This page has nothing to do with TAL insurance. Let me tell you why insurance is a con

So Tauel is a strage word and not one that I hear a lot. Imagine my surprise when I heard this TVC for TAL :

Nothing not to love here, right? I dig the Sia cover, the diversity of ‘Australianness’ represented, some beautiful shots and I can also see the clever messaging of starting with young people and finishing with the target market of older people. And then there’s hearing ‘Tauel’ as a brand… sort of intoxicating.

But I HATE it; because if there’s one industry I struggle to respect, it is insurance. And in this post I’m hoping to explain why.

First, a confession. I’ve actually had a lot of really bad experience with insurance companies, so I am in some sense prejudiced by my own experiences. I have repeatedly been in situations where insurance companies have done everything possible to avoid paying out on claims and employed guys in suits to come up with reasons not to pay, or to chase innocent parties up for the costs they’ve incurred.

I’ll mention a few incidents so you get the idea. When I was 18 a mate accidentally caused me to have an accident that totalled my insured car to the value of $1600, the insurance company was going to charge me $800 excess for being young, as well as the loss of my no-claim bonus; and then go after my mate legally to make him pay the full $1600. So just to recap – because they intended to recoup the money it took to fix the car PLUS my $800 excess, they stood to make $800 out of my honest reporting of what was an accident. We subsequently cancelled the claim and my mate and I sorted it out between us.

Another example was when the communal plumbing in a flat complex we were in flooded and caused damage to carpets and flooring in the adjacent rooms. The building insurer refused to pay to repair the flooring based upon the argument that the damage may have pre-existed the flood because there were cracks in some of the bathroom tiles – and couldn’t be attributed to the flooding caused by the burst communal plubming. There was, of course, no flooring damage before the flooding but the insurance company stood by the claim that if we couldn’t prove that there was previously no damage then we couldn’t prove that the damage was the result of the burst plumbing. So they maintained the position that we had tolerated a wet floor and seeping walls for however many months, just waiting for a colossal failure of the plumbing system, which we then used as convenient excuse to ask them to repair a separate problem which just coincidentally looked like being caused by the plumbing issue. That is a ludicrous claim and an ethical operation would stump up the money for repair clearly caused by the plumbing issue.

Finally, when my 1971 VW Beetle (which was in my family for 25 years) was totalled by a driver using their mobile phone, the driver’s insurance company gave me $600 compensation for the written off vehicle. When I complained that sum no way recognised the value of the car I was told that the age of the car depreciated its value… the car was almost 40 years old at that point and almost, but not quite, in the ‘vintage’ range – but no one would really claim that a 40 year old Beetle is depreciated in value because of its age. $600 was not enough to repair the vehicle and I had no money at that point in my life, so I lost my beautiful little car I’d had for 15 years.

All of these incidents have encouraged me to loathe insurance. I see it as a corrupt industry that ought to be avoided at all costs; even those insurers who ‘aren’t very insurancy’.

I also think that it doesn’t make sense financially to use insurance. Let me explain why. If you are running an insurance business then the only way you can make money is to charge your customers significantly more than the value you’re actually ‘risking’. That is, any insurance premium has to equal the net cost of insurance claims PLUS the cost of employing people to handle the claims, PLUS the cost of administration and management, PLUS the cost of advertising your company PLUS the profit your company needs to make.

So, in all cases, if you’re wealthy enough to absorb the financial risks associated with your lifestyle, then you’re better off without insurance. If you can ride out the bad years, overall, you’ll pay less; among other things that’s just less administration, marketing, management and shareholder profit you’re paying for. I understand that not everyone is that wealthy but that makes insurance an even more unfair imposition upon those who are already financially precarious.

Insurers are obligated to their shareholders to do everything possible to ensure that their clients don’t ‘beat the system’- meaning they will try to ensure that every customer pays far more in premiums and excess than they ever receive from the insurer. That means jacking up premiums at the first sign of an added risk (the person is infirm, young, old etc), and avoiding paying claims wherever possible. It also means that, at the lower ends of the spectrum, there are peculiar advantages to making people feel precarious, threatened and isolated in order to motivate them to take out insurance. It’s sort of a self reinforcing system of creating bad karma in exchange for money.

So yeah, I don’t love insurance. I now avoid any form of insurance I can and generally only hold it where it is compulsory. My family has swallowed the pill of ‘if you can afford private health insurance then you should take it out because it places less pressure on medicare. But this bothers me because of the inefficiency created through having multiple private insurers. Since the larger your customer base becomes you would lower your exposure to peculiar risks, the closer your premiums can get to a median value and the fairer your insurance would be. Similarly, the larger your customer base the more efficient your management and administration could be. Similarly if there were just one insurer, there would be no need for advertising expenditure. In short – if there is just one insurer (say medicare, for instance) insurance premiums would be almost entirely used for their purpose – to pay for the claims made against the insurance – instead of used to pay for marketing the need for further insurance, or creating a new brand to appeal to a safer insurance market.

Finally, I think that the idea of spending money to protect the material wealth we already have is a form of intense conservatism which seeks to preserve the worst aspects of our current existence (commodity fetishism, reification, materialism) and inhibits some of the best aspects (challenge, responsibility, compassion). There are reasons to collectively defray the impact of catastrophe – but using profit oriented companies to coordinate that is a misstep. And yeah, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with insurance companies. So I’m certainly not endorsing TAL.

What I thought of ‘The Memory Code’ by Lynne Kelly

Honestly, this was a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year and it did not disappoint me.

It presents a basic argument that the odd structuring of various ancient monuments and artwork is actually attributable to the fact that these once operated as technologies to encode cultural memories.

Kelly’s book speaks about quite a few of my longheld interests in history, oral cultures and indigenous cultures. It also discusses a number of places I’ve visited, such as Stonehenge, Maeshowe, Skara Brae, The Ring of Brogar and Machu Pichu. So possibly I loved it because it related specifically to my interests… but I think it also makes a profound contribution to thinking through how communications technologies shape our humanity.

