Thursday, 17 March 2011

Headless Democracies: New Model Army, Ignorance, Politics and Art

[On Friday 5th February this year I gave the New Year's Lecture at the Universiteit Leiden, Campus Den Haag. I had been invited by the LUC Brill Nijhoff Writing Institute to talk about my latest novel, New Model Army, in any way I liked that connected with the institutes wide range of interests in 'international law & politics, ethics, literature, anthropology and natural science'. I'm grateful to Prof. Chris Goto-Jones for the invitation, and the institute staff, especially Dr. Hyowon Kim (and her charming, superbright husband) were models of hospitality. The rest of this post is the talk I gave; although in the event I ended up ad-libbing a fair amount. Plus, as you'll see, parts of the talk had already appeared on this very blog. Still, for what it's worth, here it is. AR]


I sat down in England a little while ago to think about what I was going to say to you all this evening, trying to keep in mind the remit I had been given: ‘to show how writing is an essential part of academic expression’ and to steer my thoughts via ‘LUC interests: global justice—sustainability—human interaction.’ Conscious of the very great honour you have done me by inviting me to address you, I am at the same time aware of how little I know, really, about the disciplines of political theory, social policy and international; jurisprudence. This, though, need not be a disadvantage. I am a subject of the British crown and a citizen of Europe—such a mournful chasm, there, between subject and citizen—and as such democracy, politics, international law, environmental sustainability and ‘human interaction’ in the broadest sense ... all these things determine my being-in-the-world. The same is true of all of us. Humans are social and political animals: claiming ignorance of social policy is like a fish claiming ignorance of brine, or a tiger claiming ignorance of hunting. The points, very germane here and now, is that there are different modes of knowledge: the detailed expertise that comes from careful study of a discipline is one, though by virtue of its codes of research it tends towards a kind of passivity (familiarising oneself with data fields and conceptual models). I don’t use ‘passivity’ in a pejorative sense, by the way: after all the word is linked, etymologically, with passion, and this body of scholarly expertise can be passionate pursued and equally passionately disseminated. But there are other modes of knowledge, and some of those are active. Sports scientists also (generally) play sport; but sportsmen are by necessity sports scientists, if only in an intuitive way. Musicologists almost always play musical instruments, but professional pianists and violinists must actualise and embody musicology or they wouldn’t be any good. I mention this right at the beginning because it seems to me rather obvious—we can almost, indeed, take it as axiomatic. I’m going to guess that we’re all prepared to agree from the beginning that ‘writing is an essential part of academic expression’. It is only foolish academics who hold the opinions of those who have not immersed themselves in years of minute scholarship in low esteem. As Samuel Johnson once noted, you need not be trained as a cobbler to be able to say that your shoes are pinching your toes.

But there’s more to say here, to do not only with the different modes of knowledge but their different magisteria—not simply whether a body of knowledge (let’s say: global justice—sustainability—human interaction) is considered from a theoretical or a practical point of view, but whether the ground of either sort of knowledge is collective or individual, whether it is political or aesthetic. It is one thing to say that professional academics don’t have a monopoly on knowledge; it is quite another to say that social policy should be guided by a principle of ignorance. This, though, is often what happens. In the recent general election in my country, the parties competed on their different plans for addressing the economic calamities of the credit crunch. And the British population voted, despite the fact that almost all of us know almost nothing about economics. Or to take a slightly more contentious argument: by what criterion of expertise is it the democratic will of the United States to go to war in Iraq when a large proportion of the American electorate can’t even identify where Iraq might be found on a map of the world? To ask this question is not to insist the war was wrong, or right; and nor am I trying to score cheap shots at the expense of Americans (we might ask, for instance, why should an office worker in Ohio or Nebraska need to know the intricate political situation that obtains in Iraq? She has plenty of other things to occupy her life; indeed, she has remarkable expertise about a dozen areas of knowledge.) My point here is to suggest that an inevitable part of the way democracy works is that popular will is predicated not upon knowledge but intuition, not upon ‘truth’ but—that fantastically useful theoretical category—‘truthiness’. Not that decisions are made on the basis on ignorance, but certainly that ignorance need not be dissolved away by the acid of actually finding shit out before decisions are made. One (minor) manifestation of democracy in my country is radio phone-in shows: a host poses a hot topic of the day—immigration, sexual morality, the economy, religion whatever—and then ‘ordinary members of the public’ phone in with their opinions. The parameters are lightly drawn in these forums: if callers are actually incite hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation they will be rebuked or censored. But otherwise their views, no matter how oddball or ignorant, are given equal platform, space. The implicit premise behind these shows is that merely by voicing an opinion, one is performing democracy. There is no requirement that opinion be modified by actual knowledge. To quote Mitchell and Webb expert parody of the form: ‘What about global warming? How should the situation in the middle east be resolved? Almost certainly you know nothing about these issues, but I’m sure you reckon something. Give us a call!’

