28 December 2017

Preliminary/Residual Thoughts on Descaling

(1) When even the most specialized of academic specialists cannot hope to keep up with the deluge of publication in their narrow specialty, the result is a new and distinctive kind of social volatility borne of something like information overpopulation. Research findings would then resist synthesis into social action, operating only in fragments scattered far and wide throughout the social system. Many collective advances would remain mere potentialities whose likelihood of manifesting plummets as the system continues to grow in scale. No matter the gross quantity of raw information such gains in scale might beget, the basic unit of social agency (the individual human being) stays pretty much the same. Ditto the system gain from pooling such units into networks (e.g. research teams, political action committees, musical ensembles) which show diminishing returns at scales proportionate to today's information overload. Even the effect of introducing better information into the system is mitigated by diffusion given such vast scale as the current global village (not to mention its Virtual shadow-world) has attained. The tortu(r)ously slow burn of incremental progress seems pleasurable in comparison to the fracturing and anomie which the present situation promises to engender.

(2) The above assumes that an increase in the gross quantity of overall knowledge production begets a corresponding and proportionate increase in the (smaller) gross quantity of competent and constructive knowledge production; this as opposed to merely spreading ever thinner a fixed quantity of collective intellectual potential. This is a very large assumption which may not be warranted; but if not, then we are left with an older, simpler problem: the haystacks grow while the needles and the metal detectors pretty much stay the same. As for the sentient pieces of throbbing flesh wielding the latter device, one can only hope that their dignity is not too closely cherished.

(3) Perhaps then there is something to be said for periodically turning one's back on the great data diffusion and carving out a little extra time to cherrypick the choicest nuggets from the twilight of pre-computerized thought, e.g. in the same vein as Debord but with a dash more childlike curiosity and a tad less puerile obstinacy. Whatever strictly perspectival shortcomings individual thinkers of the recent past might now be understood to have had, at least the economy of ideas within which they were subsumed was of a more just and optimal scale. Even the choicest of today's intellectual nourishment is grown in depleted soil, meanwhile, and thus perspective has become a problem of abundance rather than one of scarcity. If this is not quite a fatal blow to progress, it just as surely has not been adequately accounted for by progressives who merely consider the ostensible quality of information but not the system-level prospects for making any use of it whatsoever. In any event, it promises to be a very long time indeed before ideas are again permitted to circulate in an optimally-scaled intellectual environment; optimally-scaled, that is, not merely for progress but also for dignity.

(4) A recent 30 second junket on Google produces one intriguing and one utterly demoralizing revelation: (a) the term/concept "descaling" has found at least cursory usage in the heavy economics literature; (b) in absence of companion terms to narrow the field, any such Google search is badly confounded by the far more pressing and widely discussed issue of how to clean a coffeemaker.


Stefan Kac said...

The Real Split in the International: Theses on the
Situationist International and Its Time, 1972
Thesis 15
trans. John McHale

"Whether it be chemical pollution of the air we breathe
or the adulteration of foodstuffs, the irreversible build-up
of radioactivity through the industrial use of nuclear energy
or the deterioration of water, from underground deposits to
the oceans, the town-planning blight whose sprawl is
supplanting the former entities of town and country or the
'population explosion', the increase in the number of suicides
and the incidence of mental illness or the level of
'noise pollution' -- everywhere, fragmentary knowledge
concerning the (more or less urgent and more or less fatal,
as the case may be) impossibility of going any further, tends
to form as specialised scientific solutions which remain purely
and simply juxtaposed, a portrait of general degradation and
overall impotence. This woeful summary of the map of the
territory of alienation, just prior to its engulfment, is
naturally carried out in the same way that the territory itself
has been constructed: out of separate sectors."
[italics in original]

Scale is not the explicit topic of the above, but is it not
equal parts effect and cause here? Is the most glaring
challenge posed by the "terrain of alienation" not its sheer
vastness? It is precisely this vastness which enables breathers
of relatively clean air on one side of town to implicitly
tolerate unthinkable polution on the other side of town, or,
failing that, to put on a surgical mask in lieu of calling
their representative. Scale breeds abstraction. That is the
basic problem all descaling movements seek to confront, be
they left- or right-leaning, educated or naive, economic or
social. I doubt very much that there is any possibility of
practical implementation for any such movement as things now
stand. That being as it may, and anathema as what I'm about
to say may be to true-believer Debordians, I think that many
insights in this passage can be appropriated rather directly
to the specific disciplines and subdisciplines the rest of us
might find ourselves preoccupied with. There will always be a
roll for traditional academic specialism, if not simply as a
productive foil to or control for the alternative; my point
is simply that the specialist orientation can barely function
according to its own internal logic given the present scale,

hence it would make sense to account for this fact as best we
can under the circumstances.

