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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Cultural Illogic: David Golumbia and The Cultural Logic of Computation

David Golumbia does not like computers. Toward the end of The Cultural Logic of Computation, after lumping computers and the atom bomb into a single “Pandora’s Box” of doom, he observes:

The Germans relied on early computers and computational methods provided by IBM and some of its predecessor companies to expedite their extermination program; while there is no doubt that genocide, racial and otherwise, can be carried out in the absence of computers, it is nevertheless provocative that one of our history’s most potent programs for genocide was also a locus for an intensification of computing power.

This sort of guilt by association is typical of The Cultural Logic of Computation. The book is so problematic and so wrong-headed as to be shocking, and as philosophical and cultural excursions into technological analysis are still comparatively rare, the book merits what programmers would term a postmortem.

Throughout the book, Golumbia, an English and Media Studies professor who worked for ten years as a product manager in software at Dow Jones, insists that computers are creating and enforcing a socio-political hegemony that reduces human beings to servile automatons. They aren’t just the tools of oppression, they oppress by their very nature. Golumbia attacks the encroachment by “computation” on human life. He defines “computation” as the rationalist, symbolic approach of computers and logic.

Or at least he seems to sometimes. Other times “computation” stands in for an amorphous mass of cultural issues that just happen to involve computers. Much of the the book focuses on political issues that don’t bear on “computation” in the least, such as a tired attack on Thomas Friedman and globalization that adds nothing new to Friedman’s already-long rap sheet. Golumbia spends ten pages criticizing real-time strategy games like Age of Empires, complaining:

There is no question of representing the Mongolian minority that exists in the non-Mongolian part of China, or of politically problematic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, or of the other non-Han Chinese minorities (e.g., Li, Yi, Miao).

A true Hobbesian Prince, the user of Age of Empires allows his subjects no interiority whatsoever, and has no sympathy for their blood sacrifices or their endless toil; the only sympathy is for the affairs of state, the accumulation of wealth and of property, and the growth of his or her power.

The critique could apply just as easily to Monopoly, Diplomacy, Stratego, or chess.

Golumbia gives away the game, so to speak, when he implies that connectionism (a non-symbolic artificial intelligence approach used in neural networks) is somehow less politically suspect than the symbolic AI approaches he attacks. In fact, non-symbolic approaches like Bayes networks and neural networks are themselves used ubiquitously in the data mining he (rightly) worries about. Golumbia has confused science with scientism, and computers’ uses with their structure.

Without a critique of the technical side of computers, Golumbia’s book would be just another tired retread of Chomsky, Hardt/Negri, Spivak, Thomas Frank, and the like. Unfortunately, his actual excursions into technical issues are woefully uninformed. A surreal attack on XML as a “top-down” standard ends with him praising Microsoft Word as an alternative, confusing platform and application. He hates object-oriented programming because…well, I’m honestly not quite sure.

Because the computer is so focused on “objective” reality—meaning the world of objects that can be precisely defined—it seemed a natural development for programmers to orient their tools exactly toward the manipulation of objects. Today, OOP is the dominant mode in programming, for reasons that have much more to do with engineering presumptions and ideologies than with computational efficiency (some OOP languages like Java have historically performed less well than other languages, but are preferred by engineers because of how closely they mirror the engineering idealization about how the world is put together).

The lack of citation, pervasive throughout the book, makes it impossible even to pinpoint what this objection means. I’d be curious as to how he feels about functional languages like Lisp, ML, and Haskell, but Golumbia shows no signs of even having heard of them. Unfortunately, XML and object-oriented programming are pretty much his two main points of technical attack, which indicates a lack of technical depth.

Yet Golumbia’s greatest anger is reserved for Noam Chomsky. Golumbia devotes a quarter of the book to him, with Jerry Fodor serving as assistant villain. Somehow, Chomsky’s computational linguistics become far more than just a synecdoche for modern corporatism and materialism; Chomsky is actually one of the main culprits.

To Golumbia, Chomsky is “fundamentally libertarian”; he is a Ayn Randian “primal conservative” who accepted military funding. He has “authoritarian” institutional politics which require strict adherence to his “religious” doctrine:

Chomsky’s institutional politics are often described exactly as authoritarian.

[His work] tends to attract white men (and also men from notably imperial cultures, such as those of Korea or Japan).

The scholars who pursue Chomskyanism and Chomsky himself with near-religious fervor are, almost without exception, straight white men who might be taken by nonlinguists to be ‘computer geeks.’

