Habit and The Individual Will (A Dialogue)

(The banks of the Moskva river, late on a summer afternoon.  PAVEL sits on a park bench, gazing out over the water.  ANTON approaches.)

Anton:  Hello, professor, you look perplexed!

Pavel:  Ah, hi there Pasha.  Yes, I’ve been reading Alexander Livingston’s new book about the politics of William James, and I’m trying to figure out how his discussion of habit and will relates to my milieu: writing, the writing classroom, you know.

A: James, the American?  What does he say?

P: Well, habit is a key idea for James.  He calls it “the great flywheel of society,” the ultimate “conservative agent.”  These formulations suggest that habit is both omnipresent and restrictive.  Our habits are also not completely our own.  They have been formed over time by communal action.  In a very real sense, something as simple as riding a bicycle contains the combined wisdom of the ages.

A: Fascinating.

P:  I think so too.  For individuals, staying within the bounds of habit is easy.  It doesn’t require conscious thought, and when engaged in habitual behavior our affective state is one of calm, peacefulness.  Habit, it could be said, is a kind of anesthetic.

A:  I know this feeling.  Commuting to work, or moving around the house on a lazy Sunday morning, at these times it’s almost like I feel nothing.

P: Yes.  As Livingston has it, James draws a distinction between the warm embrace of habit and those moments when we are forced to transcend habit.  When we are forced to create our own interpretations of the world and act on those interpretations.  In these moments, we think and act for ourselves.  Our affective state is one of tension.  We feel “keyed up.”  This tension only subsides as our original, thought-intensive action becomes habituated.  As we start, once again, to operate automatically.  Now though our patterns of action are altered.  We’ve added our little contribution to the great mass of communal wisdom which is habit.  James sees great import in these little moments of transcendence.

A:  I think I’m following you.  Let’s see if I can play out an example.  You know I was recently in Australia.  They drive on the opposite side of the road there.  Learning to drive a car with a manual transmission—so shifting with my left hand—was a real challenge.  It took a lot of effort to do everything backwards.  I had to consciously think through what for years I’d been doing unconsciously.

P:  A perfect example.  James would say that in those moments of struggling with the gear shift you were transcending habit.  You were interpreting the world and adjusting your actions accordingly.  No one was thinking or acting for you.  In this sense, you were asserting your will as a sovereign individual.

A:  Hmm…

P: We should note, though, that the assertion of the will for James is not about conquest or mastery.  It’s essential element is not control over people or objects.  Instead, it’s about engaging the singularity of the world and formulating an equally singular response.

A: Interesting idea.  But how does any of this relate to writing?

P: That’s what I’m trying to figure out.  It seems that no act of writing can be completely habitual.  Even the writing of a simple narrative can’t be thoughtless in the way that driving a car is thoughtless.  We have to fit communal forms (words, sentences, etc.) to our singular experience.  This requires mentally searching for and selecting those forms—that is by definition thought.

A:  So all writing requires an act of will?

P:  To any extent.  Perhaps it’s more useful, though, to think of it as a continuum.  No act of writing is completely habitual, but some are less habitual than others.  Only some acts of writing, I think its fair to say, allow for transcendence of the type James is envisioning.  Transcendence occurs when we really have to struggle, when the words won’t do what we demand of them.

A: Those knots in a piece of writing, those moments of aporia when the ideas that you are working with just won’t cohere…

P:  Yes.  There’s a sort of dialectic in those moments, isn’t there?  The writer must take opposites and combine them to reach a higher synthesis.  In doing so he moves from a state of tension—of anxiety and uncertainty—to a state of calm.  I think this dynamic is analogous to James’s discussion of habit and will.  In this case, the will manifests in the struggle to overcome the aporia, in the moments of conscious effort that lead up to the resolution of the conflict.  James puts great value on moments such as these.  These are the times we are most attuned to and engaged with the world.

A:  Effort as an end in itself, eh?

P:  Yes, it seems so.  It also seems that the application or creation of new forms is another way we overcome the habitual in writing.  I mean, we typical do things one way.  We use certain genres in certain situations, etc.  To do things another way, to bend certain genres to fit new situations, that’s another way the will can manifest in the act of writing.