Stefan Kac said...

Pierre Nora, "General Introduction: Between Memory and History." In Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, ed. Nora. English edition ed. Lawrence Kritzman, trans. Arthur Goldhammer.

"[p. 8] ...we should be aware of the difference between true memory, which today subsists only in gestures and habits, unspoken craft traditions, intimate physical knowledge, ingrained reminiscences, and spontaneous reflexes, and memory transformed by its passage through history, which is practically the opposite: willful and deliberate, experienced as a duty rather than as spontaneous; psychological, individual, and subjective, rather than social, collective, and all-embracing. ... The less memory is experienced from within, the greater its need for external props and tangible reminders of that which no longer exists except qua memory--hence the obsession with the archive that marks an age... The fear that everything is on the verge of disappearing, coupled with anxiety about the precise significance of the present and uncertainty about the future, invests even the humblest testimony, the most modest vestige, with the dignity of being potentially memorable. ...

Stefan Kac said...

Nora, "General Introduction" (cont.)

...[p. 9] Specialists estimate that the number of documents stored in public archives alone has multiplied a thousandfold in just a few decades. ... We cannot know in advance what should be remembered, hence we refrain from destroying anything and put everything in archives instead. The realm of the memorable has expanded without reason: we suffer from hypertrophy of memory, which is inextricably intertwined with our sense of memory's loss and concomitant institutionalization. Old-fashioned professional archivists, who used to be accused of suffering from a mania to preserve, have switched roles in a curious way with those who produce the materials that now fill our archives. Today's archivists are trained by private firms and government bureaucracies, which insist that everything be preserved, whereas the older archivists knew that controlled destruction was the trick of the trade. ... In the old days, there were three main sources of archives: the great families, the church, and the state. Nowadays who does not feel called upon to record his reminiscences or write his memoirs? Everyone has gotten into the act: not just people whose role in history was minor at best, but also the relatives of such people and their doctors and lawyers and anyone else who happened to be standing about. The less extraordinary the testimony, the more aptly it is taken to illustrate the average mentality. ...consider the recent proliferation of oral histories in France. Across the country there are now more than three hundred teams employed in collecting what Philippe Joutard has called "the voices that come to us from the past." Well and good. But think for a moment: these are not ordinary archives. It takes [p. 10] thirty-six hours of work to produce just one hour of tape, and the recordings make sense only if listened to in their entirety... Under these conditions one has to ask what possible purpose they might serve. Whose will to remember do they ultimately reflect, that of the interviewer or that of the interviewee? The sheer mass of material changes the significance and status of the archive. It is no longer a more or less intentional record of actual memory but a deliberate and calculated compilation of a vanished memory. It adds a secondary or prosthetic memory to actual experience, which is often altered by the very fact of being recorded... Historicized memory comes to us from without. Because it is no longer a social practice, we internalize it as an individual constraint. The transition from memory to history requires every social group to redefine its identity by dredging up its past. The resulting obligation makes every man his own historian. ... Those who used to be left out of the official histories are not the only ones obsessed with recovering their buried pasts. Practically every organized social group, and not just the intellectual or educated, has followed the lead of the ethnic minorities in seeking their own roots and identities. ... The proliferation of genealogical research is a striking recent phenomenon: the annual report of the Archives Nationales for 1982 reports that 43 percent of those engaged in archival work were doing genealogical research (whereas 38 percent were doing academic work of some kind). Another striking fact is that the most significant histories of biology, physics, medicine, and music have been written not by historians but by biologists, physicists, physicians, and musicians. ... As the established intellectual disciplines have come under attack, each has sought to justify itself by delving into its origins. ... As for history, the positivist approach, long since abandoned by professional historians, has discovered a new-found popularity as a result of this urgently felt need to resurrect the past. The demise of memory-history has multiplied the number of private memories demanding their own individual histories."

Stefan Kac said...