Golumbia is evidently fond of the ad hominem. Golumbia also associates “geeks” with “straight, white men,” insulting 19th century programmer Ada Lovelace, gay theoretician Alan Turing, and the vast population of queer and non-white programmers, linguists, and geeks that exists today (many not even Korean or Japanese).

Yet Golumbia finds time to praise Wikipedia, founded and run by fundamentally libertarian Ayn Rand acolyte Jimmy Wales. It’s strange for Golumbia to call Wikipedia a salutary effort to demote expert opinion when Wales himself says it should not be cited in academic papers. And strange for Golumbia to see Wikipedia as progressive when many of its entries still come from that well-known bastion of hegemonic opinion, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. (The explicitly racist ones have been scrubbed.)

Beyond the technological confusions, Golumbia’s philosophical background is notably defective. The book is plagued by factual errors; Voltaire is bizarrely labeled a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker, while logicians Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege somehow end up on opposite sides: Russell is a good anti-rationalist (despite having written “Why I Am a Rationalist”), Frege is a bad rationalist. (He also enlists Quine and Wittgenstein to his leftist cause, which I suspect neither would have appreciated.) He thinks Leibniz preceded Descartes. He misappropriates Kant’s ideas of the noumenal and mere reason.

Here is a typically confused passage, revealing Golumbia’s fondness for incoherent Manicheistic dichotomies:

In Western intellectual history at its most overt, mechanist views typically cluster on one side of political history to which we have usually attached the term conservative. In some historical epochs it is clear who tends to endorse such views and who tends to emphasize other aspects of human existence in whatever the theoretical realm. There are strong intellectual and social associations between Hobbes’s theories and those of Machiavelli and Descartes, especially when seen from the state perspective. These philosophers and their views have often been invoked by conservative leaders at times of consolidation of power in iconic or imperial leaders, who will use such doctrines overtly as a policy base.

This contrasts with ascendant liberal power and its philosophy, whose conceptual and political tendencies follow different lines altogether: Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dewey, James, etc. These are two profoundly different views of what the State itself means, what the citizen’s engagement with the State is, and where State power itself arises. Resistance to the view that the mind is mechanical is often found in philosophers we associate with liberal or radical views—Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx.

So it is not simply the technological material that is the problem. The quality of even the academic, philosophical portions of the book is dismaying, and the general lack of evidence and citation is egregious. Harvard University Press, who published the book, have a fine track record in the general areas that Golumbia inhabits. I am not certain how The Cultural Logic of Computation slipped through, nor how many of its blatant errors were not caught. It is an embarrassment and will only confirm the prejudices of those who feel that the humanities have nothing to offer the sciences but spite and ignorance.

For contrast, Samir Chopra’s Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software (Routledge) is an excellent and rigorous examination of some of the political and social issues around software and software development, strong on both the technical and philosophical fronts. I would urge anyone looking at Golumbia’s book to read it instead.

Hobbes on Hopes and Fears

The object of hope is an apparent good; the object of fear, an apparent evil. Whence the hoped-for good that is expected to come to us we never perceive with security; for if we so perceived it, it would then be certain, and our expectation would more properly be called not hope, but joy. Even the most insubstantial arguments are sufficient for hope. Yea, even what the mind cannot truly conceive can be hoped for, if it can be expressed. Similarly, anything can be feared even though it be not conceived of, provided that it is commonly said to be terrible, or if we should see many simultaneously fleeing; for, even though the cause be unknown, we ourselves also flee, as in those terms that are called panic-terrors.

On Man 12.4

Jeffrey Collins on Mark Lilla

From the July 18, 2008 TLS:

Several German thinkers produced by interwar Germany cast a shadow over The Stillborn God. Lilla’s account of the varied political implications of anthropological, cosmological and Gnostic conceptions of God recalls the work of Eric Voegelin; his interest in the fecundity of Hegel’s eschatological vision that of Karl Lowith. But the most palpable unnamed influence in Lilla’s text is Carl Schmitt, the German theorist of political “decisionism” whose posthumous academic popularity has been little hampered by his Nazism. Lilla borrows Schmitt’s thesis that Hobbes first introduced a hairline split between political and religious authority that was subsequently widened by Spinoza. Schmitt also influentially deployed the term “political theology” to argue that most ideologies of the state were “secularized theological concepts”. The Stillborn God seems to deploy this conceptual apparatus, but with the intention of celebrating the liberal tradition that Schmitt reviled.

