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Critique of generic rationality

Zoran Terzić

The Grand Generalization
Critique of Generic Rationality

Published: 03.12.2019


Having your own technology isn’t the same thing as having your own story, says Jonathan Franzen. Quite the opposite, it means having the same story as everyone else. Franzen criticizes the influence of the new media on our perception of the world, and reacts allergically to all varieties of generic rationality. Artists unavoidably balk at the generic: they have a story no one else has. But is it therefore a story of their own? Every artform creates a social fact that ultimately belongs to everyone and no one. Central perspective belongs neither to Brunelleschi nor to Italy. A story of one’s own, however, refers to something other than idiosyncrasy or cultural property: it has to do with an appropriation of time, occurrence, and experience within the terms of a sophisticated view of an mundane world. It’s the expression of self-assurance. Kafka writes about the panther that replaces the hunger artist in his cage: “The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it.” The animal itself is distinguished by inner indifference, not by uniqueness. Its individuality is something that follows on from art—as the panther follows on from the hunger artist.

Someone with a unique story has no one who can understand it, and is therefore meaninglessly singular. And someone with a story like everyone else’s loses all distance from understanding, and is therefore collectively meaningless. Nevertheless, every culture and communication is based on generic rules. It isn’t “individual” to use your own grammar. And the above critique of generic rationality doesn’t refer to cases in which technological algorithms—from painting machines to poetry bots—become means of artistic expression. For every triumph over art is artistic, every triumph over rationality is rational, and every artificial intelligence that is rational is of necessity “natural.” Idiosyncrasy or the generic don’t create stories in and of themselves. Just as idiosyncrasy is an archetype of singularity, the generic is one of reproducibility. It determines the grammar of biological life, just as it structures the DNA of hegemony. Vitruvius’s architectural treatise, for example, provides generic instructions for the representation of temporal power: stone algorithms that calibrate the hegemonic space of dynasties. There is variation, but no improvisation. No Machiavellian is interested in soft skills. For Rudolf Rocker ancient Rome was the epitome of barbarism because it was based on this generics of power. Political representation has remained generic to this day: national anthems sound similar, and sportspeople stand similarly at attention to them; modern government buildings go in for classicism (white exterior) and represent the international art jet-set as inverted white cubes (white interior). The state monopoly on the use of force is also generic: despite cultural differences from Hong Kong to Istanbul, the police bludgeon protestors in the same way.

The generic means that symbolic algorithms don’t remake themselves as feedback—as in a “living narrative” or in second-order cybernetics—but that they repeat themselves without needing to keep up with the excessive forms of late-capitalist production, from which they derive. Capitalism generically overproduces idiosyncrasies, with no concern for the circumstances of their reproduction. Capitalism, according to Eva Illouz, doesn’t know how to reproduce producers. It doesn’t create relationships, but relationship crises that inhibit the general flow of capital. Yet at the same time it creates the surplus that no one can handle. The generic is an expression for the heat death of the political economy, while idiosyncrasy is its death from hypothermia. What is reproduced in late capitalism is either the specific as an idiosyncratic form of pseudo-individual experience in the “society of singularities” (Andreas Reckwitz) or the general as a generic form of instrumental rationality, seen today as big data or “social physics” (Alex Pentland). The media ghettoization of monads on the one hand and “sheeple” on the other suggests an apocalyptic stasis, a dialectic eschaton, in which there is no communication any more between the specific and the general.

“Occidental thought” cast its lot in with the idiosyncratic side of capital early on, and tried to score points with concepts of authenticity. These attempts were always coupled with a veiled essentialism, such as Heidegger’s sculptural immersion in the question of being, that generic procedures—the They, technology, positionality—couldn’t ontologically challenge, even though they were an ontic threat. Although a similar technological defeatism can be read in Edmund Husserl’s defensively worded work on the crisis of European sciences, Heidegger’s “jargon of authenticity” (Adorno) is more than just an anti-American critique of civilization from the position of authentic Germanic life. At least initially it had to do with a position that struck his students forcefully in the 1920s, as Hannah Arendt once described in an interview: Heidegger’s intellectual charisma, she said, didn’t consist in thinking about something, that is, in argumentation, but in thinking something. How different this is from the practice of generic rationality becomes clear in the debate with Rudolf Carnap, who wanted to straighten out Heidegger’s idiosyncrasy into a general set of guidelines, and enumerated logical and conceptional errors in his riposte on the assumption of being able to get one over on the idiosopher. This didn’t affect Heidegger’s influence, because philosophy is also about something that goes beyond philosophy. Let’s call it, after Ernst Tugendhat, intellectual urgency. Slavoj Žižek takes up the same point in his text “In Defense of Hegel’s Madness,” in which he defends the idealist against contemporary philosophical attempts to co-opt him in the name of common sense and pack him into the (neo)liberal canon. Žižek defends the non-reducible, speculative, and non-interpretable core of Hegelianism—Hegel’s ruthless dullness, if you like. Hegel’s assertions need to shock us, says Žižek, and this excessiveness can’t be explained away, as the truth they convey depends on it. When Schopenhauer, reading Hegel, once drew the head of a donkey below his caustic marginal comment “Quelle bêtise!” to express this dullness, he exemplified an urgency that corrodes philosophical discourse in the same way that the extraterrestrial secretion eats through the decks of the space ship in Alien. It reveals another instance of negotiation: the sheer “actual” or “insane” discourse, no matter what the epistemological, libidinous, economic, or political terms of its conveyance. The point of the philosophical shock, of thinking something—similarly to Breton’s surrealist shock—is not to mystify (“non-interpretable”) but to sense the coordinates of the generic in relation to the idiosyncrasy of knowledge.

