Category Archives: Media Theory

listening to the subaltern: concluding the jan-feb LD topic

With only a few weeks remaining on the national high school debate topic, “Resolved: It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence.”, I wanted to conclude with a couple of observations based on comments and questions encountered with the cases my team has shared with the debate circuit.

We’ve run several affirmatives, such as our appropriation of Derrida’s “Beast and the Sovereign” that works through one of his last published works, engaging allegory, fable and other forms of storytelling to make serious questions about the integrity of the social contract so many accept without any question. We’ve engaged Levinas and Zizek in an examination of the site of ethical and moral construction, challenging the naive assumption that all individuals (or really any, for that matter) have access to universal notions for the pre-determination of the morality of a contemplated and premeditated act.

We’ve also engaged negative positions that, to confess, have been deconstructive rather than “truth testing” (a word we had to bend to have some chance of engaging the critical thinking of many who were misled in their education toward believing their metaphysics were unquestionable). By unconcealing and illuminating the centerings implicit in the resolution’s words “deliberate” and “permissible,” we brought attention to potentially undesirable and problematic epistemological and cultural packages that travel along with these signifiers.

What is common to each of the cases is that they tend to challenge the ~framework (let’s refer to this framing/enframing with the tilda to distance it from the commonly used term of framework that refers to a type of debate argument often found in policy rounds between critical and policymaker paradigms). Returning to LD after more than twenty years, I was shocked to discover a proto-religion had taken hold of the event I had loved and excelled within in high school. A new metaphysic of “Value & Criterion” had attained imperial authority and commanded over the interpretation of many a judge and debater, a doxology that emerged well after I had departed the mid-1980s high school LD scene. Some rather suspicious characters were found within this realm: Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hume and a few others. While of certain historical philosophical interest, they commanded a presence within this frozen snowglobe of an event, delimiting that which was legitimate and acceptable to the sovereign form.

What was most curious was the rigor of its structuralist approach; I often felt as if I was back in undergraduate music theory being told that “all composers use figured bass notation and then a formula of rules they depart from in order to compose their music”… a claim that’s quite difficult to reconcile with the existence of the music of Charles Ives, John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski and numerous other composers I personally identified with. Realizing the significant pedagogical and epistemological harm that was being inscribed upon our debate community, we worked through elements of resonance and dissonance to introduce arguments that, as Deleuze was likened to say of his philosophical adversaries, they would recognize immediately as their own yet be horrified when they realized the extent of the mutation.

I’m pretty sure from some of the judge reactions we’ve had that we’ve been successful in this effect.

Subsequently, the general “theme” of our argumentation has been one where we’ve attempted to approximate a formalist construction (meaning “trying to make our argument look and feel somewhat similar to something the LD structuralists would recognize as ‘valid’, without utilizing their form; think of the proto-Ridleys in Alien Resurrection as a not-but-becoming-abject form approach). We’ve also attempted to create substantial instability in the framing itself (think of the black cat that walks past twice in the first Matrix movie, or the warping and bending of fields under stress). Stressing words in the resolution, shifting the intensity of the resolutional world from visual to infrared or ultraviolet, or moving the ontoepistemological center of the ethical-interpretive event (e.g. where is the site of the reading of the act, to which it can be determined to be ethical or moral) have been aspects of this ~framework stressing and bending, deterritorializing and reterritorializing. To those who have felt the worldview shift in the round, this is very much intended.

Behind this work across strata, there are a few aspects within the approach that merit clarification. I’ll address these around some of the recurring questions we’ve gotten:

