Babich and Bateman: Prime Time Culture

Last week, Nietzsche. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to priming and the culture industry.

Kids Watching Television - Mental ImprintingChris Bateman: Before we started our dialogues, I had just recently finished your marvellous book The Hallelujah Effect, which is (among other things) an analysis of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”, the phenomenon of cover versions, kd lang’s performance practice (and odd erasure in the literature), and commercial power over cultures – all of this rooted in your understanding of Nietzsche, of course. But the odd thing is, although I can now spot the Hallelujah effect – the deployment of covers of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” in movies and advertising shows it, for instance – I cannot give a concise definition. (Calling it psychological priming seems utterly inadequate.) Is this an artefact of continental philosophical practice? An analytic philosopher would have begun by laying out an overly precise definition, after all.

Babette Babich: That’s a ‘nice’ question in several senses of the term, including some questions with ‘teeth’ as it were. The focus on Cohen, the focus on k.d.lang more so, also the issue of the complexities of desire, male desire, female desire — part of which dynamic is at the heart of the current scandal of male erotic power in Hollywood, a scandal as old as the casting couch and with deep roots in our society. But what is the ‘hallelujah effect’ — surely it is not about Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allen (although much in the scandal is already written into the plot or is the plot of many a Woody Allen movie. To be sure, think of Harry Potter, we all root for the nebbishy guy, which is why Hermione gets to end up with Ron, that’s the plot J.K. Rowling wrote for her, while Harry gets to get one of Ron’s much younger sisters, etc.). But is The Hallelujah Effect a book about male desire and music, misogyny and beauty? Yes, and the book deals with all that but and at the same time the question as you frame it is fair and one that has led me to some sense of despair.

CB: How so? The text of the book does not hint at any such desperation, and indeed definitions are not obviously a cause of suffering — even among philosophers, although we are adept at finding ways to suffer about anything intellectual!

BB: I was led to write a kind of ‘prolegomena,’ framed out in 12 pages for readers interested in phenomenological media studies. I talk about entrainment and music and online porn, all on the first page and I am still not sure I come close to answering the question you raise. It’s all about the manufacturing of hits of whatever cultural kind from pop music to iPhones and it is about the manufacturing of minds. Thus, in my defence, what I call the Hallelujah effect is the same industrial strength efficacy Adorno points to in what he along with Max Horkheimer named ‘the Culture Industry,’ which is perfectly formulaic, and perfectly effective, meaning that it works, left and right and centre, and all the way up to the highest and most recondite levels of high culture and all the way to the most popular kinds of so-called low or pop culture, including pop songs, including commercial jingles – everything. Including Harvey Weinstein — especially Harvey.

CB: I’m afraid I have little to say in regard of the Weinstein scandal... it cannot possibly count as surprising (which is not to say it doesn’t count as horrifying) and I am inclined to observe that the political power of the US left turns itself all too often to finding celebrities to savage when it is unhappy with who is in the White House. I don’t think it a coincidence that the Don Imus scandal blew up while Bush Jr was in the Oval Office. If Nero relieved Roman tensions by throwing Christians to the lions, tensions in the States tend to be relieved by throwing celebrities into the brutality of the media. Which I suppose brings us to ‘the culture industry’, which is something I encounter quite often when I’m peer reviewing other people, although I have very little experience of Adorno or Horkheimer’s work first hand. This does seem to be a critical point about our current situation – and one that your book definitely takes on.

Adorno QuoteBB: The definition of the culture industry (which with a few missing details is also part and parcel of the Hallelujah Effect) is well laid out by Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment in the chapter, hard to miss it, entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In the process, they themselves are freely varying points about broadcast culture, what we call media these days, already made by Günther Anders and the art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim in their different reflections on radio and Walter Benjamin in even larger part in his essay on the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility which is of course a matter of transmission and reception or media following Heidegger’s reflections on “The Origin of the Work of Art” and asking, as Benjamin asked (in good Frankfurt School fashion) about the very material, real, practical, effective conditions of and for the work of art, particularly considered in the age of mass culture, and the means of ‘creating’ that mass worker – and himself echoing and indebted to Günther Anders, the Canadian political theorist of media,  or Dallas Smythe. Smythe is less noted than he should be (he’s unsung) as he is absolutely central to current claims regarding the ‘shallows’ set in motion by our brave new world wide net order but also exactly predating Galloway on goldfarming and of course Ian Bogost and, before Bogost, Evgeny Morozov and all the bubble folk like Eli Pariser. (I discuss just these things with my students in Philosophy and Digital Media this semester.) What Smythe claimed was that media (which he called “communications” circa 1977) is the “Blind Spot of Western Marxism.” For us today, the evolution continues and it’s digital media we need to be talking about, software included, and much discussion focuses on Benjamin and the material details one usually calls mechanical production though one can and should speak of technology in this respect just to be accurate or true to the German itself.

CB: I’m familiar with the Heidegger piece you mention here, and with Benjamin... for Heidegger, however, the concern in that lecture and essay is more about the relationship between truth and the work of art – a point that also occupies Badiou on many occasions. The question of technology is one that gets brought up more explicitly in his lecture and essay with that very specific title – which has been a frequent point of reference for me ever since I started wearing my cyberethicist hat. Indeed, my forthcoming book, The Virtuous Cyborg, is practically inspired by Heidegger’s challenge. But you were talking about Horkheimer and Adorno and I derailed the thread of our conversation. ‘The Culture Industry’.

BB: I was talking about the ‘Culture Industry’ per se and to be sure — but your remarks are directly related to that industry, at least to follow one thread. Thus although you are quite right to say that Heidegger is concerned with art and truth in his artwork essay, his concern there is expressed in terms of the dynamic materiality of the artwork as it worksand if it works. Hence his concern with the working of the work of art as truth. The mediation there for Heidegger, and this is where he cannot but be indebted to Nietzsche, is cultural and that means specific to a given world and time. Thus his supposed focus on the ‘great’ work of art, as Heidegger offers cliché force references to Van Gogh and to Klee, but also mentions specific loci, and he emphasizes Ge-Stell, the same frame up that he will speak of in his technology lectures.

CB: Let me just interject here for the benefit of non-Heidegger scholars that this term, ‘ge-stell’, in Heidegger is problematic in that it is a key concept but — and parallel to my earlier suggestion about your Hallelujah Effect and the continental philosophy tradition — it is never clearly defined (he defines it, but we couldn't consider his definition as clear). In English, it has been translated ‘enframing’, and Heidegger specifically links this concept to technology... because for him, the essence of technology is not the tools but the mindset it puts us in, that mindset that evaluates in terms of utility, that reduces everything to ‘standing reserve’, a resource to be exploited. This mindset, I might add, is the basic design principle of almost all videogames, and this is not coincidental but almost inevitable, although a huge tangent best saved for another time. You were drawing attention to the loci Heidegger links to this concept of ‘ge-stell’ or enframing?

christoph-heinrich-kniep-a-temple-at-paestumBB: Yes, the loci he gives includes the cathedral at Bamberg and the Greek temple growing quasi-organically from the rock, just standing there “in the middle of the rock cleft valley,” just as he says that the shoes “merely stand there” and that “from Van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand.” Now before going too much further, it is worth noting the site in question – the temple at Paestum is set in relief against and from and with the rock. Bamberg, like Winchester, grows out of the rock as well, although both Bamberg and Winchester also happen to be engineering achievements steeped in water. But it is the temple in situ that makes all the difference for what has become the culture industry as folks who travel to Athens are increasingly well able to see as the Greeks museum-ify the Acropolis. Whatever cannot have a museum tent set over it, as at the temple at Bassae, is served almost as effectively by having a museum spring up next to it, which touristic convenience serves a very literal culture industry by providing a set supply of consumers with something to do. This is the point Heidegger advances in his technology essay but in his artwork essay he reminds us that the ancient Greeks use the same word to refer to both art and craft: techne. And it was Heidegger’s student, Günther Anders who really expands on Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s reflections on the Culture Industry because reflections on culture and reproducibility articulated in the era Anders characterized as the ‘second’ industrial revolution were linked, so Anders claims at length, to the obsolescence of the human as such: part of the unavoidable logic of the mechanized, broadcast – today we could say networked and digital – culture of culture, the entertainment industry, including music and theatre and film and television as well as journals and popular (but not less including academic and theoretical) books, all of which were dependent upon the medium for advertising and not less technoscience, the very ‘wake,’ as Heidegger would speak of the question, the auratic eclipse of what Benjamin assessed, once again, as the technological means of reproduction.

