J'ai une plume

"Qui plume a, guerre a."

Category: Critical Theory

The enemy within and without

The process of ‘Othering’ is one which most people will be familiar with, even if they didn’t know there was a name for it. You (a culture, a society) treat a separate group as if they are, in their very essence, something different and threatening to you (your culture, your society) so that the only way to protect yourself is to keep as great a distance as possible between you and this Other while either fantasising about or actually bringing about a world where this Other no longer exists. This is a fairly old name for a practically primaeval phenomenon. Criteria for being an Other vary, but it is often based on an ethnic or religious difference. Crucially though, it is not the case that this group are ‘the same as us except for x‘ Rather, at the very basic level, to be a black/white/Jew/Muslim/Catholic/immigrant/gay is to be other than human (or on some theorists’ reckoning, to be unbearably human) so that your very presence creates a necessary fracture in the harmony of my (our) lifeworld.

The Frankfurt School and its sympathisers would see this as a symptom rather than the ailment itself. The falsity of the fascist wager becomes apparent in the underlying logic which makes inevitable this Othering. The pre-neoconservative thinker Carl Schmitt argued that an enemy image is necessary to create a harmonious society. ‘Society’ within the terms of his argument is only truly achieved when a nation is mobilised to a state of near-perpetual war – both internally and externally. The pairing is critical to maintaining the balance of power. Jews/Bolsheviks; counter-revolutionaries/capitalists; terrorists/enemies of freedom; thought-criminals/Eurasians (or Eastasians) – all these are examples of a comprehensive Schmittian pairing of internal and external enemy. The falsity I just mentioned exists in the notion that the ways of life of these various societies must be defended from the outsiders mentioned. On the contrary, the societies require these pairings to function at all. The only way to disguise the fact that it is not a harmonious society is to blame all the ills on some intrusive external agency which is apparently bent on taking away what little the citizens still have. The Other is a necessary structural component which does indeed betray illness, although the disorder exists at a much deeper level and Othering is merely a symptom of it.

None of this is particularly new or original. Othering, and labelling in general, is a lazy way to find a simple solution to deeper problems; idiotically simple when you consider those who engage in it seem to have intellects just capable of grunting out the inference “x happened, so somebody must be responsible for x” and so discount ideas, thoughts and more complex forms of causation as responsible for societal maladies – probably on the basis that none of these latter (unlike people) are the sorts of things which can be seen, heard, smelt or lynched. Even those who consider themselves progressive can all too easily fall into this trap. It is much easier to believe that the Illuminati are to blame for war, crime and injustice than to face the structural defects of society. The question is never ‘how can we get rid of these people who are secretly manipulating society to serve their own ends?’, but rather ‘how can we reconstruct society so that it would be impossible for anyone (secret society or otherwise) to have such unthinkable levels of power and privilege at the expense of other human beings?’ While not quite as insidious as the fascist’s Othering, the interpretation of events along the lines mentioned is similar in its intellectual laziness and cowardly unwillingness to confront the real problems.

“Evil resides in the very gaze which perceives Evil all around itself.” – Hegel.


What ‘real’ money (still) isn’t

The criticism of an economy which is now composed of primarily virtual movements of capital is naive and betrays a lack of understanding of the real nature of money. It is not entirely unheard of for those imparting folksy wisdom to seek to smugly ‘remind’ us that most of the money we use is now merely a set of digits within a computer database and is not ‘real’ money at all. In this case the urge to retort petulantly in order to wipe the knowing smile off our would-be mentor’s face is entirely justified. Far from being a clever observation on changing times, this amounts to no more than an embarrassing sign that one has failed to understand what money is. Or, more commonly, that one has fallen into a state of fetishism.

Even those of us who have never given it much thought would be quick to conclude that money is simply a symbolic representation of value and not a magical object in itself. Much early economic analysis is concerned with precisely this demystification of money. Karl Marx’s great inversion was to recognise that while money appeared to be this simple object, on the level of ideology we are nevertheless apt to treat it as though it was in itself a desirable object. We disavow this belief and rationally accept that it is simply a method of exchanging value and yet our actions betray an unconscious commitment to money as an end in itself, rather than a mere means.

