Thursday, January 14, 2010

The "Athens" of Electracy

Electracy dates from the turn into the nineteenth century, the epoch of revolutions (industrial, bourgeois, representational, technological). The arts & letters strategy for orienting ourselves to our own epoch is by analogy with the invention of literacy in classical Greece. The term “apparatus” in this context (derived and expanded from media studies) is used to notice that the invention is a matrix including institution formation and identity behavior (individual and collective). A relevant point of the analogy is that in Athens Plato et al created a new institution (the Academy), which opened a new zone, within which they invented the devices enabling “pure thought.” This new kind of thought was different from the oral apparatus (religion, ritual, spirit, tribe). It has been dubbed “natural history” retroactively, and eventually became hegemonic, or at least fully independent, in the seventeenth century, the inception of “science” in the modern sense. “Science” as a worldview, however, became possible within the literate apparatus. The related identity inventions are “selfhood” as experience and behavior, and the democratic state.

Our present moment is the heir of these two apparati, providing two axes guiding (in unstable syncretism) our collective deliberations: right/wrong (oral); true/false (literate). Electracy does not eliminate or replace these two historical forces, but supplements them with a third dimension. The invention of this third dimension occurs primarily in 19th-c Paris. Paris is the Athens of electracy. The template from Athens maps the recurrence of apparatus creation. A good account of this event is Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. A new zone opens within hegemonic (bourgeois) culture, known as “bohemia.” The aesthetic is the relevant human capacity to be augmented in the prosthesis (the apparatus), and pure art is the means.

Bourdieu identifies Baudelaire and Flaubert as the inventors (his term) of this stance and formal operation, with Manet as their equivalent in painting. The vanguard revolution more generally subsequently develops and institutionalizes this innovation. The philosophical account of this gambit is familiar, beginning with Kant’s promotion of aesthetic judgment (taste) to equal status with pure and practical reason. The third dimension added to the axes orienting deliberation is that ofpleasure/pain (Spinoza’s joy/sadness). The responsibility of this dimension (distinct from oral salvation or literate science) is well-being (thriving). The implications for politics and ethics are substantial: what happens when pleasure/pain has equal (?) voice relative to right/wrong and true/false? To put it another way, what happens when well-being has an army?

For better or worse, this new dimension was quickly colonized by capitalism, institutionalized as entertainment, with the definition of “satisfaction” inherited from philosophy (the purpose of life as “happiness”) appropriated by the commodity form. Such is our present moment, with all dimensions of the electrate matrix still in flux, becoming whatever (autopoietically, without telos), still open to invention (but with strong tendencies already hegemonic). The caveat is that these developments include mutation of identity. As Kuhn said about scientific revolutions: the new paradigm does not solve the old problems but makes them irrelevant. Apparatus framing revises Kuhn: the old problems remain relevant, but relative to their apparatus. Our present condition then is tricameral, undergoing continuing negotiations.

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