CB: Because being able to reproduce on the scale that we now can allows the same reproductions (movies, music, games, images, text...) to engulf human culture into industry, which was not possible even two hundred years ago, and which has accelerated and metamorphosed almost every decade in those two centuries – look at the remorseless rise of the internet as just one example. And it all leads us to where we are now with not only culture industry, but with the related capacity to dominate culture commercially. As the Belgian band Deus lament: “Well, what the hell is my place/If someone else will dictate/My singular culture?” The unsubvertible inexorability of commercial culture production. And this ties us back to your Hallelujah Effect.

BB: Wow! Yes! This is very true and you put it quite rhythmically thanks to Deus and I think the Belgians — I lived in Brussels for a year — are well-positioned in just this disconnect. Their ‘Popular Culture’ begins, after American swing and British sulphuring, by alluding to something rarely noted, unless one is at a pub: Belgians make beer, they do it brilliantly, every which way, but it is the Germans who are famed for beer, they invent chips, but the French take credit for that, in sum, and this is American exceptionalism in a song: “If you don't come from the States/You will always be late to be in popular culture” — as the refrain goes “From western slang/To showbiz spells/You’d almost think/There’s nothing else” and I could almost feel that we are back to singing a Flemish version of analytic philosophy, ‘Hallelujah I’m a bum. Hallelujah, bum again.’ Now Horkheimer and Adorno define the process and the effect of the culture industry again and again. And the Hallelujah Effect is a technique for eliciting, quite mechanically, quite like clockwork, very specific results, in accord with industry interests — there is nothing random about it and it does not really admit of subversion if Adorno is right, musically speaking, culturally or aesthetically speaking — and I fear he is. The reason is really because, and Marcuse saw this best and characterized it with the ridiculously complicated and even more ridiculously exactly accurate, exactly descriptive compound: repressive desublimation. Today’s cool language is all immanence and thing-ontology when it is not experimental philosophy — but repressive desublimation was cool/hot in the 1960s. I do not think we are beyond it.

CB: Something that very much concerns me is the sense that the issues raised in the 1960s and the 1970s haven’t ceased to be relevant, we have just become (worryingly) bored of them. Hence my repeated return to Ivan Illich, whose critique of contemporary culture remains as apposite as it ever was. But no, it doesn’t really matter what the problems are when academics are so desperate to justify their tenure or payscale advances by having carved out a niche, an ‘original contribution to knowledge’... there’s always some cool/hot new thing to escape the problems which have, disturbingly, become boring precisely because of overexposure. Maybe this is another aspect of priming that ought to be considered – priming to ignore. Although perhaps that’s the opposite of the Hallelujah Effect.

Slide3BB: I quite agree with you! Priming to ignore, as you put it, is the very mechanism of the Hallelujah Effect, its engine of the same: we get used to things, we disattend to things, and they continue to work on us, beneath our notice. Thus Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters tried to point to this, not that this can work because we are primed to ignore or disattend which entails that we are also primed to claim, whether we are consumers or academics, that priming has no effect on us. Thus researchers claim that free will drives the market — that or ‘rational choice’ — and thus that advertising has no effect. But as I point out in The Hallelujah Effect, researchers who make those claims are in academic fields like political science. Academic researchers in marketing make diametrically opposed claims and, as Horkheimer and Adorno emphasize to begin with, companies without exception invest in advertising. Now I did get your parenthetical warning about ‘priming’ earlier and I feel a little like Socrates (I have always wanted to feel a little like Socrates, every philosopher does…) trying to respond to Thrasymachus who tells him that he can’t use certain terms as they will not do. And I respect that just because that too is a problem of the effect of the Hallelujah Effect. Which only means, despite your disappointment with the language of ‘priming,’ that I cannot help but refer to it, adding the name of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew but even more important a PR expert who was so good at the people he represented, Enrico Caruso, that they still enjoy reputations to this day. He lived until his death in 1994, just a county away from New York City, in Westchester.

CB: From philosophy to PR... an unexpected segue!

BB: The reason I mention him is because The Economist, which had reviewed the story of his life as part of their feature ‘History of Advertising’ with a review entitled ‘A Bigger Lie’, had a back page memorial for him when he died at 103. Bernays was the author of The Crystallization of Public Opinion and another book on Propaganda. Bernays was also the key to Adam Curtis’ 2002 BBC documentary, The Century of the Self. Priming is important because it crystallises public opinion: what he taught, what he sold for a living had this grand feature, so useful for corporate industry because it works. Public Relations, i.e., PR, i.e., the literal manipulation of men’s minds, is a science, use it and one has no need to force individuals to do anything but what they think they freely choose to do. Just that is the reason it works.

The dialogue continues next week: The Hallelujah Effect

Babich and Bateman: An Analytic Lamp-post

Last week, the trouble with Nietzsche. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman take the discussion further and consider the questions Nietzsche raises, and the relationship between an author’s books and the writer themselves.

Lit StreetBabette Babich: Analytic Nietzsche scholars cannot engage Nietzsche on his question which was, as Nietzsche himself tells us “the question of science.”  This is not least because Nietzsche does not speak, simply and just or only of “the question of science” but challenges what we think of as ‘science,’ putting the very idea in question, telling us that ‘there are no facts,’ there is ‘only interpretation’ – a claim deeply upsetting to us in our ‘fake news’, ‘alt-truth’-anxious world. Nietzsche, almost preternaturally pre-Heideggerian, proclaims that he is the first to raise the question of science as a question.

Chris Bateman: This indeed is why The Gay Science is such a key text, and for myself especially so for my earlier philosophical work where I am having to re-assess what my time as a physicist meant, and why the sciences have somehow taken on properties traditionally attached to that overly-broad category, religion. ‘The question of science’ is therefore tied up in the desire to position ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as opposites, which is roughly the opposite of how Nietzsche sees this. What is your take on this ‘question’?

BB: I have a committed position to be sure on the issue of science and religion and Nietzsche is as subtle there as anywhere, arguing as he does that science both grows out of religion and alchemy (as so many ‘preludes’) and aspires in a terrible constellation of ascetic inversions at the end of The Genealogy of Morals to take the place of religion once again. Nietzsche names science the latest instantiation of the ‘ascetic ideal.’ But, criticizing science was for Nietzsche a precisely ‘scientific’ thing to do as Nietzsche had his own question (and it is helpful to remember what Nietzsche called the problem of the problem of science was the defining question: What makes science science?  For Nietzsche, that question held and had to be explored across the disciplinary board, that is: from philology to physics and cosmology and beyond.  Indeed, even Heidegger, as I have argued, is not above borrowing Nietzsche’s thunder on questioning, as Heidegger already does early in Being and Time... Thus the prime question is one that tends to be left out when one poses the question of science – it is part of the genealogical question (note that Nietzsche’s reflection is offered in his Attempt at a Self-Critique) – is the question of truth, a question which requires the prior question of why we prefer (Nietzsche expressly asks us to think about this preference) ‘truth’ to illusion or in place of deception, the ‘lie’ as Nietzsche speaks of it (and which he allies to art as well as to the world of myth and dream) as well as in the case of logic, the question of what things are called, the question of perception, that things are (or are not) as they seem to be, and so on.

