The smiling Doppelgänger; or: the fall of the fourth estate

1. As a result of the debate between Lippmann and Dewey, what we know as journalism has been instrumental in the simultaneous marriage and autonomy of economics and politics. For what began as a means for communicating information that may affect prices and trade—which quickly turned out to be anything and everything—their debate was predicated on the idea that the very possibility of a people to govern themselves required a robust and rigorous media, free from distortion and misinformation (this was Lippmann’s point in Liberty and the News after WWI). In his philosophy of education, Dewey showed that we must be able to think well; Lippmann insisted that we must be able not only to think but that we must always think about something and that our capacity to think is limited not only by subjective but also objective possibilities.

Lippmann knew, of course, that journalistic practice does not consist of getting “just the facts”. The essential problem for both journalists and audiences, he said, is that between the individual and her environment is what he called a “pseudo-environment”, which consists of the habits and fictions that orient our behavior—put simply, our beliefs about the facts (or, as Nietzsche had said, there are never “mere facts” but facts interpreted as facts).

In 1919, the Washington Post ran a story that in the Adriatic a US Rear Admiral had apparently received orders from the British via the War Council. It seemed, the article concluded, that American naval forces could be commanded by foreign powers under the new League of Nations without the knowledge or consent of American commanders. Republican senators immediately expressed indignation at the possibility of American military operations being conducted without the consent of Congress, adding this news to support their opposition to the League of Nations. It turned out that no orders had come from the British and that the American forces had landed in Italy at the request of the Italians for protection, acting under established international practice that had nothing to do with the League of Nations.

Lippmann’s point in this example is not only that the Washington Post “got the facts wrong”, which is indeed true, but also that it illustrates the way in which we act, form opinions and convictions, and consequently act from information gathered not only by our environment but by our pseudo-environment. How is it possible for two people—or even two nations—to enter a conflict, both fully convinced that they are acting in self-defense, for example?

2. Without having to make any decisions on what constitutes the “facts” of an event, what distinguished journalism from other forms of popular media for Lippmann was not simply a dedication to the facts but, rather, its civic duty. His recommendations of now standard editorial practices and “journalistic ethics” were predicated on the principle that the journalist’s responsibility was quite literally to be the medium from citizen to world.

It did not take long, however, for the culture industry to corrode this sense of duty. On the left, for example, The Daily Show has explicitly erased the distinction between journalism and entertainment (with all the ironic consequences that have followed in its critical impotence); on the right, Fox News asks viewers to vote for which story they would like to see just as American Idol asks audiences to vote for which singer they would like to hear.

A Yahoo! News story reported that a recent story about a $1.33 tip from a banker on a $133 restaurant bill (with the sentence “get a real job” written by the word “tip”), which provoked outrage across the Internet, may have been digitally altered. The restaurant claimed to have found the merchant’s copy of the receipt, which shows a standard tip ($7) for a smaller bill ($33) without the accompanying insult.

Quite apart from the question of whether this event counts as significant news, the Yahoo! story ends with the reporter asking what has become an obligatory query addressed to the audience: “what do you think? Who’s telling the truth?” What is at stake in this story is the fact that the outrage over the original story is (likely) directed at a false source. If there is a story here, it is that our outrage over callous wealthy privilege is misfounded (at least in this case) and that the facts of the matter do not justify such a response. But the reporter’s final question makes the truth irrelevant: the truth of the matter seems not to be the point—the work of establishing it has not been done by the reporter—but only what I think about it.

What are the possible responses to that question? 1) “I think the original story is true and the restaurant is lying about the original receipt.” – Then the facts don’t matter. 2) “I think the receipt is a hoax.” – Then the story has not gone far enough in collecting the relevant evidence to allow us to come to a reasonable conclusion. 3) “I suspend judgment.” – Then what I think is irrelevant since I should precisely think nothing (notice that this is the only reasonable response to give).