Rightly or wrongly, a suspicion towards the digitalisation of financial transactions is a suspicion towards the structure of the monetary system of exchange itself. Our elderly strawman has accidentally hit upon an entirely different insight, not into the slow destruction of ‘real’ money, but into the fundamental lack of such a Thing in the first place. To a pre-coinage society, the introduction of currency must appear arbitrary, abstracting the real value of goods (providing food, shelter, protection, pleasure, etc) into some sort of mutually agreed token. Opposition to such a system would nevertheless crumble under the weight of expediency. Likewise the transition from a gold or silver based economy to one founded on government fiat must also appear to remove to ‘real’ value on which money seems to be based, leaving it as a mere signifier without a signified. The more recent transition to card-based consumerism disturbs the very fetish itself, the material object imbued with excess value although, again, no real change has actually taken place.

There is a whole library’s-worth of books which could be written on the role of money within personal and social psychic reality. Indeed, there are a few authors who seem to be attempting to fill such a library on their own with their unstoppable torrent of words. Philosophers rarely worry about adding to the deafening din of second-rate ideas, but this little piece of muddy thinking gave me an itch and I do apologise for scratching it so publicly.

A few reasons to take Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ seriously

In their Dialectic of Enlightenment Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were giving warnings as far back as the 1940s about the effects of capitalism on culture. As well as reducing labour to a commodity to be bought and sold, capitalism also inevitably applies this same logic to artistic works. Such a change is justified on technological grounds as the only method to deliver this ‘product’ to consumers – consumers who in any case demanded such a ‘product’.

The underlying structure of the culture industry is the usual method of capitalist profit-motive which follows closely the technological instrumental reason of the Enlightenment. It may seem like a cliché of recent times to describe popular music as mass-produced, but this is precisely the point being made by the Frankfurt school 70 years ago. The justification for the narrow forms of culture which are delivered to consumers is simply public demand. What such an excuse fails to take into account is that public demand is generated by the industry itself and is circularly defined by the system – the idea that there is a Public to whose changing and unpredictable tastes the industry must adapt is a myth. The tendency for the music of developing nations to imitate the styles of First World countries is good evidence for this, although it is not an example mentioned by Adorno and Horkheimer specifically. Unless it is the case that Western society has discovered some objectively ‘correct’ trajectory in the development of its popular music, it certainly seems telling that the emergence of a capitalist economy in the Third World is accompanied by at least some standardisation of the popular music scene to Western capitalist norms.

The authors were also concerned that the over-abundance of culture was leading to a ‘satiation’ where no-one would look for real aesthetic enjoyment and instead be content with access to a lesser form of satisfaction, characterised in their eyes by the ‘hook’ of a popular song or the laughter of affirmation at a film. Adorno and Horkheimer were strikingly prescient about the transformative power of the television on society, but matters are perhaps graver than they imagined with the rise of the internet and personal digital music players. On the other hand, in its present state the internet allows access to a wider variety of culture which falls outside the remit of the industry itself and so could be a neutralising influence on the dominance of the culture industry. However, the industry itself seems to be aware of such a threat and the steady locking-down of the internet into a few highly regulated services such as Facebook and YouTube makes it seem more likely that this is a mere aberration, rather than a sign of future developments in culture.

The Dialectic is also prescient in its analysis of the ways that the culture industry attempts to assimilate anything lying outside its remit and to thereby remain dominant. Adorno writes of ‘talent scouts’ and ‘competitions’ which bring independent or autonomous music into its fold. Television programmes such as “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The Voice” show that this observation is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s. The argument that such programmes perform a service by giving an otherwise unavailable opening into the performing arts is itself an admission of the inseparable nature of the works of culture and the social system within which they are produced. In these programmes the industry plays the role of a beneficent gatekeeper, willing to allow admission into some sort of Great City of Culture whilst hiding the fact that it is they who erected the walls to this city in the first place.

A final justification for Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the culture industry remaining relevant today is their analysis of ‘niche’ tastes. Any variance within the wants of the consumer audience is brought under control by assimilating a prima-facie wide variety of styles into the industry. The market is even capable of fulfilling an individual’s desire to be different by an artificial designation of a work of culture as ‘cult’. For evidence of this one need only examine the ‘genre’ labels of much popular music to find that the terms ‘Alternative’ and ‘Indie’ (ironically short for ‘independent’) occur with remarkable frequency.

These are just a few musings which require individual attention in order to ascertain their validity. Some of the insights here have become old hat but it is worth remembering that they were original at the time. On the other hand some are less commonly accepted but in my view they may well be worth reconsidering.