The Kingdom, The Power, The Glory, And The Tawdry – Media And The Undoing Of The Demos, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

This article is the second of three installments. It was originally a paper given at the international conference “The Crisis of Representation” at Melk Conference Center (Stift Melk, Austria) sponsored by the Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society Platform at the University of Vienna (June 27, 2017). The first installment can be found here. The final one will be published on July 18. 

However, it is not only money that presents itself as the new face of tyranny in serving to “dispossess” subjects of their own activity via the machinery of symbolization, virtualization, and de-materialization.  If the virtualization of finance had a lot to do, as most analysts agree, with the Great Recession that started in the fall of 2008, the digitization and proliferation of personalized media has been a driving force in the degeneration of politics into low-boil civil war.  Standard critiques of neoliberalism, especially since the instant media sensation that came to be known as the Occupy movement in September 2011, have focused on the heightened maldistribution of wealth and traced the current malaise to a revival of a predatory capitalism not seen since the 1890s.

But a more recent wave of literature has focused on the hegemony of the symbolic economy itself.  Many of these writers have drawn attention to the co-dependency of such an economy with what we might term consumptive consumerism.  Wendy Brown, perhaps foremost among such theorists, characterizes the way in which these symbolic economies expropriate not only a person’s labor, but their very value and self-worth.  They force us to become “entrepreneurs of the self”,  as Foucault call them in his 1978-79 lectures.

At the same time, what these strategies of both cultural and economic analysis, which prove to be intimately intertwined when it comes to the critique of neoliberalism, tend to miss is the determinative role of media.  As the pioneers of critical theory comprising the so-called Frankfurt School during the first half of the twentieth century realized, the “holy alliance” of culture and capital, which achieves its Gramscian-style synthesis in the evolving figurations of social control through not only mass media platforms but also individualized digital communication, is the real dark matter that needs to be illuminated by the light of reason.

The politics of mediatization needs to be reviewed in light of the mediatization of politics, and that is where Agamben’s claim that modern communications provides an aura of “glory” for democratic politics where pomp and pageantry no longer suffice turns out to be suggestive, even while it remains rather obscure.  According to Agamben, Schmitt’s rule that politics rests on a monarchial declaration of sovereignty  – or at least a constant condition of inimicality (the “friend/enemy distinction”) that is analogous to the state of exception – only works within an autocratic setting.   Rousseau’s notion that sovereignty in a formal sense can also be engraved within the demos is not necessarily compatible with Schmitt’s deduction of political power.

At the same time, Rousseau’s contention that democratic sovereignty has an historical warrant, insofar as it invokes contra Hobbes a certain commensurability of the political with life the state of nature (“man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”), presses us toward accepting the “economic” model of governance, which is also consistent with the kind of providential calculus pertaining to the rise and fall of human societies implied in Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand”, and which constitutes an epochal shift in the rudimentary representation of “political economy” as a whole.

Agamben perhaps takes Rousseau further than he would have been willing to go.  One of the essential tensions in the eighteenth century theory of the social contract turns out to be tug-of-war between the principle of political cohesion founded in the “general will” and the need for some kind of transcendental legitimation of democratic sovereignty for which Rousseau turns to the heuristics of a “civil religion.”  Rousseau’s formulation of such a civil religion can be found toward the close of The Social Contract: “there is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject.”[1]  These “social sentiments” can only be buttressed by the force of the symbolic.  The potency of the symbolic, or what Agamben terms “glory”, has its avatars in the era of democratic egalitarianism as part of what Guy Debord famously named the “society of the spectacle.”  Agamben writes that:

If we link Debord’s analysis with Schmitt’s thesis according to which public opinion is the modern form of acclamation, the entire problem of the contemporary spectacle of media domination over all areas of social life assumes a new over all areas of social life assumes a new guise. What is in question is nothing less than a new and unheard of concentration, multiplication, and dissemination of the function of glory as the center of the political system. What was confined to the spheres of liturgy and ceremonials has become concentrated in the media and, at the same time, through them it spreads and penetrates at each moment into every area of society, both public and private. Contemporary democracy is a democracy that is entirely founded upon glory, that is, on the efficacy of acclamation, multiplied and disseminated by the media beyond all imagination. (That the Greek term for glory—doxa—is the same term that today designates public opinion is, from this standpoint, something more than a coincidence.) As had always been the case in profane and ecclesiastical liturgies, this supposedly “originary democratic phenomenon” is once again caught, orientated, and manipulated in the forms and according to the strategies of spectacular power.[2]

