent in a dowsing rod. If we make fiction, design, or any other creative product inspired by/for a vision of The Future, and that future is drawn from an Imaginary, where else is it coming from but out of that fog, with no bounds, no definition? “Forward-leaning” is no more a point of reference than “dream-inspired”.
It isn’t easy to isolate exactly where The Future exists in the field of Cultural Objects, but at least we have something to study, and a point from which to proceed. The Future can be a genre, much like variously distinguished classifications of historical fiction. The Future has the characteristics of seeming to be what is temporally oncoming based on our understanding of history: “the shape of things we believe are to come”. Much like electronic music, that seeks to express its creativity in terms of an generally recognized aesthetic, implied by the particular means of its creation: “the aesthetic of what sounds electronically generated”. Like desert fauna, biologically determined by a host of factors supporting the line between its life and its extinction: “the sort of animals that live in a desert without dying”. It is a pattern that we generate ourselves, pushing it out in front of us, calling it out ahead of us in our imagination, until we no longer are able to see it repeated any longer. We don’t know everything about this pattern and the means of its creation, but we know much more than we do about a perceived Imaginary, in which things move about like sprites, without systematic interaction.
The Future, in the sense of its most critical self-conscious expression regarding the things of its genre, is a critical-eye with a notion of the passage of time, and therefore not only is the aesthetic of the shape of things to come, but the means by which we understand how we recognize the shape of things to come, from amid the field of Cultural Objects. This is what we’d like to think of as Futurism, at least in its modern incarnation. It is not a holistic ethos pulled from the depths of the mind, or a merely aesthetic eye, but a way of reading, manipulating, and relating to objects on the ground, and the tools at hand. Within the genre, it is an understanding of how that genre works. It isn’t enough to create something that might exist. One must simultaneously think about why and how it might exist. Otherwise, it is merely repetition of certain cultural indicators. To speak of wireless because other instances of The Future contain wireless technology, or to consider augmentation of reality because other Future Cultural Objects might augment reality. The Future lends itself towards critical expression, because its pattern is one of constant re-definition by inventive creation, and not merely mimicry. In this way, The Future is distinctly in the present, because it must be as self-conscious of its current genre in order to patently adopt its future-tense. It’s mechanism is to functionally inseminate the present with the possible, and so it must be the technician of the relationship between these things. This is its functional operation, and is the mechanical means of the reprinting of its pattern.
The Future, insofar as it can be conceived and molded into Cultural Objects, already exists. The notion of the presence of historical objects deeply networked within our current apprehension of what is “now” has been referred to as “atemporality”. The meaning is the same. Historicity is genre. Objects create their timeliness in situ, among a network of similar objects, a pattern of the genre relevant and interconnected to a certain period of time. But this genre is always already reinterpreted in terms of the present as it is recognized. To see “old”, we must understand “new”. The ability to perceive history as being historical is dependent upon a headspace firmly grounded in the continuum of temporality, the ability to think relativistically about historicity and temporality, and the critical perspective necessary to project oneself in mechanistic concert with the functional systems that evolve over the passage of that dimension t. A tall order, to be sure.
This relevatory atemporality, the biologic field of Cultural Objects, the cease-and-desist order towards the Imaginary: it’s not just a fancy existential perspective or a genre of philosophical terminology. It is a philosophical idea, to be sure; but it is part of our evolution towards an ethics of a post-moral world. Making the sort of shift necessary to push The Future beyond an aesthetic genre and into a critical perspective is not just an thinking exercise, but a crucial mentality for any creator, in the absence of other ethical guidelines.
Morality is a many-storied discipline in and of itself, and so I’ll have to reduce and concentrate the concept as I did with that of the Imaginary. We understand the principle–a guide and assessment strategy for human action. Whether justified by philosophy, theology, humanism, or other constituent articles, we come up with a plan for interpreting good actions and bad actions in reference to a judged spectrum of general good.
Short-cutting my way out of rehashing the entirety of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, let me just say that there are some issues with a morality that breaks down the entirety of human action into the twin poles of good and bad. The world is complex, and we end up with a spectrum of good/bad, that has points marked out for ends-justifying-means, necessary-evils, greater-goods, and a host of other qualifiers that make the distinction between good and bad so relative as to make the distinction near useless on a daily basis. Attempts have been made to soldier on without losing sleep over this issue (notably, neoliberalism) but that… well, is a subject for another essay.
But ethics, as an alternate guide for assessment divorceable from morality, remains usable. An ethical system could rely on morality, but does not need to do so. It merely establishes a point of reference as its judgement schema. “Good”, perhaps most generally, but alternately “success”, “civil society”, “sportsmanship”, or “business” would work, to list a few examples. It arranges a pattern of action and assessment in furtherance of a more specific reference point than a general morality. One might consider it utilitarian, but the utility is merely a different orientation than an indefinable “general good”. Accordingly, an ethics can align the assessment towards a terrain that still has purchase, in the void of absolute right and wrong. Our interest in ethics then, in wake of my castigation of concepts like the Imaginary, should be obvious.