Isn’t your case being parametric?
This was a puzzling question for me at first, as Jay can attest from my difficulty at first explaining why it is and isn’t. Akin to Derrida’s explanation that rather than claim the written word was not suspect (to the claim that the spoken is more true and pure than the written), Derrida’s analysis in Of Grammatology is instead to illustrate how both written and spoken word are troubled. Parametrics can only exist when one assumes there can be a totalizing universal that can then be sliced down into a parametric. On this level of believing in universalizations of the debate resolution, this is an assumption that goes unchallenged by most within the current structuralist LD paradigm, but by no means is an appropriate assumption to hold unquestioned. To argue that there are no universals and universal cases, however, is the easy and less-than-interesting answer. The more interesting discussion is the deconstructive analysis, which suggests that instead, ALL LD cases are parametric. To run a Kant affirmative on the domestic abuse topic is to reject 2300 years of Western philosophical tradition, save for a very tiny portion of the Enlightenment epoch, and construct a normative “worldview” from this myopic framing. This parametrization is even more violent when it is considered that we haven’t even included substantial bases of Indian, Chinese and other non-“Western” philosophical traditions (We enjoy debating Spivak and Sloterdijk for many reasons, one of which is the occasional reference to the Mahabharata and other epics).

When decentering from the epistemologies of certain dead white-male European traditions, it can be understood that a case based on Hobbes, Locke and Kant is exceptionally parametric. Our construction of ethics from the perspective of a viciously abused child is also parametric; in fact, one would suggest that from the perspective of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s ontology, we’re going to have great difficulty constructing any reading of the topic through a case that is not parametric. Whether we’re intentioning through the construction of a young child or an dead philosopher, both texts attain precise phenomenological and epistemological coordinates, narrowing the interpretation through a parametric lens. Rather than claim the illegitimacy of the pervasive and nonunique parametric, the more intelligent question becomes one of comparative coordinates.

I’d briefly note that we could even have some etymological fun in examining the baggage that comes along with the word “parametric”, para: along-side, beside, beyond-or-past (paraphysics), by extension; metric: pertaining to a meter, measured. Of a certain ghost-like presence that isn’t before us, but a specter stepping along-side us in a haunting, taunting manner, applying measurement and scrutiny. When in the company of such judgmental spirits, I’m certain many a devious LD structuralist would rather avoid having their imperialist baggage inspected, their sins accounted.

You’re breaking rules by making us defend the entire resolution
This was a recent and most unfortunate interpretation. One of the core components of counterplan theory in contemporary argumentation and debate theory is the concept of a PIC, or plan-inclusive counterplan. In this argumentative analysis, a word of the resolution is tested in order to stress it and force its advocacy or defense. This is a vital test in both debate and poststructuralism; in the former, a problematic word may be covered over and its debate avoided, with assumptions generally accepted by the debaters often on both sides. In the latter, it’s often the grounds for exploring problematic centerings, biases and cultural-epistemological skews.

Consider a real world application: a new policy is being proposed by the ruling demographic that makes clear sense to those intending it to do good will. But due to a difference in cultural interpretation, a word in the policy may be interpreted differently and have devastating results when it is implemented upon a broader demographic. Would we not want to test certain words, especially when these words have had a history to leading to systemic discrimination, exploitation, and even subjugation, violence and genocide? This becomes even more vital when we’re discussing norms; the cultural interpretation of a word for the construction of a social value can hardly be considered universal in interpretation as the mere historical construction of a word’s meaning is intricately connected to the historico-social production that shaped its rough, resonant form. Words like “permissibility,” for instance, may seem neutral to dominant majorities but when encountered by a minority, is consistently associated with a sovereign who “insists on being the one who gets to permit.” Permissibility, obtaining a permit, isn’t a conscious concern for those who have their papers in order and have paid the sovereign’s fee. Words like “permissible” and “deliberate” are far from neutral and demand careful questioning, particularly when issues of ethics and morality are of our concern.

Once again, the more interesting exploration of the “rule breaking” question is not in the linear defense to the problematic charge, but rather how the charge is impotent while also pertaining to all negative cases debated. As each affirmative constructs an ontoepistemological world (a world conceptualized from a specific ontological coordinate within a framed manifold of epistemological potentiality), each world is an advocacy of a “truth” (or “meaningfully explanatory and predictive resonance of sufficient signal and limited noise”). Each word in the resolution is traced in a highly specific way – either intentionally or not – enveloping certain signifieds within its border while willfully leaving other signifieds out. Consider the resolution:

Resolved: All human beings should be protected by the state from death.