CB: Right, and so the key passage in The Gay Science (section 344):

The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.”

And that, Nietzsche traces to Christianity, and from there back to Plato at its root. That entire section went off like a bomb inside my head, and raised so many further questions that I was forced to abandon any attempt to argue against Nietzsche, and had to accept him as a very different kind of problem, a different question entirely.

BB: To me, many of these questions have been ignored because analytic philosophers have a habit of discarding the bits that make no sense to them. The result is readings that are self-assured, self-enclosed, and, neatly, incorrigible, even with the text of Nietzsche’s own writings as one has thereby and methodologically just by looking only for what seems to make sense to one, created a kind of analytical lamp-post under which alone one undertakes to look for the key to Nietzsche.

CB: Aye, which is funny, when you think about it, as Nietzsche’s writing is purposefully and thoughtfully composed to resist this kind of systematic treatment. Indeed, the aphorisms which constitute his most famous (although certainly not only) writing technique seem to have been chosen in part because they defy the academic, encyclopaedic style that typifies the university in his time. Hence MacIntyre putting Nietzsche and the Encyclopaedists into direct opposition [as discussed in Part I].

BoT quoteBB: I also argue, to Nietzsche scholars (although and to be fair, in philosophy – and this follows from what I already noted – Nietzsche scholars are as analytic as most other philosophers tend to be), that it is pernicious in the extreme that we tend to leapfrog over Nietzsche’s own disciplinary formation just as we also tend to bracket his first book, The Birth of Tragedy.  Thus we have an inordinate number of commentaries written on The Genealogy of Morals, occasionally adding studies of Beyond Good and Evil or Zarathustra and these days and for the past few years, a little more attention is paid to Human, All too Human too... But these are analytic readings: that is one reads Nietzsche a la Leibniz, from the vantage of some self-enclosed interpretive schema or module, admitting no light from any other reading (this windowless self-sufficiency is what makes it Leibnizian, rather than some actual reference to Leibniz himself).

CB: It’s tricky, though, with a writer whose output is as substantial as Nietzsche’s... are we engaging with one text, or with the simulacrum of the author we get by engaging with a complete set of works? For instance, I got into trouble using just one of Foucault’s books, The Archaeology of Knowledge (which builds upon Nietzsche), because Foucault scholars who were peer reviewing me insisted I had an obligation to engage with his later work (all his discussions of power). That did not ring true to me at all. My engagement with Archaeology was specific to that work, and was not a question of power at all. Frankly, I did not appreciate being obligated to engage with a different Foucault to the one I had chosen to read.

BB: This is a fascinating point – and has direct corollaries with recent readings of Deleuze or indeed what certain proprietors of ‘performance philosophy’ call and thus define as the de facto standard reading. Thus at the Society of European Philosophy that recently met in Winchester and about which I tweeted (alas to the sorrows of some folk on Twitter inspiring departures and fits of ‘no! not again!’ conference live-tweeting pique) I was surprised to note just how careful young scholars were to explicitly delimit their work so as to avoid having to have to talk about arenas they did not wish to engage. This is the flip side of the same point you are making about Foucault and power or as some will like to say, just to keep the stamp neatly trademarked: biopower. Thus, papers began with dutiful disclaimers, just Deleuze on Spinoza, not Deleuze and Guattari or, and vice versa, just and only Mille Plateaux. To my mind, this practice is consonant with the Foucault point you make. Fiefdoms get established and doorkeepers – and young scholars are more inflexible on being doorkeepers than I think have ever seen before, and it was always bad – insist on having obeisance paid to just and only their specializations, alas in consequence not recognizing the voice of the other in the process.

CB: I would suggest we are entitled to encounter a philosopher by a single work provided we do not think in doing so we have captured anything of them as a person. Understanding who a philosopher is and engaging with one of their texts are very different tasks. Wittgenstein, for instance, was so utterly misjudged on the basis of the Tractatus. Ray Monk, very honourably, tackles the problem of Wittgenstein’s life, which I feel is essential to appreciating the Tractatus, while Alain Badiou, also honourably, gets to an understanding of Wittgenstein at the time of the Tractatus from within the text itself – but he too reads Monk’s biographical work in order to get there.

BB: True! And this is why one takes such good care with delimitating one’s claims. But your other point for me is just as important, that is: one ought to recognize that the thinker him- or herself may exceed a particular work. At the same time, scholars do tend to move in their own circles so they tend solely to expect that others be open to them without imagining any need for reciprocity on their own part. Badiou is a scholar who takes account, as the French do, of what the English write, but does this same engagement work in the other direction? I would argue that this goes back to the analytic-continental divide – does Monk himself undertake to engage Badiou or is he not a Leibnizian sphere complete unto himself? There are rather a huge number of biographies written of Wittgenstein in France, in Germany, even a few in English, but a text appears – this is Monk’s achievement – and suddenly it is as if no other book ever existed, , by which I do not mean to reduce Monk’s work but there is Walter Schulz after all, and perhaps Badiou benefitted (rather literally, title-wise) from that and there is the wonderfully tweedy (to me) P.M.S. Hacker. I think, scholarship is all about realizing that there is an awful lot out there and the more inclusive we are, the richer we are, not the other way around.

If we mean to get to Nietzsche it means, I think, and I am echoing his own contention here, that we need to pay attention to all his books but perhaps and most especially, because this is exactly what we do not do, to his first book, without reducing it to a kind of distillate of the first sentence whereby the whole book is all and only about the distinction to be made between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, because that is, in the spirit of 1066 and All That, the only bits we can remember and thus and as if all the rest of the book were tacked on as a kind of incidental oversight.

CB: This reminds me of the way that Roger Caillois’ is reduced in game studies to the patterns of play he discusses. Which is ironic, since those patterns are developed by Caillois in order to make his wider point about the decline of play in culture (following on from Johan Huizinga, who inspired him). But nobody in game studies goes much further with Caillois than the opening chapters – indeed, in all too many cases, they don’t get beyond the introduction with its convenient definition of play (which, I might add, was largely irrelevant to Caillois himself). It’s the trouble with readily graspable ideas like Ludus and Paidia in Caillois, or Dionysian and Apollonian in Nietzsche: why dig deeper when there’s something oh-so comfortable sat at the surface?

The dialogue continues next week: Prime Time Culture

Babich and Bateman: Nietzsche in Hypertext

In this latest dialogue between philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, we discuss Nietzsche himself, the difficulties of some of his texts, and the challenges his philosophy raised – and continues to raise.

UM SupermanChris Bateman: I originally read Nietzsche to argue against him, but ended up falling for his charms... well, except for his Zarathustra, which I find immensely tedious. There’s a charm to Nietzsche’s prose that seems to benefit from shorter forms, a style that in some respects is closer to blogs than to books as such.