Among the objective failures of journalism, this question “What do you think?” and the compulsion to “register” (to whom?) an opinion on anything and everything signifies the decadent subjective failure of civic duty. If Lippmann had entrusted to journalists the responsibility to the truth, Dewey had asked us to remember that democratic politics demands not opinion but thought, i.e., not only simply to insist on our “right to have an opinion” but that we have a responsibility to think about them.*

*Incidentally, recently I claimed that the intellectual dereliction of the left was one of the only two things about which Rand was right. This is the second: that the appropriate converse of a closed mind is not an open but an active mind.

The unfinished system of knowledge

1a. When Schopenhauer declared that the in-itself of phenomena is Wille, the nihilist mistake is therefore to conclude that the appearance of good masks a fundamental blindness, forgetting that the third aspect of Schopenhauer’s account is dedicated to showing that the Platonic Idea is the “adequate objectification of the will”. For Schopenhauer music was the direct expression of Wille but if we take the Platonic moment seriously, what we should actually notice is that the idea of the good remains the real of thought. This is why, among the semantic and logical paradoxes, it is actually some version of Moore’s paradox that provides an interesting site for the convergence of metaphysics and ethics: the relevant propositions are not of the order “the world ought to be good” (nor even “the world is not good”) but, rather, in a sentence whose significantly paradoxical structure is masked by grammar: “the world is good but I believe it is not good”.

1b. Crossing the gap between the appearance and the real(ity) of the good is not simply a matter of “having more knowledge” (if we only knew which companies from which to buy, for example) or even being more “self-conscious” since fundamentally the problem is not that of making better choices if for no other reason than that, as we know, the kind of knowledge that would be required to do so is impossible.

2a. The positivist fetishism of facts has distorted our capacity to inquire into the conditions for how knowledge is possible.* If only we knew, for example, the facts behind Nike’s labor practices in Indonesia we could make “more informed choices” because our intentions are good.

*So too, for that matter, the insistence on the “sublimity” of the postmodern condition.

Yet having “good intentions” is more difficult than the subjectivists realize. Similarly, the phenomenological mistake is to mistake intentionality for an arrow when it is more like a field. To take seriously the material conditions for knowledge—which are not themselves objective but the convergence of the subjective and objective—what we require is not “pure reflection” (here Sartre has moved too quickly) but the possibility of what we might call a purifying intention.

2b. “The problem with philosophy is the passage from the knowledge of limited objects to the knowledge of the entirety of what is” (Bataille). This gap is the common source of philosophy, mathematics, and science, even if within each the beginning and destination are often reversed (in, e.g., romanticism, axiomatics, and unified theory).** We falter in the search for knowledge not by failing to bridge the gap but in misunderstanding the character of this putative totality. The insight of speculative philosophy consists not in the identity of thought and being but, more precisely, in the speculative unity of thought and being through the morphism from the system of objects to the system of knowledge.

**Equally interesting is that, contra Schopenhauer, Bataille’s observation is perhaps the one thing that can not be said of either art or religion.

Despite recent innovations in continental ontology, we should keep in mind that while every network is a system, not every system is a network. This is also a useful heuristic to distinguish information from knowledge: there are networks of information but it is the systematicity of knowledge that marks the difference between a database and consciousness. This is why, among the intellectual disciplines, philosophy (or logic for Husserl)—until the twentieth century—has been the science of science*** and why, despite the recent suspicion of totality inherited from Marx, Lévinas, and Derrida, we must learn that not only is it possible to think totality without violence but that it is imperative for us to do so. This is the tendency of recent work in Merrell’s semiosis or, in different but perhaps more familiar terms, it is also the lesson of Rancière’s analysis of the homology between aesthetics and politics in le partage du sensible.

***This is also, incidentally, why the sciences require philosophy (although the converse is also true but for different reasons): the psychologist who can identify instances of fundamental attribution error does not thereby have knowledge of the problems of egoic identity or effective agency. To put it simply, empiricism always misses the transcendental (just as the transcendental always misses the empirical).

Rancière’s question here is for critical theory what Badiou’s project is for ontology: what are the structures of intelligibility that constitute the world of life that we must interrogate both because of but also despite them? What is the invisible truth of the real that demands expression (through what Badiou calls “torsion” or—I suspect equivalently—Henry calls the “Internal”)?