It is not entirely clear what Agamben has in mind with this analogy with the phrase “efficacy of acclamation.”  The analogy with regal pomp and circumstance implies that the media somehow manages only to lionize, and thereby legitimate, the formation of sovereignty within the modern demos.   However, it becomes immediately apparent when we read just a little further in this concluding reflection of Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, which admittedly is not as developed or well-formed as it should be, that he is alluding to Jürgen Habermas’ theory of “communicative action.”  Habermas’ formulary for democratic politics as emanating from communicative, or deliberative, power and its inherent rationality well-known.  As Habermas declares in Between Facts and Norms (1996), “all political power derives from the communicative power  of citizens.”[3]

Habermas grounds this assertion in what he dubs an “illocutionary” construct of rationality – something akin to, more “Platonist” in its origins, to what Derrida came to call the “New Enlightenment” – “when language is conceived as universal medium for embodying reason.”[4]  The maintenance of linguistic coherence as a “postmodern” version of the classic political logos, resident within the systems or communicative transaction and symbolic exchange that constitute the new cosmopolitan agora, fosters in our present day “lifeworld” (to invoke Habermas’ own expression) the conditions for both democratic participation and the commitment of citizens to some form of the “common” or “public” good.

For Agamben, this preservation of Habermas’ “knowledge-constitutive interests” through the cultivation of a pluralized, yet intelligible fabric of shared discourse is not, however, to be established pragmatically through the intervention of the academic disciplines, especially philosophy.  Such a higher, governmental role for “critical theory” was always the dream of the Frankfurt School, and can perhaps be traced all the way back to Plato’s own call for rule by “philosopher kings.”  It can, at least, be linked to some of the inclinations of Frederick the Great during the eighteenth century in his dream of a Europe commandeered by “enlightened despots”, who might replace in some measure the hegemony of the clergy with that of professors, an episode in the evolution of the social imaginary that inspired to a certain degree the founding of the Prussian state system of universal education at both the lower and higher levels along with the quest for a “core curriculum” to create the scaffolding for an educated and “virtuous” citizenry.

The “glory” of the democratic and “holistic” state in the view of Agamben is “founded on the immediate presence of the acclaiming people, and the neutralized state that resolves itself in the communicative forms without subject, are opposed only in appearance. They are nothing but two sides of the same glorious apparatus in its two forms: the immediate and subjective glory of the acclaiming people and the mediatic and objective glory of social communication.”[5]  According to Agamben, “glory” in this regard demonstrates “its dual aspect, divine and human, ontological and economic, of the Father and the Son.”  Following Habermas’ distinction, it can be construed as mediating both “the people-substance and the people-communication.”[6]

But what if Agamben were dead wrong, and what if his notion of mediatic “glory” has metastasized, as we are seeing increasingly nowadays, turned out instead to be the tawdry?  What if this “tawdriness” were in fact the inevitable “cash-out” of the symbolic economy itself, of an appalling, but spectacular climax to the ongoing virtualization of both labor and capital in a latter day, gargantuan immolation of both meaning and signification whereby the “crisis of representation” becomes a global catastrophe of the political itself?  What if the linguistics of “communicative reason” had now morphed as in some kind of insidious mutation of its own semiotic genomes into a hyperpartisan “hate machine?”

How could that even happen?  In order to answer that question, we must begin to pay heed to Bernard Stiegler’s urgent call for a “new critique of political economy” that understands the linguistic process in keeping with both Plato’s and Derrida’s reading pharmakon, as both “poison and remedy.”  Stiegler’s brilliant analysis of the problem, published in 2010 at a time when the current sordid hypertrophy was lamentably but a small, lowering cloud on the horizon, calls into question the very sentimental assumptions about the connections between democracy, discourse, rationality, and mediatic expression that Agamben together with Habermas have dangled in front of us.   “We thus have pure cognitive labor power utterly devoid of knowledge with cognitive technologies, Stiegler writes”[7].  “The cognitive elites” are “deprived of their own logic and by their logic-  a logic reduced to a calculation without remainder as well as to a market of fools.”[8]

In order to achieve a better grasp of what Stiegler intends with such a comment, we need to flesh out his larger perspective.  For A Critique of Political Economy pulls together many of the threads of his extensive, earlier writings to revive a call to for capitalism in the twenty-first century what Marx launched in the nineteenth.  Stiegler set forth these remarks in the immediate wake of the worldwide economic crisis that began in the fall of 2008, but became manifest in 2009.