Let’s get into it.

Kelly starts with an engagement with indigenous Australian memory practices and identifies how in these cultures, the movement within certain spaces was fundamental to inscribing cultural memory (through songlines). She refers to a rhetorical practice of loci used by the ancient greeks to aid memory retention. I had never come across the term ‘loci’ but I do remember this memory practice from Silva Rhetoricae

Orators were encouraged to envision where they would be speaking as a preparation for memorizing their speech. Then, having completed the speech’s composition, they were to divide it into manageable portions, each of which they would assign, in turn, to a different part of the room where the speech was to occur. Thus, by casting their eyes about during their speech, they would be reminded of the next part of their speech to give.

And she also refers to the ‘memory palaces’ that contemporary memory champions and card sharks use to, well, remember things. In each one of these scenarios being in a particular place (or imagining a particular place) is the first step to being able to recall the information.

Kelly was fascinated by the notion that oral cultures used these practices to encode cultural information before writing – and the sheer volume of information is staggering. She points to the Matses people of the Amazon as having recently created a 500 page encylcopedia of medicine based upon cultural memory that was previously passed down through oral traditions. Indigenous cultures need to remember the location of food and water, which plants you can eat when and the various geneologies of everyone in the culture to ensure that inbreeding does not occur. This is far more than most of us could remember in contemporary society but of course, for people without writing, remembering this stuff was integral to survival.

So, in the first few chapters of the book she recounts how she  tested the ‘loci’ system by developing her own memory spaces in her house, on her dog-walking route around her neighbourhood and then using abstract pieces of art, an object or a deck of cards as a further memory aid.

I have divided each room and every garden segment into ten locations as is suggested in the anonymous ancient Greek textbook on the topic, the Rhetorica ad Herennium… every fifth location is marked in some way… that ensures that nothing is missed as there must always be four locations between a marked spot. p.66

By doing this she has been able to memorise the events of world history, the different species of birds in Australia, details about the world’s states and capitals and so on. One location can be used to inscribe any number of types of information

Information may be in either of the songlines. It doesn’t matter. The links started happening from my first ventures into creating the songlines. The term I had used so often when talking about indigenous cultures was emerging. I was creating an ‘integrated knowledge system’. p.67

So she found that these pieces of information would start to relate to each other and take on their own inherent meaning.

After a year or so, I was starting to see patterns in the information even though I was not actively searching for them. I found my stories starting to take on the form of indigenous stories I’d read from all over the world. I was seeing familiar knowledge in a different way – vivid, visual and emotional. I gained insight and pleasure from the process. (p.xvii)

I don’t understand why I am never confused by drawing information from a whole range of memory spaces, but I am not. After a few years of adding data and commentary, stories and mythological characters, I cannot explain it to friends when they ask. It is too like hypertext and too little like the linear flow of a book. p.69

for these reasons:

Trying to separate indigenous practical knowledge from mythology is a process doomed from the start. The two are intricately interwoven. Rituals in non-literate cultures need to be considered on their own terms without trying to find an equivalent in literate cultures. Such an equivalent does not exist. p.6

So after she establishes how important place is to memory, and how places must have been important for storing cultural memory in pre-writing cultures, Kelly then has a revelation while at Stonehenge with her partner. She realises that a possible explanation for the arrangement of the oldest henge – as a huge circle of distinctly different stones – was probably an attempt to recreate songlines once communities had started to settle in one place. Because cultures were no longer nomadic, she argues, they needed to come up with a way to represent the memory spaces they had once used. Monuments such as the oldest henge at stonehenge would have provided the spaces necessary to recreate the traditional performances of songlines, without having to return to the scattered locations throughout the countryside.

Related image

(this is actually an image of nearby woodhenge – but you get the idea) – the outer ring of stones are uniquely different and everyone of them would have served as a ‘memory space’ to recall particular pieces of cultural information. The ditches around the henge, Kelly Argues, are for performances of the information. The ditch serves the twin purposes of amplifying the sounds and effect of the performance, and obscuring the view of anyone who is not permitted to share the knowledge.

Restricting knowledge affords power to those who have been taught and deemed competent by the elders who control that information. But there is another critical purpose. It is all to do with what is inappropriately referred to as ‘the Chinese-whispers effect’. Lots of people repeating the informaton in an uncontrolled way will inevitably lead to corruption of the facts stored within the songs. Distortion cannot be tolerated in information [vital to collective survival]…. the knowledge is not varied, it is sacred. p.9

Having already White and Ong and a few others on orality I had previously held a view that one of the great virtues of oral cultures was their flexibility – that they had the capacity to alter their knowledges as needs and perspectives evolved. Kelly does restate this advantage, but she also made it more clear that storytelling and knowledge itself was the locus of cultural power.

Kelly goes through a number of archeological marvels such as Chaco Canyon, the Ring of Brogar, Newgrange, Maeshowe and even the lines of Nazca and explains how they operated as memory spaces. It made me think of our guide at Machu Pichu, who explained that the purpose of certain rocks and cavities around the city had never been truly understood. Well Kelly came up with a pretty compelling explanation for these things as memory spaces, used to store the cultural memories ofa people who had settled and no longer visited the natural spaces they once did, but still needed to remember the knowledge associated with those spaces. Hence the reason why each of these cultures invested millions of hours of work into building monuments and structures with no discernable productive purpose.

However, her argument is that these stand-in monuments only operated as such during a particular ‘transitory’ phase between nomadism and civilisation.