Contemporary democracy, in other words, is a performative rather than a connotative statement. To talk about nuclear physics in a lecture hall with a view to teaching students, one needs at least a basic understanding of nuclear physics. But to utter the classic examples of performative utterances—to say ‘I do’ during a marriage ceremony, to say ‘you’re fired’—your discourse needs no actual expertise. Or to put it another way, the knowledge is in the performance only. The statement ‘carbon 12 is an isotope of carbon 14’ includes knowledge, in the sense that it is possible to get it wrong. The statement ‘I do’, uttered during a marriage service, is perfectly ignorant in terms of marriage.* I perform democracy by (let’s say) voting, going on demos, writing angry letters to the newspaper and so on. All these things, being performative, cannot be wrong—I may vote Labour or Conservative, but my vote cannot be wrong.**
[* Note 1: To be clear: I suppose it is possible to get the ‘I do’ wrong in the sense that one thereby marries the wrong person (years of fights and bitterness leading to a rancorous divorce). But this is a different kind of getting things wrong, I think. It’s not possible for the performative ‘I do’ to be wrong about what it performs—the act of becoming marriage, whether to your ideal life partner or some horrible individual. On the other hand a referential statement can easily be wrong on its own, referential terms: as I would be, if I began a lecture on geography with ‘Holland is a mountainous country.’]

[** Note 2: This, actually, unpacks into large and important questions. One common criticism of the West’s project to ‘democratise’ the rest of the world is precisely that it violates this core principle—that the voters of ‘Palestine’ or Egypt or (potentially) Iraq and Afghanistan vote for the wrong people when they vote for radical Islamist politicians. I don’t have time to go into this here, I suppose, although it seems to me that such a position (Palestinian democracy means the perfect freedom of the Palestinians to elect whomsoever they choose provided it’s not Hamas’) has everything to do with international relations and nothing to do with democracy.]
I need to qualify that statement, briefly. We live, in our various European countries, under representative democracies. The nature of representative democracy is, in essence, that it has a head and a body. The body (the populace) empowers by the head (the political classes; MPs, senators, etc) by periodic elections; but whilst the populace performs democracy the group voted into power must act in an informed and expert manner—the discourse of democracy at this level is referential not performative. But it’s a common enough criticism that democratically elected leaders shrink ‘democracy’ in the largest sense to a much smaller concept—accountabiloity—and then go about the business of ruling in much the same way that absolute rulers always do. It may be that there are good reasons for this. I’m interested, though, in what would happen if this head actually followed the logic of the body. Or if it were removed altogether.

This question of relative knowledge and relative ignorance is a key one for me, at least in terms of what I do as a writer. So on the one hand I am an academic, after all—professor of nineteenth-century literature at the University of London—as well as being a creative writer. My chosen field of creative endeavour is science fiction, and unusually amongst my fellow practitioners of SF my educational background is not in the sciences. My first degree (Aberdeen) was in English and Classics; my PhD (Cambridge) 'Robert Browning and the Classics'. I am not wholly ignorant when it comes to science, but I know no more than anybody it who reads the various popular science books and magazines like New Scientist. I don’t have time to talk about ‘science’ more broadly—although it has been my experience than the (academic) scientists I know are generally much better informed about art and culture, than the (academic) humanities scholars I know are about science. But I don’t want to stray from the point.

