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A friend writes with his impression of the Dutch:

Amsterdam is lovely, somehow a less offensive variety of gentrification and urban development, some of it quite stunning as with the incorporation of the old harbour to the north into the city. Weather can be a real bitch, but has been unseasonably warm. Going away for a few days to the Frisian Islands tomorrow, walking across the mudflats, biking across the barren landscape of the dunes. … I’m liking the Dutch. They’re very critical, yes, but it’s a positive disposition, not one of resignation. No wallowing in melancholy, so often touted as the hallmark of true interpersonal intimacy down south, but a sober, practical attitude that navigates and negotiates emotions in as far as they ultimately enable us to transform and move forward. Very affirmative. Less intuitive, perhaps, and not such élan and fatalism, but not inert, not shallow, and not cold.

One of the things that I realized, linguistically and philosophically, when I was forced into reading Adorno for three months, is that negation doesn’t have origins with any relation to bad, unfortunate, or miserable. The idea of positivity being associated with fortune and happiness seems to have arrived from the soft-headed, hippy-dippy psychological school of “positive thinking” which presumed (and now preaches the idea) that, if you imagine something in your head, i.e. if you really try to “posit it” (whence positive) and take for granted the premise of its becoming, that this will somehow bring it into real-world existence. I mean look, I’m a social constructivist, I think that wide-scale belief is the very substance of our social world, but shit like The Gift mistakes a sociological insight for a psychological one, and reduces the profound premise of existentialism (“we always have the freedom to act even when there are consequences”) to a patently false pretense of self-help (“you can do anything if you set your mind to it!”). Anyway, in the result, “positivity” became associated with happiness and success and good tidings–and “negativity” with the sense of inviting their opposites.

Of course, this is doubly unfortunate: not only because it universalizes a misreading of “positive” that makes both references to “positive law” and “positive social science” nigh-incomprehensible to anyone who lives outside the university, but stupid also because to negate something need not mean replacing a thing with its opposite–it simply implies putting something else in its place. Thus, ideally, the “negative” encompasses that part of thought and practice that goes beyond the imagining of “what if things were such and such a way” to the more practical, fraught task of thinking “what if the nominally existent was replaced with something else” or the even more charged practice of demanding “this nominally existent thing should be replaced with another.” To negate is simply to deny, to say no to the merely existent.

The critic is not the cynic, but literally one that judges, a person not only capable of saying both “yes” and “no” but also of stopping to say “are you sure” and especially “am I?” There is something sick, I think, about cultural practices rooted in the belief that problems can be solved simply by saying “yes” to any idea, new or old, so long as it is well-packaged and expressed with enthusiasm or certainty. I suppose, compared to the dominant strand of the American zeitgeist, that a country willing to raise a quizzical eyebrow, pause before jumping onto the wagon of every fad that bristles with enthusiasm, and reject the magical thinking of “by believing it, we can make it so” will look like an elephant graveyard of nay-saying Eeyores. But nothing could be further from the truth. For inasmuch as the Russian stereotype of fatalism is anything more than a stereotype, it has nothing to do with being critical and has everything in common with the eager-beaver American disease: whereas in the lands of Slavic stereotype, there is an almost overweening willingness to say yes to everything that already is–no matter how bad–and no to any idea about how things might be better, in the always-on digital Manhattan of Twitter, Entertainment Tonight and BuzzFeed, the almost-laughable but ultimately tragic logic of the TEDtalk circuit doles out gold stars to every nincompoop self-deluded enough to stand in front a crowd and expound breathlessly on an idea that promises everything–everything–and at almost no cost.

What I am getting at here is of course being critical is a constructive disposition, and even a “positive” one, but just not in the insane sense in which that word is batted around the Oprah-bookclub lowlands of North American public discourse. The alternative to critique is a society where everyone is shitting themselves with excitement about a future in which we all get to be the next Steve Jobs, all while 2% of the population is in jail, literacy rates are declining and social mobility is lurching in the direction of the ancien regime. It is almost enough to drive you out of your house and into a bathtub in the street. I’ll take boring, slightly wry, but ultimately well-managed conservatism over that hokum any day.

Like it means something

File:Facebook like thumb.pngJames Gleick’s The Information starts with a simultaneous appearance in 1948, both of the first transistor and the first scientific discussions of ‘the bit’ as a fundamental unit of measurement. Overall, the book tells the story of how those two technologies — the engineering breakthrough contained in that now-ubiquitous miniaturized form of digital storage and the scientific paradigm shift of that now-universal way of measuring just what is being stored — conspired together to transform our experience of the world. His intention is to recapture some of the credit for the massive social upheavals occasioned by the digital revolution on behalf of ideas: not to reject the importance of the technical knowledge that allows us to build resistors, but to make room as well in the historical account for the radical shift in theoretical knowledge that renders it even sensible to imagine DNA as speech, tennis scores as music or an image as a coded message. Thinking about how to get more conversations over the same phone line, or how to ensure a message has been received correctly, or how to fit more patient data into a smaller space, or how to make a recorded song sound more like the original, will in each case require some metric of how much of the thing you have. We ended up in a world where we not only came up with measurements for each case, but the same measurement for every one. Here’s Gleick on how big a change that represented:

For the purposes of science, information had to mean something special. Three centuries earlier, the new discipline of physics could not proceed until Isaac Newton appropriated words that were ancient and vague — force, mass, motion, and even time — and gave them new meanings. Newton made these terms into quantities, suitable for use in mathematical formulas. Until then, motion (for example) had been just as soft and inclusive a term as information. For Aristotelians, motion covered a far-flung family of phenomena: a peach ripening, a stone falling, a child growing, a body decaying. That was too rich. Most varieties of motion had to be tossed out before Newton’s laws could apply and the Scientific Revolution could succeed.