As an account of Enlightenment ideas, The Stillborn God is schematically misshapen. Categorizing canonical philosophers as friends or enemies of a “Great Separation” – at least as that notion is defined by Lilla – elides too many complexities. John Locke, for instance, did advocate a stringent “separation” of religious and political life, but he did not share the anthropologically circumscribed (and inherently atheistic) understanding of religion that supposedly undergirded Lilla’s “Great Separation”. By contrast, Hobbes and Spinoza exhibited the irreligion that Lilla requires, but they were not “separationists”. Both advocated religious establishments, theological censorship, political controls on the clergy, and minimalist religious creeds designed to valorize state power. In crafting an autonomous political logic, they sought to co-opt (rather than sequester) the social power of religion.

Lilla has domesticated Hobbes in particular, who was capable of writing: “Is not a Christian king as much a bishop now, as the heathen kings were of old?”.

And Rousseau hardly betrayed Hobbes on this point. Lilla’s narrative, astoundingly, ignores The Social Contract, where Rousseau’s account of “civil religion” pays homage to Hobbes for boldly fusing religious and political power. Likewise, there is a distinct echo of Hobbes’s “Mortall God” in Hegel’s spiritualized state.

In short, Lilla’s effort to disentangle an Anglo-American “separationist” liberalism from a German “theological” variant encounters more than a few hopeless snarls. Indeed, his polarization of these two options sets up a non shooting war of small differences.

I think this is about right, but I take the error to be one of anachronism: casting contemporary atheism back onto the earlier thinkers most amenable to it, while ignoring the issue that the secularized state that it would produce was fairly unthinkable at the time. It doesn’t make Hobbes or Rousseau any less secular, but it makes the fulcrum on which Lilla’s distinction pivots somewhat incoherent. There’s a similarity here to the deflationary readings of Hegel, which assign to Hegel a thoroughly modern atheism which does not seem capable of transcending the present epoch.

Carl Schmitt

Long Sunday has been running a series of posts on Carl Schmitt. I am not at all a fan or a student of Schmitt, and I am not intimately familiar with his work. From what I have read of his work, however, I believe there is far more to learn about politics and political philosophy in the 20th century from, for example, Karl Polanyi, Richard J. Bernstein, Joseph Schumpeter, Fernand Braudel, Randolph Bourne, Benedict Anderson, Leszek Kolakowski, Barrington Moore, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, and Robert Musil. Conveniently for me, these thinkers are all free of the Nazi baggage with which Schmitt is saddled. While I don’t plan to participate in the discussion, I do want to examine some of the axiomatic statements that have been made, especially around Schmitt’s Nazi involvement.

Whatever their differences, there is one undoubted similarity between Schmitt and the Left (I capitalize it to distinguish its doctrinaire manifestation from the all-encompassing anti-Bush, pro-competence anti-imperialism that passes for leftism in the United States these days, on which I hope we all agree): their anti-liberalism. As I said, I think Stanley Fish’s recent op-ed is one of the more concise statements of this position. Craig picks up this thread when he says:

Perhaps, then, the fascination with Schmitt qua Nazi has more to do with the aspirations of left politics than with any real danger – at least insofar as that danger is fascist. Thus, the point in such ‘critiques’ isn’t fascism, but rather those who do not have the common sense to be decent, complacent liberals.

I.e., people who are attacking Schmitt for being a Nazi are really attacking him because he threatens their complacent liberal world-view. This is also something of an old saw, recently enshrined more convincingly in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which was in essence a vicious attack on those who would try to work within a rotten system to change it. It reminds me of those lyrics that Lester Bangs quotes in his review of Chicago at Carnegie Hall (probably his defining moment):

For the “preaching” vocal improvisition in the Fourth Movement of “It Better End Soon”–“We’ve gotta do it right / Within this system / Gonna take over / But within this system”–the They Got the Guns But We Got the Numbers Award.

But this is a conception of liberalism not as an ideology but as a class phenomenon, that of sheltered middle-class complicity. Interesting how the term “liberal” slides from being an ideology to that of a generalized accomplice, much as it has to the extreme right factions in this country: not liking Bush makes you a liberal. At any rate, I don’t think this criticism really flies, since there are plenty of non-Nazi anti-liberal thinkers who are being mostly ignored as well. (Herbert von Karajan was far more of a Nazi than Wilhelm Furtwangler, but I do not believe that Furtwangler is less famous than Karajan these days because he was a vastly better and more challenging conductor.) But I digress; this is more a matter of positioning.

