Monday, October 31, 2011


I haven't done one of these in a couple of months. So, for your Monday (or Sunday - we're ahead of the world here in NZ) reading pleasure:
  • Via a link from Cosma Shalizi, more on Arendt and Occupy Wall Street by The Slack Wire. There's some interesting discussion in the comments as well, which implicitly brings out some points I didn't stress in my post: concrete political action with specific goals always ends up transforming the space of appearances and introducing elements of surveillance, hierarchy, and the like (sometimes with very good reason!). Organized hierarchy appears to be unavoidable in both politics and economic life, but (according to Arendt) there is something that is always lost in that transition. Hence the need for a different balance between spaces of appearance, spaces of surveillance, and spaces for escaping visibility. (Maybe I'll write more about this later). 
  • Speaking of Cosma Shalizi, I enjoyed his discussion of an obscure book on Marxist econophysics and of Bayesianism and the law in the UK. It is obscure, but you'd be surprised about how much you learn about the perils and difficulties of using models in the social sciences! Besides, it comes with a mention of the call-in show at Radio Yerevan, and who doesn't like that?
  • Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow? 
    Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn't win it, but rather it was stolen from him.
  • Via BK Drinkwatercreating a totalitarian society inside a film set. And then living in it. And refusing to finish the film. 
No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.” To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire.
This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”
    The core of his argument is that even Caligula’s wildest behavior reflected the instability of the political order, not of his mind. The transition from republic to empire in the decades prior to his reign had generated a rather convoluted system of signals between the Senate (the old center of authority, with well-established traditions) and the emperor (a position that emerged only after civil war).
    The problem came from deep uncertainty over how to understand the role that Julius Caeser had started to create for himself, and that Augustus later consolidated. The Romans had abolished their monarchy hundreds of years earlier. So regarding the emperor as a king was a total non-starter. And yet his power was undeniable – even as its limits were undefined.
    The precarious arrangement held together through a strange combination of mutual flattery and mutual suspicion, with methods of influence-peddling ranging from strategic marriages to murder. And there was always character assassination via gossip, when use of an actual dagger seemed inconvenient or excessive.
    Even those who came to despise Caligula thought that his first few months in power did him credit. He undid some of the sterner measures taken by his predecessor, Tiberius, and gave a speech making clear that he knew he was sharing power with the Senate. So eloquent and wonderful was this speech, the senators decided, it ought to be recited each year.
    An expression of good will, then? Of bipartisan cooperation, so to speak?
    On the contrary, Winterling interprets the flattering praise for Caligula’s speech as a canny move by the aristocrats in the Senate: “It shows they knew power was shared at the emperor’s pleasure and that the arrangement could be rescinded at any time…. Yet they could neither directly express their distrust of the emperor’s declaration that he would share power, nor openly try to force him to keep his word, since either action would imply that his promise was empty.” By “honoring” the speech with an annual recitation, the Senate was giving a subtle indication to Caligula that it knew better than to take him at his word. “Otherwise,” says Winterling, “it would not have been necessary to remind him of his obligation in this way.”
    The political chess match went smoothly enough for a while. One version of what went wrong is, of course, that Caligula became deranged from a severe fever when he fell ill for two months. Another version has it that the madness was a side-effect of the herbal Viagra given to him by his wife.
    But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”
    In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling's interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power -- and, even more, for the senators themselves. Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.
More evidence for the "signaling" interpretation of cults of personality. (Working on a paper on the topic right now).
In one sense, the Information Sharing Environment is a medium tending toward unobstructed transmission; it is like an ocean that conducts whale songs for hundreds of miles. But in another sense, the ISE has created a very private pool of publicly circulating information. Simplified Sign-On, for example, gives those who qualify total access to "sensitive but unclassified" information—but it gives it only to them, and with only internal oversight on how that information is used. The problem is not simply that private information is now semi-public but that the information is invisible to anyone outside organizations that "need to share."
Citron and Pasquale have suggested that if technology is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution—that network accountability can render total information sharing harmless. Rather than futilely attempting to reinforce the walls that keep information private, publicly regulating how information is used can mitigate the trends that caused the problem in the first place. Immutable audit logs of fusion-center activity would not impede information sharing, but they would make it possible to oversee whom that information was shared with and what was done with it. In fact, it was John Poindexter, the director of the Total Information Awareness program, who first suggested this method of oversight, though even today, many fusion centers have no audit trail at all. Standardization and interoperability might also provide means of regulating what kinds of data could be kept. The technological standards that make information available to users can also facilitate oversight, as Poindexter himself realized.  
Spaces of surveillance are worse when the watchers cannot be watched.
This fusion of despotism and postmodernism, in which no truth is certain, is reflected in the craze among the Russian elite for neuro-linguistic programming and Eriksonian hypnosis: types of subliminal manipulation based largely on confusing your opponent, first developed in the US in the 1960s. There are countless NLP and Eriksonian training centres in Moscow, with every wannabe power-wielder shelling out thousands of dollars to learn how to be the next master manipulator. Newly translated postmodernist texts give philosophical weight to the Surkovian power model. Fran├žois Lyotard, the French theoretician of postmodernism, began to be translated in Russia only towards the end of the 1990s, at exactly the time Surkov joined the government. The author of Almost Zero loves to invoke such Lyotardian concepts as the breakdown of grand cultural narratives and the fragmentation of truth: ideas that still sound quite fresh in Russia. One blogger has noted that ‘the number of references to Derrida in political discourse is growing beyond all reasonable bounds. At a recent conference the Duma deputy Ivanov quoted Derrida three times and Lacan twice.’
In an echo of socialism’s fate in the early 20th century, Russia has adopted a fashionable, supposedly liberational Western intellectual movement and transformed it into an instrument of oppression. In Soviet times a functionary would at least nominally pretend to believe in Communism; now the head of one of Russia’s main TV channels, Vladimir Kulistikov, who used to be employed by Radio Free Europe, proudly announces that he ‘can work with any power I’m told to work with’. As long as you have shown loyalty when it counts, you are free to do anything you like after hours. Thus Moscow’s top gallery-owner advises the Kremlin on propaganda at the same time as exhibiting anti-Kremlin work in his gallery; the most fashionable film director makes a blockbuster satirising the Putin regime while joining Putin’s party; Surkov writes a novel about the corruption of the system and rock lyrics denouncing Putin’s regime – lyrics that would have had him arrested in previous times.
In Soviet Russia you would have been forced to give up any notion of artistic freedom if you wanted a slice of the pie. In today’s Russia, if you’re talented and clever, you can have both. This makes for a unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony. A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross you we would quite quickly be dead.

Bet you cannot do that.

More here, while it lasts.

[Update 10/31/2011: added Geobacter picture, fixed some typos, some minor wording changes]

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