Blake Stimson on Wed, 7 Feb 2018 10:57:53 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> How do we govern ourselves? (was: Mechanical Turkish)

Thanks for the generous response Brian, and very glad that we now agree
that we agree on the parts listed. Let me try to attend to the part still
in dispute. In the end I think we do largely agree even about this---that
is, we are both focused on what you call “binding norms”---and only differ
in the balance of culture and politics needed to get there.

One pastiche that has resonated with my 20yo working class students’
critique of woke politics (and grey beards) is the SNL bit “Thank You,
Scott” []. (I don’t know if the Louis CK #MeToo
revelations have redirected or just augmented their feelings.) Generally,
they have the same feeling about most versions of political art and
intuitively understand (and have contempt for) virtue signalling. Of
course, this does not mean that they or any of the rest of us don’t express
and seek confirmation of outrage and other feelings or that we all don’t
seek to understand the machinations of power. But they do seem to generally
understand that power lies in power and not in attitude or understanding.
This means that they intuitively understand that power lies in either money
or the capacity for violence and not in culture. They intuitively
understand that culture is what people get in lieu of power.

What they are generally confused about is how to acquire power. Indeed, in
their self-reflexive understanding or intuition of that confusion they
sometimes think that all they will ever have access to is culture. A
running theme in a class last term was the expression “I’m trash,” a
phenomenon that the group of 40 students all identified with and wanted to
discuss. As they presented it, the phrase performs a variety of functions
but overall is a generational marker associated with two characteristics:
more and more varied cultural consumption than other generations and less
access to power than other generations. Like any such generational marker,
its realism for them is a badge of honor and a measure of strength and

I take Bruno Latour’s account of the “Lovelockian object” or the thing in
his “parliament of things” or the actor in his actor-network theory to be a
useful enough account of the experience of my students. As you will know
Brian, Latour describes his actor/thing/object’s experience of world this

there is nothing specific to social order; that there is no social
> dimension of any sort, no ‘social context’, no distinct domain of reality
> to which the label ‘social’ or ‘society’ could be attributed. …  [Indeed,
> it] could use as its slogan what Mrs Thatcher famously exclaimed (but for
> very different reasons!): ‘There is no such a thing as a society.’

The sloganeering pride in this passage (both Thatcher’s and Latour’s) is
like that of my students’ expression “I’m trash.” That is, it is full of a
sense that the old guarantees that were once the promise of society
(“liberté, égalité, fraternité,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness,” retirement and unemployment insurance, etc) no longer hold
leaving one to navigate the networked flows of material life on your own,
and increasingly outside of all law except that which protects property. My
students are proud that they are effective actors in the networked flows of
culture but they also realize that in so being they are reduced to mere
things, mere trash. They also realize that increasingly the only way to
have power in our evermore Thatcherite/Latourian world is to amass wealth
so that you have more power than (and thus don’t get crushed by) the next

Like I said above, clearly we both seek binding norms that will lessen
suffering, produce more freedom and provide a long plan for the environment
and everything else. The question is how to get there. We agree that “art
is the domain of experience in which people beset by hopelessness can
regain the conviction that effective political action is possible.” You
argue that having the right “affective presence,” “conceptual framing,”
“cultural imaginary,” “recogni[tion of] the value of people's labor,”
“dynamics of cultural change,” etc makes meaningful political change. My
argument is that culture doesn’t matter except insofar as it sucks us out
of institutions that actually have power in the world (leaving them to the
Kochs and their ilk) or draws us back in.

The reason I responded so favorably to your grey beard mea culpa was not
because I wanted to “tell people why they were wrong in the past.” We are
all those people; we all got sucked down the rabbit hole with the cultural
turn. The reason I responded so favorably, you will recall Brian, was
because I thought you were right when you said this:

The core question of a democratic society is not "how do I become free?"
> Rather it is "how do we govern ourselves?" Crucially that means: with which
> institutions, under which rules, backed by which constraints [and, I would
> add, which power]? If you do not answer these questions - as the entire
> anarcho-libertarian spectrum including myself did not, throughout the
> neoliberal period - well, then it turns out that others, like the Koch
> brothers or Cambridge Analytica, will attempt to answer it for you.

Art’s role, if it wants to be meaningfully effective, is to help us move
beyond that misunderstanding of the core question. Making the shift will be
tough, for sure--you are right that it has dominated our thinking
throughout the neoliberal period, the onset of which you date to 1968, and
it still does--but even our own period will come to an end. When that
happens our period ruse of culture, actor-networks and the like will
certainly fall aside to reveal the power behind. The crucial question, of
course, will be whether, when the dust clears, it is in the Kochs' hands or

Yours, Blake

On Thu, Feb 1, 2018 at 2:24 PM, Brian Holmes <>

> Hello Blake -
> I think you've made a nettime first by listing the points where we agree!
> That's much appreciated. The list will likely stop right where it is, but
> still, I'd like to expand my take on this point of disagreement:
> Where we differ Brian, if I understand you correctly, is in where agency
>> lies. I tried to make this point in our original exchange and put it this
>> way in the synopsis posted to the list (just prior to the part you quoted):
>> “shaking our fists at institutions has not proven to be very effective
>> politically.”


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