2c. The danger is that this truth may turn out to be nothing. But there are two kinds of nothing: there is the nothing of inconsequence—that nothing happens or that nothing will happen. But there is also the “pure zero” of which Peirce spoke: the “nothing of not having been born. There is [here] no individual thing, no compulsion, outward nor inward, no law. It is the germinal nothing, in which the whole universe is involved … As such, it is absolutely undefined and unlimited possibility—boundless possibility”. For Peirce, the mediation between this freedom to the determination of the individual is quality—the determination of this or that possibility. What is surprising here is that he further insists that “a quality is a consciousness. I do not say a waking consciousness—but still, something of the nature of consciousness [emphasis added]. … A possibility, then … is a particular tinge of consciousness”. Rather than a mystical pantheism, Peirce’s quale-consciousness denotes the material sympathy between mind and object as the ground for unity (“unity” in the sense of a category) but, more importantly, perhaps also how we might approach the possibility of a purifying intention—not as a mental act but precisely in the abstrusion of the mental (or the obstrusion of the cognitive in what Varela has called “enactive structures”). Intentions remain impure as long as we succumb to the fiction that the seat of cognition or identity is in the head, the individual, or the ego. But beyond the materialist fascination of the genesis of the individual from the pre-individual field (Deleuze, psychoanalysis) of metastable equilibria (Simondon, Stiegler)—which at the least does not seem to account for the dialectic between the activity and passivity of thought—the purification of intention consists, foremost, in laying thought bare against the conditions of its impossibility.

On perjury and consequences

1a. “Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” Adorno wrote at the start of one of the most remarkable texts of early critical theory. How is it possible, he asks, from* the false world of a “damaged life”, to speak truth? Similarly, Aristotle had asked a similar question with a similar answer: is it possible to be virtuous in a wicked society when the moral habits require both subjective and objective conditions of possibility.

*The English translation of the title is extremely infelicitous here. The reflections are, yes, on damaged life but they are at the same time from or out of it [aus dem beschädigten Leben].

But perhaps the most remarkable trope of our present state is the Christian notion of original sin. The interesting aspect of original sin is not its hereditary nature. As Calvin points out in the Institutes, for example, “… Augustine, though he frequently calls it the sin of another, the more clearly to indicate its transmission to us by propagation [against the Pelagians], yet, at the same time, also asserts it properly belongs to each individual” (emphasis added); not only, moreover, to each person but to every creature, groaning under the weight of a burden it neither chose nor incurred (Rom 8:20,4). The unchosen responsibility for a guilt that defines our very mode of existence—and our fate—is the task that we can no longer ignore under the auspices of Enlightenment naivety.

1b. What the Enlightenment finds so unpalatable about original sin is its apparent fatalism. Similarly, Adorno and Weber are often dismissed for their unremitting pessimism: is there not good in this world, after all? Should we not affirm, as a certain bumper sticker proclaims, “life is good” or that we should “look on the bright side”?**

**I was once asked by a student why critical theorists and modern (avant-garde) artists were so “depressing” and why they couldn’t just take a moment to see the beauty in the world.

The scandal of the modern world is that what appears as good necessarily makes the suffering at its root invisible. Benjamin had famously remarked that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism and, as common wisdom goes, that history is written by the victors. The present situation is worse, however, than even he had imagined: it is reality itself that is created by those with the power to do so. Should we not celebrate the fact that we now have access to exotic grains from around the world at Whole Foods when the very fact that we are importing quinoa from Bolivia is raising prices so natives who depend on the crop for food can themselves no longer afford it and are being driven into malnutrition while obesity continues to rise in America? How many factory workers have to die or be poisoned, underage teenagers exploited, or rare minerals mined in war-torn countries to produce our “unlimited” iPads and e-readers? By how much do we mortgage future generations so we can drive on average thirty miles a day? Or while everyone was worrying about emissions and thought they were being green by buying nice electric cars, no one noticed that the environmental damage in the production of those cars is (or has been) more harmful than that of conventional cars (or that the original electric car batteries were more toxic to dispose of than nuclear waste).