A:  Ah, I see!  That’s why you’re writing this blog post in narrative format.

P: Indeed.  I’m not the first to write a philosophical dialogue, of course, but remember, effort is an end in itself.  So James would say that in the struggle to do something new (something I’ve never done before), I am positioning my will against the force of my habits, and against the force of tradition as embodied in my habits.  I’m thus asserting myself as a sovereign agent.

A:  You are acting in response to the situation’s singular demands.  I could see how this process of reading and responding requires a certain “presentness” which could be of intrinsic value.

P:  Indeed…. Well, it’s almost dinner time.  Enough talking.  How about I buy you a kebab?

A:  Only if I can buy us a round of Putinka.

P:  You drive a hard bargain, my friend.  Let us go.

[PAVEL and ANTON exit.]

What (Exactly) Is Neoliberalism?

Dissent magazine is currently hosting a forum on the meaning of neoliberalism—an oft-abused term in leftist circles. Historian Daniel Rodgers kicks off the discussion by arguing that the term is an unproductive conflation of disparate forces.  As variously used, it may represent: i) a description of the global economic situation; ii) a strain of economic theory; iii) the machinations of so-called disaster capitalists; or iv) an all-embracing cultural logic.  Rodgers opposes this conceptual indeterminacy because, he claims, it makes it more difficult to identify potential avenues of resistance.  Of course, what “neoliberalism” means will depend on the context in which it is deployed.  I want to suggest, though, that for those in the humanities (like myself) the term is useful precisely because it is all-encompassing.  In short, it’s a concept capable of tying together the global and the local, the economic (definitions i, ii & iii) and the cultural (definition iv).  As such, it’s useful for reminding us of our embeddedness.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to present some empirical observations.  All of the following points, I’d argue, represent verifiable facts about the nature of life in Western society.  What’s the connection?

  1. In 1950 there were 2,500 private, in-ground swimming pools in the United States.  In 2009 there were 5.2 million (see City Observatory).
  2. When I first enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1998, my tuition was about $1200 a year.  As of 2016, tuition at KU was about $11,000.
  3. Throughout the 20th century, marijuana, gambling and pornography were all, to varying degrees, prohibited by law in the United States.  As of 2018, all these “vices” are tolerated, if not outright legal.
  4. Throughout the 20th century, by and large, claims that a person had the right or privilege to select their own gender were met with hostility or derision.  As of 2018, a wide segment of the US population believes that people do—or at least should—have such a right.
  5. Throughout the 20th century, it was possible for a criminal defendant to escape incarceration on the grounds that he or she was not guilty “by reason of insanity.”  As of 2018, this defense is rarely successfully.  If a defendant is held to be insane, the result is typically long-term commitment indistinguishable from incarceration.

At first glance these observations might seem like a jumble, devoid of any pattern that can be charted.  To make sense of them, we need a meta-category, a cultural logic.  This is what neoliberalism provides. It’s a thread we can use to unite changes in physical environs (1), resources allocation (2), law and policy (3 & 5), and values and mores (4).

So what’s the connection?  Following Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault, I understand neoliberalism as the interjection of the market into every facet of the lifeworld.  Under neoliberalism, people are conceived of as rational economic actors.  They are expected to weigh cost and benefits, to become profit-maximizing “entrepreneurs of the self.”  To facilitate profit maximization, control is decentralized.  Normativity is less strictly enforced as to allow each private entrepreneur to seek profit opportunities invisible to the “powers that be.”  In such a world, if you want to swim, you need to build the pool.  If you want a college education, you need to pay (a lot) for it.  If you have the funds, though, there are more socially valid consumption choices than ever before (weed, porn).  Identity categories also proliferate.  If you feel like a woman, or a transwoman, or a Hijra, you can become one, because, of course, the customer is always right.  Just don’t step out of line.  As a (supposed) profit-maximizer, you will be held responsible for your actions, whether structurally disadvantaged (E.G. insane) or not.