Should an affirmative be questioned on their advocacy of this resolution if their trace of the “human beings” signifier intentionally leaves out “those deemed not human”? Daniel Goldhagen’s important 1997 work Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust addresses this very tracing and suggests the definition of Jewish individuals as “rats, vermin, not humans,” as evidenced throughout generations of anti-Semitic German literature, may have profoundly contributed to the societal “moral permissibility” of allowing millions of Jews, Roma, and other peoples to be sent to their death. Is requiring the Affirmative to defend the evidence of a problematic trace fair grounds? Or rule breaking? And if it’s the latter, to quote a remarkable debate coach and friend Dana Christensen, wouldn’t we have an obligation to challenge and break these rules? I’d suggest there may be a more important debate regarding moral obligations underpinning the framing of debate rules if that were indeed the case.

Aren’t you cheating by not debating the resolution?
This infrequent question has perhaps been the source of greater disappointment than the rest. Hearing a few judges (not the majority, fortunately) repeatedly claim that “I think you’re doing shady things by debating these cases that really aren’t about the resolution” shows the failure of our academic project in debate more than anything. Consider that on the topic of women being domestically abused, raped and murdered, some in our LD world would immediately run to a handful of very dead, old white guys to serve as authorities over what is and isn’t moral. This observation was the very grounds for one of our cases, as we are quite certain that the first thing that pops into the mind of a woman or child about to be violently beaten and even possibly killed, is not: “What would Immanuel Kant say?”

Doesn’t this racing for the “Good Book” of the Enlightenment when faced with a contemporary crisis suggest the slightest bit for concern? Are we really that disconnected and insensitive to an other’s plight? Is this a snow globe of privilege and pedigree? If we have vital projects like Women Under Siege and remarkable artistic, poetic expressions from subaltern women through movements such as the RAWA in Afghanistan, how could one feel comfortable silencing these voices in our experience? Should LD become a “Dead White European Males Only” zone?

I’m certainly understanding of the remarkable contribution this narrow pedigree of thinkers provided for us; Deleuze, Spivak and Derrida (three of my favorite thinkers) repeatedly acknowledge their tributes to the work that they had done, but remarkably, continue the evolution of thought forward. The real statement made in that question is not an accusation but rather a defense: Why are you encouraging thinking in our debate experience when I was told that rote skills, memorization, and drills were all that was needed to succeed. Why are you intending to threaten my legitimacy by rendering me obsolete?

To this final charge, I am indeed guilty. As one aligned profoundly with Ranciére’s pedagogical project, and working intimately in the world of systemic risk, I am firmly convinced that unless we advance our systems of learning to encourage and engage our young people with critical and creative thought, there is sufficient reason to doubt humanity’s long-term survival. The problems we face today are ones that memorization and rote drills cannot solve, nor “depth over breadth” approaches to a silo’ed education. Inter-and-multidisciplinary approaches, crossings of borders, infusions of poetry and aesthetics into science and literature, and continued engagements and challenges of the assumed frameworks, are necessary for our future generations to have a chance at resolving the problems that contemporary thought cannot reconcile.


On Kittler and the Autopoietic Integration of Identity Data into the Post-Foucault Assemblage Archive

Jamie Saker
European Graduate School, June 2011
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On Kittler and the Autopoietic Integration of Identity Data into the Post-Foucault Assemblage Archive by James R. Saker Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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With the emergence and acceleration of second generation “Assemblage Archives”, heterogeneous, second-order databases of identity, constructed through the linkage and integration of first-order homogenous collections of individual behavior, the problem of the development and evolution of extrinsic and/or intrinsic normative controls at the second-order level appear to exceed the capacity for private and public control.

In his work Gramophone ,Film, Typewriter, media theorist Friedrich Kittler writes of the connection of the emerging digital data sets to the archive, to which theorist and historian Michel Foucault had substantiated provides for the source of power:

History was the homogenous field which, as a subject in school curricula, included only cultures with written language. Mouths and graphisms dropped out into prehistory. Otherwise events and their stories could not have been connected. The commands and judgments, the announcements and prescriptions that gave rise to mountains of corpses – military and juridical, religious and medical – all went through the same channel that held the monopoly on the descriptions of these mountains of corpses. That is why anything that ever happened ended up in libraries. And Foucault, the last historian or the first archeologist, had only to look it up. The suspicion that all power comes from archives to which it returns could be brilliantly illustrated, at least within the legal, medical, and theological fields.
(Friedrich Kittler; Dorothea von Mucke, Phillipe L. Similon. “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.” October, Vol. 41 (Summer 1987), pp. 101-118.)