Benjamin’s concern was that the conditions for the existence of evil would be forgotten and that the critic’s task was to rescue the missed and forgotten possibilities in the laughter of those who were now dead at the hands of a history that must march forward. As Arendt has shown, however, we are already too late: evil is now banal. Banality is the brother of irony: what the ironist accepts as unavoidable the other simply doesn’t notice because it is taken for granted: a radio announcer can just assume that women want to lose weight, for example, and proceed to offer special deals “for the ladies” or the culture industry can continue to feed off audiences’ demand for the ornaments of affirmative culture while works like the Thälmann Variations—written to offer hope for the future of the people—remain unpublished and unavailable.

The optimism of the 90s when this ideology of “the good life” found its final expression is no longer tenable. Neoliberals and conservatives alike continue to promise that the very conditions that not only caused the financial collapse and its continuing global repercussions remain the status quo but also that they continue to blind us to the lie behind the notion that “life is good”.

2a. Justice demands not only action but the tenacity to refuse the ideology of hope: that what was once an honest attempt has proven itself to be among the most catastrophic failures of recorded history. In one of the most reasonable things Zizek has said in recent years, “perhaps it is time to step back, think and say the right thing”; to do so, however, we must first render visible what the ideology of “the good life” denies existence. To borrow a Heideggerean sentence: what most calls for thinking is the fact that, despite everything, we are (still) not thinking. Justice must wield not only the sword but also the scales.

2b. And this is the present task of thought, which is imposed not only from the objective conditions of existence but from within thought itself. In short, this is the Kantian point of no return: there is no metaphilosophy. The material and social conditions for thought are either subject to philosophical method (which concern the possibility for thought as such) or there is something transcendent to philosophy. To put it perversely, il n’y a pas hors de l’histoire.

A Danaan offering

To the surprise of liberals and conservatives alike, one of the most caustic opponents of the left came to the defense of Ellen DeGeneres against a small (but disproportionately vocal) conservative group that had called not only for a boycott of J.C. Penny but for the termination of the company’s partnership with her. But the left’s embrace of O’Reilly’s defense fails to notice that despite appearances O’Reilly remains no friend and that the grounds for his defense are contrary to many of the basic principles of liberal criticism. (I see this fact as symptomatic of the left’s tendency toward consensus and coalition as the only available options when the only political motivator available to it is the ethics of consequentialism.) Lest the left fall into the same incoherence in its ideology as the right—O’Reilly’s comments are actually, admirably, a directly rigorous consequence of this incoherence—we should pause to wonder how this unlikely alliance is forming (let’s not forget what happened at Yalta).

Notice that, like Paul, nowhere did O’Reilly say “it’s not a bad thing to be gay” or “it’s not ok for you to think being gay is a bad choice”. In fact, his exact words were, addressing the conservative group, “you don’t believe the message that they’re sending by hiring Ellen is a good message, more power to you. That is your decision and your right as an American”. It is on this point that the far right and the neoliberals are indistinguishable but also precisely where they must be obliged to differ the most: every viewpoint is equally legitimate and the right of a private citizen is to do whatever she wishes from her beliefs. As a private citizen, so the claim goes, my belief that being gay is synonymous with pedophilia is perfectly justified and I am free to be as bigoted as I want. It is in this respect that the left has confused tolerance with relativism: considered properly, there is simply no paradox to the problem of “not tolerating intolerance”. The left must have the courage to say that bigotry is simply not a right.

But O’Reilly’s point, of course, was not that individuals should have the right to think whatever they want. Nor is it clear that such a position is immune from a tacit acceptance of bigotry (when Paul was forced, for example, to acknowledge that the government cannot make a priori distinctions about domestic life and yet refuses to use the bathroom in a gay family’s house, one wonders just how enlightened he really is). His essential point was that J.C. Penny is not obliged to “fire a spokesperson who has done nothing legally wrong” (emphasis added). This is the curious point, for he continued to draw parallels to the McCarthy hearings. Here is the fundamental incoherence: like others on the right, O’Reilly is necessarily committed to a rigorous distinction between the ethical and the political. I might think being gay is sinful but I am legally obliged not to discriminate against you, provided that my state has legal protections against such discrimination. But the now standard objection to the McCarthy hearings is that the relevant priority is the good over state sanction (or, simply, just because something is legal does not make it good, which is just a variation of the Euthyphro problem). As I have argued elsewhere, the neoliberal and libertarian distinction between the ethical and the political, if held rigorously, is ultimately untenable. The left simply reduces to the right if its only argument for why J.C. Penny is not obliged to fire DeGeneres for being gay is not that there is nothing wrong with being gay but because it is not yet illegal to be gay.