Supply and Demand
The ethics of creativity haven’t aligned according to “absolute good” in some time (though some proponents of an ethereal Imaginary speak as if it did), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own poles. Currently, in most of the world, the values that sway the ethics of creativity are effectively market-based. We assess our creations and alter our creativity process according to the reference point of demand.
It’s easy to understand why. Creativity, for all of its noble features, is dependent upon economic support. And we’re not just talking publisher’s advances, royalty checks, production costs, and the other financial forces that play into the creation of Cultural Objects. Economy includes the household-totalling of many push-pull factors in addition to finances. There is an economy of creativity based on the use-value of Cultural Objects, separate from their exchange-value and any potential for capitalistic profit and loss. One can create anything that one wants to make; but if one wants to make “something”, it better be something that someone wants. The market can be as small or as large as we choose, but there must be a supply and demand market structure within it for the product of creativity to be said to exist. Creative production is merely idle work that cannot make a product, unless that product is consumed. The interests of one person act as a pull on the creativity of another. As the fruit of human expression, a Cultural Object expresses nothing unless it expresses it to someone. Even if the creator creates only for him/herself, it still satisfies that desire in order to take place.
The creator imagines, through his/her own apprehension of the complex network of Cultural Objects and the desires and feelings connecting them, a potential demand for an envisioned Object that solidifies as an idea, then which congeals via his/her labor into the actual Object: the work of art, literature, music, or whatever it is. Causality is not implied, and doesn’t have to be. The link between the supply and the demand happens from both sides simultaneously and connects both nodes into a unit at once. It is a continuum between the creator who didn’t necessarily know s/he had anything to sell, and the consumer who didn’t know s/he had any desire to buy, until they meet up one day and at the same time begin to make an offer, in a suddenly networked transaction. The cost of the transaction is also moot, and quite likely, the exchange is not made in terms of anything like currency. What is important is that the Cultural Object is given over from the creator to the consumer because the creator was able to create and the consumer was ready to consume, and it is by this relationship that the Object can come about.
If the goal is to make Cultural Objects, the goal is to find demand, and connect it with the supply. We are all “middlemen” in the field of Cultural Objects, making connections between nodes, trafficking in flows–in the same way that every organism is in a sense a symbiont, in that through its biologic transactions of all kinds with other organisms, they all constitutes the ecosystem together. More connections between supply and demand engender more Cultural Objects. We continue to create and consume, and this ethic of demand, as a pattern guiding and assessing action, furthers itself, as life begets life.
via Flickr user lifeontheedge
The Obsolete and the Profitable
But on top of this general ethic of supply and demand, additionally ethic layers can be stacked like architectural vellum, shifting the meaning of the layers below. Perhaps just as natural as the desire to create, is the urge to profit. Capitalism, for better or for worse, is a fundamental ethical perspective coloring all of our actions, whether we like it or not. Enter the agents, the managers, the marketers, the gallery owners, the publishers, the retailers, the factory owners, the advertisers, and so on and so forth. In addition to guiding the flows of supply and demand to connect the nodes, they seek to extract surplus-value from these connections, by way of reprogramming the connections in a profitable way.
The “profitable”, then, is not only a connection that is demanded, but demanded with a certain furiousness. Capitalism must seek relentless profit-taking for the foreseeable future. Capitalism has long understood the concept of atemporality. There is no such thing as “new” or “old” outside of a relative judgment–instead, the ethic directs itself based on only what is profitable. And profitable doesn’t merely mean “profitable today”, but also “still profitable”, or “potentially profitable tomorrow”. Capitalism, as the ultimate ethical regime, seeks to reduce all other means of understanding systems to its own. Time, space, goodness, creativity: all of these are redefined in terms of their usefulness in extracting and channeling flows of capital. It could be a fad, a trend, a vintage, a reboot, a retro, or whatever you want to call it. To Capital, it is only profitable or it is not profitable.
Profitability, not unlike a certain abstracted genre of The Future in the sense of the Imaginary as already discussed, is self-servingly forward-leaning. One counts the profit one makes today, but plans for the profit to be taken tomorrow. The more critical aspect of The Future in the sense of the field of Cultural Objects, and its self-consciousness and the groundedness of it as a worldview, is dangerous to Capitalism unless reduced to merely the ethic of profitability: also known as “feasibility”. The sort of historical truths and radical potentialities that critical Futurism concerns itself with, such as climate change, social unrest, democracy, radical economic or political structures, personal freedoms (just to pick a few from the bag) are distractions from the overarching ethic of Capitalism. Any sort of critical break with the current systematic support, empowerment, and ethical justification of Capitalism are dangerous and potentially costly if they are allowed to occur, in that they might interfere with profitability: the bottom line. The goal is to replicate the profitable Cultural Objects of today, and anticipate those that will make money tomorrow. The goal is forward; while change, or a more specific critical analysis of historical systems, is not. Minimizing change for the foreseeable future in order to reap a steady curve of return is what the flows of Capital specialize at doing.