It was only as societies settled and population centres grew large that heirarchies became established, with those at the top becoming wealthy and their world protected using guards, soldiers and warriors. It is from this time that individual burials with grave goods appear in the archaeological record. The knowedge specialists became the servants of the chiefs. From then until today, the power of knowledge was subjegated by the power of wealth and violence. p.33

Or:

As specialists emerged in the increasingly large and complex communities, no single group could control the knowledge system. Powerful individuals gained wealth. Egalitarianism was a thing of the past as a high staus warrior class emerged. When knowledge had been the prevailing source of power, the memory spaces were the predominant sign of the culture. Once wealth and violence replaced knowledge as the determining factor for control, the massive labour required to build megalithic monuments could no longer be justified by the community… [136] Knowledge specialists were still needed, and probably still powerful, just no longer at the top of the heirarchy… When knowledge was power, the Neolithic peoples built a memory space still unparalleled today. When wealth and violence became power, Stonehenge was abandoned. It had simply lost its purpose. pp.135-136

Increasing city populations, the emergence of specialist experts and the introduction of writing would have eroded the ability of the elders to control information. The elder who could memorise a thousand songs and all the knowledge of the culture was now long gone. p.251

Following the growth and specialisation of knowledge, keeps and fortifications became the dominant public architecture, which I find simply fascinating.

I guess I find it all so fascinating because Kelly is presenting a vivid picture of how practices of encountering and storing cultural knowlege have a direct and profound effect on the culture. My current research is looking at the effect of smart phones and big data upon culture and it isn’t hard to have your mind blown by thinking through the differences between the sort of cultural knowledge of nomadic people, compared to the cultural knowledge and practices imbued by smart phones and Google.

Consider her description of the connection the indigenous cultures have to country and place, (which helps me reflect on our contemporary lack of connection).

Nungarrayi, to use her Warlpiri title, described the catalogue of sounds which are ecoded as far more extensive than just the calls of the birds and other animals. For example, she described the way her people were able to identify trees and bushes and grasses by the sound in a breeze. I found this hard to believe but was assured that if I gave it a try I would discover that it is possible. That afternoon I sat in the bush and listened. What I would have described as silence, on a day which had very little wind, was anything but. I became aware of the bird sounds fairly quickly, but before long I became aware of the sounds of the plants. The eucalypt to my left, the acacias at the fron, and the grasses to the right all made distinctly different sounds.  I could not accurately convey these sounds in writing. In subsequent sessions, I’ve been able to distinguish between different species of eucalypt… p.6

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of place names, a seemingly unemotional task…. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extrordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For the elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embeded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense. p.15

One element of the change is the lack of connection with the natural, or even the viscerally real in contemporary culture; another is the lack of appreciation of wisdom (or knowledge that crosses disciplines) as opposed to knowledge within a specific discipline:

We store our books in neat categories: science on one side of the library, ethics on the other and mythology somewhere else. These silos of generic information are an artefact of literacy, where so much is written and research is so focused that much of the interconnectedness of the human experience is lost. The extraordinary depth within each genre has come at the cost of the intergrated format of oral tradition. p.29

And of course, there is also the issue of pleasure. It seems to me that gaining knowledge used to be intimately tied to experiencing pleasure (forgive the play on words).

…gatherings serve the need for tade and to find marriage partners, as well as being for pure pleasure. Gatherings are also the forums to teach and trade knowledge through ceremony. p.12

While movies about US universities make me think this link between learning and pleasure hasn’t been completely forgotten about, the trend toward digital delivery and ‘blended learning’ in my own university suggests that efficient information transmission is now seen as the sole purpose of communication. But what is the price of the cultural, natural and ritual knowledge we lose as a result of always being online? Kelly doesn’t enter into any of this but that’s just as well, it is my interest, not necessarily hers – but I intend to ask her what she thinks of how digital technology is reconfiguring these memory practices.

And throughout all of this, Kelly has made an indelible contribution to my thinking through communication as ritual, not just information transmission. The songlines and structures she describes are not just about the information but also about the process of coming together to make meaning. The relationality experienced by building these monuments, and then using them to store cultural memories must have made this aspect of people’s communicative existence incredibly meaningful, not to mention the performative and aesthetic aspects of singing, performing and displaying ones knowledge and relationships.

On the use of abstract motifs on art as memory aids:

It was the process that mattered, not the product. I gradually understood why so many indigenous ‘art’ words were simply erased or left to rot after ceremonies and rituals. They had already served their purpose by the very fact that they were made. p.47

So finally, and I know this has been a long one, but I feel that this really has been an important book (and is well worth the read), I’ll finish on Kelly’s reflection on her own experience with training with memory places, which reflects my engagement with her work.

It has been a revelation to learn to think differently. It has also been the most wonderful fun. p.63

Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ – musings on comedy, stories, art and connection

Hannah Gadsby and images of thought

So, I went to see Hannah Gadsby on Saturday night. It was one of the best hours of entertainment I’ve ever seen… but not because it was funny.

It was raw, emotional and incredibly thought provoking. It was obliterating comedy and I’d like to think through some of the issues she raised. So *SPOILERS* below for Gadsby’s show ‘Nanette’.

The show starts innocuously enough, some pretty typical gags following Gadbsy’s typical self-depricating style. For those who don’t know Gadsby is a non-identifying lesbian of literally immense stature and these aspects of her identity have typically provided her with comedic material. This show began with her quite typically recounting how others react to her presence, or discussing how her sexuality, quiet disposition and physicality alienated her from various communities; then making jokes about how that process resolved.

Straight white men did not come off well throughout. But it was funny, and honest observational humour – she did a lot here to establish the relative meaningless of the various identities she is ‘ascribed’. ‘I don’t identify as Lesbian, I identify as “tired”, she says, and at another point ‘Did you know, men and women have more in common with each other than they don’t? Men and women are more alike than people and dogs; so stop separating us in to separate teams from day dot.’ And finally ‘I would not like to be a straight white man. It’s the worst time in human history to be a straight white man right now. I wouldn’t be a straight white man if you paid me; although the pay would be substantial’. Good, funny stuff – observing social malaise and commenting on it with laffs.