In the first chapter entitled “Heads Buried in the Sand: A Warning,” Stiegler makes the case that both the Keynesian “stimulus” to that was supposed to have engineered recovery from the Great Recession and the digital automation of industry that is proceeding apace “is the translation of a moribund ideology, desperately trying to prolong the life of a model which has become self-destructive.”[9]  At the same time, Stiegler is not merely advancing some cheap, fossilized version of rhetoric against capitalism per se.  It is the distinctive new kind of capitalism – i.e., “cognitive capitalism” – that is bringing the crisis to a head.

Bernard Stiegler

Cognitive capitalism constitutes an economic as well as a social apocalypse of the virtualization process, the beginnings of which antedate electronic media by two and a half millennia.  The overarching philosophical dilemma we have dubbed the “crisis of representation” is centered on the technical issue of hypomnesis, or the exteriorization of memory, Plato identified in the Phaedrus as the danger posed by writing.  Plato’s preoccupation was the loss of direct access to the real, a position Derrida in Of Grammatology characterized as “ontotheological”.

Writing, Plato insists in the latter section of the Phaedrus, is anti-philosophical because it offers us “learning rather than wisdom” (σοφίας δὲ τοῖς μαθηταῖς δόξαν)[10], and philosophy is of course the pursuit of the latter.  Such “learning” is mere “semblance” (doxa), and even though it provides expanding opportunities for the elaboration of new discursive connections, it fosters an amnesia of the thing itself, as Heidegger was fond of pointing out, through the production of incessant re-presentations (or if we wish instead to use Baudrillard’s terminology, we can say the “precession of simulacra”.

Such re-presentations are, if we want to use a current cliché, simply a form of “fake presence.”  And it is “presence”, or ousia, in the Platonic tradition that constitutes the authentic object sought through philosophical inquiry.  Stiegler, a student of Derrida who in turn criticized the Socratic discomfort with writing as a “potion” (pharmakon) that simultaneously “poisons” the well of wisdom while “remedying” the affliction of forgetfulness  ironically seems to side with Plato.  But his Platonic sympathies have little to do with a preference for the purely ontological.  The crisis of representation derives from the manner in which “learning” (mathesis), or the spatio-temporal coding and archiving of what was once knowledge by acquaintance, comes to reify the hypomnetic process as the human essence itself.

Thus invention “writing,” which in Stiegler’s reckoning is but a convenient trope for hypomnesis as a whole encompassing everything from symbolic logic to electronic bits and bytes, sets in motion a kind of historical juggernaut careening toward a “transhuman” future.  Hypomnesis is what we really mean by “capital” as a rendering of Marx’s “alienated’ labor”, and it threatens to eclipse us all as “artificially” intelligent machines that not only eliminate jobs, but even human intimacy (think the latest, uncannily human “sexbots” that are currently coming on the market).

The difference between “wisdom” (sophia) and “learning”, or “science” (mathesis), is what Stiegler calls savoir faire versus savoir vivre.   Science and technology furnish only “know-how”  (savoir-faire), engendered from experiences brought about through manipulation of the human environment using symbolic forms and apparatuses.  Relying on terminology harking back to Edmund Husserl, Stiegler refers to this mode of sign-production as “tertiary retention.”  Tertiary retention is the key to hypoamnesis, because it gives impetus to a wider process Stiegler dubs “grammatization,” a convoluted but inexorable and irrepressible historical movement for which the development of writing is only the first instantiation.