In late 2009 and early 2010 I wrote a novel called New Model Army. My starting point was an article I read in the Jan 2009 London Review of Books called ‘Bouncebackability’, a David Runcimann review of Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton Univ. Press, 2008). Here’s a blog-post I made immediately after reading it:
Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge (Princeton 2008) (or, to be precise, this LRB review of it by David Runcimann) raises some interesting question. The premise is that ‘knowledge aggregation’ (the wisdom of crowds, infotopia, wikinomics) is a positive feature of contemporary life: ‘lots of people knowing many small things can result in a very big deal for everyone’. Democracy ought to be the paradigm for this, but isn’t. Modern democracies, unlike the successful bottom-up collective endeavours such as wikipedia, are not truly democratic: ‘they are not direct but representative, which makes them top-down keader-oriented popularity contests, not exercises in knowledge aggregation. Ober, though, argues that ancient Athens was precisely this sort of democracy, and that it owed its success as a polis to that fact. Runcimann:
Athens had many things going for it—philosophy, oratory, drama, magnificent buildings—but it was also a violent, faction-ridden, capricious, war-mongering slave-owning society, clinging precariously to its privileged position and regularly picking fights it couldn’t win. It doesn’t exactly sound like the Google (company motto: ‘don’t be evil’) of the ancient world.
Ah, but:
Josiah Ober is here to tell us that we have this last point completely wrong … Athenian democracy really was an open, flexible, dynamic and remarkably successful political society, able to marshal its resources and outperform its rivals. … Essentially his argument has two parts. First, he needs to show that Athens did indeed outperform its rivals to become the most successful polity of its age. Second he needs to show that this advantage was a direct result of its being a democracy, because as a democracy it was able to acquire, aggregate and codify knowledge in ways that its non-democractic rivals couldn’t match.
Ober thinks he can demonstrate both these points; Runcimann isn’t quite so sure. But it’s a fascinating, and of course relevant, question.

One thing it makes me think is the way political debates of the 1930s and early 1940s sometimes restated these premises. For instance, a good number of people believed that World War II was effectively a fight to see whether a democratic system could beat an authoritarian one. Fascists argued that democracy was necessarily riddled by internal contradiction; that for instance no democracy could focus the will to stay in a long, destructive and expensive war. On the other side the allies’ victory was taken by many precisely to be the victory of democracy over authoritarianism. We might object that the allies ran their democracies in pretty authoritarian ways—people who opposed the war tended to be silenced, or locked up, or if they disagreed vocally enough shot. But this in fact speaks to the effectiveness of ‘representative democracy’ rather than actual democracy to do things like, for instance, win wars.
Around 500 BC Athens got democracy, but less than twenty years later they also got lucky, and rich, with the opening up of a new group of silver mines in southern Attica which produced a substantial windfall profit for the state. … Ober weaves this big slice of natural advantage into his story of democratic achievement by pointing out that when the assembly had to decide what to do with the first influx of extra wealth it chose to spend it on building the navy that went on to defeat the Persians at Salamis in 480BC rather instead of distributing it among individual citizens. Compare and contrast, say, with Sarah Palin’s Alaska (admittedly one of the least plausible candidates ever for that hotly disputed title ‘Athens of the North’) With oil prices high early last year, Palin decided to use the extra state income to fund $1000 credits to every Alaskan to help with their fuel bills. Ancient democracies used their good fortune to take tough decisions in the common interest; modern democracies use it to bribe the voters with handouts.
I’m not sure about that last line (neither, as it goes, is Runcimann). But the article as a whole is very stimulating, and I’ve been wondering about joining up its dots. New e-democracy utpopianism is fuelled by new technologies that make it much simpler to canvas everybody’s opinion quickly and efficiently. One of the shaping ideological forces of the second half of the twentieth century is that democracy is not just ethically better than dictatorship, it is practically superior—viz. the number of wars fought between the two regimes and always won by the former. This is fair enough; and personally I’m very glad that the democratic allies won WWII rather than the fascists. But although armies from democratic nations (USA, UK) fought armies from authoritarian nations (Germany, Italy, Japan) and won, nobody suggested that the armies themselves should be run on democratic lines. There has never been in the history of humankind a properly democratic army.