Towards the middle of the show she started discussing the process of comedy. All jokes, she maintains, are composed of the two parts ‘set-up’ and ‘punchline’. The set-up, she argues establishes a tension in the listener audience. It makes them feel uncomfortable about something, or many things, by painting a picture of an absurdity, an injustice or an apparent contradiction. The set up ‘artificially inseminates’ the audience with an anxiety or dissonance that makes them uncomfortable.

The punchline is the thing that defrays that tension. The comedian comes riding to the rescue of the audience by saying something that allows a laugh to remove the tension. Everyone laughs, feels better. But Gadsby spent the rest of the night exploring what resolving that tension is doing to her, and justifying her decision to quit comedy as a result

Gadsby’s success in comedy comes from an intensely personal tension. Because of her ‘situation’ (as she describes it) she has been defraying tension all her life; ‘I didn’t have to invent the tension, I was the tension’. This has equipped her for comedy as she has become expert at making people feel at ease with her and the tension she creates. However, she has found that what actually happens during comedy is that when she dissolves the tension in the room, the audience feels better but she does not. As a marginal figure, she argues she is constantly using comedy to make people feel at home with their prejudices and their contradictions. ‘Self-deprecation from the margins’ she says, ‘is not humility, it is humiliation.’

After spelling this dynamic out in the middle third of the show, the final third is a harrowing, brilliant and relatively humourless exploration of how this comedic mechanism relates to art and story-telling. Gadsby maintains she can’t do ‘angry’ comedy, because she understands the intellectual pointlessness and moral danger of using the ‘set-up’ to create tension and identify a category of villains that can be used to resolve that tension. She points instead to storytelling as a mechanism of power and change. And in some great riffs on art history, she also identifies that the powerful have always been attracted to artists because they understand the importance of stories. Stories are different to jokes because they have three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end. (A set up, a complication and a resolution). It is the resolution that differs from the joke because it fully considers the aftermath of the events. It tries to relate what happened in the story to what is happening now and in this way, it does not necessarily resolve the tension.

The last few minutes of the show consisted in Gadsby relating the ‘real’ non-joke endings to a number of the stories she had used to establish tension in the first third of the show. Whereas in the first part of the show, Gadsby expertly relieved the tension with one liners and humour, in these final minutes she retold these stories including details of her molestation, rape, bashing and associated self-loathing. These revelations of jokes as stories was the end of Gadsby’s time on stage and, despite a standing ovation, she would not return to relieve our tension and make us comfortable again.

So, it was a hugely powerful experience. And as well as the central argument about what is happening in comedy/stories Gadsby also did great work on the various myopias of art criticism, individualism, reputation, identity politics and straight white men. All of it was intelligent, passionate and the end result was highly compelling. It’s probably the best piece of ‘comedy’ I’ve ever seen; but not because it was funny.

And when I say it was compelling, it compelled me to want to get drunk because of the force of Hannah’s exposition (although IRL I didn’t/couldn’t). It also had me convinced she was on to something about an inherent problem of comedy. However, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to disagree with the premises of her argument about quitting comedy, while admiring the hell out of it nonetheless. I agree with just about everything else she said, particularly on the unheralded importance of humanity and connection in all stories.

Things get a bit wordy below, so only read on if you’re into philosophy or critical theory.

The basis of my disagreement with Gadsby’s position lies in a Deleuzean argument about (against) the ideal image of thought constructed by Hegel. That is, categories and ideals pre-exist our consideration of those things, and our deviation from them always involves a dialectic reconciliation back toward those ideals. Gadsby refutes this categorisation throughout most of her comedy and yet she maintains that the ‘defray/resolution’ always gravitates back to the preconceived categories i.e. I’m always and invariably understood as a minority. She spells this out particularly when she discusses a conversation she had with her mother that helped her decide to quit comedy.

 The thing I regret is that I raised you as if you were straight. That must have been so confusing for you. I knew well before you did that your life was going to be so hard and I wanted more than anything in the world for that not to be the case.  But I now know that I made it worse, I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.

Here, Hannah, her mother and the world and their roles are cast as impervious to change. These things exist as categories that always have primacy over experience, that will always drag experience back toward their centre.

I’d argue that this is a misunderstanding and while I don’t begrudge Gadsby her perspective I’d advance a different model of thought, where the realisation of difference opens up a space for connection and ‘becoming-other’… of escaping from the category that you’re in and becoming something new. Gadsby, I’m sure is aware of this possibility, even if she doesn’t name it, possibly because she doesn’t want to let the audience ‘off the hook’ of thinking through how their ‘categories’ are defined. Gadsby’s resistance of identity tags is one indication of her resistance to the Hegelian image of thought. She also betrays this philosophy in some of her more powerful concluding comments:

To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. To render someone powerless is what destroys that humanity.

I do believe we can make a better world if we tried to see if from as many different perspectives as possible.

And of course, as a straight white man, I’d prefer not to think that our categories are non-negotiable and that an engagement such as ‘Nanette’ can indeed be productive of new perspectives, new connections and a redeemed humanity. Thanks to Gadsby for a real piece of art.

On time and drumming with Taylor Hawkins

So I went to watch the Foo Fighters on the weekend and had a few moments when I achieved a philosophical appreciation for the excellent drumming of Taylor Hawkins.

Taylor Hawkins – according to Dave Grohl ‘The answer to the question – “What if Freddy Mercury had a surfboard”? – is one of the better drummers I’ve seen live. And I think the fact that he’s clearly a Queen fan is no coincidence. Hawkins has a remarkable ability to enter into the moment and alter it both with his singing, drumming and presence more generally.