Rodgers would likely criticize my understanding of “neoliberalism” as lacking precision.  He identifies neoliberalism-as-cultural-logic as “the saddest and most totalizing scenario… in which the horizons of all other meanings and purposes shrink and submit to those of market capitalism.”  He sees this way of thinking as leading to despair.  I simply disagree.  Yes, market logic and the demands of global finance dominate our lifeworld.  No, this doesn’t mean human flourishing is foreclosed.

Rodgers, like many on the left, seems to view a binary sort of resistance to the demands of capital as the highest ethical impulse.  For him, the idea that the market structures our ever move is depressing because we can only do good at a remove from market forces.  My claim, I suppose, is that there is no remove.  We are all (human) capital.  And that’s OK.  An objective assessment of the past fifty years indicates both obstacles to human flourishing (the dismantling of the welfare state in the US and UK, no more public pools) and massive progress (a billion Chinese peasants lifted out of poverty, gay rights).  Neoliberalism as an all-encompassing cultural logic allows us to capture this duality.  In doing so, it helps us to better understand ourselves.  It asks us to consider whether, from a perch as an emeritus professor at Princeton, for example, we can really be said to oppose market logic.  Or whether, all along, we’ve just been working within the system to mitigate its worse tendencies.

So, while noting Rodgers concerns, I will keep using “neoliberalism” in an expansive sense.  Yes, mine is an admittedly reductive narrative, and of course you could identify cultural currents which contradict the story I tell.  I think, though, as a writer and teacher (and human) it’s useful to have a broad cultural narrative within which to frame one’s existence.  It doesn’t directly answer any questions, but it allows you to better go about answering questions in your particular domain.  And if broad enough, in a way, it keeps you honest.  It reminds you that however much you want to be, you are almost certainly not outside the system.

On Attunement

Attunement.  A word I often deploy (e.g., my recent claim that writing instruction involves, at heart, the cultivation of an “ethics of attunement”).  Lately though, I’ve come to think that I’ve been using this term somewhat thoughtlessly.  In the following I’d like to map out attunement’s various meanings, and in the process, argue for a redefinition that foregrounds attunement as a conscious act.

At the most basic level, attunement implicates sound.  A group of individuals is “in tune” when the members of that group vibrate at the same resonance or pitch.  Attunement is the act of moving into alignment with the group’s shared frequency.  There’s an interesting mix of conscious and unconscious, mental and material elements at play in such a act (which perhaps explains attunement’s recent popularity as a means to describe writing and rhetoric).

Attunement, it seems to me, can be driven by an articulable desire—intent to attune, we might say—or it can be totally outside the realm of conscious control.  It can be a rational, step-by-step process of experimentation and adjustment (as when a singer flexes his throat muscles, trying to match a note on a scale) or it can be something that the body seems to do completely on its own (as when we find ourselves becoming nervous around a nervous person).  There’s always some bodily or material aspect at play.  Attunement can never take place completely in the mind or “on paper.”  We’d never say that one formal equation, for example, is in tune with another.  Relatedly, attunement implicates the emotional or affective.  Within psychology, I am told, attunement indicates how in touch one is with the moods or emotional states of another.  To be attuned is to register, and respond, to those states.

So attunement casts a wide net, indicating the ability, either conscious or unconscious, of one entity to adapt (by physically adapting) to another.  With its hint of emotional receptivity, and related ability to capture so much beyond the logical, the term has become commonplace in rhetoric and composition.  Like “care” or “hospitality,” attunement is almost always used in a positive sense.  If we dig a bit deeper though, we realize that attunement is in fact ambiguous, both morally and otherwise.  To be able to intuite that your friend is upset, and display sympathy, is attunement, sure.  But Hitler, for example, also showed a great degree of attunement in his ability to register the energy of German crowds and replicate that energy in his own bodily movements.  So attunement can be for good or ill.