But why not? The obvious objection—that it would be impracticable to orchestrate the trappings of democracy, the hustings and votes, in the heat of battle—is rendered null by new technologies. The conceptual objection (that soldiers would tend to vote to run like cowards rather than engage the enemy) seems to me equally unfounded: the history of democracy suggests the reverse. Indeed, morale (military code for: making sure that feudal soldiers don't feel too much like slaves led by people who don't especially care if they live or die) would be much less of a problem; logistics would be easier -- new model soldiers would not specialise; specialisation is the bane of feudalism ... all would have net-access to enormous bodies of expertise, practical, medical, tactical, and all would wield it. They'd revolutionise warfare.

I'll write a book about it to show what I mean.
And so I did.

A properly headless democracy

One of my aims in NMA was to behead democracy; or to put it a little more exactly, to imagine a democracy that could not be beheaded because it never had a head in the first place. In Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire cat manifests over the Queen of Hearts’ garden as a head. When the Queen insists the cat be beheaded, there is disagreement among her servants. The headsman takes this view, saying that without a body to behead from, a head cannot be beheaded. The Queen takes the contrary view, arguing that anything with a head can be beheaded. The Queen, I think, is right.This is a very important and rather profound point, actually. The Cheshire cat, as he manifests in Alice, can be beheaded. But if he had the foresight to manifest as a body only, he could not. To put this another way: the invincibly ignorance archetype of the headless man sidesteps this dilemma. He cannot be beheaded, because he is always-already-beheaded. He is ahead of you.

Ho ho.

The effacement of democracy; the notion of an acephalic democracy

What do we mean when we talk of the giant’s head? The most obvious way of elaborating on that would be to itemise the dictator, the popularly-elected figurehead (figure + head). In some cases, this figured headishness is so prominent, and the individual ‘faces’ the democractic process that got him to that position so emphatically, he can simply dispense with democracy itself. The logic here is that the figure of the head organically ‘completes’ the demos’s body, obviating the need for further democratic process. So Napoleon III, or Hitler, or Mubarak wins power by plebiscite and then effaces the process of the vote as superfluous, declaring himself dictator for life. The democracy now has a head, and the head become a Mekon-head, a brain-in-a-vat, such that all the cells of the body exist only to provide cephalic service.

But there is another way in which we might talk about the giant’s head—one, indeed, not incompatible with the pretensions of a dictator-for-life. This is to think of democracy, society and history as embodying (in a strict sense) a cephalic ideal. Let’s say; Fuhrerprinzip, the charismatic genius-leader, the epitome of the will-of-the-people, Hegel’s ‘world-spirit’ whatever it might be. Let me quote some Adorno:
What is irrational in the concept of the world-spirit it borrowed from the irrationality of the course of the world. In spite of this it remains fetishistic. History has to this day no total subject, however construable. Its substrate is the functional context of real individual subjects ... In the concept of the world-spirit the principle of divine omnipotence was secularized into that which posited unity, the world-plan into the pitilessness of what occurs. The world-spirit is worshipped like a deity; it is divested of its personality and all its attributes of providence and grace. [Negative Dialectics, ‘Part III. Models. World-spirit and Natural History. Excursus on Hegel’ 299-300]
We could put it this way: God must have a head. We might even go further and say; God must be a head—must approach a perfected spherical cephalic emobodiment of will, thought and reason. The Wizard rules Oz as a giant, spectral head, appearing as if to Moses on the mountainside wreathed in green fire. The actual principle of running the city is otherwise, but we must pay no attention to the figure behind the curtain. (That’s always struck me as a nicely anti-performative statement, like me saying ‘I shall not think of elephants!’ Is there a name for that rhetorical trick?). In secularised social terms, we still live under a social-philosophical logic that sees the point of society to be the head.

This is part of a larger critique, of course, of the dangers of ‘majoritarian thinking’. The introduction to Negative Dialectics doesn’t mince its words (not that Adorno is normally very mincing, of course):
The construction of the truth according to the analogy of the volont√© de tous—the most extreme consequence of the subjective concept of reason—would betray everyone of everything which they need ... The criterion of truth is not its immediate communicability to everyone. [50]

The Party is supposed to have a cognitive power that is a priori superior to that of every individual solely due to the number of its members, even if it is terrorized or blinded. The isolated individual however, unencumbered by the ukase, may at times perceive the objectivity more clearly than a collective, which in any case is only the ideology of its committees. Brecht’s sentence, the Party has a thousand eyes, the individual only two, is as false as any bromide. The exact imagination of a dissenter can see more than a thousand eyes wearing the same red-tinted glasses. [56]
The old USSR model of the Party as the archetypal democratic ‘Head’ is amongst the purest examples of what I am talking about. What’s interesting, and what Adorno puts his finger on, is the way the old Soviet rhetoric worked by abrogating to the head the function of the body. Let’s think instead in terms of removing the politburo altogether.