Don’t get me wrong, Dave Grohl is also a consummate showperson – every time I’ve seen him (3 times now) I’m impressed by his commitment to perform. He’s always interested in reactions, and responsive to them, 1 and I usually spend some of the show thinking about whether his musical legacy is more important than Kurt Cobain’s… and I generally answer ‘yes’, and that’s some testament to his talent and endeavour.

But with Hawkins, he is equally in control and also (at least seemingly) possessed by the performance – just like Freddy Mercury. When I’m watching him I get the impression that what he’s producing is in and of the moment. Possessing ‘haecceity’, or ‘thisness’ that makes something truly unique.

As a communication theorist the reason I find this fascinating is that communication is typically understood in our world as a process of ‘information exchange’. That is, according to both scientific and empirical theories of communication, when I’m listening to Hawkins and the Foo Fighters I am receiving information – here’s the high hat, here’s the kick drum and so on. However, the experience of being at a Foo Fighters concert is significantly more than that information. Hawkins slight altering of the tempo and beat patterns are in and of the moment and adaptive to the feeling of the music which is immanent to the crowd and the occasion.

I have previously written about why live music experience cannot be replicated and I touched on this issue there. There is something incommensurable (incommunicable) about such experiences and that is – in essence –  the thing. I also know that great theorists like Ron Bogue and, of course, Heidegger, have written about time and experience in far more interesting ways.

However, my take away, and something that I think is helping me think through these issues, is that communication (real communication) is a process, not information exchange. In identifying it as a process you come to understand the difference between information and communication. We have the ability to exchange information globally, and indeed you can even see examples of Taylor Hawkins performance on the weekend right here.

But while the information has complete parity with what happened on the weekend, it is not communicating the same thing. The reason is because there is a process involved in watching music live that is not replicated in reading a blog.

While understanding that process is important seems to replicate McLuhan’s ‘Media is the message’ what I think is really important is to understand what is not happening in ‘information exchange’… a reduced appreciation for iteration and immanence for one, a failure to appreciate our human capacity for another… and an absence of reduction to purpose, a celebration of experience in its place.

‘Zombie Capitalism’ by Chris Harman

Wow, this was a long and sometimes arduous read.

Zombie Capitalism is an orthodox marxist account of the repeated crises of capitalism. Written by Chris Harman, who is a maxist of some repute, I read the book hoping to see how the Zombie trope was employed to explain/confront capitalism.

In 360 odd pages, Zombies were not mentioned, not once. Vampirism did cop a mention in the final chapter, and there was quite a bit on the ‘organic composition of capital’ and ‘dead labour’ – but nothing explicitly on Zombies. This makes me suspicious that the title arose as a marketing gimmick as Zombies were hot at the time of publication (2009).

Anyway, I read the whole thing which took me ages because I knew enough about marxism and historical materialism to be somewhat uninspired. This was a book that – at least until the last third – I could not maintain an interest in. In the last third, the manner in which Harman dealt with the financial crisis of 2008 did become more interesting and new… but for the most part this felt a little polemical, even if it was generally consistent as a result.

Anyway, it was healthy for me to reacquaint myself with Marxism before engaging in my own ‘zombie history of everything’ in my upcoming book, so I pushed through and here’s a few of the things that I will take away from Zombie Capitalism.

  • When you write as a historical materialist, you locate the source of every social and cultural change within changes within the means of production. Harman explains every moment of crisis in capitalism as arising out of the pressing need for capital to find profit in a system where the rate of profit actually decays as an inherent part of the system of competitive accumulation.

To explain the issue of decay, I find thinking about managing a factory to be helpful. If you’re a factory manager then investing in a better widget maker, or a bigger workforce, or digitising your records will all operate to increase your efficiency and therefore your rate of profit. However, this advantage only lasts until all your competitors copy your innovation. Moreover, if one of your competitors does something else to innovate or economise, the actual profitability of your product on the open market decreases (because on an open market you need to be able to value match your competitors in order to sell, so your profit margins are actually reduced by competitor’s innovations/gains in efficiency.

So the system is not just a system of commodity production; it is a system of competitive accumulation. This creates limits to the action possible not only for workers, but also for capitalists. For if they do not continually seek to exploit their workers as much as is practically possible, they will not dispose of the surplus value necessary to accumulate as quickly as their rivals. They can choose to exploit their workers in one way rather than another. But they cannot choose not o exploit their workers at all, or even exploit them less than other capitalists do – unless they want to go bust. They themselves are subject to a system which pursues its relentless course whatever the feelings of individual human beings. p.37

The problem for the system as a whole is that the ‘real value’ (that is the value accumulated in the process of producing a thing) remains constant, while the opportunity to profit from producing things decreases. So Harman points out that falling rates of profit are endemic to the capitalist system and also points out how they have resulted in the need for both war and increasingly ludicrous financial speculation as a source of profit.

(for e.g) Vast expansion of military spending has been a crucial ‘solution’ to various crises in capitalism (US/Germany in the 1930s). But as a non-productive investment (Harman describes it like advertising, a waste of productive capacity that nevertheless helps to secure markets for real production), this creates inflationary pressure on the economy which mandate a need to return to actual productive investments (such as rebuilding or colonising after a war). So Harman views ‘total’ and proxy war as a direct outcome of the mechanisms of capitalist accumulation.

A more recent solution to the falling rate of profit has been to focus on making profit out of speculation, rather than actual production. The promotion of various sort of spot market and derivative trading schemes has arisen, according to Harman, because the mega-rich can no longer make great money off simple production. The GFC is explained as a direct result of the failure to anticipate the falling rate of profit that Marx predicted. Harman is delightfully droll in his critiques of economic theory in missing this.