Babette Babich: May I begin by saying that I think you are very right to have issues with Zarathustra! This is simply for substantive reasons (this is, in part, in addition to its prolixity, the reason no one has successfully managed to write a version of it for the stage – this does not mean that folks have not tried, indeed there are operas no less, only that they are not ready for prime time, and I do not think they ever will be – much less to manage to make a film of it). What films we do have, for better and usually for worse, tend to be movies like Nietzsche Wept, which is to be sure largely about Freud and Jung and more saliently about Nietzsche and Lou about which pairing there continues to be no end of speculation: was there a relationship? Did they kiss? Did they not kiss? But Zarathustra is a non-starter and for good reason. Not only is there no theme as such (and to be fair: Nietzsche himself announces that this is ‘a book for everyone and no one’) but almost nothing ‘happens’ except for a few trips here and there, and true to the title, speeches here and there, including extended lists of the content of the same speeches.

CB: I could take the speeches if they were as engaging as the discussions in, say, The Gay Science... but nothing in Thus Spoke Zarathustra holds my attention at all.

BB: Well, The Gay Science, of course, is the literal wrapper for Zarathustra. But Zarathustra is hardly where the action is, even the roads of eternity past and present colliding, with a dwarf for good measure, does not match the demon and the moonlight, with an hourglass, to tell the same story in The Gay Science. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha would be Die Hard with Alan Rickman just by comparison, just where Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain might be equated with Harry Potter. Adding to the screenwriter's challenges, there is a tedious lot of Zarathustra sleeping going on, sometimes for days and days, as the late David Allison always liked to point out, rather like Andy Warhol’s Sleep. To use an awkward gaming metaphor (please forgive me for violating your expert field) Zarathustra is like a philosophical version of Myst (I warned you it would be a violation…).

CB: Ha, that works for me on a number of levels. Myst succeeded because it made the new technology – CD ROM drives – work to its advantage. Zarathustra seems to rely on the rising undercurrent of opposition to Victorian Christianity in a not dissimilar way. Both for me come up short. For what Myst attempted, I preferred earlier, simpler forms; for critique of Christianity, nothing beats Kierkegaard, in part because he actually cares about the topic. Do you see a videogame adaptation of Nietzsche’s most famous book as something viable?

BB: I think it could be worked out, especially if folks might take seriously the argument I make that Zarathustra descends into hell, literally, and visits the underworld. I read the ‘Overhuman’ as an exact counterpart to this underworld, whereby we turn out already to be overhuman, if only we might live up to our upright position on the living earth, if only we might stop living in the past of regrets and disappointments, get beyond or over our constant self-preoccupation, transcend past resentments against slights real or, above all, imagined. But, the version of Zarathustra I have in mind is a true to the book version. In fact folks have made some efforts in the direction of which you speak – and thus they exist but like operatic versions of Zarathustra, most are (perhaps deservedly) forgotten. To be sure, an admired friend of mine, Eric Steinhart, who teaches out in New Jersey, very enthusiastically analytic (sometimes even I am enthusiastic about things analytic, say, when the enthusiasm is for Graham Priest) once wrote in the early days of Hypertext a Zarathustra hypertext. (Let me note here that the Nietzsche scholar Paolo D’Iorio did design and put on line an actual hypertext, which is currently in use and a bit flatter, as such things always turn out to be. Thus there are all manner of ways to access Nietzsche, none of which feature the flash that one might have hoped for. D’Iorio created a database technology and publishing platforms use part of it and add obstacles to give one less for more, as publishers do. (Here I am a fair fan of Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy, but that is another story).

CB: I read and enjoyed that… it encouraged me to start making use of creative commons for book publishing.

imageBB: For his part, Eric’s hypertext venture turned into a discussion of Nietzsche’s style rather than a videogame, and a discussion without hermeneutics (because analytic) which produced a straight vanilla book in which what he ultimately published was a discussion of hypertext rather than an actual hypertext. This outcome was not, I think owing to Eric’s limitations – although an Apple devotee, he can code, as Friedrich Kittler and David Berry and Ian Bogost and above all, you yourself would rightly underscore the importance of code – but because (and I did try to tell Eric this when he started...) there was in the case of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra no ‘there’, there and hence nowhere to go (Steinhart, like most readers of Zarathustra does not follow the Lucianic coordinates that, as I happily suggest, might have taken him literally, and interestingly, to hell and, this is why it subplot, more Hellhound than Dante’s Inferno, is why it might be cool, but to make that work, one has to read Lucian). So Steinhart wound up writing a nice, if analytic, take on Nietzsche. But in the case of Zarathustra, not even Super Mario, Lara Croft, nothing like World of Warcraft. In fact, uncharitable sorts might think of Zarathustra as little more than a pre-beta version of Angry Birds.

CB: ‘How to Philosophize with a Catapult’...

BB: Yes! But, note that I am trying to encourage counter-examples – I really do think a discussion of Zarathustra in hell would be interesting and I have written on this – but a video game might yet be possible, especially including levelling up (and I am reminded by Tracy Strong that Zarathustra is structured like a Bildungsroman, hence it would seem that there should be Mario-type video game possibilities!) More soberly, I should add that I remain a fairly careful reader of Nietzsche’s writings just to the extent that I read Nietzsche not as an incidental classicist but first and foremost as a classicist, hence I have been able for more than a quarter of a century (that’s the veteran in me) to read Nietzsche as a scientifically oriented philosopher, where the themes of antiquity (tragedy, eternal recurrence, Dionysus, etc.) are not mere window dressing bits, just where (I love quoting Hugh Lloyd-Jones on this matter, in Germany I quote Karl Reinhardt, in Italy, Gherardo Ugolini, to begin to name other, more recent names) Nietzsche did not fall into classical philology by mistake and he was excellent at what he did, even if he, alas, still remains on the other side of ‘normal science’ in his own field. In addition, because the referent is still Zarathustra and Nietzsche literally echoes Diogenes Laërtius’ reference to Zarathustra to begin his own genealogical reflections on Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, one really has to read Zarathustra via Nietzsche’s Diogenes Laërtius and not less via Lucian of Samosta, but I also take Nietzsche’s caveat to the reader of the book literally and not simply because Nietzsche sets that warning into his title but because, to punch the point home, he sandwiches the book as a whole between two bits of The Gay Science, before Book 5, and thus after Books 1-4.

CB: I’m a great fan of The Gay Science, which I often have cause to cite. However, despite the apparent influence of Nietzsche’s work, it seems to me he has also avoided having tangible impact in the academy outside of inspiring Foucault. As Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, Nietzsche represents a kind of necessary counter-position that must be argued against, but Nietzsche ‘wins by default’. Would you agree with this? What would you say is the biggest aspect of his work that scholars have failed to engage with?

BB: I think I can agree with this initial appraisal of his ‘impact’, but this is a very complex (Foucault takes only homeopathic amounts of Nietzsche) and carefully weighted question, as then and as you just noted, you observe MacIntyre’s recognition of Nietzsche as what you characterize as a “necessary counter-position that must be argued against” but which, as you continue to point out (quoting MacIntyre), ‘wins by default’. You then ask another all-guns-blazing question: what is ‘the biggest aspect of his work that scholars have failed to engage with?’

Now, everything you say is exactly right, even the order of the dependent questions here is spot on.  Nietzsche has had almost no impact on professional, university academic philosophy not to speak of professional, university Classics.  You could not be more correct. Indeed, it is a corollary to this that nearly everyone takes themselves to be able to read and teach Nietzsche, from professors with seemingly other specializations to first year grad students and newly minted PhDs. Thus (for one example, among many) Robert Ackerman, a philosopher of science specializing in experimental scientific method responded to the general request among grad students in his department at Amherst clamouring for a course on Nietzsche, not by hiring a Nietzsche specialist to this end, (‘though he was chair and could have done so), but simply by stepping up to the plate himself. The result was the (more aptly titled than its author may have supposed), Nietzsche, A Frenzied Look.