Seen historically, the conflict between the generic and the idiosyncratic represents the danger of alienation, which always brings conservative forces into cultural debates. Michel Houellebecq, for example, finds the conflict set out in Alexis Tocqueville’s essay Democracy in America. In the soft despotism Tocqueville describes, Houellebecq sees the rise of a new matriarchy, which can be seen today in Europe’s supposed capitulation to the challenges of immigration. For Houellebecq the matriarchy underestimates the dangers of a general leveling out—of effeminacy, even—and causes its “similar and equivalent”, that is, generic people to become bogged down in hedonism, whose elixir of enchantment flows from the breast of the great mother. On the other hand Houellebecq envisages an era of isolation that he himself has carried through—meaning the idiosyncratic retreat of the singular individual, entirely taken up with his own destiny, alone, incapable of communication, a relationship moron. He sounds like an outcast son, deprived of the maternal breast, and so he overcompensates by complaining about the global conspiracy of titties. Houellebecq the loner, steeled against excessiveness, is shackled to his mother’s bed and at the same time lost in the desert of civilization, a restless Oblomov, who is as generic and superfluous as he is self-aware. Houellebecq fails to recognize that the matriarchy is transsexual, for power has been reduced to its constituent parts, adjusted to the needs of individuals, and dissolved in an age of planetary indigence that crashes the gate to consolation and tyranny. Dangers lurk everywhere, for everyone at all times, but they don’t come from a phantom exterior. There is instead a large interior, which at some point in human history got particularly messed up—almost as if, as noted by John Kennedy Toole in A Confederacy of Dunces, “the Great Chain of Being had snapped.”

Against this background the idiosyncratic twitching of today’s supersubjects—from superheroes to superleaders who flout the accepted rules to “do their thing”—looks like an encoded symptom of fear, which Houellebecq reads culturally, and which has existentially dramaturgical consequences for the technophobic phenomenologist. It is the ultimate fear of the grand generalization, as is currently being impelled, for example, by the increasing rationalization of labor and redundancy of Homo sapiens, culminating in the envelopment of the lifeworld by technology and the probable inception of a techno-singularity through the replacement of the human beings by their component parts—totum pro parte. IT evangelists like Larry Page link this technological rise to utopian hopes. But the monopolist instinct of the founder of Google epitomizes the possible global effects of a single algorithm—such as Page Rank, the original formula of the Google search engine. The grand generalization has gone so far that the largest American bank, JPMorgan Chase, now conducts its client communication via AI algorithms. A three-year pilot project showed that clients responded much more frequently to AI-generated texts than to messages formulated by human beings. The programs “sense” how the clients function, but not because AI is becoming more human—rather because clients now function as generically as programs, which are made to function by programmers. This means, as has long been obvious from CGI blockbusters or automobile design, that the language and aesthetics of programmer nerds dominates public life, and that the generic rationality of numerous and nameless admins increasingly determines the fate of the world. Nothing artificial about that.

Wherever the conflict of signs will take us, its seems important to maintain a bifocal negotiation strategy. For apocalyptic guilds ritually delineating horror scenarios of a generic human-clone future fail to recognize that they themselves don’t always argue more individually than their later android ersatz would. And trans-human techno-utopians, who both depoliticize and socialize their visions of progress, forget that in the paradise of capital communism they will no longer enjoy the freedoms they had to conceive it. People like IT guru Alex Pentland who want to put a sociometer on every earth dweller have already contrived their secret means of escape. Because their instincts about the future are smart, the big-data geniuses aren’t themselves active on social media; Zuckerberg & co. even advise their children against it. Facebook is infernal for its founder. Bill Gates didn’t give his offspring smartphones until they were fourteen. Apple chief Steve Jobs kept his away from iPads, and today’s Apple CEO warns “Don’t let your kids use social media.” How does it go? Never get high on your own supply.

In short: the permanent large- and small-scale struggle between idiosyncratic and generic rationality requires a critique from the perspective of an “autonomous soul” (Franco Berardi). For our future, the future of the human species, lies neither in idiotic uniqueness nor in technocratic happiness, but in the urgency—intensity, pertinacity—with which we encounter life’s challenges. This isn’t primarily a question of technology, rather one of technique. To return to Jonathan Franzen: having the same story as everyone else isn’t a nightmare if the story is brilliant.

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Zoran Terzić

Zoran Terzić

born in Banja Luka, studied sociology, jazz piano, and communication design in Nuremberg and Wuppertal, and visual art in New York, following which he devoted himself to writing. PhD in 2006. He has lived in Berlin since 2001.