For my first post, I wanted to highlight and comment on an utterly brilliant essay by Justin E H Smith for The Point Magazine published earlier this year. I’ve been thinking about it on a fairly regular basis ever since I first read it, and it provides a useful point of departure for exploring a number of important concepts – the relationship between ideology and power, who we are and what makes us subjects, discourse and politics. Here’s the section which stood out most to me:
There are memes circulating that are known as “bingo cards,” in which each square is filled with a typical statement or trait of a person who belongs to a given constituency, a mouth-breathing mom’s-basement-dwelling Reddit-using Men’s Rights Activist, for example, or, say, an unctuous white male ally of POC feminism. The idea is that within this grid there is an exhaustive and as it were a priori tabulation, deduced like Kant’s categories of the understanding, of all the possible moves a member of one of these groups might make, and whenever the poor sap tries to state his considered view, his opponent need only pull out the table and point to the corresponding box, thus revealing to him that it is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running. The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all. […]
Another example: I have read that Tinder users agree that one should “swipe left’” (i.e. reject) on any prospective mate or hookup who proclaims a fondness for, among other writers, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway or William S. Burroughs. I couldn’t care less about the first two of these, but Burroughs is very important to me. He played a vital role in shaping how I see the world (Cities of the Red Night, in particular), and I would want any person with whom I spend much time communicating to know this. I believe I have good reasons for valuing him, and would be happy to talk about these reasons.
I experience my love of Burroughs as singular and irreducible, but I am given to know, when I check in on the discourse, that I only feel this way because I am running a bad algorithm. And the result is that a part of me—the weak and immature part—no longer wants the overarching “You may also like…” function that now governs and mediates our experience of culture and ideas to serve up “Adolph Reed” or “William S. Burroughs” among its suggestions, any more than I want Spotify to suggest, on the basis of my playlist history, that I might next enjoy a number by Smash Mouth. If the function pulls up something bad, it must be because what preceded it is bad. I must therefore have bad taste, stupid politics; I must only like what I like because I’m a dupe.https://thepointmag.com/2019/examined-life/its-all-over
On a cursory reading, this seems to neatly outlines the limits of a standpoint-theory or perspectivist account of subjectivity as components of neoliberal ‘woke’ discourse. Individuals are reduced to their component identities – their race, gender, sexual orientation, job, and so on. Your opponent works in a coal mine? I wonder what he thinks about global warming? Of course, once you know someone’s identity along these vectors, you can deduce the categories, whip out the bingo card and – whenever they express their own apparently-considered opinion – smash down the stamp and proclaim ‘Bingo!’ (You said what I predicted you would say!) No counter-argument is required, the very fact that it could be anticipated in advance negates the argument a priori.
While the ‘bingo card’ has long been a favoured tactic of the Extremely Online Left, the right have their own approach to this through the ‘NPC’ meme. According to the NPC meme, ‘the left’ are essentially the equivalent of Non-Playable Characters in a video game: programmed in advance, lacking true autonomy or free will, with scripted lines which they repeat ad nauseam (“Conservatives are racists!”). As with the ‘Bingo’ meme, the arguments being made are predicted in advance and repudiated purely by virtue of the correctness of the prediction. The argument in both cases: The views you hold are predictable functions of your identity as (insert race/gender/sexuality/political leaning); that this reflects a lack of critical, autonomous thinking on your part; and that my ability to predict your argument in advance demonstrates the programmatic nature of your consciousness.
But I think there’s much more to it than that, and I’d like to engage on a more meaningful level than simply yet another critique of Neoliberal IdPol, because the problem goes much deeper. Importantly, Smith writes:
Someone who thinks about their place in the world in terms of the structural violence inflicted on them as they move through it is thinking of themselves, among other things, in structural terms, which is to say, again among other things, not as subjects.https://thepointmag.com/2019/examined-life/its-all-over
This is perhaps where Smith goes wrong, but also why his pessimism does not go deep enough. Subjectivity is itself conditioned and determined structurally through the operations of power and ideology. The subject is who she is because of the modulating influences of power, reproduced in and through the subject. Whether we cash this out in Foucauldean or Althusserian terms, as biopolitics or interpellation, I take it that this remains the most accurate assessment of the conditioning of human subjectivity: the individual subjectivised through common-place and subconscious practices of ideological recognitions (Handshakes, calls, and so on – responses to ‘hailings’ from the church, school, family, etc, which even in rejection situate the subject in a certain relationship to the priest, family members, classmates, etc) To think of the subject is, properly speaking, to think of the relay-point of power and ideology. Althusser argues that subjectivity itself is perhaps the ideological mystification par excellence, masking the flux of power-relations and reiterating interpellation going on beneath the mask of consciousness. Althusser writes:
As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being’. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc….). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect.Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014), p. 262
To put it in Žižekian terms: the point at which a subject believes they have escaped ideology is the point at which they are most deeply immersed in it. What Smith is diagnosing here is perhaps yet another manifestation of the function of ideology: the production of subjectivity itself, and the exposure (under the conditions of a transparently cynical late capitalist framework) of its regular and quite predictable structure. On one level, a commitment to the idea that it’s always the Other who is ideological remains; on another, the ironic distancing people increasingly practice (consciously and unconsciously) between themselves and their beliefs perhaps opens up a level of transparency about the functioning of ideology, while maintaining the illusion of being beyond it yourself because, unlike other people, you’re a ‘free thinker’.
And of course, on a very simple level, it’s a poor tactic: that I can predict the response of a Christian to the question of God’s existence says nothing about the person in question. But the invocation of the NPC or bingo chart betrays a suspicion that the Other is not really a subject at all (‘not like I am, anyway’) but something more like an automata (Perhaps, psychoanalysing here, a fear of the intrusion of the Other into our subjectivity). Hence its dehumanising character. Perhaps that was always the predictable outcome once the ideological workings going on beneath the surface of the subject are exposed – humanity and subjectivity are intimately interwoven; the latter exposed as a structural misidentification cannot help but undermine the former; anti-humanism at base.
Where does this leave us? Well, nowhere particularly promising. Part of the problem with the bingo and NPC memes is their general accuracy. You genuinely could take a bingo card, scroll through #Resistance or #MAGA Twitter and have filled out the whole thing within five tweets. This perhaps says something more about the collapse of mediating discourses between the two sides than anything else – lacking a moral or epistemological common-ground, the two sides take their opponent’s very identities as predictable and heteronomous, reproducing the normalising functions of ideology: each side implicitly repeats the mantra ‘Everyone is ideological except for me’. The truth is, we’re all ideological to the core and often deeply predictable as a result. Whether originality (or ‘authenticity’) is possible, or merely the mirage conjured up by ideology itself, will be considered in a later post.
Anyway, I recommend reading the article in full. It’s a truly excellent piece. I remember someone described it as “dismally pessimistic, possibly conservative” and akin to someone showing Twitter to Adorno. Brilliant.