MacIntyreCB: What about MacIntyre? He prides himself on engaging with texts fully, which he suggests is essential to Thomist methods...

BB: Indeed! I am quite taken with MacIntyre’s reading of Nietzsche but I also find his strategy intriguing. MacIntyre does not give everything away and he is a consummate stylist, if in the Anglo Saxon mode where one of the features of consummate style is that one does not notice it (this would be a key difference between MacIntyre and Stanley Cavell, among other things to be sure). Here to my mind, you have offered us one of the better articulations of that stylistic prowess because MacIntyre, a little like Nietzsche’s own strategic positioning of Zarathustra between books IV/V in The Gay Science, interrupts his own After Virtue with Nietzsche – and he does it twice, with two dilemmas, two questions, as Nietzsche put it, ‘with horns.‘ Brilliant!

CB: I massively underestimated how much After Virtue had influenced me when I first read it, although I immediately admired MacIntyre’s historical breadth. Yet I found myself coming back to his work again and again, and reading various other works less well known too. I adore Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, which is another book in which Nietzsche plays a key role. MacIntyre lays out the Thomist tradition that he identifies with and positions it against the Victorian Encyclopaedists, with their unity of knowledge, and positions them against the Genealogists of knowledge, for whom Nietzsche is the founding figure... And (keeping with your idea of the importance of classical philology to Nietzsche), this is neatly presented as the Encyclopaedists attempting to displace the Bible as the canonical text, and Nietzsche responding with an attempt to discredit the entire concept of canon – and this has become the default position, even if the very notion of university – as Nietzsche himself bemoans, “No genuinely radical living for truth is possible in a university” – is impossible if that is accepted, which is quite a price to pay if MacIntyre is correct to suggest Nietzsche ‘wins by default’.

BB: I think whenever I teach on this – and I always do – or when I lecture on it (as I recently spoke on the dynamic between MacIntyre and Nietzsche in Heidelberg) that if Nietzsche’s lyric poet extraordinaire, the 7th century BC Archilochus, knows how to ‘do it,’ as it were, “lightning-struck,” all esoteric Dionysus, “with wine,” MacIntyre does it with disjunctions, as a very analytically formed fellow, one who knows Manchester, MacIntyre taught there, very importantly for him, just as you yourself are there today. For MacIntyre, Nietzsche or Aristotle is set square in the centre of After Virtue, which he concludes with Nietzsche, Tolstoy, or St Benedict – and MacIntyre deserves his own discussion! Because you are right, because MacIntyre is right: Nietzsche does win ‘by default’... But I would argue that this is a set-up, massively styled, whether deliberate or not, and not because the counter-position dissolves.

CB: Which is a key point, and the potential opening of a can of tangents, because the very notion of the Encyclopaedia (which I argue against in Wikipedia Knows Nothing) pre-supposes a prescribed set of correct answers. And acknowledging the problems with this way of understanding knowledge need not (and contra a common reading of Nietzsche) dissolve all claims to truth. MacIntyre seems to have a grip on this issue, and he seems to have won it from the time he spent reading Nietzsche, even though there are clearly other more influential forces at work in his philosophy.

BB: Now for just this reason your book, Wikipedia Knows Nothing is on my syllabus for (and needed just given the context of) Philosophy and Digital Media. The issue of the Encyclopaedia is one that needs more exploration but to return to MacIntyre, I think that his years at Boston University among philosophers of science (I spent some time among them as well when I was a student) has him aligning from the start of his study those questions that cannot logically be properly resolved, excluding as they do exclude common terms, and now we are back again to your original question [back in the first Babich and Bateman dialogue] and the problem of analytic and continental claimants.  For today, there can be no doubt that it is analytic philosophy that has won by annexation and the colonialist tactic of denying a voice to others, or even any recognition of difference between stylistic approaches, whereby and effectively a simple place at the table is denied to the other. Thus the other remains an outsider forever and, for me, what philosophy loses thereby is far too much ‘intellectual capital’ (as Nietzsche names it) along with the capital of the heart and spirit, not to mention excitement, even joy – and that is not a good thing.

The dialogue continues next week: An Analytic Lamp-post

Interview for Pop Philosophy

PPh logo

Delighted to report that the Russian website Pop Philosophy has an interview with me, in both Russian and English, talking about games, philosophy, Discordians, and cyber-squirrels. Here’s an extract:

There are those who suggest we are living in a golden age of videogames, and if you look at the volume of titles today there is certainly a huge amount out there. But for me, really interesting or engaging titles are few and far between. On the one hand, the upper end of the market, AAA console games, feels constricted by the size of the audience they need to court. It is amazing what is being made now, but we’re deeply into iterating upon the existing player practices. If you wanted to find original concepts, AAA would be the wrong place to look. But then I look at what the indie community delivers and, unsurprisingly, they are making the games they want to play, which are mostly just iterating on the existing player practices too but with less budget and so more rough edges. There’s greater emphasis on puzzles, some ugly violence in the corners, a lot of half-executed retro sensibilities…it’s not lacking inventiveness so much as it has no aesthetic ambition. It’s too safe. It mostly bores me.

Check it out over at the PPh website!

Announcing the Publisher

Virtuous Cyborg TeaserIt gives me great pleasure to announce that The Virtuous Cyborg will be published by Squint Books, the cultural and political imprint of renowned poetry micro-press Eyewear Publishing. We are planning for an Autumn 2017 release date.

You can read the blurb, and a short introduction for the publisher and author, over on the new book blog at

Check it out!

How to be a Traveller in an Ethical Multiverse

Philosophy in PubsIt gives me great pleasure to be giving a keynote at this year’s Philosophy in Pubs National Conference, in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. My talk, “How to be a Traveller in an Ethical Multiverse”, will be talking about ‘moral chaos’, cyberfetish, the Tragedy of Bureaucracy, and the problems of moral horror and political dissensus.

If you’re interested in coming along, you can get tickets for the full three day event, or just for the day I’m speaking (Saturday 3rd June). Details on the conference website.

Very much looking forward to the gig!

The Meaning of Play: Chris Bateman's US Tour (April 2017)

Play.Jan RasiewiczDelighted to announce that I am on a five State tour of the US this April, with four speaking engagements open to the public. I shall be presenting at four university campuses in Indiana, Texas, California, and Utah with an hour long presentation on The Meaning of Play. Most of the venues are open to the general public, so even if you're not a student at the universities in question you'd be more than welcome to come along. 

My topic for this tour is The Meaning of Play, an imaginative voyage through five hundred million years of play, using the latest empirical and philosophical research to trace the aesthetic motives that inspire beings to pursue play, and the lineages connecting the different kinds of play that these motives brought about. The journey will look at the aesthetic motives of the first multi-cellular life forms back in the Cambrian, how early wolves created new meanings for play a million years ago, the relationship between games today and games five millennia in the past, and how humans continue to create new and different means to – and meanings of – play.

Here are all the places you can catch me this April. Some details are still being confirmed and will be updated soon, so watch this space!

