Friday, February 17, 2012

Simultaneity 2: Bergson and the industrialized experience

In the first chapter of Creative Evolution (1907), Henri Bergson takes up one of his most celebrated themes, durée, and refines it in response to his further thought on the matter since he had first exposed his idea in données immédiates de la conscience, in 1888.  In reading Bergson now, one can’t help but be struck by the metaphors of unwinding, unreeling, and tracking that go through his discourse on time. That metaphoric is usually associated with film, and it is with good reason that Deleuze turned to Bergson in writing his two books about cinema. However,  I’d like to make the case  that it goes back to what Schivelbusch has named the industrialized experience – the experience of speed on the railroad – and that underneath the surface of Bergson’s philosophy of time we have an image of the dualism between the vehicle and the driver or passenger, which is part of a larger dualism between industrial automatism and the worker.
That sense of the vehicularity of matter in which the organism is placed begins with a description of the continual changes we as consciousnesses are subject to. “This is to say tht there is not an essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state… precisely because we close our eyes to the incessant variation at ech psychological state, we are obliged, when the variation becomes so considerable that it imposes itself on our attention, to speak as if a new state were juxtaposed to a prceding one. The latter is supposed to remain invariable in its turn, and thus so on, indefinitely. The apparent discontinuity of psychological life thus depends on the fact that our attention is fixed upon it by a series of discontinuous acts; where there is only a gentle slope, we believe that we perceive, in following the broken line of our attention, the steps of a stairs.” [2-3 – my translation]
Compare this to the analysis in chapter 3 of Schivelbusch’s The Railroad Journey. For Schivelbusch, the exemplary industrialized experience was riding on a train, since even the first, primitive trains could achieve speeds that were more than three times that of stagecoaches. In other words, railroads introduced a completely inorganic mode of travel on a mass scale, and in doing so accustomed people to an inorganic form of speed. Schivelbusch quotes authors from the 1830-1850 period who were quite aware of what was happening, putting it in terms of ‘shrinking space” or, paradoxically, of expanding the individual’s capacity to reach distant spaces. This was put in contrast with the fact that the shrinking and expanding did not affect the actuality of things. “Yet by a sort of miracle,” says the Quarterly Review article [from 1839, which Schivelbusch is citing], after describing the shrinking process, “every man’s field is found not only where it was, but as large as ever it was.”[35] Indeed, after reading Schivelbusch’s abundant citing of articles of this type, one understands why Einstein’s popular essay on relativity used the example of the railroad train, as the trope was already long in the popular consciousness.
If we consider that Bergson’s theme of durée was also colored by the industrialized experience, then we can see further into the metaphor and metaphysics that grounds it. Evidently, from the first, Bergson draws a line between organic time – which is irreversible – and artificial time – the time of matter – which is reversible. These are not accidental results of the duality between the two, but go to the heart of their different temporal regimes:
“From the survival of the past [for the self] results the impossibility for a consciousness to traverse the same state two times. However much the circumstances may be the same, it is not on the same person that they operate… … This is why durée is irreversible. We cannot re-live a single bit, for it would be necessary to efface the memory of all that followed.” [6]
Bergson’s framing of organic time results in his re-discovery of the new: “But an intelligence, even a superhuman one, could not foresee the simple, indivisible form which gives these abstract elements their concrete organisation. For to foresee is to project into the future what one has perceived in the past, or to have represented for a new assembly later, in a new order, already perceived elements. But what has never been perceived, and is at the same time simple, is necessarily unforeseeable.”
Contrast this regime of the irreversible and the truly new with the regime of the material, which is how sameness enters the world:
“Now, we say that the composite object changes by the displacement of its parts. But when a part has quit its position nothing stops it from retaking it. A group of elements which has passed a state can thus always return, if not by itself, at least by the effect of an exterior cause which puts everything back into place. This is the same as saying that a state of the group can repeat itself as often as one wants and that, in consequence, the group never grows old. It has no history.”
An aging without growing old is the fate to which the mechanical, the artificial, composite matter, is consigned – whereas growing old and having the property of novelty is the seemingly contradictory state imposed upon the organism. True novelty and true age are properties of the ‘passenger’ within the vehicle of matter. The vehicle can reverse, but the passenger, inherently, cannot.  And so the two move together, but move in different worlds. As Schivelbusch puts it about the train passenger:
‘What was experienced as annihilated was the traditional time-space continuum, which characterized the old transport technology. Organically embedded in nature as it was, that technology, in its mimetic relationship to the space traversed, permitted the travellor to perceive that space as a living entity. What Bergson called the durée (duration of time spent getting from one place to another on the road)  is not an objective mathematical unit, but a subjective perception of time-space.” [36]
Schivelbusch, I think, wrongfoots himself by putting the matter in terms of the broad subject/object theme – rather, the irreversibility, or entropy, of durée points to a certain deep reversal of our expectations: for the illusion is all on the side of the vehicle, in that it seems from the vehicle’s standpoint that the eternal return of the same is the law and the prophets. On the other hand, the illusion of reversibility becomes, in the industrial experience, the tempo of human life. The ideal of non-aging, the ideal of the assembly line, the ideal of the vehicle, the ideal of interchangeable parts, all are imposed on the human: human novelty is supplanted by artificial news.  This is one of the great characteristics of the simultaneity principle behind Tarde’s publics.
‘… the railroad did not appear embedded in the space of the landscape, the way coach and highway are, but seemed to strike across it.” [37]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

a form of social time - simultaneity

In the twentieth century, sociologists and marketers gave Tarde’s publics a variety of names: sub-cultures, worlds, demographics, constituents, etc.

