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, the constitution of 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 object, or one location in a 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 years, 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 was 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 to myself as to a network of my teenage classmates. To like something in the facebook era by contrast not only to have something, but is in the stronger sense 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 is no longer limited to its original sense in English of paying a ransom to release a prisoner. Nor is liking something bound to have quite the same freight, or carry quite the same information, as when we were young.

Wolves in Women's Clothing

Not a word here about using trans imagery as the symbolic palette humiliationIn a (damning, though fair) review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book painting conservative ideology as united only by the revanchist urge to maintain rule (and a slightly less controversial text from a grinning TV posterboy of the American left, Chris Hayes), Andrew Seal argues that placing affect/feeling of individuals at the centre of their analysis—as he claims both authors do—means consistently mistaking hegemony for hierarchy, missing the forest for the trees, and forgetting that, if there is a ruling class, that it then needs to be addressed as a class.

It’s a mesmerizing, superb piece of writing, more than enough to scare me away me from either of his sources. Invoking Tony Soprano and Jay Gatsby, he writes that “Robin’s vocabulary of feudalism…rhymes with preconceptions not yet articulated except as myths.”

Yet, in focusing away from affect and shining the spotlight instead on an amorphous “class interest,” Seal might be cutting off too much. It may well be that the maintenance of power structures results from instincts more complex than the monarchical pretensions of individual autocrats (an idea I give some credit), but to ignore instinct, affect and feeling entirely in favour Seal’s call to conceptualize “how the group acts” risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Every time another layer of the Koch brothers’ global empire of misdirection, astro-turfing and white-washing is unpeeled, each new insight into the revolutionary plot hatched at Mont Pellerin to enthrone market-friendly ideas, each time money flows from powerful hands into the palms of key US decision-makers, it becomes easier to imagine power in the form of a cabal or a clan, as a clandestine conspiracy united not only in interest but in strategy to maintain their lordship over the suffering plebes.

Of course tracing and tracking these strategies matters, and responding to them needs to be a part of everyday politics. Yet, it’s also important to pay attention to the way in which feelings, and especially in-group feeling, play a part in perpetuating power structures. A recent piece by Sam Polk, a lapsed Wall Street insider, does something similar, and it’s gotten a fair bit of attention. Polk treats the industry’s pathology in terms of addiction. Most interesting about the piece, however, is not the soulless drive for ever more money and power (it’s always odd to me that people are surprised by capitalists acting, as Marx predicted, “as capital personified”), but with the picture he paints of industry politics. It’s true that the industry hates both financial regulation, and taxes on the rich, but when Polk put the systemic advisability of certain measures in question, the response from his boss was that he didn’t “have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

It’s not that the US financial class is uninterested in politics, but many of them nonetheless have an unsophisticated view of politics, backed up by fear and selfishness, not a desire to rule per se.

All this provides proper context for a recent exposé in New York Magazine detailing the hazing rituals of Kappa Beta Phi, an exclusive club for powerful Wall Street types.  What is most striking about this soirée for billionaires (and those making due with only hundreds of millions) is not simply the fact of their gathering, but how much closer their hijinx come to the crude embarrassments of a freshman fraternity rush than a secret meeting of the Illuminati. It’s a wonder, reading the KBP piece next to a recent investigation into real college fraternities, that more Wall Street types aren’t falling off things to their death.

It’s easy to look at the incredible power that has been accumulated by Wall Street over the last 30 years and assume that its ascendance was by design, that it could only have resulted from a clandestine, concerted scheme. It’s doubly so, given that much of the still-powerful neoliberal orthodoxy is not only the brainchild of an intellectual revolution, but the result of a concerted political project. Fine. But strategy to respond has to take into account as well, how much “the smartest guys in the room” are far from it, and how much the structures of power are self-reinforcing, with or without concerted efforts by anyone. If there’s one thing Wolf of Wall Street can help make clear, it’s that.