As noted, I have recently written of composition’s ethics of attunement.  In that discussion I used attunement to capture composition’s commitment to teaching students how to know what needs to be done in a given rhetorical situation.  This process is never totally cerebral: we have to be able to “read” the emotional tenor of an audience, for example.  It’s never completely outwardly focused either: we have to constantly monitor both the situation and ourselves, wary of the ways in which our biases and predispositions shape what we see and feel.  My original argument was that via this dual focus we can help bring our thinking and action in line with what is demanded by a situation.  This ability to attune is ultimately what makes a good writer.

Integrally, attunement, as described above, always involves an act of judgement.  I obscured this fact in previous discussions and would like to make it clear now.  As commonly used, attunement—because it is so extra-rational—seems to imply that one has no choice in the matter.  If the crowd wants a speaker to stroke their anger, this thinking goes, the attuned rhetor is one who provides it.  To go against the crowd, to keep breathing regular and heartbeat steady when all around you breaths and beats are racing, represents a lack of attunement, yes?  As the term is conventionally used, this seems to be the case.

We don’t want to teach student-writers to be like Hitler (obviously).  So how can we understand attunement in a more sophisticated manner?  We need a force which checks attunement.  What force though?  To what is the process of adaptation responsible?  The answer, I’d like to suggest, is the ideal.  The ideal is the good, that towards which we strive and by which we measure our practice.  It is a verbalizable statement (not a feeling or “vibe”) and necessarily abstract.  It is actualized via stories which illustrate the application of the ideal in specific contexts.  For example, one might say that she is driven by a commitment to “Justice.”  She might know stories– specific, context-rich examples– of when justice prevailed and when it did not.  Given a situation, it is her responsibility to measure that situation, and compare it to her set of stories.  Though this process, she can know how to think and how to act.  Should she allow herself to become attuned to the fury of the crowd—to channel and embody that passion—or should she remained detached?

This analysis adds a third element to what I previously defined as the dual motion between self and world.  An “ethics of attunement,” we can now say, involves triangulation among self, world and ideal.  Unlike pure bodily or emotional attunement, this is by definition a conscious process. It involves thinking.  Of course, there are no guarantees here.  We must “read” ourselves, the situation and the various ideals implicated, and can never be sure that our reading is right.  In this regard, judgement in the face of actual choice imbues every element of an ethics of attunement.  As suggested, this articulation marks something of a break with previous definitions of attunement, which focused too heavily (in my opinion) on the unconscious and bodily.  It is necessary though, I believe, if we are to understand attunement as a moral act.

Trump, Sanders & The Violence of Idealism

With the classic Beatles’ track “Revolution 1,” John Lennon, famously (and controversially) sends a mixed message about his support for violent revolutionary activity.  “If you’re talking about destruction yeah, don’t you know that you can count me out… in,” he sings.  Aside from being a prime example of Lennon as proto-punk, I think this juxtaposition says much about the nature of far-left politics.  In short, it suggests that political idealism, especially of the far-left variety, always contains an element of violence.  Relating this to current US politics, the question becomes, will Bernie Sanders supporters embrace this violence and vote for Donald Trump?

As I’ve written about before on this blog, all human activity takes place in the shadow of ideals— visions, however vague, of the way the world should be.  Those who profess radical political beliefs are particularly intimate with their ideals.  Ideals though, by their very definition, are situated in opposition to the world of actually existing human affairs.  This means that to embrace an ideal fully, to long for it and work towards its realization in the manner of a true radical, is to wish for the destruction of the actually existing.  After all, the real and the ideal can’t exist alongside each other.  One must give way.

So some level of violence is inherent in all idealism.  Likewise, on a practical level, a cursory review of the historical record reveals that indeed all (or nearly all) instances of revolutionary change are occasioned by destruction.  That the failure of the old is necessary for the new isn’t a particularly novel idea.  It terms of human psychology, it makes sense that things must get really bad before people embrace new options.  Simply put, if the old system is working, you’re not going to get revolutionary change.