Craig notes two black marks on Schmitt’s record:

1933 and 1945. These two years have overdetermined the subsequent reception of Carl Schmitt’s thought and influence. In 1933, as we all know, Schmitt joined the Nazi party; the same month as Martin Heidegger. In 1945, Schmitt was released from internment at Nuremberg, at which point he entered exile, never again to teach in West Germany or to hold an academic position.

Craig implies that this list covers all the big-ticket items, but it does not. To make a case for Schmitt, it would first be necessary to lay out a few other ignominious dates. October, 1936, when he declared to a convention of law professors that German law must be cleansed of the “Jewish spirit.” June, 1934, when he called Hitler’s “Long Knives” purges “the highest form of administrative justice.” September, 1936, when with much contemporary resonance, he defends the Inquisition (though not its methods of torture) as a model of justice, since it requires confessions before convictions. October, 1936 again, when he quoted Hitler: “In that I defend myself against the Jews, I struggle to do the work of the Lord.” And many of the months and years after the war in which he wrote in his journals such statements as “Jews remain Jews while Communists can improve themselves and change. The real enemy is the assimilated Jew.” Edmund Fawcett writes:

Unlike the involvement of Heidegger, who largely fell silent after early pro-Nazi encomiums, Schmitt’s engagement with Hitlerism was nevertheless lasting and open. He re-edited his publications, playing down references to Jewish or left-wing thinkers and adding anti-Semitic asides. In October 1936, he spoke at a conference on “German law in the fight against the Jewish intellect”, ending with Hitler’s words, “By fending off the Jew, I struggle for the work of the Lord”. After 1940, Schmitt lectured in Occupied Europe on Nazi legal and cultural policy.

[In his post-war journals] He derided returning exiles who “treasured their virtue like booty” and mocked the German historians who were trying to tell the truth about what had happened. Thomas Mann came in for special scorn, a hated symbol to Schmitt of high-bourgeois probity, whom he called “a reputable fraud”.

That’s not to mention 1938, in which Schmitt wrote that Jews sit around waiting for Christians to die in battle and “then eat the flesh of those killed and live off it” (The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes).

So by all means, attempt to distinguish Schmitt’s philosophy from his Nazi activities, but let’s not downplay the latter when attempting to explicate them.

Craig asks a couple of rhetorical follow-ups, which I think deserve answers. The questions are in italics.

Why, then, is Heidegger spared the assault that Schmitt has suffered? Insomuch as there can be a distinction, I too find Schmitt to have been a more vigorous Nazi and anti-semite than Heidegger (or even Celine), but I see little point in measuring sins. My answer would be that Heidegger has not been spared such an assault. In his well-written introduction to Heidegger, George Steiner looks unflinchingly at the problem of Heidegger’s Nazism and excuses nothing. Contrast it with Craig’s remarks.

What about others who were either sympathizers or full members of the party? What about them indeed? As always in life, justice was not done. People like Karajan got off far too lightly, while people like Klages and Baeumler were justly marginalized. De Man and Heidegger have suffered their share of trouble as well, as well they should. We should be more than troubled by these things.

Why is it acceptable for artists, such as Eliot and Pound, to have had fascist sympathies? Is it? The problem of fascist, anti-semitic or otherwise repellent sympathies plagues the histories of all disciplines. Pound forever will stand with Wyndham Lewis and Lord Haw-haw as one of the more nauseating British fascists. Kipling was a colonialist. Dostoevsky and Celine were anti-semites. So was Thomas Edison. Their beliefs are inscribed in their records and we read them with that knowledge.

What was so dangerous about Schmitt that he was interned at Nuremberg in preparation for trial and then prohibited an academic job after the war? I confess to not understanding this question, as this fate befell many (but not all) of those who had similar Nazi memberships and sympathies. Neither Germany seemed to want much to do with them. Some (let me bash on Karajan some more, for example) were unfairly rehabilitated.

Why does such a pariah, such a horrendous figure appeal so greatly to certain segments of the left? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

I do ultimately find the Left’s tolerance for Schmitt somewhat ironic. In a Leftist arts community where there has been a litmus test of whether one’s poetry helps to establish socialism in the world today, it’s hard to imagine a litmus test that Schmitt could ever pass. Personally, I find the work of disentangling his political philosophy from his Nazi viewpoints to be unrewarding and possibly futile. Personally, I simply find Heidegger to be a far more original thinker, and I spend my time worrying about his Nazi associations rather than Schmitt’s. There is much room for disagreement on these points, but we must at least be honest about the degree and mode of Schmitt’s Nazi involvement and respect critiques based on them inasmuch as they are factual, regardless of motive. And to those who would say that my distaste towards Schmitt owing to his Nazi views has anything in the least to do with his challenging of my complacent liberalism, I cry bullshit.

