“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, July 24, 2005

one more time

LI’s post, yesterday, on the Nagelian voter,was supposed to be clear as daylight, or the reflection of same from your beloved’s eye at the moment of spiritual union. It was also supposed to fit into our larger project of thinking about politics beyond parties. We take on the big projects at LI. We pull out the autocad. We hire the temps. Rereading it, I see I wasn’t as clear as daylight. There was a lot of scrambled egg in the spiritual union. Two points, then. Harry wrote a reply from the more skeptical side at Scratchings. I think I agree with Harry in one respect, and in one respect I don’t. The agreement is that the specific act of voting itself is a negligible political act. The unimportance of the act is emphasized by the convergence of the parties. The fact that there is no difference between the parties means that there is no difference made by the vote -- or at least that is the instrument used by the governing class to to degrade voting, and thereby assure themselves continued power. They can adopt this strategy because voting is a certain kind of social act. My post didn’t make it clear enough that the effect of the act, which is important, can and should be divorced from the act itself. The difference between the real effect of the vote and the global effect of voting is evidence that we are dealing, here, with a symbolic object in Victor Turner’s sense. To see how the vote is a symbolic object, think of other objects in games. A football, to use a standard example, is in itself merely an unintelligently designed ball, harder to hold than a standard round ball, harder to kick, and a little easier to toss long distances, compared to a round ball of equal size. One’s interest in the ball itself doesn’t really go much beyond these observations. A game in which possession of the football endows the players of the game with their positions and their roles arises, of course, not out of the football itself, but out of its symbolic value. There is some intersection between the affordances of the ball and the role it plays – that is, there is a reason that the peculiar shape of the football fits the game of football – but in general, the interest in the game does not arise from fascination with the ball itself. It is the very rare fan that cheers the ball, or worries about it. Nor do fans puzzle much over the importance of the ball. Other objects in the world can be imagined to have a personality. There are pornographic tales narrated by sofas. When I was a kid, I had to watch an anti-drug film narrated by a drop of LSD. But footballs in themselves aren’t haloed with even that kind of aura. My own view of voting is that there are times that it is better not to vote, but there are no times, in a democracy, when it is better not to be a voter. Not being a voter is a form of social death. A lesser form among the hierarchies of zombies, but a form, nevertheless. This is where I do disagree with the nihilistic approach to voting. It does make a difference that 25 percent of black males in Alabama have been disenfranchised. The termination of their legal right to vote is not the termination of a triviality. Alright then. Clear as a bell, eh? The second point I should clear up is that I meant, in my last post, to be descriptive. Whether or not I like the fact that voters are Nagelian, I think that is how they are. And the voters that are Lockean – the well informed voters, the meritorious voters – are not un-Nagelian. They are a sub-group of Nagelian voter. (The hopelessness of philosophy is that it drives you into these linguistic oddities, but so it goes). What that means is simple: Lockean voters view their intelligence, which convention defines by the comparison mechanisms in schools (an absurd way to define intelligence, but I’m not going to kick against the pricks) as much more important than other groups. There. All better now.


kmort said...

If I may be permitted another yawp, I don't see the voting issue as existential or conceptual as do you. I think the issues are more about, like, economic efficiency and distributive justice. Or
it may be even more simple. Remember the Cali recall: voters approved Schwarzenegger over the far more capable Davis (and the GOP succeeded in making Gray seem like an ineffectual weakling) . Bustamente and Camejo, Arianna and others had more experience, were more intelligent and well-spoken than Ahhnuld: so his success must be due to some other factors--I think it was due not only to AS's pro-business 'tude and celebrity status but to the Big GOP Daddy image--the "framing" issue as Lakoff said somewhere. So instead of reframing or "respinning" (the current neo-liberal dream--"if we can only market this goy or gal right") I think the solution is to up the ante, or criteria for voting, eliminating the framing and the imagistic elements, at both voter and candidate level.

Political and economic society is far more operational than I think you are allowing. It's more about decision theory than about the mind-body issue--regardless of views on reductionism we agree, I think, that there are objective methods to measure intelligence and agency--that kids should not be allowed to vote or drive a car at 12, that a retarded crack dealer is not allowed to be employed as a surgeon, that Rosie O Donnell is not hired as as engineer at Boeing, etc. I think voting in this complex society is more akin to establishing an economics department than it is to, well, voting for your favorite member of the cast of Friends. Without any standard beyond mere citizenship being required to vote, the economics department is full of attractive and glib poli-celebrities who usually know less about econ. and decision theory than you or I.