This brings us to current state of US politics.  Imagine you’re an idealistic Bernie supporter (or maybe you actually are).  You look at the world and see inequality and oppression.  Things are bad.  Unfortunately, as the outcome of the Democratic primary shows, most people do not think things are bad enough to require revolution.  Instead, they demand only a tepid incrementalism, a politics which leaves the current elites, and the system by which they benefit, in place.  In short, the majority of the population is still tied to the real, thereby rejecting the ideal (they can’t exist together, remember)

So what has to happen for the majority to embrace a (leftist) ideal?  The answer, unfortunately for most happy-go-lucky idealists, is destruction.  For radical political change to occur, the system must utterly fail.  The real world must be shown to be degraded, incapable of supporting human flourishing.  In short, for things to get better, things have to get much, much worse.

According to the this logic, we can see how a far-left Bernie supporter could make a rational case for voting for Donald Trump.  As numerous experts have opined, a Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster.  The economy would collapse, international relations would fray.  By all indications a lot of people would get hurt, yes.  I’d like to suggest though that this violence—this unmitigated human suffering—is part of the logic of the ideal.  A Trump presidency, by this thinking, is desirable simply because it would be so terrible.

Of course, much radical literature supports my claim.  Mao and Stalin (and ISIS and Al-Qaeda for that matter) recognize that the road to utopia starts with instability, with destruction.  John Lennon knew it too.  In the end though, he backed away from the ideal, choosing to live in the real world.  Like him, Bernie holdouts must make a choice: the violence of the ideal or the (slightly less intense) violence of the real.  I hope the above makes clear the necessity of that choice.

Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (At) Totality, Leslie Jones & Twitter Trolls

Continuing my summer reading, I arrive at Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (at) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter.  Though I’ve rarely seen it cited, in my opinion, this is a key rhet-comp text.  I’d like to give a quick summary, then apply Davis’ ideas to a recent media event— Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones being chased off Twitter by racist trolls.  I find Davis’ work highly descriptive of the current media environment.  But does it offer a prescription to help us survive said environment?

For my money, Breaking Up, with its stylistic wordplay and utter rejection of foundations, represents the zenith of postmodern rhet-comp theorizing.  Following Derrida, Avital Ronell and Victor Vitanza, Davis argues that language is suffused with what she calls “laughter,” a form of erotic energy.  Reason and logic, along with conventional discursive forms, inevitably attempt to clean up this eroticism, to pin down meaning.  This project is doomed to failure though.  The result is that subjects and social structures (which from Davis’s pomo perspective are an effect of language) remain fluid, unstable.  Davis celebrates this sense of fluidity and excess.  “To be spoken by a language contorted in laughter,” she writes, “is to be spoken by language on the loose: no/thing is excluded, censored, or negated” (95).

I’m struck by the similarities between the discursive scene Davis describes and that which I encounter everyday on social media.  What is the meme economy but the unchecked proliferation of meaning?  New forms emerge, and with them new logics, only to immediately be submerged by newer forms and logics.  Reason, as embodied in traditional philosophical discourse, has no place here.  Same with morality.  The old rules—about who can speak, what they can say and how they can say it—simply do not apply.  Instead, laughter in its most primal and yes, erotic, manifestation rules the day.

Consider the racist trolls hounding Leslie Jones.  Working under the auspices of notorious alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulus, they swamped her Twitter feed with racist insults and forged screenshots suggesting she made homophobic remarks.  Here we see language wildly out of control.  There’s no demand for “facts” or “objective” referent, no limitations on what meanings can be conjured.  Jones is a comedian and actor?  Jones is the source of AIDS?  Jones believes we need to “gas dese faggots”?  Driven by a desire for “lolz”, and unchecked by either formal restrictions (rules regarding spelling and grammar, for example) or social/technological restrictions, meanings proliferate.  Language, pulsing with vulgar, grotesque human desire, really is on the loose.  No/thing is excluded.

So, in essence, what we have on Twitter is a world where anyone can say anything, think anything—and for many subjects, especially marginalized ones like Ms. Jones, this excess is terribly traumatic.  So what should be done?  The first impulse for many, as Davis suggests, is to try and limit potential meanings, re-erect some of the barriers postmodernity has torn down.  On Twitter, this typically takes the form of appeals to authority (demands that trolls be banned, for example).  According to Davis though, all attempts to limit meaning will inevitably fail.  Indeed, there seems to be a direct relationship between censorship and erotic power—the more we attempt to restrict certain meanings (the racism of the trolls, for example), the more erotically charged those meanings become.  Simply put, the more we protest, the more lolz.