The case of Mahler; or: Why it is impossible to love Mahler

In what one imagines is a frustrated project manager’s last laugh at a misguided project, the cover of Deutsche Grammophon’s 2010 “People’s Edition” of Mahler’s symphony cycle displays a half-profiled, black-and-white Mahler with his hands resting on his hips against a red background. Apparently, for this collection, DG asked listeners to vote for their favorite recording of each of the Mahler symphonies (presumably from some pre-determined list).

The existence of such a collection provides contrary evidence to Adorno’s hope—who was not wrong about much when it comes to music—that “Mahler, to this very day [which at the time was 1930, though the sentiment persists in pieces Adorno wrote thirty years later], has remained the only exemplary composer who realistically stands outside the space of aesthetic autonomy, and—what is more—whose music could be used truthfully and by living human beings, not ideological Wandervögel [something like Boy Scouts]”. The DG collection effectively did to Mahler what Mountain Dew did in its Dewmand promotions: to reify music into an object of consumption.

The fate of Mahler in the artworld is analogous to that of Kafka in the university. Kafka understood the inevitable fate of discourse and asked his executors to destroy his manuscripts on his death and even himself expressed the wish that his completed works not be published and given to posterity but that they should rather simply disappear and cease to exist. Unlike others who feared of being perpetually misunderstood, Kafka’s writing is at once too intimate and too expressive.

Writing, Kafka said, is like a prayer. We pray, however, only for one reason: to wait for redemption. This is the single idea of all of Mahler’s symphonies: recall, for example, the creator God who never arrives in the Eighth or the unbearable experiences of the finales of the Sixth and Ninth. The latter exemplify the effect of Mahler’s compositional and structural techniques at their highest: through the fragments of an exhausted musical language (i.e., romanticism), Mahler presents the ruins of a world whose redemption has already been lost. What is more impossible than the idyllic simplicity of the folk dance* (see the strange anti-symmetry of the second and fourth movements of the Ninth), Mahler asks, in world where Auschwitz is possible (the untimeliness of Mahler’s symphonies is significant—note that Mahler died prior to World War I)? Mahler’s symphonies are totalities that nevertheless leave us with an awareness of what is missing.

*Scriabin attempts a similar type of expression in his opus 21 polonaise: instead of nostalgia for youthful dances, Scriabin writes a polonaise only to show its impossibility in the modern world.

Instead of inventing a new musical language, Mahler calls for the rescue of traces that linger from what has already been lost. If today Mahler is banal due to the bourgeois pacification of the dialectical content of Schönberg and Stravinsky by their appropriation into affirmative culture, it is because we insist on the past as given (postmodern pastiche is only possible given this conceit). Redemption can only occur once the world has been completed; but instead of an infinite becoming, Mahler’s symphonies are expressions of infinite ruination—of a non-absolute totality. Everything in Mahler’s symphonies has a place—each theme and motif is determined by its function within the whole—yet the whole fulfills no intention (this is what differentiates Mahler from Mozart). As Adorno observes, Mahler is missing from the symphonies, which simply express the world itself. But, on the other hand, to whom could the symphonies possibly be addressed without miring us in the mourning of those caught in infinite waiting for an event that never happens?

The conditions that make it impossible for us to hear Mahler today are many and largely coincide with the obstacles to the constitution of a people, not the least of which is the failure to distinguish between the ochlos (the so-called “wisdom of crowds”) and the demos. To hear Mahler could not be an act of affirmation—for Mahler himself prohibits any such act—but only an acknowledgment that what could be affirmed is still to come, just as the people only exist as the ideal of the democracy-to-come.