  •  The state plays an inherent and central role in maintaining existing capital. This argument flew in the face of much of what I previously felt to be true (i.e. the state is no longer useful for much at all) but Harman makes a fairly compelling point about how the state serves two crucial purposes in capital accumulation.
  • Firstly, a strong state creates all sorts of public goods that capital relies on to increase its rate of profit. A well educated and innovative workforce with good health care and policing is a significant and immutable advantage for profitability. Even if such a workforce might demand a higher wage, the fact that another bright, secure and disciplined worker can be found locally is a significant advantage for capital.
  • Secondly, the state has played an increasingly important role in maintaining the profitability of capital. As mentioned above, Harman details the significant increase in government spending as a share of GNP since World War 2. This seemed almost counter-intuitive to me but is apparently clear enough. The state plays a more central role in diverting public money into productive or non-productive investments in order to maintain some profitability for capital. This includes facilitating mergers and subsidies to increase competitiveness of capital ventures within a state (the US state played a central role in consolidating its microchip and aerospace industry in order to maintain a profit advantage over international competitors (p.254-257). Similarly, when crashes come about, the state is the only entity with the capacity to bail out the system (i.e the recent GFC)… so the state is essentially the curator and guarantor of the capitalist system.2 This linked nicely back in to Agamben’s point that all struggle is now struggle against the state.

So given the orhtodoxy of his approach, it is probably unsurprising that Harman identifies the solution to the problems of capitalism in the paradoxes of the system itself. He bravely rejects the ‘autonomous’ moves of Western marxism which have been eminently fashionable since Empire was released by Hardt and Negri in 2000. In its place he identifies a very particular sort of ‘intersectionality’ of the working class that should supply capitalism’s grave diggers. It is in the large aggregations of exploited workers, who will be facing increasing systemic failures in the coming years that Harman locates the source of change. 3  It is (still) the working class, and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system, which will produce change.

So, reflecting on the book as a whole. It was interesting in the final third and I suppose I learned some things about the marxist approach to materialism that I had forgotten in my long exposure to critical theory. However, I found Harman’s approach to be slightly doctrinaire and rooted, still, in a sort of deification of productive process. Yes, that is both the strength and the weakness of the work.

As a challenge to the paradigm of historical materialism, for instance, how is it possible to reconcile the view of digital capitalism that is advanced in move fast and break things with the model that Harman perceives as integral to capitalism? Specifically, the decay of profit takes place because of competitors actions, or the mobility and organisation of labour. How then, does this analysis relate to Google, who absorbs all competitors and thus actually has no competition? Similarly, when profit is no longer related at all to use value but rather the perceived value on the market, the issue of ‘productive vs unproductive labour’ seems to become very muddied. Harman clearly believes that ‘dead labour’ (commodities produced in the past that contribute to production -i.e. the labour invested in a hammer) and constant capital still play an integral role in the production of value. I’m just not so sure that’s true in a post-scarcity economy. Whether ‘real costs’ are at all important in contemporary economics is inherently questionable (although I certainly agree that they ought to be).

Despite these minor issues its clear that Harman is (was) a decent academic and a strong critical reader of economic theory. I have my reservations about focusing on production, when I see very little opportunity to alter that relationship without also focusing on consumption (which I believe is the more pressing symptom of contemporary capitalism – not that our workers don’t get enough to eat, rather that they are encouraged to eat too much in order to generate higher rates of profit). But what Harman has reminded me about is that a strong materialist philosophy is another solid way to escape relying on philosophies of consciousness to create a better world. It was refreshing to see a marxist ‘stick to their guns’ and point out why capitalism might eat itself after all.

I’ll finish this rather long post with some of my favourite quotes from the book.

on the inherent immorality of the capitalist system:

in every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Apres moi le deluge! [After me, the flood] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the outcry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? [Marx, The working day, Capital]

on the need for class consciouness rather than ethnic consciousness:

…there are two different directions in which the despair and bitterness that exist among the ‘multitudes’ in the great cities of the Third World can go. One direction involves workers struggling collectively and pulling millions of other impoverished people behind them. The other involves demagogues exploiting the sense of hopelessness, demoralisation [346] and fragmentation to direct the bitterness ofone section of the impoverished mass against the other sections. That is why the working class cannot simply be seen as just another grouping within ‘the multitude’ or ‘the people’, and of no intrinsic importance for the struggle against the system. p.345-346

on the inherent contradictions of the system:

As the runaway system lurches from boom to slump and tries to boost profits and write off debts in a wild attempt to lurch back again it dashes the very hopes of a secure life that it has encouraged in the past. It insists the mass of people have to work longer for less, to accept they must lose their jobs because bankers lost their heads, to resign themselves to hardship in old age, to give up their homes to pay the repo men, to go hungry on peasant plots so as to pay the moneylender and the fertiliser supplier. p.350

on the rise of finance in the economy:

Global financial assets were equal to 316 percent of annual world output in 2005, as against only 109 percent in 1980. p.278

Quoting Engels on private interest vs public interest and failure of process perspective:

The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions… In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominately concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character. [Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, in Marx and Englels, Collected Works, Volume 25, p.461] p.83

 

Continue reading “‘Zombie Capitalism’ by Chris Harman”

‘The Comming Community’ by Georgio Agamben

Because of the need to return the book to the library, I spent yesterday reading ‘The Comming Community’ by Agamben.

Translated by Micheal Hardt, who worked with the other prominent recent Italian theorist Antonio Negri on ‘Empire’, I  initially started reading this book because I felt it might be useful for one of my PhD students, but then thought that it might have something to offer in terms of a different understanding of both community and communication.

Well, the book did have some vague ideas about this which I will bastardise as this:

  1. that understanding truly occurs through the occupying the position of the other.
  2. that commodity fetishism is a continuation of the idol worship (and deferrence of judgement) implicit to religion
  3. That we remain in  fascistic system of meaning through representation.
  4. That emancipation is no longer possible by seizing  control of the state but rather all community must exist in opposition to the state.