In other words, grammatization, which encompasses everything from manuscripts and their dissemination to the even more sophisticated use of numbers and formal mechanisms for computing equivalencies to abstract reasoning on the part of both homo sapiens and computing machinery, consists in the commodification of truth itself.   The commodification of labor, as Marx understood it, is merely one moment in the unfolding of a much greater and consequential trendline.  “Alienated labor” is simply a harbinger of the eventual extinction of what it means to be human, which relies on savoir vivre, “knowing how to live.”  A genuine “critique of political economy,” for Stiegler, cannot be separated from the critique of human knowledge overall.

Stiegler insists that this extreme stage of alienation hides a genuine crisis of capitalism.  “The capitalist economy strictly speaking no longer works, because it wants the psychic individualism to be self-detected, to become the “entrepreneur of the self,” without collective individuation, but rather through a collective disindividuation orchestrated by marketing,” which Stiegler writes includes both the so-called “conservative revolution” of 1980s and the present post-millennial phase of global, corporate neoliberalism.[11]   The notion that contemporary culture is a form of self-entrepreneurship whereby our alienated self-knowledge  now becomes a kind of high-octane fuel that drives the capacious neoliberal machinery, of course, can be attributed to Brown in her Undoing the Demos, which in turn constitutes her own revisionist reading of Foucault.

Brown is the first to recognize that neoliberalism is not merely a tendentious set of economic principles, but a “a form of normative reason remaking the state, society, and subject, generating social policy, positing truth and a theory of law.”  It is, in effect, “a revolutionary and comprehensive political rationality, one that draw on classical liberal language and concerns while inverting many of liberalism’s purpose and channels of accountability.”[12]  Brown stresses that neoliberalism subtly stands on its head the classical liberal values emphasizing personal freedom by summoning such rhetoric to perform the task of constraining the social agent to the unfreedom of self-entrepreneurship in the name of the vast, collective good – what she terms “responsibilism.”

The idolatry of cognitive capitalism, which seduces both of our instincts for self-worth and helping others, is founded on an ethic of “knowledge, thought, and training” that are “valued and desired for their contribution of capital enhancement.”[13]  It should be noted that contrary to latter day sentimentality of today’s “Bohemian bourgeoisie” that is fond of parroting Marxist slogans from the cubicle of a tech firm offering exorbitant salaries and benefits, or from the comfort of an oak-paneled university office where “revolutionary” ideology is not matched by the commitment to taking real political risks, the real neoliberal power complex is no longer vested in the likes of neither Ebenezer Scrooge, the Koch Brothers, nor even the legendary “military industrial complex”, but in captains of the new “knowledge industries”, allied with intelligence agencies and vast, government bureaucracies, who leverage the infrastructure of electronic communications networks more and more to manage and regulate the contents of information flow and their formatting into usable snippets of insight.

The new planetary space of cognitive capitalism (it is actually, he insinuates rather cryptically a type of “mafia capitalism”), according to Stiegler, becomes a vast desert of “pure calculable exchange” wearing the deceptive mask of “socially conscious” enterprise.  It becomes a type of transnational, postmodern, post-Christian secular “supergo”, as Emmett Rensin has called it,[14] that exploits in its own unique style the consumerist “will to nothingness,” as Nietzsche would have described it.   Stiegler, it can be decisively asserted, is not, however, an unrepentant pessimist.  Like Marx, he has his own eschatological vision, which we will explore at the end of this reflection.  But what is missing in Stiegler – and to a large extent in the growing chorus of critics as well as diagnosticians of the “deep logic” neoliberalism – is the way in which this novel type of “political rationality” is driven by and large by mediatization itself.  In other words, how does Agamben’s mediatic “glory” alchemize into the basest illustration of the “tawdry”?

In order to answer that question, we must examine another core concept of Stiegler’s, what he in a very plain-spoken manner identifies as “stupidity” (bêtise).[15] Stiegler views his calling as a renewal of the task defined by Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment  and set down at the height of the Second World War, that of courageously investigating how the Age of Reason had metastasized into the pseudo-politics of totalitarianism, where “public life has reached a state in which thought is being turned inescapably into a commodity and language into celebration of the commodity.”[16]