However, the important thing is that the public and these publics form out of the same principle – the subordination of haptic space to another kind and degree of proximity, which is mediated by a social mode of temporality – simultaneity – that Tarde mentions in connection with the news. News, in French, is actualité. Between the English and the French word, an important movement is captured. Tarde speaks of the newspapers giving their readers a ‘sense of simultaneity.”  He does not, unfortunately, disinter the phenomenon of simultaneity, instead  vaguely pressing on the idea of “at the same time”. But ordinary simultaneousness is transformed in the social mode of simultaneity. We speaking of catching up with, keeping up with, or following the news, or fashions, or tv, or books, or sports. It is in this sense that we are not simply conscious of being simultaneous with, but as well, and more strongly, that the simultaneous is moving ahead of us even as we are part of it, like a front.

The anthropologist Johannes Fabian coined the term allochrony to speak of the peculiar way in which Europeans, starting in the seventeenth century, started to divide up the contemporary world into different cultural time zones. Europe, of course, appropriated the modern to itself. Other contemporary cultures were backward, savage, stone age, traditional – they were literally behind their own time. Modernity exists under that baptism and curse. But Fabian’s concern for cultures exogenous to Europe blinded him to the effect of modernity within Europe, and America, where we witness another allochronic effect having to do with the new. Simultaneity is the horizon for a temporal competition – one in which the new, the young, the latest compete against the old, the laggard, the out of touch.

When Lyotard, in the Postmodern condition, speaks of the collapse of the meta-narrative that has sustained modernity, the master narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries, he is really signaling the triumph of this particular social form of time – simultaneity – over other forms – notably, that of history and cyclical time. The news, one could say, destroyed history and the forms of memory associated with it. But far from being a new phenomenon, post-modernity has always been the threat inside modernity – it is a pole in the latter’s dialectic. Simultaneity, embodied in the effect of the sphere of circulation upon those of its agents that branched off to produce the media industry, has long been the construction principle that drives newspapers and magazines, and drives the internet and the social network.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

the crowd and the public

In Antonine Albalet’s Souvenirs de la vie Littéraire there’s a portrait of Gabriel Tarde from his Paris years. Tarde arrived in Paris late – he was 51 when he found a post at the Ministry of Justice and moved there. By this time he had become famous in the world of criminology, even though he did not have institutional backing; rather, he’d become famous for his ideas while still living in the provinces – in Sarlat, in Dordogne. Albalet’s portrait captures Tarde in around 1895, when he was becoming celebrated in the broader circle of Paris intellectuals who were associated with certain magazines and coteries. Tarde was now on the course that would take him to the Chair of Philosophy at the College de France, when he was chosen over Bergson in 1900. However,  he died shortly thereafter - in 1904 - and thus never did leave his footprint on any particular institution. He didn't have successors, or Tardians, the way Bergson had Bergsonians.

Tarde spent his fifties in the Paris that Proust writes about, the Paris of Salons and the uneasy mixtures that came about when various aristocracies – Bonapartist, Orleanist, traditional – came into contact with rich bourgeois professionals. As it happens, both Proust and Tarde were fascinated by the formation of “circles” and of conversation. Albalet catches that aspect of Tarde in his portrait. He first met Tarde through Henri Mazel, a social psychologist, who frequented the circle of the symbolists around Jean Moréas, who included, at the time, André Gide.

“It is through Mazel that I knew the philosopher Gabriel Tarde. They often came to the Café Vachette together [This café was where the symbolists met. It was located on Rue St-Michel, on the left bank], Mazel with his air of a smiling joker, Tarde with the silhouette of the conductor of a gypsy orchestra: large, thin, an artistic air, long dark hair in a weeping willow cut, a small moustache and sparkling eyes bying his spectacles. This philosopher had passed almost all his existence in Sarlat, the Perigordian town where he was born, where he married, and where he exercised, time out of mind, the office of a juge d’instruction. The descendent of an old family, Gabriel Tarde counted among his ancestors a canon who played a role in the Renaissance Papal court, upon whom he had published a pamphlet which he always listed in his works, while he suppressed a book of stories and poems. Tarde, in fact, was only a stranger in sociology; professional psychologists never figured in his world than at a secondary level. Above all, he loved beautiful poetry. He had written a lot of French and Perogordian verse. A feebleness of vision obliged him to restrict his reading. Tarde only read good authors. A phrase of Taine’s had led him to discover Cournet, who oriented his ideas towards social philosophy. As for his habits, Tarde remained young at heart; he loved balls, dinners, cicles, the theater and the cafes. A charming conversationalist, he didn’t hesitate to take the floor and to deliver himself of all kinds of fantasies of the most ticklish improvisation.” [174]

Tarde’s journey from the provinces to Paris in his life has been symbolically reenacted in his afterlife, where he seems to be perennially forgotten and rediscovered. The last two big rediscoveries were in the sixties, when Deleuze mentioned him in Difference and Repetition (claiming that he was a great disciple of Leibniz and a philosopher of difference)  and in the 1990s, when Bruno Latour saw in him an ancestor of actor network theory.