So these are important points and, to be fair, these points are made among some very detailed and historically interesting arguments about representation, meaning and community. There were a few passages that struck me as somewhat profound:

In regard to some recent thinking I’ve been doing around AI, ethics and zombism:

‘The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realise. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible – there would be only tasks to be done.’  P. 42

In regard to the paradox of representation:

‘If the word through which a thing is expressed were either something other than the thing itself or identical to it, then it would not be able to express the thing.’  P.73

and on the issue of the meaning of communication/ communication as information exchange:

‘What hampers communication is communicability itself; humans are separated by what unites them. Journalists and mediacrats are the new priests of this alienation from human linguistic nature… There is nothing of God, or of the world, or of the revealed in language…

…Even more than the economic necessity and the technological development, what rives the nations of the earth toward a single common destiny is the alienation from linguistic being, the uprooting of all peoples from their vital dwelling in language’. P. 82

Did I love the book? Well it was easy and quick to read and it generated quite a bit of associated knowledge on my part, such as the discovery of Swiss writer Robert Walser and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould both of whom seem incredibly interesting. The quotes above really gave me a bit of a thrill as well.

However, overall, this was philosophy and not really critical theory. As philosophy it seemed to treat religious ideas and texts as sacrosanct and while there was also some interesting meditations on the various mathematical/biological and philosophical debates about individuation vs transcendentals I found it weird that there was always a deferrment to the religious perspective.

Overall, while reading this was a nice break from the Marxist history I’ve otherwise been progressing through, I’m not really sure that I comprehend how to ‘use’ these arguments; possibly that is Agamben’s hope.

‘Disconnected’ by Carrie James

I’ve just finished reading ‘Disconnected: Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap’ by Carrie James. James has taken a ‘glass half empty’ approach to how the internet is reconfugiring ethics in this crazy, mixed up world.

I have to say, the book is largely empirical – James directly describes the ethical dilemmas and work around that their research subjects – preteens to young adults – are generally employing from 2008-2012. James writes clearly and confidently and the real strength of the work is in its observation of how ethics is negotiatied (or not) online.

A few things struck me while reading it. Firstly, there is some really putrid behaviour online, and the nature of the internet seems to actually be eliciting putrid behaviour offline. Two cases that struck me were the Stuebenville rape case and the rise of ‘creepshot’ sites/pages/subredits. In each case the possibility of sharing degrading images seems to have actually provided the incentive for committing acts of assault and molestation. I won’t go into detail here but what I found weirdest about this was that the tech (anonymous, or psudo-private sharing) seems to be opening up ‘new’ ways of victimising people.  I guess that sounds like a ‘duh!’ statement, considering the breadth of information about cyberbullying that is out there. However, I’d previously considered these instances to be simply ‘amplified’ versions of offline behaviours. Here we’re seeing the development of specific bullying to suit the media d’jour.

James explains how this has become possible – there is a growing gap between how we understand ethics in our ‘real life’ and how this is understood online. Teenagers (and others) tend to regard online ethics and morality only in terms of personal consequences; a problem exacerbated by education programs and parents that are focused on protecting ‘the children’. This doesn’t encourage thinking of others and there is a tendency for the internet to appear as a distinctly different space to real life. Given that it is a pretty vile place for most people – they develop a view that it is completely ‘virtual’ (in the traditional, not Deleuzean sense) and thus don’t necessarily approach it as moral agents.  James finishes up the book by naming a few things that can be done to force a reconsideration of online actions as an extension of real communities and relationships (and also constituted by real ‘others’ who deserve respect).

This brings me to what I see as the key oversight of the book – that it brackets and disregards a lot of the broader normative arguments that surround this research program. For instance to what extent are horrid ethical (and moral) choices a sign of the broader social and cultural times and not something directly related to technology use? At a few points James raises this question, or at least points out that this is a possibility which she is not focussing on. But for me, she could have well reflected on this more meaningfully. She clearly states that it is difficult to know how much of the ‘self interest/self concern’ attitude that dominated her research group was a consequence of technology and how much was a pure reflection of the parents pre-existing attitudes. Because she does state that this attitude of self interest was the defining feature of parents approach and educational explanation of ethics. So, the book left me wondering how much we can blame technology for declining ethical standards, when the same decline in care for others has been evident in the voting patterns and social attitudes of the last few generations.

and finally, a note on realisability:

James’ solutions all involve getting the online ethical world to relate more directly to the offline world. Here she is challenging the fundamental problem of ‘disconnect’ as described in the book’s title. In an engaging passage in the last chapter she describes a ‘conscious connectivity’ and ‘roles and responsibilities’ thinking which can help people think through the real world implications for their online behaviour.  The roles and responsibilities angle (that you should consider the ramifications of your online actions in light of all facets of your character) was particularly provocative for me, as it seems to imply a semi-repressive disciplinary subjectivity which would be the opposite of other-regarding or connective ethics. Surely, one of the things that makes the internet interesting is that you can escape your ‘roles and responsibilities’ and experiment with different subject positions? It seems to me that doing so (experiencing something like being someone else) is actually one of the best opportunities to broaden your ethical perspective.

In the face of this, I’d like to advance the concept of ‘realisability’. Its actually an idea developed by Elliot Delys in his 2010 Honours research which he did with me. ‘Realisability’ is an added dimension to digital ethics which describes the possible implications of an online action. Simply put an online action which has direct and clear offline effects has a high degree of realisability whereas an online action which has no clear effect on an other has a low degree of realisability. With this concept as a moderator upon ethcial judgement, it possible to judge the actual moral and ethical implications of online behaviour without completely restricting the experimentations that online space offers.

So, for instance, posting hate speech on a marginalised group’s facebook page has a high degree of realisability – the hatred is subjectively experienced by a large number of people who each internalise the message with specific ramifications. Compare that to trying to inhabit a different subjectivity in an online chatroom where the only possible ‘realisable’ effect is the discovery of your disengenousness… well while the latter may be unethical, it could be considered only so if the effects are realisable.