Anonymous said...

That may be prescriptive rather than descriptive and thus another error in your book. But if voting is to be more than symbolic and more than simply a token of consumer democracy, then it seems reasonable to make it count, to make it more important than a mere straw poll, and the only way may be to quantify the entire process.

The other issue, which would seem to be congenial to you given your occasional marxist leanings, may be to work towards subverting/overturning representative democracy as a whole. Listen to some piece of crap like De Lay--isn't something terribly wrong, just from Jefferonsian standpoint when dolts such as that are coming into power? Why conceptualize--its more Darwinian--he's an alpha male, more or less.

roger said...

I'd like to subvert the party paradigm -- the party as the driver of politics -- but two points.

1. I have perhaps not made clear why I take an essay on the body mind distinction as having something to do with political processes. The connecting idea is in the model of "being-like", which, in the body mind controversy, is opposed to the the model of "computing as," and in political theory is opposed to grounding politics in the rational agent. Again, I am not disputing about the quality of the politicians that are crowned by the voters in democracies. Bush, Chirac, Kohl, are all examples of what we might kindly call dummies. I have the notion, however, that the existence of dummies as leaders tells us as little about the fundamental structure of the political organization as the existence of dummies tells us about subjectivity.
Let me give an example to sort of make this more credible. Long Term Capital Management was a hedge fund that was run by what everyone concedes was the most brilliant players in the investment business. I mean, when two of your partners are Nobel prize winners in Economics, and one of them, Scholes, designed the theorem that all investors use as a standard tool, you figure this is an ace organization.
Well it was, for a few years. But it failed spectacularly in 1998. Roger Lowenstein's book about it makes it abundantly clear that it didn't fail because of the dumbness of the principles so much as their inability to conceive that they couldn't be right. Pride, hubris -- well, how do you cash that out in cognitive terms? Cog sci people shy away from the term, circle jerk. But that is what happened. I cash it out in situational terms, and I think that is what the effect of the voter does.
2. The symbol. We have a tendency to say just a symbol without thinking about what that means. If the football, in my example, wasn't a symbol, football games would be wonderfully avant garde. Theyd be like the films of Stan Brakhage, full of puzzling and disconnected things. Symbols shouldn't be contrasted with the useful, because symbols are useful, for one thing, and for another, the useful is always becoming symbolic. "My daily bread" is useful, but it is also a symbol that has effects all over this culture. A better measure is to see what is generated by symbols, which is why Turner emphasized ritual. I think voting is a secular ritual, and I think all government power depends on rituals of one type or another.

Deleted said...

I was a bit off point in my semi-response. I'm not sure I can do better this time, but. . .

I think the existence of dummies at the top of the heap tells us quite a bit about the process, and not all that much about the people who (ostensibly) put them there. Voting is bit like putting body english on the cue ball -- i.e. wishful thinking -- which is the most most people can do in a strange game. More, it is like putting body english on the ball while seated in front of screen. It seems reasonable to me that the player who best embodies whatever is currently culturally popular is sympathetic and will be crowned with consent. In the last election, Kerry was so utterly lacking in panache of any kind that the voters' peculiar gift of hopes, ambition and a rented feling of control was given to Bush.

Democracy, voting and the will of voters interact to a modest degree. The "leaders" are sensitive to the cues they get from their audience, but not so much they'll abandon large parts of their own personal dramas. When they stutter or stumble, half the audience takes angry pains to make sure the other half doesn't spoil the show. A great deal of the ferocity with which this is done springs from the inflated sense of destiny with which the performance is sold.

What I think is democracy's and voting's strong point is its potential to reduce fratricide. That is why I agree it matters very much when voters are disenfranchised, even if if their votes don't make all that much difference to the general direction of the country. It is the greatest strength of the communal ritual that it keeps them recognizable as members of a tribe that musn't be killed.

The rituals of confirmation and the amount of energy spent on them is a mixed blessing. It makes a good substitute for settling things violently. Any good policies or good leaders that result from the activity are laregely accidental, in my view. The performers all come from a pool that is predominantly morally obtuse. They may wish to play statesmen, with dismal results if they're Bushes, but actual governance is guided by inertia from the system of economics popular in the country. I think economic leverage alone is all that can force them to modify their behavior. I've long held that the strength of the civil rights movement was its potential to put a hard break on the viability of our version of capitalism.