Tuesday 4th April: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Franklin Hall Commons, 1 pm 
Open to all

Thursday 6th April: Texas A&M, College Station, TX

Langford B Geren Auditorium, 7:45 pm
Open to all

Sunday 9th April: Laguna College of Art and Design, CA

Studio 5, Big Bend Campus, 2825 Laguna Canyon Rd, 1pm
Open to all

Wednesday 12th April: University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

EAE Games Studio, Building 72, Level 2, 5 pm
Open to all

With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud for goading me into this title. The opening image is Play by Jan Rasiewicz, which I found here at his site, Rasko Fine Art. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Babich and Bateman: Mediaddiction

Last week, the discussion about corporate venality passed sideways into a diagnosis of US politics and the commercial system propping it up. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the moral ambiguity of social media.

clip_image002Chris Bateman: You also suggest social media is rooted in a kind of masturbatory (if you’ll forgive the allusion) self-satisfaction, self-enclosure. Like dogs begging for treats, we become self-conditioned to seek the strokes of trivial recognition that social media hands out – and there’s nothing genuinely social about this. Yet you and I remain on Twitter despite our awareness of this problematic situation. Are we trapped? Naïve? Self-deceived? Or is there a counterpoint to this problem that justifies colluding with mediated culture? What, if anything, is the alternative?

Babette Babich: This is a grand question, it is, as I do suggest and I do mean this, perhaps also a certain benefit of social media that it has this self-satisfying character, though I also spoke more neutrally of a kind of social media autism. Sherry Turkle looks at this issue as she has written several books on the matter as her own thought has evolved and she thinks, and a lot of cognitive psychologists concur, that it might be better, in a word, simplistic as it can be, as she suggests this, if we were to put down our phones.

CB: Which we have made impossible by becoming habituated to our cyborg existence as robot-with-human, since the smartphone is nothing but a robot slave which, in line with Hegel’s famous critique, we as masters are dependent upon.

BB: We hack the imprecations of modern digital culture on our psyche in our lives by means of these little objects and the cybernetic reaches, as it were, its full conclusion, its ultimate consequences with this little device. We have hands.

CB: Not to mention eyes. The eye and the hand are our passage between worlds, worlds sustained by imagination (such as the worlds of videogames, or for that matter movies or paintings or novels) or worlds sustained by corporeal practices – including the kind of practical world that has been rendered endangered by the systemic dependency on production we all accept and cannot question. I have never forgotten meeting a blind girl who played the videogames that the company I worked for at the time made, games that had been designed without any thought that someone without vision might play them. Yet she did. She essentially substituted patience for seeing. Which is ironic, because the prevalence of social media today is the substitution of seeing for patience, about which nobody has any vestige – yet spectacle, pre-generated visions, video distractions... for these, we have an unquenchable appetite.

BB: What a beautiful analogy, especially the fast short-circuit to immediate gratification and its demands. This is the way addiction works. The dark problem with the dream of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his Oculus Rift and thus and indirectly that of whoever feeds him tidbits from whatever military-corporate government security arm there may be (the surveillance arm may be utterly ‘invisible’ but we know it is omnipresent and we know, or can suppose, its interests), is the built in, downloadable chip, or the very acoustic signal alone — I talk about this in The Hallelujah Effect, it is what effects the effect — hacked into our minds, our consciousness.

CB: The cyberpunk novelists were deeply into exploring this theme, with varying degrees of success, but the lesson of the early 21st century has been that you don’t need the cybernetics actually inside your flesh, you don’t need a neural splice or a data port, because hands and eyes are already a sufficient interface to enter into another world, a robot-mediated world, the ‘consensual hallucination’ William Gibson foreshadowed. Sterling’s imaginative future of conflict between those who favour genetic enhancement and those who favour software enhancement overreached the mark: we needed much less than expected to fall prey to the ‘near future’.

BB: Hands, eyes, and ears! This is the reason The Hallelujah Effect focuses on the acoustic – and if I were writing this book today rather than four years ago now, in addition to all the things you are mentioning, I would probably try to integrate a review of the ASMR augment [Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response], for those who can ‘feel’ it, and this too is a kind of ‘masturbatory’ thing. (There are various versions of the acronym floating around on the internet, and one refers to a non-ASMR Magic Fades album, Augmented Sapiosexual Misanthropic Relationships.) To my mind, the ASMR YouTube phenomenon, specifically the work of video performance artists – and there are several I feel worth noting [for example, here, here and here] but to name those names is worth its own blog discussion (probably in another and expressly acoustic context) – might in fact be further connected in the spirit of the anthropology and sociology and psychology of social media with the Asexual movement. Thus ASMR has nothing to do with the erotic despite the popular press’s habit (BBC’s Nick Higham has been trying to explore this [e.g. here, and again here]) of invoking ‘brain orgasms.’ Such journalistic prose gets a lot of attention but misses the point of ‘entrainment’ as this concerns me, as does the first response to the phenomenon suggested by Liverpool neuroscientist, Frances McGlone, as Higham quotes him. But to miss the connection with entrainment means missing utterly the interface point you very importantly emphasized above, Chris. Acoustic brain entrainment has been a research topic in the military for years (happens to be the disturbing but valuable take-away from the Scots philosopher – and performance artist! AKA Kode9 – Steve Goodman in his book, Sonic Warfare). But the miss may also be no accident inasmuch as official cognitive science refuses to recognize ASMR, so much so that current research on it is done by teams of grad students (nary a supervisor in sight) – and not too many teams of grad students at that. At the same time – this is a “normal science” phenomenon in Kuhn’s sense of the term – one can wonder whether a failure to recognize a phenomenon counts as proof against ontological standing or as an indication of a failure of scientific currency? Here the problem is that not everyone has an ASMR response, just as not everyone is colorblind. Thus there is a partial parallel with the debate on synaesthesia which was also for a long time roundly denied as a phenomenon for similar reasons. And, in addition to the non-universality of the phenomenon, there is also the general trouble we have with nuance and complexity in complex physical systems. Take the example of nutrition science. When I was young, and oddly this conviction remains in force and no amount of research seems able to shake it, nutritionists argued that a calorie was a calorie was a calorie in order to deny that table sugar was as such, that is: qua disaccharide (where glucose, which is what the body uses for energy, is a monosaccharide), a particularly bad thing, which even sugar lovers, and I am one, know it to be by direct experience: one lives the phenomenon, captivating high (or nervous absorption, however it works for you) followed by an almost predictable crash, and then there is dental health as well as the tendency to gain weight, adiposity, attested to a century ago by Brillat-Savarin.

CB: There is sometimes a pressure in research communities to find the simplest explanation – a calorie is a calorie – as if this was the highest goal of the sciences. It’s Occam’s Razor gone wild, throwing out every relevant circumstance in the pursuit of the elegance of simplicity. So I would counter the original suggestion that non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, “entities must not be multiplied without necessity” (which apparently Occam got from John Punch’s commentary on Duns Scotus) with what I like to call Occam’s Nemesis: necesse est ponere plures, “it is necessary to posit plurality”. In my estimation you are not demonstrating much in the way of expertise if you can only represent complex situations inadequately.

Flat WhiteBB: And so the question: does expert denial constitute idiocy or does it simply reflect the durability of the received view? The hermeneutic phenomenological approach that matters to me as a continental philosopher can be useful here. One can philosophize about apricot cocktails with it, the great beauty of the thing is that this includes other cocktails, and beer in addition to sucrose, as well as different kinds of coffee, as I am a great one for thinking about the virtues of coffee and philosophy, but not less travel, as coffee is a multifarious thing, a culture that cannot simply be translated into Starbucks’ parlance or indeed and lamentable prevalence but is sedimented into the variations of a worldview. Took me years, and I am still not sure I am right about it, and I do live part-time in Winchester, to parse what a flat white might be.

CB: It is striking how coffee practices are automatically amalgamated into the commercial system. The flat white from 1980s Australia; the cortado from Spanish and Portuguese culture... If a new way of drinking coffee was discovered in the Amazonian rain forest tomorrow, I would expect to be drinking it in a coffee chain by the end of the month (and for someone somewhere to be complaining that they didn’t have it yet).