The commodification of thought and language, as far as Stiegler is concerned, is far more complicated than what the Frankfurt school three-quarters of a century ago interpreted as the descent of reason into unreason, the “reversion” of logos to mythos, as manipulated cunningly through fascist propaganda.  It  is the baleful outcome of the triumph in all spheres of hypomnesic technology and its very “interiorization” in both conscious and unconscious life.  “What is occurring, on a scale and in conditions that were hitherto inconceivable,” Stiegler writes, “is the effect of what Gramsci described as a cultural hegemony that de-forms reason – reason understood in Enlightenment terms as that historical and social conquest that now seems to decompose so rapidly into rationalization.”[17]

In his Prison Writings from 1929-35 Gramsci himself had foreseen this evolution with his observation that Hegel’s “ethical state” as the embodiment of moral and cultural reason (favored by liberal democrats) had fallen victim to the same kind of “fetishism” that Marx ascribed to the logic of commodification.   This fetishism marks usurpation of what Gramsci called the “philosophy of praxis” by the cultural and linguistic apparatus exercised through popular communication techniques appropriated by the rising class.

Writing at that juncture in the history of Europe when fascism had supplanted class consciousness with what the Frankfurt School had recognized as a hostile takeover of the collective unconscious under the sway of the “culture industry”, Gramsci discerned that hegemonic relations in twentieth century society were neither political nor economic so much as they were semiotic.  In that respect Gramsci was the one, long before Stiegler, to cognize how any “revolutionary” seizure of the means of production could not be separated from the means of culture production.

Moreover, such a seizure, if it were possible at all, would have to depend, if we can speculate beyond what Gramsci actually said, on a new kind of communicative internationale, who through a universal dictatorship of the cognitive proletariat would would upend the system of semiotic control in accordance with which Foucaultean biopower resolves itself into the the most insidious subterfuges of logopower.   “Every relationship of ‘hegemony’”, Gramsci contends, “is necessarily an educational relationship and occurs not only within a nation, between the various forces that comprise it…in the entire international and world field.”[18]

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books besides Critical Theology include Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008)  and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) –  examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity. Faith and Reason: Three Views (IVP Academic, 2014), of which he is a co-author, is a conversation among three contemporary Christian philosophers.  Finally, he is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

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[1]  Jean-Jacques Rosseau, The Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract, Confessions, Emile, and Other Essays (Baltimore MD: Common Knowledge Publishers, 2004) , Kindle Edition, locations 1592-1596..

[2]  The Kingdom and the Glory, op. cit., 5288-98.

[3] Jürgen Habermas  Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, tr. William Rehg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 170.   See also Jeffrey Flynn, “Communicative Power in Habermas’ Theory of Democracy”, European Journal of Political Theory 3(4):434.

[4] Habermas, op. cit., 8.

[5] The Kingdom and the Glory, op. cit., 5332.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] Bernard Stiegler, For A New Critique of Political Economy, trans. David Ross (New York: Polity, 2010), 46.

[8] Ibid., 47.

[9]  Ibid. 4.

[10]  Plato, Phaedrus, 275a.

[11] For A New Critique of Political Economy, op. cit., 61-2.

[12] Brown, Undoing the Demos, 69.

[13] Undoing the Demos, 177.

[14] Emmett Rensin, “The Blathering Superego at the End of History,” Los Angeles Review of Books, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-blathering-superego-at-the-end-of-history/#.  Accessed June 19, 2017.

[15]  The French word bêtise, which Stiegler strategically employs, can also be translated as “brutishness”, “senselessness”, or even “foolishness”, depending on the context.  Stiegler wants to drive home that is a condition of the late modern era that does not call in an obvious sense for moral opprobrium, but is a kind of fatuousness that can precipitate ghastly results, as implied in Hannah Arendt’s celebrated expression “the banality of evil.”  Stiegler draws to a certain extent on Derrida’s critique of Agamben in his final lecture series around the question of “what lives?”, where the totalitarian politics of “bare life” profiled by Agamben in Homo Sacer is re-imagined as the transformation of the politics of experience (savoir vivre) into an automatism of the abstracted subject, where “living” (vivant) substance becomes an empty “set with no other unity.” See Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, trans. Geoffrey Bennington, vol. ii (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 8.

[16] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), xiv.

[17] Bernard Stiegler, States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century (Hoboken NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), Kindle edition, loc. 817-820).

[18] Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections From The Prison Notebooks (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) Kindle edition, loc. 3822-3823.

 

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