I am not so much concerned with Tarde's view of difference, or his theory of imitation, except in as much as it surfaces in his book, Opinion and the Crowd, which appeared in 1901. The consists mainly of three large essays which had first been published in the Revue des Deux Mondes and Revue de Paris – which were not specialized sociological journals, but signalled Tarde's niche in the larger world of Parisian intellectuals, not in the world of academia. However, as these works are connected to the great theme that is at the heart of all of his work – the theme of imitation, and they also take on board themes that traverse Tarde’s work in criminology, a word is in order.  Tarde figured  among a group of criminologists – perhaps the best know of which, today, is Lombroso – who were applying certain notions having to do with disease and psychology – the notions of contagion, epidemic, hypnotic suggestion, in Tarde’s case – to the phenomenon of crime. There was a perception that Europe was undergoing a crime wave – and an uneasiness that there was a whole criminal class that existed just below the surface of bourgeois life.

Tarde didn’t embrace pseudo-Darwinian theories of degeneration, but he did find, in crime, an exaggerated instance of social dynamics that he believed operated throughout society. Crime, by being outside of the norm, gave us a certain laboratory insight into what the norms, submerged in our daily life, were about. When we turn to Tarde on crowds and the public, we find some of the same themes reworked. In particular, the metaphor of contagion helps him separate crowds from publics, and leads him to certain characteristic insights.

The crowd, according to Tarde, is centrally dependent on physical proximity, or haptic space. For Tarde, proximity is not a contingent fact about individuals in a crowd, but rather the fact that roots these individuals in a larger natural history. Physical proximity in a crowd tends to dissolve the historic human quality of the individual, and release his animal nature.  Unlike Canetti, who in Crowds and Power confounds, to an extent, publics and crowds (under the notion of the invisible crowd), for Tarde the crowd is a natural event and the public is a social one:

In the lowest animal societies, association consists principally in a material aggregate. As one ascends the tree of life, the social relation becomes more spiritual. But if individuals are distanced to the point that they cannot see each other, of if they remain apart for a certain very short time, they cease to be associated… Thus, the crowd here presents something animal. Isn’t it a bundle of psychic categories essentially produced by physical contact?  [9]

The spiritual or intellectual portion of association  comes about in the play of proximity  that, while still operating under Hesiod’s “talk”, individuates the sense of belonging. Tarde, in the 1890s, naturally turned to newspapers and ‘circles’ for his examples, fished among celebrities, fashionmakers, writers and politicians.

“When we submit, all unawares, to that invisible contagion of the public of which we form a part, we tend to explain it by the simple prestige of actuality. If today’s newspaper interests us to this point, it is because it only tells us the latest facts, and it would be the proximity of those facts, and not at all the simultaneity of their knowledge by us and others that impassions us by the report.  But analyse this sensation of actuality that is so strange, the growing passion for which is one of the refined circumstances of civilized life. What is reputed to be the “news”: is it only what is taking place? No, it is everything that inspires a general interest in current events, even if it is an old fact. Everything about Napoleon has been in the news these last few years; everything fashionable is news.”

Tarde, here, approaches the moment that we saw figured in Works and Days: the source of talk is, mysteriously, based in itself. What marks the famous or the infamous is not, firstly, the deed, but the talk about the deed.  News, as Tarde points out, makes new what it reports, even if it is old.

Tarde did not have, as Marx and Simmel did, a firm and, as it were, external sense of modernity. He was, as Deleuze puts it, a pioneer in the exploration of ‘micro-sociology.’ It is this that helps him see that the public – this self-identifying crowd form that forms around abstracted physical proximity and identifies with a certain form of social time – the new, which authenticates itself as a simultaneous experience – required tools that would coordinate that experience. Thus, until the appearance of the printing press in the West, Tarde claims, there was no real public or publics. And thus no real public or public opinion.

The public, in Tarde’s view, is a sort of phylogenetic extension of public opinion, and thus, the different publics are different phylogenetic extensions In the 1890s, conversation in Paris was being tracked not just by Proust, but by Tarde, both of them trying to understand the diffusion of commonplaces and opinions – but in Tarde’s case, his background was a small town, Sarlat, in which the voice of the public was much more easily tracked and fixed. For what was said among the town’s visible elite soon made the rounds – a social fact that was picked up and used by the great realist novels, as for instance in Lucien Leuwen, or in many of Balzac’s studies of the ‘provinces’. Here the circle – half crowd, half public – was more visibly at work, and more visibly stratified – between the receptions given at the house of the bourgeois rich, the circles of the Catholic pious, or the cafes that had their clienteles and newspapers – one for the military officers, one for the liberals, one for the royalists, etc. How opinion became ambient, in these cases, was easier to visualize, took on a human face.


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