Features and Bugs

“Sheep might have to put on wolves’ clothing, to fight as wolves do; of course, the innocent may risk bloodying their own jaws–captured by discourses they should have known were predatory.” — Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man (2007)

 

According to Rene Girard in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), what’s right with the world is that our current age enjoys an unprecedented care for victims. Unlike past ages, which were content to unload their violence on suddenly and unanimously-selected victims, our world is no longer content with the selection of scapegoats. Indiscriminate violence against the innocent can no longer serve as a placeholder for justice. Such, according to Girard, is the power of the Gospel.

This is something I want to make sure I think on in light of my last post. I’ll be honest, “movements” scare me. Whether it be #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter or the reaction of #AllLivesMatter anything (those are simply the most visible right now), no matter the source, part of me is always worried that someone is out for blood and that movements for “justice” are actually veiled coups, about-faces disguised as cries for equality which will go suspiciously silent the moment power changes hands. I went through the process of articulating this discomfort with a few people recently and got one particularly interesting response:

I will gently suggest that your discomfort […] should be examined, as they say in tech, as a feature not a bug.

What strikes me about this is the double edge to it. On the one hand, this is absolutely true: my discomfort, insofar as it is sourced in my own unexamined privilege and prejudices, is definitely “a feature not a bug.” Insofar as I am worried that “justice” means I might have to change the way in which I interface with the world, then I am on the wrong side of things — I am complicit, in need of forgiveness, repentance and patience.

But it turns out there is a darker side to this phrase: in the tech industry, when one tries to argue that something is a “feature not a bug,” there may actually be a con going on. When something goes wrong with a line of code for instance, or a program fails to work properly or efficiently, this may be used (jokingly) as an excuse. The argument that “it’s a feature not a bug” is in fact the programmer’s way of avoiding responsibility for a defective product that needed way more care and attention.

So, ironically, perhaps the single most true thing that could be said of any and all social movements is that “Discomfort is a feature, not a bug,” with all the implications of its rampant double-meaning. On the one hand, such discomfort needs to be accepted as a reality of having one’s privilege challenged; on the other, it can also be used to abdicate responsibility under the attitude that the ends justify the means.

The very ideas of justice and revolution, then, contain within themselves the promise of their success as well as their potential for a new kind of tyranny. And this ought to scare us, I think, because we are human creatures. We have a long history of piling up victims, as Girard argues. All special-interest groups have the deck stacked against them from the beginning because they cannot demand justice without reminding humanity of the mob mentality that all human culture is based on. There are two discomforts which must be held in tension, and the challengers and the challenged alike are responsible to one another in producing an actual event of justice: the ending of victimization without producing more victims.

What should encourage us, in the times ahead, is that such justice is a real possibility. If we believe, as Girard does, that we really have developed an attention to victims as well as a distaste for collective violence, then we can bank on that lesson, an instinct which does not come naturally but has been disclosed to us and to which we have failed to attend, even actively struggling against it. If our fear of retaliatory violence is real, or if we fear the inevitable and inexcusable justification of violence in the name of “justice,” then we have at least as much ability — even responsibility — to imagine an event of justice without violence, without the further accumulation of victims.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t still real, or what Girard would call “Satanic,” potential here — Under the worst of conditions, victimhood can cease being something to rectify and can instead become something to celebrate. Just as our culture has a unique and unprecedented potential for justice through our attention to victims, so it carries the odd potential in which weakness and victimhood can themselves become just as much justifications for violence and prejudice as can privilege and power. The longer privilege and power–comfortable as they are with themselves–go without recognizing themselves as such, the more likely such a scenario becomes in which “justice” simply becomes an act of oppression changing hands.

But if we remember this potential exclusively, we lose the courage to enact the other. This is what I’m learning, anyway. Non-violent justice is not a thing to be wished for but a thing to be performed. It must be demonstrated as a real, imaginable possibility in daily life and lived experience — it must be a way of being-in-the-world. To “imagine that things might be otherwise” requires intentional dedication to a number of things which our culture isn’t exactly hospitable towards: applied humility, slowness, patience, meaningful speech always balanced by the practice of fertile silence.

This, in any case, is the space which I want to occupy.

“All Lives Matter”

“One thing I have been paying attention to,” said a friend of mine recently as he responded to the past week’s events. “Is how much people are equating ‘speaking out’ with what others are sharing on social media. As if that somehow represents the zenith of a responsible social conscious and is the best, most serious gauge on how people feel and what they think. Like those of us who have refrained from digitally expressing outrage, condolences, etc. etc., have to apologize to the rest of the world for keeping our mouths shut and being thought fools.”

He went on to give what’s turned out to be one of the most resonant pieces of observation I’ve read in a long time:

It is embarrassing that as a culture we have decided that sharing and posting online constitute meaningful dialogue and serious commitment – even if we’re “signing a petition.” Social media is far less about “dialogue” (meaningful conversation) than it is about “monologue” (shouting your opinion into the open air). And often times those opinions are not backed by action, let alone thoughtful, consistent commitments toward alleged concerns.

Finally, he hits his real zinger:

The truth is, what we really want is pats on the back, little back rubs, call them what you will, validating our ideas. We done well, saying X is bad and Y is good.