Bela Tarr: Satantango [3]

(Also see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

Bela Tarr in interview

Last time, I said that Tarr’s cinematic style deprivileged the characters humans from the center of the frame and put them with equal weight with the gray, surrounding scenery. Ultimately, I believe this makes Tarr’s style extremely compelling in the most physical sense of the word. But what does he say with it?

The plot of Satantango is very simple. Shocked by the suicide of a young girl, a group of townspeople in an impoverished Hungarian village choose to follow the manipulative “prophet” Irimias who, with promises of a bright new collective beginning, takes their money, leads them to an abandoned mansion, and then disperses them and sends them off to menial labor. This last task puts him right with the local authorities, who have been harassing him for being a petty criminal. With one slight exception, the townspeople are mostly sheep throughout the movie, something Tarr underscores in his long shots of cattle wandering through the streets early on in the film. Irimias too has contempt for them, though he is not above a bit of quasi-religious experience himself.

The center of the film is those two individuals, the girl and Irimias. The girl tortures her cat before poisoning it and herself. The obvious interpretation is that on the great ladder of being, she is taking out her frustration and impotence on the one creature lower than her. (She was earlier robbed by an older boy.) I’m not so certain. In one of the few points where Tarr quotes extensively from the novel, the narrator intones that the girl knows that even in death, she is still incontrovertibly connected to the entire town around her and its people. (Tarr’s shots of spiderwebs echo these words.) It is presented in a neutral manner, but one shouldn’t confuse neutral with benign. These people live together, act together, and are damned together. Irimias manipulates them as a whole, and ultimately there is little to distinguish them. I prefer to see the girl’s actions as a testing of the barriers between herself and an animal, as she wonders what other kinds of relations are even possible between beings. She poisons both the cat and herself alike, and does so, I think, in solidarity with the experience of “shit” of which Tarr speaks.

For Irimias, it’s best to consider another Tarr/Krasznahorkai creation: the Prince of The Melancholy of Resistance (book) and The Werckmeister Harmonies. The Prince is a creature of pure chaos who speaks in an unintelligible language interpreted by his “agent,” and accumulates a mass of followers that, at his command, go berserk and tear up the town, leading to martial law being imposed and a new regime. In contrast, Irimias does what the existing regime wants, but his own imprint is on the way in which he rips apart the community, thus proving the girl ultimately wrong.

Politically, the film is bleaker than Werckmeister. What I saw as a Burkean influence on that work shifts to the more absolutist perpsective of Hobbes in Satantango. Irimias serves as the sovereign: divested of their cattle and their happiness, they place their trust, their money, and their futures in Irimias’s hands. He offers them nothing in return but their lives, though here it is more metaphorical than in Hobbes. Their existing lives were poisoned and taken from them with the girl’s death, and in sending them on their way, Irimias does give them back some direction. It’s shit, of course, but the townspeople are not observably worse off at the end of the film, post-Irimias, than they were at the start. Like the Prince, Irimias is a chaotic force of change, shoving out the old and heralding the (no better) new.

I say absolute because Hobbes saw the power interchange between the people and the sovereign as the best possible choice to avoid a violent end. The liberal hope, from Locke to Rawls and onward, has been that better options can be created. Tarr’s position in Satantango is that such hopes are entirely false. (The Werckmeister Harmonies is more ambivalent and holds out the possibility of ephemeral beauty.) Beyond that, Tarr portrays this state of affairs as primoridally ontological: there is little sense given of how Irimias came to be or the inner minds of any of the characters. They act out their roles in the same way that the cattle, the spiders, and the scenery do theirs.

The overall effect is brutally powerful, but monochromatic. Tarr has put a grim Hobbesian view of the world on display in as visceral a manner as Godard and Antonioni used with their Marxism. Godard’s films succeed where Antonioni’s fail because Godard’s restless and relentless creativity causes the films to escape from their ideological straitjacket. Tarr is somewhere in between. In The Werckmeister Harmonies, the added element of fantasy provides a gateway out of the narrow political dynamics. The more mundane material of Satantango makes for a film that, for all its intensity and sheer length, cannot seem larger than the world in which it exists.

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