BB: You see, the things an American can learn! But experience tells us that that it might not catch on: Starbucks tried to do the slow pour, but as a New Yorker I can attest that Starbucks is slow enough as it is, and the Japanese take on coffee requires a little more time than we tend to have (still: I love it because of its metonymic – this is a joke, like my mention of the title alone in Heidegger’s Analytic as if that alone would suffice – association with the supposed Coriolis effect, as if the entire earth were somehow involved in the brewing of your coffee, or in the pouring of water over one’s tea). As a hermeneutic phenomenologist, one attends to the lived world but not less to the embodiment of living what is lived in that lifeworld and for the sake of that. Thus someone like Heidegger could remind us not only of the life of the lifeworld but of very vortices of the world as such (Heidegger speaks of worldhood and with-world) and the bodying forth of that life in the living of it.

CB: Phenomenology always leads me back to the imagination, and your remarks on Heidegger here reminds me of Theseus’ famous speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also has some bearing on the social media phenomena:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The dialogue continues next week: Touching Robots

Babich and Bateman: Monopoly and Other Games

Last week, a discussion about corporate venality and Ivan Illich’s ‘machine’. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the problems of US politics.

imageBB: Our relation to industrial or corporate capitalism seems, at least in certain of its elements, to be a version of the faith one might have in the Irish Lottery, that or a kind of contact fetishism: we seem to think we must be beholden to millionaires all the way down (as if contact with or enthusiastic support of the wealthy might be the secret ingredient to waking up wealthy some fine day). I like your feudal vision of this indenture [discussed last week], perhaps there could be game design that might be thus inspired – if the great Jane McGonigal’s game reflections draw out the advantages of games for life and even for measurable pain management, maybe we can have a game for the economy, the opposite of Ge Jin’s ‘gold farmers’ (like Jane, he had also been briefly at Fordham, though I met him at UCSD) a game that might help us understand real-life economics. Of course, as you know, such exist, like Bertell Ollman’s board game for Marxism, Class Struggle (which was actually released as a board game — and I am grateful to Tracy Strong for tipping me off about this, although, and this is also how metonymy works, Tracy remembered Ollman’s game under the name of the more memorable, because rather higher profile board game, Anti-Monopoly by the San Francisco political theorist Ralph Ansbach).

CB: Since you have invoked Monopoly, I am honour bound to comment on the rather sordid history of this game. For it originates, as these days people are more aware of, as a modification to Elizabeth Magie’s 1904 The Landlord’s Game. Magie, struck by how children had an innate sense of fairness, thought that if a game made it clear how unjust property ownership was, it would allow a future generation to produce a fairer world. The game rules, in fact (linked to above), contain some remarkable clauses such as: “The Landlord’s Game is based on present prevailing business methods. This the players can prove for themselves; and they can also prove what must be the logical outcome of such a system, i.e., that the land monopolist... is monarch of the world.” There is also a rule allowing players to vote in a Single Tax, which allows land ownership revenue to be used for everyone’s benefit. It’s a remarkable design – and an even more remarkable story, for of course the ending is that it did not enjoy success in that form but instead became the design template for the hymn to capitalism that is Charles Darrow et al’s 1935 game Monopoly. It’s a game, frankly, that game designers hate because it is shockingly unbalanced – yet it has its fans, if for no other reason than its millionaire power fantasy has a near-universal appeal.

BB: My point is less about riffs upon or reinventions of Monopoly than the critically phenomenological observation that we do not buck the system. Thus it is worth remembering that the same system one worries about under the reign of the crass and still crasser regime of Trump-style crony capitalism was unchallenged in eight years under Obama, whose main virtue now seems to be that he was classier about it. Obama bailed Wall Street out effectively to the very same dollar amount that Bush had done just prior to his own assumption of office, as if to send a signal. And as power is passed from one administrative regime to the next, the most critical voices (though not heard on mainstream news channels) raise questions about Obama’s drone habit…

CB: It continues to shock me, both that it happens, and that people do not appear to be horrified about it.

BB: Sloterdijk’s Terror from the Air could use an update on the bombs dropped by the US under Obama – a fairly silent war conducted without report, behind the scenes, unwitnessed, to which we can only add current anxieties about the very same legacy of the military industrial complex that will continue under Trump whose only promise appears to be to bring us more military projects for less investment.

CB: This is a problem that can be out in the open or hidden away. In the US, the demand for the best equipment for the troops (who are now permanently deployed, in stark denial of the intentions of the Founding Fathers) pours shocking money into programmes that culminate with planet-killing bombs or murderous robots. The UK, with its smaller size, does not engage so directly with industrial weapons research and settles instead for a thriving business selling weapons abroad. We rival China for arms exports, although the two together sell less than a third of what the US manages to send abroad. It doesn’t matter who you vote for in this regard, the CIA and similar agencies keep pushing along their projects and agendas more-or-less regardless of who sits in the White House.

imageBB: Note that we didn’t quite have a choice in the last election which was less a matter of Trump or Clinton (and the very fact that Sanders was closed out of the election is part of this non-choice), not only because of the workings of the ‘Hallelujah Effect’ but also because the popular vote has never been what decides an American presidential election: we did not invent the electoral college at Trump’s behest. And despite this, professors of political science who teach the rules for American elections in their classes by day, moonlight on Facebook and Twitter saying the same things one can hear on Fox News and CNN regarding the dangers of Trump, the virtues of the popular vote, and the importance of blaming Jill Stein for Clinton’s defeat. After the election the same debates re the popular vote continued, shifting blame still to Jill Stein or else to Russia. But hacking is an issue that has nothing to do with Russia, it is an old question in a digital age (thank you Diebold) so clichéd by 2016 that ten years ago there was an HBO documentary on hacking American elections, Hacking Democracy. At issue in the documentary – it’s worth seeing – is less that hacking happens as it does than that, and this is digitally and philosophically very intriguing, when it does it is undetectable: it is a difference that literally makes no difference: it is undetectable, unless you know it is being done, you can neither detect it nor rule it out.

CB: As a friend of hackers, I might dispute that claim – a good hacker can produce a trail of breadcrumbs in situations that otherwise seem immaculate. But please go on!

BB: Still, what may be more disturbing is that stealing elections, the very idea, is so entrenched in US politics that political scientists take it for granted and factor it into their discussions of the popular vote, as if there were no other way about it.  Thus if Bush steals an election from Gore, we shrug, or at least we let the Supreme Court do the shrugging for us. When Clinton’s campaign does related things contra Sanders, we shrug: backroom politics, what are ya gonna do? Thus in the face of all that past shrugging the most surprising thing is perhaps mainstream media complaints regarding a putative Putin hack, post Trump.  Hacks to one side, what is evident is that we work ourselves into a frenzy over the supposed choice between two non-choices while ridiculing anyone who claims that either one comes down to the same. We do this even after eight years of explaining on both social media and in academic conference lectures and corridors that Obama could not keep his campaign promises because of Republican opposition and corporate and lobbying forces in Washington – the same Republican concerns Obama sought to work with, the same corporate interests Obama bailed out.

CB: We are so focussed on the person who sits in a particular office, that it manages to obscure the larger system they are incorporated into, and which they cannot change. It always comes back to the same thing for me: how was Obama unable to stop drone assassinations? Attacks that killed vast numbers of innocents and that were by no means the ‘precision strikes’ they were intended to be. Indeed, these shameful practices – which in my view dishonour the very troops that US citizens, and indeed myself, have such respect for – flourished under Obama’s watch. And not, I suspect, because he was entirely in support of them, although sometimes I wonder...

BB: Note that we have already said all the trigger things needed for the automatic associations that drive these debates and to inspire counter claims: everyone knows where to come down on these and related issues.