In my own work, trying to capture how policy makers and the state imagine capital (including in my recent rambling thoughts on the subject) I wrestle a lot with a similar set of transformations that occurred in the birth of finance as a discrete field. I just took a three day seminar on the history of financial crises and no one but seemed to think it much mattered that ‘finance’ didn’t exist as a coherent object of reference until the 20th century, and lacked much of its current valence until the 1970s. Finance was a word that meant the means or capacity to pay one’s debts, and by the late 19th century, also came to refer to careful thinking about income and expenses. There was banking (and banking failures), money (and currency crises), public finance (and power and territory reordered in the service of paying off royal debts). But when the word gets used today, it can’t be disentangled from images of the Wolves of Wall Street, can’t help but act as mediator between the interest rates set by the Fed and the dividends paid out by Apple (on which, see JW Mason’s solid analysis), can’t escape from a seemingly natural home in ‘the markets.’

For those in the know, finance inevitably depends, in some inchoate way, on the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision; for those who don’t, the Basel Committee is just one part of an arcane, sublime object, on location in an obscure country lying beyond the economic frontier, necessary but dangerous, complicated and obscure, wild but tamable for those who have the right kind of knowledge. But that obscurity results partially from a gradual expansion of referents over the last 200 words, from a term with a narrow meaning little differentiable from ‘bookkeeping,’ to a bloated pastiche that includes practices which used to be derided as immoral ‘speculation,’ sold as ‘insurance’, offered as opportunities for ‘investment’, or understood as ‘depositing money in a bank.’

But it occurred to me today that the transformation of the world hand in hand with the transformation of the word is not always a process that’s driven by the search for ordered, scientific clarity.

Consider, for example, that for the generation born after 1998, there will never be a world without a ‘like’ button. In the interaction with facebook, ‘like’, as verb, takes on an active, social sense slightly askew from its prior usages. When I was 15 years old, liking Radiohead meant I possessed a preference that sat, stationary, inert and internal, ready to be dragooned into action only once I was forced to choose between alternatives, a thing I might take out to to show a potential friend or choose to keep to myself, a feeling that related me as much myself as to a network of classmates and acquaintances. To ‘like’ something in the facebook era is to the contrary not only to have something, but is implicitly and much more strongly to act. It is is to make a mark in the world. ‘To like’ becomes not only to possess an internal orientation — a feeling or an affect or an emotion — but to engage in a form of communication, one directed to a crowd of friends and acquaintances, plus a less-than-predictable network of relations of relations. In being inseparable from this act of communication, ‘to like’ something in this way leaves behind the world of private preferences, secret pleasures, silent joys.

The meaning of words lies not only in their use but in the networks of incoherent, sometimes contradictory meanings they are used to express. Words divide up the world into manageable categories, leaving certain senses behind even as they pick up new ones, picking up certain meanings and abandoning others. Perhaps the current generation will never use ‘like’ in ways  that are noticeably different from how I do. But it is one possible future of the word, and of the world. To finance something no longer means holding it for ransom. Nor is ‘liking’ something likely to have quite the same freight, or carry quite the same information, as when we were young.

Cogs

supermassive-black-hole

I’ve got some pushback on my idea that the European Commission might be a place where it’s ever possible to exercise ethics or transcend dehumanized institutional logics. The point I was trying to take from Duncan Kennedy is that we cannot know, until we have spent some times engaging with an organization, whether it is so internally inflexible and on balance harmful that it should be resigned to the scrap heap of history.

Now, [...More] ‘ Cogs ‘

Make Work

A friend, who has the intellectual chops for academia, charm enough for sales, and the ethical heart of a British-style social drama, writes to ask if I would “kill him” if he told me he was entertaining thoughts of working for the European Commission.

The background here being not only that he’s young enough to still be choosing a career, but that he had previously expressed particular distaste for certain of those among his peers [...More] ‘ Make Work ‘

There is no ethical progress, and no strategy, in silence.

So I love–love–Freddie de Boer. There is, given the defensiveness in his writing, obviously a big slice of the American left-liberal blog-o-sphere who absolutely hates him for his politics, or for the way he expresses his politics, or for the timing of his expression of his politics or…something. But I find his engagement with questions of ethics and strategy, his resistance to the fetishization of American machine politics as the sole locus of social change [...More] ‘ Out of the wilderness ‘

The Rub

Even if you hope that the Scots choose (choose!) to stay with England and Wales and Northern Ireland (and the Cornish :D), this piece by Irvine Welsh is an essential expression of what’s thrilling about the Scottish vote, which is that it represents a vindication of something true and real and powerful about the democratic principle. If the Scots choose to stay, it feels as if ‘politics’ will go back to process, to back and [...More] ‘ The Rub ‘

Teach the Controversy

Over at the Soros-funded Institute for New Economic Thinking, there have recently been a few blog-posts about the potential of, and the need for, economics curriculum reform. In a recent example, Abdul Alassad characterises the problem as follows:

rational debates of ideas has been replaced by dogma, to the detriment of society. A dogma is a set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. Today, economics is taught as a set [...More] ‘ Teach the Controversy ‘