In the two decades following Kittler’s analysis and connectivity to the archive, the realm of digital commerce and social engagement, as particularly but not exclusively constructed on the Internet, has seen evolution of first generation systems arise in correspondence with the nexus of social engagement. Such assemblages of digital history tend to center around the individual’s engagement with specific and subsequently local regions of social experience: driving histories recorded with the Department of Motor Vehicles, merchant purchases captured at the point-of-sale terminal, course and grade transcripts archived at the school and university.

Each first-generation digital archive experienced its construction of capabilities, practices, processes and norms through their initial closures, provided through the initial closures that defined systemic control of the archive, and from the subsequent emergence of capabilities, processes, norms and other behaviors that followed given the definition of the archive through its intrinsic and extrinsic engagement with social, political and economic actors.

In the second major generation of archive construction, entities that include Google, Facebook, Twitter and others have shifted from the development of homogenous archives centered around a locality of social experience toward the creation of second-order archives, constructed typically through the linkage of social locales through the commonality of the individual. As Heinz von Foerster identifies in his 1993 lecture, this integration of first-order systems causes the question of the rules of integration for the second-order archive to be raised:

I have a System A, I have a System B, and now I’d like to integrate both of these into a System C. What rules consist of that allow a new System C to arise, rules of integration, of composition?
(Heinz von Foerster, “For Niklas Luhmann: How Recursive is Communication??”. Lecture given at the Author’s Colloquium in honor of Niklas Luhmann on February 5, 1993 at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research, Bielefeld. The German version was published in Teoria Soziobiologica, 2/93. Franco Angeli, Milan, pp 61-88 (1993))

According to German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic closure and control, these first-order archives described by Kittler realized regulations, norms, practices and processes through their engagement within the actors and participants of the homogeneous practice. Actors within the first-order had close proximity to its practice, experientially understood its attributes, requirements, risks, threats and norms. Recurring and frequent interaction by the actors within the first-order provided for the evolution of responsible norms, policies and controls.

Architects, administrators and archivists in the engagement with the first-order “Archive of the Motor Vehicle Driver”, for example, would have had close proximity with the Department of Motor Vehicles, Federal, State and Local auditors, political and citizen-led feedback, and other agents with substantial subject-matter experience to the locality of the first-order archive. As such, the architecture, definition, development and maintenance of these initial digital archives was conducted in close proximity to its stakeholders and realized pragmatic normative practices through this proximity.

Given the premise of the accelerated emergence of second-order Assemblage Archives (or “System C’s” to approximate Foerster’s model), where the individual is no longer defined in relation to a specific field of practice or locality of engagement, but rather through and across the multiplicities of first-order archives in the construction of a second-order archive, and given the extra-jurisdictional detachment this second-order archive realizes through its disconnection from the nexus of practice and actor experience, what are the anticipated consequences and corresponding responsibilities societies have in ethically managing this second-order assemblage?

Risk Existentiale: A topology for risk

As mentioned previously, I’m continuing my work on Risk Existentiale, although the path continues to elongate with each further effort to comprehend a specific space. Increasingly, I’m seeing this “small space project” expand into an undertaking that will require considerable time and effort to carry out. For that purpose, I’m aware that some of the ideas need to get further circulation in the public commons, allowing them some play and exposing the light of discourse upon them.

For those not familiar with it, Risk Existentiale is my project toward a greater understanding of why existential risk happens in the corporate landscape (while it may lend itself to other institutions, the nonprofit and governmental agency are clearly not in the scope of the work). Most of our advancement in the risk management profession has been superficial and limited in descriptive and prescriptive quality. The fundamental question I pursue in this work asks:

Why it is that, in spite of all of the regulations, compliance frameworks, standards, policies, checklists, auditors, assessors and analysts, we continue to be surprised by risks? This problem affects all realms of corporate risk management — financial, operations, information, technology — and in spite of even greater application of risk rules, practices and methodologies, we seem further away than ever from control.