CB: This is the problem with moral horror, as I call it in Chaos Ethics; the cognitive dissonance of politics and ethics: the moment you are triggered, as it has become popular to say, all possibility of discussion has already ended. We fight over these flashpoint situations without there being any possibility of that conflict doing anything but entrench our ‘enemies’, making productive dialogue impossible. It is all too easy to simply give in to cynicism and conclude that there is no point making any kind of effort at all. At which point, Illich’s machine has most certainly won out. Corporate venality, as you have eloquently put it, is all that is left.

BB: I take very seriously your question as to what one might then do.  I don’t know. It seems to me that a great deal might be attained if one might finally come to see that there was a problem to begin with, in all its complexity and not less in its persistence. As Nietzsche once reflected – and his formulation is more salient than standard reflections on akrasia [ἀκρασία] – knowing better does not remove the conundrum: it does not mean one will do things otherwise, and it is far from the beginning of liberation: there is necessity, ananke [ἀνάγκη], all the way down.

The dialogue continues next week: Mediaddiction

Babich and Bateman: Corporate Venality

In this latest dialogue between philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, we discuss our relationship to corporate power and influence, the possibility of virtuous behaviour against a backdrop of pervasive technology, and living with robots.

imageChris Bateman: In your book The Hallelujah Effect, you draw out some of the ways that our apparently freely motivated actions in social media tend to devolve into propping up the corporate ownership of popular culture. Web 2.0’s much vaunted appointment of the masses to the role of ‘content creator’ becomes a kind of ‘free range egg’ alternative to ‘battery farmed’ corporate content creation – the content we ‘create’ is an unpaid corporate promotional service. You suggest this is the new venality, a corporate venality where we are effectively being psychologically ‘bribed’ to prop up corporate interests. And we all end up participating – even those of us who question this arrangement. Is this inevitable? How would someone find a virtuous path in this situation?

Babette Babich: This is a great question.

This is such a great question that I would be up for anyone who might suggest such a path out of the fly bottle.

I don’t think such a path exists, or at least and surely not without critique, which is why there is a need to focus on Adorno (even if Adorno’s tone can annoy a lot of readers, Horkheimer does not make it any better) or Günther Anders (part of Anders’ 1956, The Obsolescence of Humanity, “On Promethean Shame” is now available in English as part of Christopher Müller’s Prometheanism) or Marcuse or indeed Baudrillard. The problem is that as happy denizens of the capitalist world view, that is, as happy consumers dedicated to feeding the corporate machine all the gigantic profits it can eat, that the dynamic is just as self-detonating as Marx suggested long ago and as we have, quite empirically found, to our great distress, bubble after bubble, in the UK under Thatcher and since then, as if no lessons had been learnt, and they weren’t, and on-going again with Brexit and its subsidiary consequences.

CB: On Brexit, I shall have to defer comment, if only for brevity, although it is something I spend time quite some time thinking about, and remain quite conflicted.

BB: Let me also note – although I am mindful of the complexity deferred – that academic authors are perhaps more insulated from the same profit question though no less involved. I was just interviewed for a UK job (patently I was not offered the position or I would not be talking about it, and that complicity is worth a blog of its own) where I was asked point blank about just how I planned to bring corporate money to the university: I have no such plans or techniques for the same, and I said as much.  What I did not say was that I thought that the very idea violated academic integrity.  And yet there is no way to be an academic and not be involved with corporate money, corporate enhancement, corporate exchange, whether one intends this or not. Thus just to limit this complexity to something as seemingly innocuous as research – academics routinely write (and edit: recruit, and collate for journals and book collections, reads copy: one’s own, that of others) for no compensation, before, during, or after publication. Yet most academics who write for the sake of communication and engagement, the furthering of research, also vigorously protest file-sharing – a complex issue on which you have written and which remains very resistant to analysis at any level. Maybe this is because the digital ontology of our lives is happening, or unfolding, all around us.

CB: You say ‘corporate machine’, and ‘machine’ was specifically the metaphor Ivan Illich used to describe the way that Western society – the democratic, free market economy, rights-claiming ideological system – functioned, and he tried to warn countries that had not yet been pulled into it what they stood to lose. Because it seems, as you suggest here, that once inside there is no way out, no way back, because once you join an economy of specialisation and dependence upon manufacture and commerce you can never be self-sufficient in any tangible sense. The moment you are not growing your own food, the moment you lose those skills that once were the mainstay of existence, you are entirely dependent upon the system to sustain you – and the system now is the corporations just as in feudal times it was the aristocracy. Feudal capitalism would be another way to see it; millionaires swearing fealty to billionaires, and the peasants in thrall to their employers who – whether by bank or by capital investment – all depend upon millionaires or billionaires somewhere down the line.

imageBB: It was Illich’s metaphor and it still bears reflection, as I often connect it too to the Frankfurt School theorists and their culture industry.  I write occasionally  about Illich in connection with education and health care but I think his comments even more vital in connection with what he called conviviality, and this complex feudality is, I think part of that as we live semi-blind to the system that sustains us, as you say, and corporate feudality is a matrix all its own. Illich pointed out that what is at issue is more than the preservation of exotic cultures, Carmen Sandiego style (where in the world can one be free of corporate control?) if only because as he also argued, there is no place, to one side or the other of Brexit complexity or Trump wall-building insanity, where one is or could be free of corporate control.  Illich’s writing and sensibility has, if one opens oneself to reading him, the capacity to raise the tone, to remind us of conviviality, that we are very much in this together even if we need the spirit of an almost-saint, as I believe Illich was such, we certainly need the patience of one, even to pose such questions at all. Hence toward the end of his life, talking about his decision to shut down the centre he himself had founded in Cuernevaca, Illich spoke of the “cultivation of conspiracy,” meaning, as he gave a historical as well as etymological discussion, being close enough to others that we might be able to share their breath, to breathe with them. “Con-spiratio.”

CB: Finding Illich was transformational for me, because here were precisely the questions not being asked today, and (soberingly) being asked around the time that I was born. Having taken these questions to heart, though, I have felt remarkably isolated – because to think with Illich is to exile yourself from almost everyone else today, to challenge everything that most people unquestioningly take to be the best aspect of what we have (whether education, medicine, or transport). Worst of all for me is precisely that I do not feel close enough to others to share breath – far from the delight in my nomadic existence that gave me my company name (International Hobo Limited), now I feel an acute sense of the costs of that nomadic existence, but the habit is there now, and it is terribly difficult to break… I had not thought, before you mentioned it, of this other meaning of ‘conspiracy’, shared breath, but yes, I suppose I yearn for a conspiracy I feel able to belong to!

BB: Historical philology is captivating and one learns from Illich’s account, but you mentioned him to touch on the question less of spirit (and Illich’s conspiracy) than speculation and capital, specifically our unwitting involvement with it, an unwitting involvement that tends to become quite witting. Most of us at university will seek corporate sponsorship if we can. Hence a nearly universal response to Illich on breathing the breath of others – he was speaking of the original meaning of the kiss of peace – can be the same as a fairly universal response to Žižek in the time of Occupy Wall Street (I include here some of the photos I took of the movement, during a day of organized protests, with union support from all over the New York seaboard and mindful that Occupy has in the space of a few years passed into a cliché for a thoroughly defeated movement) as Žižek suggested then that we might, say, dismantle capitalism, that would be the ultimate Brexit. As is his wont, Žižek articulated our own answer for us in effort to get us to think about what we consider, this is a Lacanian conundrum, what we regard as or name the impossible.

The dialogue continues next week: Monopoly and Other Games