The idea of a ‘headless’ democracy is not a new one, of course; it is only that it has almost always appeared in previous social and political discourse in negative terms. Its avatar is The Mob. Destructive, purposeless, violent, mindless, terrifying. In NMA one of my main aims was to lay out the notion ‘a headless democracy need not be a mob’. And here we come to the nub of the matter: how writing is an essential part of academic expression. Because the academic way of supporting that statement, researching its supporting evidence, is hamstrung by the fact that history provides almost no examples of headless democracy. Received wisdom is that social groups must have leaders or they will revert to unproductive chaos. It is, however, possible to engage in speculative thought-experiment about these things—that phrase, indeed, is a nice thumbnail definition of SF

Creative work often begins by jamming together various previously unjuxtaposed ideas, concepts or observations. In the case of NMA I wondered if participatory democracy (on the model of the Greek polis) necessarily gave way to representational democracy because the group size grew too large to fit in one ekklesia. So I posited a Greek-polis-sized group, a small army. But of course, the technologies of computing and network connectivity mean that our ekklesia need no longer be a physical space. So, the novel became as much about the modes of social interaction and the possibilities of political action the Net has enabled. Social networks are—really—extraordinary things.

It turns out that there is such a thing a the wisdom of crowds. There’s such a thing as the foolishness of crowds too, of course; but I’ve come to the conclusion that the former significantly outweighs the latter.

Received wisdom, since the days of the Enlightenment philosophes, was that an encyclopedia can only be assembled by experts. It is a cornerstone of modern economics that people work when motivated to do so by financial reward. Yet Wikipedia is now the world’s greatest encyclopedia, open-source software has revolutionised computing and I get all my breaking news through Twitter. There’s a tendency to want to force these networks back into the procrustean beds of old media models, of course. Take Wikileaks, for instance. News reporting on that phenomenon have focussed on the troubled circumstances of Julian Assange, which makes for a thoroughly dramatic, salacious and individualised narrative. But the assumption that Wikileaks is ‘the body’ and Assange ‘the head’ of this phenomenon is surely mistaken ... I mean no personal derogation of Mr Assange, and I know too little about his personal circumstances to judge him; but to think (as the authorities seem to) that Assange is Wikileaks is to perpetrate a kind of category error.

There is a genuine problem on the level of representation here, of course, and I don’t mean to gloss over it. The media represent Wikileaks as ‘the dramatic and diverting narrative of Julian Assange’ not because they are pawns of the government authorities embarrassed by the Wikileaks revelations, but because the formal, narrative logic of news broadcasting is heavily biased towards the story arc of the individual. This is true for deep, systemic reasons; the same structural forces that shape novel writing, film-making and so on. Indeed, so deeply implicated are our narrative possibilities in telling the story of the head that it is a struggle to find alternate modes. A few years ago I wrote a story called Land of the Headless that wrestled with this dilemma, to only partial success. In NMA I try to inflect the central consciousness through which the novel is filtered in certain ways, to prepare the ground for the shift in the book’s final section to a kind of playful collective headlessness. My writing more generally is often criticised (in reviews and so on) for its lack of conventionally ‘appealing’ or identifiable characters. There’s some truth in this criticism, although in my defence I’d like to suggest that it could be, as the contemporary phrase goes, a feature not a bug—in that this is one of the things I’m interested in trying to do. The literary-critical way of putting this would be to say that I’m interested in deconstructing the forms and assumptions of (what remain) fundamentally 19th-century novelistic preconceptions of what constitutes a ‘good novel’. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily succeed, of course; but it is to suggest that criticising my attempts to decapitate the novel simply because one disapproves of the idea of decapitating a novel may be to miss the point of what I’m about. The Queen of Hearts’ slogan—off with his head!—makes for a cruel and unjust political or judicial programme, but is an inspiring call to arms on the metaphorical and conceptual level. At the heart of the new Revolution, then: a conceptual guillotine.

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