So we can’t restrict meaning.  What then?  It’s a bit tenuous, but I would suggest that Davis does offer something like a solution.  Quoting Victor Vitanza, she suggests an “antibody rhetoric” capable of “enhancing our abilities to tolerate the incommensurabilities” which make up the postmodern condition (102).  As I read it, such a rhetoric demands a rejection of foundations, a rejection of even the pretense of objective reference.  In short, it means we must come to view language—even terrible, hurtful language– as a laughing matter.

Let’s put this vision to work.  In the case of Leslie Jones versus the trolls, we have competing desires—namely, to enjoy Twitter (Jones) and to cause pain in the name of lolz (trolls).  These desires are incommensurable.  And they fuel meanings which are also incommensurable.  Going back to the erotic power of censorship, perhaps the way to drain power from the latter is through a sort of radical acceptance.  Jones must come to “tolerate the incommensurabilities,” to laugh with the (admittedly pathetic) desire of the trolls.  If she can do so, perhaps the incommensurabilities will be rendered mute.  The desire of the trolls, and the accompanying meanings, will fade.

Breaking Up (at) Totality is a radical text, as I believe my attempt to apply it to a real-life situation demonstrates.  In short, thinking along with Davis, we come to the conclusion that marginalized, maligned subjects must somehow come to believe that words simply do not matter.  This is a hard position to accept.  Indeed, word merchants of all stripes want us to believe the opposite.  In a world without rules though—which for better or worse is the world of social media—it may be our only option.

Object-Oriented Ontology: Radical, Autistic or Both?

Like many academics, I’m using the summer holiday to work through my reading list.  As such, I just finished Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, is at the forefront of the “object-oriented” philosophic movement.  Simply put, this mode of thought seeks to displace humans from the center of the philosophic universe.  It’s interested in things—radishes, VCRs and arrowheads, for example– rather than human interpretations of things.

Now, I don’t seek to present myself as an expert on Bogost’s work.  My only exposure to this thinker is through Alien Phenomenology and his online presence (I follow his Twitter feed).  That said, from what I’ve seen, it seems that Bogost presents a rather radical, even frightening, vision of what we should be doing as teachers and scholars.  Let me explain.

According to Bogost, at the core of the object-oriented vision is the idea that “everything exists equally” (6).  Within this “flat ontology… the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top” (17).  Put into practice, such a view urges philosophers to engage in deep metaphorical description of object-being, to speculate, as the book’s title indicates, on “what it’s like to be a thing.”

Admittedly, Bogost’s methodology makes for fun reading.  His descriptions of the inner lives of peppers and engine parts are indeed poetic.  It’s important to remember though that every philosophic position makes an implicit moral claim.  To do philosophy (or theory or criticism) is to venture that the world is a certain way and to suggest that others see it similarly.  Bogost seems to agree.  “Flat ontology,” he writes, “is an ideal” (19).

So what sort of action does Bogost’s ideal portend?  How does it suggest we relate to one another and the world at large?  The best metaphor to describe his position, it seems to me, is that of the autistic.  The object-oriented thinker is he or she who is able to tune out the messy, noisy world of human affairs and focus solely, engaged in rapt wonder, on the garbage truck or video game.  Bogost indicates as much, writing that “being is unconcerned with… human politics” (99).

Philosophy is just verbal gymnastics, right?  It doesn’t impact our daily lives.  No, not necessarily.  Bogost, like most philosophers, lives his creed.  Exhibit A.  The past few weeks have been trying times in the U.S.  On July 5 the ongoing genocide of black men at the hands of the state was made sickeningly apparent in a pair of internet videos.  A few days later, police were targeted for assassination on the streets of Dallas.  Twitter, understandably, was abuzz with pain and confusion as people tried to make sense of these events.  Not Bogost.  During this time, when nearly every post on my Twitter feed referenced our shared trauma, he kept tweeting about the design of the Amazon website and oddly shaped cucumbers.  He’s interested in things, remember.