The opposite of “Profitable” in the Capitalist ethic is “Obsolete”. Obsolete is what used to be profitable, but no longer is. There could very well be a demand for that particular Cultural Object, but because there is way to seriously profit from that demand, it has no use for Capitalism. The LP album is the perfect example. The CD made the LP obsolete. But it never reduced the LPs use-value. It only provided an alternate, “better” use-value from the perspective of the capitalist ethic, in that it could sell itself as an improvement. LPs continued to play music just as well as they always did. But, because there was a better product in terms of the Capitalist ethic, they were officially labeled Obsolete. LPs continued to be bought, sold, created, and played. Until then one day, Capitalism had a change of heart. The system “noticed”, as it were, that despite being obsolete, LPs were still selling. And so, the technology was de-Obsoleted. LPs are now legitimate commodities once again, having reattained their position within the Capitalist ethic as Profitable. All of which would be extraordinarily surprising to the LP, if it was the sort of thing that could be surprised. It has not changed much over the course of twenty years of being Obsolete, rotating at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute, in a similar stoic nature to the turning earth.
There is nothing wrong with making money on its face. Selling something is merely to participate in the exchange between the supply and the demand, trading value for value. But when there is a way of viewing the world and systematically understanding one’s actions that involves the flattening and reduction of all other ethics towards maximizing the flow of profit, such that the goal is to extract as much surplus-value as possible from the work of others… well, it would seem that there is a untenable situation for the long term. Legitimate use-value of the field of Cultural Objects, among a number of other important ethical considerations, takes a back seat, if isn’t run over in the middle of the road. In biologic terms, the Capitalist ethic is an invasive species: a predatory pattern that is overwhelming the rest of the ecosystem.
The Praxis of Fiction
So we take our critical-eye off the The Future as genre, and look into the atemporal distance all around us to study the mechanics and economics of creativity, rather than to simply reproduce its product. We stand up on the Biologic field of Cultural Objects, and see what is going on underneath our feet. We make our ethic firmly in terms of supply and demand as befitting our nodal networks, rather than per abstract regimes of profit and loss. We have an existential metaphysics, a politics, and an ethics. So what is it that we are going to make?
We each have our art form, our preferred medium, our home discipline, our comfortable home workshop, with our well-worn set of tools. Surely we won’t be straying too far from these. These are, after all, a fundamental element of our milieu, reference points and instruments across our own topology of the field of Cultural Objects. These constitute our praxis: our means of production, through which we engage in the market of ideas and objects with our audiences, our contemporaries, with the supply and the demand of the arena of creative human endeavor.
But is there ever a time in which it is not useful to re-evaluate, to re-strategize, to re-assess the situation on the ground, and to improve upon the plan? The praxis is always changing; the ecosystem is always evolving; the demands of our world always adjust; the terrain is always shifting and having to be re-mapped.
The map is fiction–or rather, fiction is what we draw, in attempting to map it. But we can only keep track of our creative motion insofar as we can conceive it as space. The field of creativity is our desert, which we were born to survive within. It is our ecosystem. Fiction, as the combined topology of our Cultural Objects, is the means and mechanisms by which we supply the demand of our imagination and fantasies. It is not separate from design, any more than design is separate from the world. Fiction and design are resolutely material in that they relate directly to reality, even when they momentarily retreat to the depths of our imagination. We dream in terms of the world around us, and we set our sights on what can be potentially achieved in a future connected to today.
Whether the art form is design, literature, or anything else, the praxis is the crucial test of whether we can best connect the nodes of supply and demand, for our own critical vision of the future, rather than regimes that would force us back onto the autopilot of the genre-fied Imaginary. What can we best do with our tools, that can find a place in the reality of the field of Cultural Objects? How do we already fit into the flows? What sort of creatures are we, and what sort of ecosystem is it that we inhabit? Who else lives here, and what do they eat? We must sharpen the ethical scalpel, while at the same time broadening the critical lens. These are metaphorical descriptions of creative practices, but they constitute our reality no less than any of these. We must consider the form of creativity as the means of an ecosystem, directing the flows between the nodes of means, material, ourselves, our audience, and each other: because it is. We need to stop creating products, and start evolving worlds. Because these worlds already exist.
Design-Fiction: Fiction Responds – Part 1
Posted: June 6th, 2011
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