And for those of you having trouble with the notion that there are always implications for online actions, you can think of ‘realisability’ to think through those implications (and the other assumptions you’re making about our relationship to the virtual). To what extent is any online action realisable and why?

Been gone a while

It has been some time since my last post. Partly this is because I’ve had no immediate teaching reason to be playing around with web design, partly this is because I haven’t had much spare time of late but MOSTLY this is because the last time I wrote a post (about the inherent corruption of insurance) word press swallowed up the draft. This was enough of a kick in the teeth for me to stop this hobby for a while.

But today, the kids are at their grandparents and I have a moment to myself so I thought I would take the time to update all my plugins (etc) and make a post about what has been going on.

1. Australia says ‘Yes’ to marriage equality.

Phew. *packs application for NZ citizenship back into drawer*.

I have nothing insightful or intelligent to add to this, except that this was a case where a ‘no’ answer would have driven me to the pits of despair. I can also add that I did not encounter a ‘no’ argument that made any logical sense and while I understand that ‘no’ voters are scared of change, I’m a big believer in Yoda’s claim that fear leads to hate, hate leads to anger and anger leads to suffering. Fear is not the basis of an argument, it’s an emotion (and an often irrational and dangerous one at that).

Mostly I am just relieved that Australia wasn’t revealed to be more conservative than Ireland and the US(!) and hopefully this shift towards equality can be realised in ever more broader terms.

2. Zombie writing continues apace.

My article with Katie Atwell and Ian Dolphin ‘Wishing for the Apocalpyse: The Walking Dead as ecosophic object‘ was turned around very quickly by Continuum and has been published. It was great fun to write with Katie and Ian, who are old friends and TWD afficionados. I’m not sure it makes a strong a fist as it could – I was hoping to make a broader important point about the fate of literary criticism needing to avoid profound ‘individuation’ – but we were really hampered by the word limit.

The next project is really the book Humans vs Zombies, which will draw on that article and other work I’ve been doing on big data, and previous work on what it takes to be human (as well as the central conceit, that mobile phones may be helping us become zombies). I’m having trouble really figuring out whether its a book concerned with zombism (the lack of agency in desire) or a book concerned with technology (a summary of all the research out there about what mobile phones and digital media are doing to our culture). But I’m trying to snythesise those two arguments. At the moment, I’m reading Zombie Capitalism by Chris Harman, and he’s definitely using zombie as a pejorative adjective rather than a possibly creative concept. It has been a useful refresher on Marxism and thus has reminded me of endless units from undergrad.

3. Teaching semester is wrapping up

Hence the blog post. Grades more or less all done now. I had some great students this year but overall am a little alarmed about the declining level of ‘investment’ or effort in tertiary students. Don’t get me wrong – the great students are still great – but the ‘middle’ students who could once be inspired now listen online, work from Google and learn the bear minimum. They avoid effort and they avoid difference and thus the net effect of teaching (lifting people beyond what they already know) is being reduced IMHO. I see this as a little bit of a crisis for education, at the very least at the tertiary level. And I guess I’ld like to write more on it later.

Anyway, that’d be enough for now. There’s more on my mind – such as the #MeToo campaign and the role of social media in policing social crime. But I’ll stop now to keep it fresh and hopefully not spend too long before I do this again. And hopefully, this time, the internet won’t swallow my draft.

 

What I thought of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin

When Jon Taplin appeared on ABC’s Nightline a couple of months ago I had a string of recommendations to engage with his work – notably from my mum and Joe Hutton – as well as colleagues at UWA. After reading his latest book “Move fast and break things” I understand why.

Taplin explores the effect of digital monopolies on cultural production throughout the book. Some of the arguments were painfully familiar to me; I’ve also written about ‘The big data public and its problems’ in an upcoming issue of New Media and Society. My argument being that the network benefits of sharing one particular system (Google, Amazon, Facebook) actually creates a tendency towards homogenisation and the loss of difference.

Taplin explores this phenomenon through music – outlining how the prevalence of YouTube as a music streaming service has eroded regional and stylistic differences in musical styles. But where Taplin really added to my understanding of the digital media ‘ecology’ was in the description of how the internet behemoths act as monopsony – creating a market situation where there is only one ‘buyer’ of cultural goods – specifically YouTube for music, Facebook for news, Google for information and Amazon for books.  By being the only place where artists can effectively sell their material online, these vendors can issue demands about pricing and distribution that are essentially noncompetitive and unfair to the artists… What this means is that unless you’re at the very top of your game (whatever that game is) it is becoming harder and harder to survive through producing things.

Taplin does a great job of exploring the libertarian philosophical underpinnings of these industries and also equating what is going on in the digital world to the increasing economic stratification within late industrial economies. In this world you’re either flourishing because you’re riding the tech wave and are either enjoying or employing a digital monopoly or you’re sidelined and becoming increasingly powerless.

The book is not without its weaknesses, Taplin paints an overly rosy picture of the A&R culture of music labels and it’s clear that he is writing from a position where – as a producer of cultural commodities – he has been undercut by digital tools.

However, his intimate experience of seeing his friends, colleagues and family struggle in the new media world adds passion to his writing. More importantly, his research into how Google has infiltrated the upper echelons of the US democratic system is really illuminating. He also points out how ineffective the judiciary and legislature has been in trying to curtail the noncompetitive practices of these digital giants.

He presents a re-decentralised, local and competitive vision of a better digital future, which I also feel has to be the way forward. However, he doesn’t really outline how we would get there, with some of his ideas seeming to be based upon the collective will to disengage with the ‘masses’.

I feel the problem with this optimism is that we are all too concerned with what ‘everyone else’ is thinking to have the will to break away from that and seek more local and subjective experiences. However, I do think these local and subjective experiences are still, actually, more rewarding, so maybe that’s the field that digital media can open up.

TL;DR It was a fascinating book and well worth a read.