If you'll excuse the Krapp's Last Blogpost splintered chronicity, I wrote a blogpost just before Christmas, which I then opted not to publish, on grounds that it was even too pretentiously curmudgeonly for me. 'How the hell can that be?', you ask. I guess I felt it was just a little too sneering at the simple pleasures of life, or maybe a little too moralistic. But then I read Kate Crawford's excellent essay, The Anxieties of Big Data, and wondered if I'd actually had an inadvertent whiff of the zeitgeist after all. As she articulates it there:
the rapid rise of the term normcore is an indication of how the cultural idea of disappearing has become cool at the very historical moment when it has become almost impossible because of big data and widespread surveillance. Blending in gives you a particular kind of power when standing out means being put on the no-fly list for 10 years or a predictive-policing heat list in Chicago, or earns you a chilling anonymous SMS for attending a street protest in Ukraine.
So anyway, written on 23rd December 2013, with slightly 2013 cultural reference points to boot, below is the blogpost...
I've not read Jonathan Franzen's unusual-sounding annotated translation of Karl Kraus, other than the Guardian excerpt. Most of the reviews were flatly negative, although a couple - especially in the London Review of Books and The Point - have painted a more complicated picture, of a man (Franzen and/or Kraus) so deeply involved with himself, that misanthropy becomes a badge of honour, and anthropos returns the complement. Unattractive, certainly, but in a whole-hearted way.
Franzen deserves some respect for striving to live according to Krausian, Frankfurt School principles, rather than simply enjoying his fame. I remember at the time being thrilled to discover the character Chip in The Corrections, who was earnestly ruining his youth through imbibing too much Adorno, and reminded me of me. Franzen later reported that the character was based on himself. I worked out how to emit the Adorno I'd ingested soon afterwards, and was relieved to discover that it wasn't too late to still enjoy life. Franzen appears to be staying the course.
The problem with Franzen, and the Frankfurt School legacy for that matter, is the blanket rage against modernity in general. Antipathy to modernity today surely cannot be the same as antipathy to modernity in 1940 or 1910. And if it appears that way, then that raises as many psychoanalytic questions about the rager as it does political or sociological questions about the object of rage. Franzen throws everything into a basket called 'modernity', then screams at it. Couldn't there be something more targeted than this?
Recently I've been thinking about one particular problem that confronts pessimistic critical theory today, namely the tyranny of quality. Romantics and modernists have historically been more concerned by the threat of quantification and measurement, as effected by bureaucracy, markets, positivist science, accounting, deductive scientific methods. But algorithms, Big Data and their penetration into everyday life mean that, arguably, it is quality that is now the more disenchanting force. Consider a critique that went as follows:
Against quality, against aesthetics, against taste. Against things and people which are differentiated from everything else, in ways that are subtle though still painfully obvious. Against 'high quality produce', which no longer admits to being a luxury, and against things which are simply 'good' in an unquantifiable-yet-tweetable fashion. Against 'good coffee', and knowing where to find it. Against 'good writing', and the assumed right of The New Yorker to set the benchmark for what that consists of, with its jaunty conversational tone, as perfected by Malcolm 'these-aren't-arguments-they're-just-stories, these-aren't-stories-they're-just-sentences' Gladwell. And no more 'good wine', thankyou very much. I'll take some stupidly expensive wine, which announces its own price with capitalist vulgarity, or I'll have a bottle of Jacobs Creek. I'll do the usual second-least-expensive wine on the list, but refuse to be dragged into the murky world of £17-bottles. Sell me the most average meal you've got, please, where the price and the product are transparently related, and uncluttered by intangible value. By all means make things 'by hand', if that's easiest and most efficient for you, but do I really need to know about this? And frankly, whether the chicken that laid my eggs is locked in a crate or has been given roaming rights over the entire county of Dorset probably isn't the most important issue facing any of us right now. Against having a 'favourite place'; you're an adult, you can put up with shit. Lets celebrate 'the price of everything and the value of nothing', if that means flying in the face of the faux-Edwardian bushy-beard brigade. Against the elevation of Manhattan psycho-geography to the algorithmic principle for touring any city in the world, with no difficulty at all. Visit McDonalds and enjoy the sameness. Be average. Be monetary. Look the same. Against quality.
It goes on like that, in similarly angry Franzen-esque tones. Now, sociologists will say 'Ah, so you've read Bourdieu's Distinction', and clearly the critique of bourgeois taste has a rich Bourdieusian tradition. But something has changed since Bourdieu wrote that in 1979, in the capacity of quality to be administered and delivered in a scientific fashion. Market research first began to break 'the public' down into segments (crudely at first) in the early 1960s, and ever more exactly over the 1980s and 90s. The rise of digital loyalty cards gave a hint of how much more exactly people would soon be profiled in terms of their tastes, before algorithmic analysis of internet-generated Big Data developed over the 2000s.
Bourdieu was still looking at a social world organised via statistics and horizontal stratification (class). Such a world can only be chopped up in relatively simple ways, such as the marketing niches of A, B, C, D and E. In contrast, I heard that Tesco Clubcard generates 18,000 consumer segments. This is not the same as treating everyone as individuals, but to all intents and purposes it is. Not only does it feel like being treated as an individual (which of course is its holy grail), but the quantifications and measuring devices at work are entirely secret. Keeping algorithms secret is central to their cultural-economic power, which is the capacity to employ quantification in the service of qualification. Numbers have disappeared from view.
The critique of quality - it sounds better if we call it Qualitätkritk - is not simply the critique of quantity in disguise, as so much anti-gentrification, anti-consumerism, and general anti-post-fordism. It really is the critique of quality. It really is the demand that we cease investing political hopes in romanticism and modernism (and, it goes without saying, post-modernism) and get back to questions about sameness and averageness. Only by constructing new common measures, common currencies, common humanity, can the authority of financial money to commensurate all differences be challenged.
Alain Desrosieres work on the history of statistics is very instructive here. Desrosieres' central claim is that every measure, every form of aggregation (or disaggregation), has a politics to it. He shows how the statistical concern with the 'average man' in the late 19th century could be traced genealogically to a revolutionary and Rousseauian concern with the 'General Will' of a republican society. New techniques of cluster analysis emerged following World War Two, which were integral to the emergence of 1960s consumerism and cultural differentiation. And techniques that work with the logic of individual autonomy, such as social network analysis (on which social analytics are based), underpin the current political economy of the social world.
If we were to reinvent socialism, in any traditional sense, this would be achieved partly through the construction and legitimation of measuring devices, which treat all human beings as the same. The challenge is partly an accounting one. The fact that many people view this as gross conformity may be one reason why such reinvention remains unlikely. However, it is no good hoping for socialism, in any traditional sense, without also working on an argument in defence of averageness, in defence of mediocrity and in defence of fairly old-fashioned forms of aggreagtion. A critique of neoliberalism, with its obsession with 'excellence', must also be a critique of quality to some extent.
Unlike Franzen, I'm not sure I have the heart to go through with Qualitätkritk consistently. I like good coffee (actually, I prefer better-than-average coffee to good coffee, but that is also my taste). I enjoy wandering a city with algorithmically-determined serendipity. I also 'know this little place', almost as if by accident. But this, I think, is the nature of our current cultural-political predicament. We claim to dislike inequality, without noticing that when equality appears in the form of Nescafe instant coffee or an 'acceptable' comprehensive school, we turn up our noses at it. We claim to have had enough of the 'spivs and gamblers' in the financial world, without noticing that for the 75% of people who live predictable mainstream economic lives, neither filthy rich nor perillously poor, it is quality that entraps them and not quantity.