Earlier explorations on the subject, such as my Self-Evidence in Existential Risk or my Paulo Freire essay explore thoughts on the origins of this problem at a definition-of-truth level (e.g. “which truth are you seeking?” as some, including Heidegger, allege we may be unaware that we are using the wrong one). However, this increasingly leaves us with a one-dimensional description with little utility. There is much, much more going on that merits our attention.

Indeed, a path that has guided my approach to date can be well represented by the analog of the recommended discourse in Saul’s book, “Voltaire’s Bastards,” where it is suggested that we’ve grown too complacent in embracing policy and rejecting philosophy. Borrowing from Saul and appropriating Michel Serres (in particular, his Genesis), I would suggest that policy is nothing more than a local philosophical island of instantiation. Or as Deleuze and Guattari would describe for more persistent instantiations, a policy is a plateau in which a particular dominant thought from philosophy became the general way of thinking for the duration of the plateau’s existence. It is through this appropriation of islands and plateaus that one may regard our current approach to risk as one that is limited in its instantiation, subject to recurrences of failure until we sail away to a new instantiation with a topology more appropriate at comprehending the dynamic of risk. Furthermore, the application of Foucault’s analysis of discourse as a conceptually-limiting function that defines the capacity and perceptual limit of the system and the participants within it correlates to the island or plateau and has significant relevance in this investigation.

A Topology, Finally
Muddled in the deep plumbing of Derrida, Serres, Saussure and Lacan (of which a lot of the information theory and semiotic aspects affecting risk reside), I came up for air and grabbed Slavoj Zizek’s recent work, Violence: Big Ideas/Small Books. In it, the Slovenian genius of applied philosophical thought and cultural theory introduces a framework for violence which lends itself remarkably well to the topology of risk I’ve sought.

Borrowing from Zizek’s triumvirate model, risk consists of a single foreground domain of Subjective Risk, and two background Objective Risks: Symbolic and Systemic Risks. Through this application, great descriptive potential is immediately apparent and eventually, prescriptive value may eventually be derived. I’ll briefly describe these three elements, of which great work lies ahead in their examination, verification and application.

1. The Subjective Foreground
Subjective Risk: This is the domain of risks that affect a subject, such as a person, a portfolio, a computer server, a web application, a company’s reputation. Displayed on the canvas, these are the entities we discretely identify. This is the realm of known risk, that which our auditors, examiners and assessors evaluate, and to which our policies, regulations, standards and such attempt to manage. Indeed, this constitutes the overwhelming majority of our experience in the risk management profession: a world in which we attempt to prevent, detect and control risk. Yet in spite of our best efforts, we continue to be surprised by risks that appear “out of nowhere.” Our checklists didn’t anticipate their potential through the questions we asked, and our models excluded their existence. We’ve felt that there is more risk out there, but relegated them with Otherizing language by calling them Outliers and Black Swans. Those risks which we do not understand are unnamed, external and other, we declared as we embraced our hopelessly inept model.

2. The Objective Background
Behind the foreground of subjects that have commanded our attention in our assessments and audits lies a background — a canvas of what appears to be noise when our lens is adjusted for the near-field. That it appears as little more than entropy to us is not surprising: Cross-apply Zizek’s observation on violence to our world of risk: Subjective and Objective risk cannot be perceived from the same standpoint. Subjective risk is seen as the “perturbation of the ‘normal,’ peaceful state of things.” However, objective risk is inherent in the normal state of the subjective, invisible from its view as it is constructed in its essence and being (Zizek 2008). Zizek likens this to dark matter lurking about. Within this realm of the objective, we have two domains of risk:

a. Symbolic Risk: The domain of the symbolic is that of the very mind, thought and discourse of the corporate being or egregore. It is the domain where of our corporate reality is constructed and semiotics defined; a realm influenced by the thought of Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan and Derrida among others. To explain the fundamental significance of semiotics in the definition of the corporate egregore in this essay is well beyond its scope; indeed, I’ll be fortunate to appropriately represent it in the several hundred pages I anticipate Risk Existentiale will occupy. That said, others have already laid some ground in the evaluation of semiotics in corporate thought. Fiol’s 1989 work on the impact of semiotics in corporate language on corporate boundaries and joint ventures, and Barley’s 1983 study on semiotics and organizational cultures, encourage a journey in this realm. For all the discussion among risk managers on “risk appetite,” “risk-averse/accepting/inclined cultures,” and so on, we should recognize these as indicators of the Symbolic domain. A serious exploration of this domain from the perspective of risk is overdue and will constitute a significant portion of Risk Existentiale.

b. Systemic Risk: From the symbolic domain that defines the thought and discourse, the Systemic is the body-without-organs of the corporate egregore. This is the domain of information flows, processes, transmissions and transformations. This is the realm of Deleuze and Guattari, and from a technological risk perspective, engages the thought of Alexander Galloway and McKenzie Wark.

Function of the Topology
In the proposed topology of risk, I would argue that a corporate entity which has experienced its evolution to the state of egregore (where a corporate mind distinct from that of its individuals has evolved) has seen that egregore accept a language, style of thought and perception in the domain of Symbolic Risk. As the egregorical entity engages in its information flows, it extends this quality of risk into the domain of Systemic Risk. In proper Deleuzian form, one would further expect smoothing of space to occur as the egregore’s body-without-organs extends through corporate departments, client relationships, vendor partnerships and other flows. Indeed, one would even expect the capacity for smoothing to occur in the flows between corporate egregore and regulator (to the potential dismay of those that anticipate autonomous supervision). This flattened space becomes our Risk Topography, which becomes our environment that gives rise to “explosions” (Zizek) of risk into the Subjective Risk domain.

From background to foreground, the Symbolic Risk of Long-Term Capital Management in the formation of their semiotic language which defined certain risks as “impossible” gave rise through its expression in its Systemic Flows and explosion into Subjective space of an existential, market-jeopardizing financial catastrophe. Or the NASA egregore that established a language of “launch at all costs” and gave rise to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Indeed, we hear of explanations after the fact, blaming corporate cultures, group-think (a fashionable, lightweight term for the information theory egregore phenomenon) and other Objective Risk causes, yet our methodologies ignore this difficult analysis and proclaim “if only we added more regulations and auditors, we might have prevented that!”

Progress Report
Given the re-appropriation of Zizek’s wonderful topology, I’m encouraged that a descriptive effort will certainly be possible. Indeed, much progress has been made in the Systemic environment, through the examination of Galloway, Wark and others. I’m increasingly certain that a Deleuzian model will emerge here; Galloway’s efforts in this space are too compelling, though their examination has been from a predominantly technology-centric perspective. Backing the view out to one which embraces the general realm of corporate risk will take further effort. The Symbolic Risk domain remains a realm of great potential, yet also lurks as what we call in policy debate a “time-suck.” And of course, none of this roadmap anticipates what lies ahead in the integration of the topology, its linking to the Subjective Risk domain, and the analysis of any prescriptive potential.

With that said, it’s a path I find compelling and necessary. I believe we’re past due in recalling our current methodologies, given their absolute inadequacy in anticipating all but the known risk. Give my disinclination to write without seeking perfection, this blog will continue to be a source where many of the raw ideas will be hammered out, integrated or discarded. As always, comments and perspective that give illumination to the Risk Existential entity are welcome and encouraged.

A further challenge to the undertaking exists in its approach. I would hope and expect the project to have utility in the applied space of corporate risk management, yet increasingly recognize that we must leave our current plateau which requires a journey through deep and difficult terrain. One concept for the completed project is a true executive summary at the forefront, which provides ground sufficient for one eager to apply the thought, absent the deeper exploration. An example of this would be a Routledge Critical Reader-like introduction for an executive and professional audience, followed by the domains within the topology in full analytic detail.