As for me, I like things, but I’m first and foremost interested in attunement.  As an ideal, attunement demands openness to the subjective experience of others.  This openness is achieved though attention to the affective, the embodied.  So what ontology underlies such a vision?  Well, it’s definitely not flat.  Instead, as I see it, the field of being pulses with energy– human energy— with objects growing or shrinking in size as that energy flows through them.  Over the past few weeks objects such as “systemic racism” and “state-sanctioned violence” have come to the forefront of my existence.  They loom large, while things like video games and capsaicin peppers recede into the background.

Under the ontology I propose, being is relative— it’s based on context and positioning.  It’s determined not by things-in-themselves, but things-in-relation.  These means that to be ontologically aware, thinkers must always be looking outward and upward, at the world of objects and subjects, at things and the web of conceptualizations which bind them together.  This dual vision inevitably entails (unfortunately, perhaps) a deep concern for “human politics.”

At one point, Bogost describes his philosophy as a “new radicalism.”  I agree.  If we take his thought to its logical extent it demands an equivalence between the blood soaking through Phil Castile’s shirt and the system of human relations which drew that blood.  That’s a truly radical idea.  And one as an embodied, affectively attuned human being, I can’t agree with.

Asking For It: US Warrior-Cops & Public Affect

As both a teacher and someone interested in public affairs, I’m continually looking for ways in which the classroom can inform society at large.  One idea central to my teaching philosophy—attunement– is particularly useful.

As I use the term, attunement simply means that much of what we learn, we don’t learn directly.  Instead, subtle cues from those around us give us direction on how to think, feel and be.  If you’ve ever noticed yourself mimicking the body language of a conversation partner, or caught the “vibe” of a room, you have an idea how powerful our attunement to each other can be.

Unfortunately, it seems that US law enforcement doesn’t take into account this very basic psychological principle.  The recent spate of police shootings, and the police response to the subsequent protests, both demonstrate this point.

Regarding the latter, all over the country we see waves of police, dressed all in black, with helmets and riot shields, facing off against crowds of protestors.  Think for a moment about the message such posturing carries.  It is certainly not one of respect and dialogue.  Instead, it signals to the protestors that the situation is volatile, dangerous, war-like.  Facing off against these squads of anonymous Stormtroopers, it’s surprising that more Black Lives Matter protests haven’t turned violent.  The police set the scene.  And the scene they set is one of confrontation.

The everyday posturing of the police is equally troubling.  Consider the amount of gear a cop hauls around: firearm, Taser, body armor, various gadgets.  Police departments likely think that such a display “projects power” and helps “protect their officers.”  I’d argue that this is completely wrong.  When police dress like Robocop, it sets the stage for confrontation.  Subconsciously, it tells members of the public that when they encounter a cop, they need to be ready to fight.  This makes for bad decision making.  Consider Phil Castillo reaching into his pocket while speaking of a gun….

I write this from China.  In years spent here I’ve seen many, many interactions between Chinese police officers and the public.  Compared to America, the difference couldn’t be more striking.  Chinese beat cops are typically older men.  They wear loose blue uniforms, not unlike US postal workers, and carry sticks instead of guns.  In tense situations—confronting illegal street vendors, for example—they act utterly passive.  They stand hands behind their backs, heads bowed, faces blank.  If anything, they give off an air of being sleepy, even as the street vendor, say, yells and stomps about in anger. The end result is to diffuse tension, to “deescalate” in police jargon.

Of course, China and the US are very different places.  The presence of guns in the latter does inevitably change the dynamic.  My argument is though that through aggressive posturing, American cops increase their own level of risk.  Through unconscious cues they make members of the public more likely to act in a violent manner.  In short, no matter what they say, their very physical presence—the “militarization” so many have spoken of lately—directs the public how to be.  And this way of being is one that no society should want to encourage.