This cut to the quick, and I mean hard, especially in light of my last post. In that post, I expressed the belief that “being capable of responding,” as David Tracy argues, places us in a situation where we should say something. Of course, the other side of the coin is that, when one has very little to say it is often best to keep silent. Silence, however, has become tantamount to complicity in the digital age, while there is no patience for the type of “speaking out” which Tracy advocates because, frankly, that kind of activism doesn’t move fast enough for the contemporary culture. At this point the single worst thing you can apparently do is decide that you’re not going to participate in the masturbatory politics of social media.

This is almost exactly what I predicate my Freshman writing courses on: the need to develop and perform strategies of wise, thoughtful engagement when our technology enables and even expects us to do the exact opposite. Believe it or not, today’s college students hate the way the public forum works, too.

But one question which I’ve failed to address, and have honestly not given enough thought to, is simply this: Where? Where does one actually find a place in which to perform the kind of measured discourse which might produce effective politics? I can list a few options: The academy, the Church, public hearings organized by the State, official debate forums… All of these fall apart very quickly. Even this platform right here proves to be a misery, because as soon as I finish this blog post, I am going to share it. I am going to ask people to read it and I will be interested in what they think. The moment that happens, an entire cultural apparatus is going to pick it up and turn it into precisely the kind of artifact that my friend decried.

Writing and critical thought themselves have, for these reasons, become a sort of hypocrisy in a culture that doesn’t want to wait for them to do their extended work. The political climate in which we find ourselves is like that of a huge frozen lake that’s begun to crack under our feet; long, cruel, spidery cracks that dare us to try something.

“Come, let us reason together,” say the writer and the critic as they explore the territory, methodically tapping their ways across the ice and looking for strong places to lay their weight.

“Get over here, you’re going to get us killed!” screams everybody else, as the ice groans under their collective ideological baggage where they’ve huddled together for familiar warmth, not thinking for a moment that this might be precisely what causes the fatal collapse.

We no longer have any patience for anything which doesn’t amount to out-and-out confirmation bias. We are, in short, obsessed with the ideological use of the products which we continually churn out into the public sphere. We have commercialized our speech and determined its value based on how well it makes us feel good about X or demonizes Y.

Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has a prognosis for all this, and it’s not good:

Contemporary politics is this devastating experiment that disarticulates and empties institutions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities all throughout the planet, so as then to rehash and reinstate their definitively nullified form.

These empty, “nullified” form of activism are precisely what you get when social media becomes “the zenith of a responsible social conscience.” We have no patience for any form of thought or identity which can’t be incarnated in the all-mighty emoticon. Our culture has collectively decided that it will use technology to evacuate communication of its content and power before promptly turning around and insisting that it’s done no such thing. “Now shut the hell up,” says Facebook, “and put this flag filter on your profile picture.”

“I’m tired of seeing Life politicized,” says Agamben. “Through terror, through the complete commodification of the human being, through racism, through capitalist structures. Identity politics. Through the Medical establishment. Even through religion.”

Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac has similar words:

People imagine that by reducing everything to immanence, everything, beginning with himself, would be given back to man; on the contrary, it meant robbing him of everything he possessed and “alienating” him absolutely. For it implied reducing everything to duration.

“The sole form in which life as such can be politicised,” says Agamben, “is its unconditioned exposure to death – that is, bare life.” This unconditioned exposure to death — the Orlando shooting, the killing of a black man in Houston, retaliatory killings of a number of police officers in Dallas — all of these deaths have exposed people to the fact that their political status is implicitly “reduced to duration,” namely the length of time for which they are useful for producing useful material. “The way in which humanism, which regards man as the supreme value, ‘gives value to man’ ends by resembling the exploitation of land or livestock.”

That is how you commodify a person, their words and thoughts: you reduce their identity to their usefulness in a competitive capitalist superstructure which is only interested in itself. The unconditioned exposure to death jars them, they begin to face down this reality and they start asking questions. They realize they have been “disfigured,” as de Lubac says, they demand a ground for their being. That is what a movement like Black Lives Matter is, in the end, all about: “Tell us we’re valuable! Tell us why we’re valuable! Show us!”

“All Lives Matter,” is the insidious response, and insidious because of this: there is nothing actually on-offer. Those who have faced down death, the bareness of their lives, have asked for something absolute, something particular, some assurance which does not reduce them to their labor, and culture has nothing to give them. “All Lives Matter,” we chant, “Black Lives Matter, Pray for Orlando, End the Hate” and the utter emptiness which those words disguise weighs them down.

Because, in the end every single statement of either solidarity or revolution spoken into the politicized sphere of social media is recast within that platform as a mere assertion rather than providing hurting, frightened people with the ground of Being which they are demanding. The public sphere we have created divides every issue into clean black-and-white, us-and-them, and paradoxically this clean division utterly erases the particularity of individual situations, it ravenously co-opts and appropriates real people into its sprawling ideological narrative.

The erasure of people and particulars for the maintenance of that narrative ultimately guarantees that all our most heartfelt prayers and protests alike are reduced to soothing coos of “All Lives Matter.” And by this, we mean that “All lives matter the same,” which is to say that no life matters beyond its capacity for production. “A capacity,” says culture with a knowing glare. “Which you have all disrupted by taking all this time insisting that you matter.”

Until there is actual content behind the assertion that life matters in all its forms, any rallying cry that “Lives Matter,” whoever’s lives they may be, will be essentially meaningless, not knowing what it wants. The words  will simply be a negative space, a canker, a weight into which we will fall and fold, “collapsed into the relative, carrying the whole of man with it.”

And, without another medium, we will still go down tweeting about how much “life matters.”