Thoughts on Nora, "General Introduction"

Specialists estimate that the number of documents stored in public archives alone has multiplied a thousandfold in just a few decades.
Of course it stands to reason that the "controlled destruction" practiced by "old-fashioned professional archivists" was apt to be colored by ideology, power, etc. Here, then, is our first little taste of the scorched-earth non-solution to that deconstructionist bugaboo: saving everything until the sheer volume of material and information accumulated (quickly!) came to exceed most anyone's wherewithal to so much as find what they are looking for, to say nothing of processing it in (vast and ever-expanding) context. When everything matters, nothing matters. And that state of things would seem to permanently confound any hope of rational social action, on any scale, within, across or between the proper boundaries of traditionally-conceived academic areas.

"The less extraordinary the testimony, the more aptly it is taken to illustrate the average mentality."
This insidious race-to-the-bottom outlook is nowhere more visible than in commercial artmaking, where market imperatives join forces with powerfully-felt "historicized" memory of art's elite(-ist) past. (Indeed, can you say "experienced as a duty"? And indeed, "Because it is no longer a social practice, we internalize it as an individual constraint.") Contemporary musicians know this best from the institutional classical music world, where the full thrust of highly-paid administrators and consultants is brought to bear on the task of locating, codifying, verifying this ever-elusive "average" audience. Any other (i.e. non-market) set of priorities would have no reason whatsoever to so overvalue the "less extraordinary" testimony of anyone in particular.

Stefan Kac said...

Further Thoughts on Nora, "General Introduction"

It takes [p. 10] thirty-six hours of work to produce just one hour of tape, and the recordings make sense only if listened to in their entirety... Under these conditions one has to ask what possible purpose they might serve. Whose will to remember do they ultimately reflect, that of the interviewer or that of the interviewee?
How I wish that all my musician friends, enemies, acquaintances, colleagues, et al would ask themselves that question periodically. As a group we now count merely among the ordinary post-Spectacular rabble who consume media content not to see/hear others but to see/hear ourselves. We are all the eyewitness who is too willing to talk to the TV news reporter: "I saw everything!" And, indeed, nothing. Since the powerful confounding factors of ideology, power, etc. don't apply to the logic of the self-archivist, we have only the flimsiest of excuses for eschewing "controlled destruction." Hell, controlled sharing would do the trick just fine!

the most significant histories of biology, physics, medicine, and music have been written not by historians but by biologists, physicists, physicians, and musicians.
For some reason the element of praxis inherent in these fields is not explicitly remarked upon here, but I have to think that the practitioner-historians so alluded to (quite obliquely as it were) would agree with me that writing disciplinary history from a location of minimal practical immersion was always highly problematic. Of course this remark seemingly entails a rather aggressive deprecation of historical scholarship as a praxis in its own right; that being as it is, I suspect that Historians per se have more reliably been aware of the limits of their competence than have Practitioners in fields such as those given; and of course, on the third hand, for many of us Practitioners the "history" of the music IS the music, hence what goes under the headings of Music History, Musicology, Critical Studies, Reception History, etc. is merely the Stamp Collecting to our Physics: we are simply too caught up in the rapture of creation and far too In-Demand with our Busy Schedules to so much as stop to think about how knowledge and memory are constructed from raw phenomenological experience, let alone to be compelled by external social pressures to "justify [ourselves] by delving into [our] origins."
It was only after graduating from college that I opened the Grout for more than a few seconds at a time, at which point morbid curiosity somehow inspired me to read it cover to cover during a series of overnight security guard shifts. I was (and remain) utterly shocked at the space devoted to describing verbally what the prescribed pieces of music sound like. Perhaps this is an unfairly cherrypicked example with which to buttress my point, but then this phenomenon was by no means uncommon throughout the twentieth century, and it was veritably institutionalized throughout the latter half of the nineteenth. Just one reason why I tend to cast my lot with the practitioners.

Stefan Kac said...

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus

Ch. 1, section heading "Can Someone Please Hit The Brakes?"
"[People] are happy to follow the advice of their smartphones or to take whatever drug the doctor prescribes, but when they hear of upgraded superhumans, they say, 'I hope I will be dead before that happens.' ... When people realise how fast we are rushing towards the great unknown, and that they cannot count even on death to shield them from it, their reaction is to hope that somebody will hit the brakes and slow us down. But we cannot hit the brakes, for several reasons.

Firstly, nobody knows where the breaks are. While some experts are familiar with developments in one field, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, big data or genetics, no one is an expert on everything. No one is therefore capable of connecting all the dots and seeing the full picture. Different fields influence one another in such intricate ways that even the best minds cannot fathom how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence might impact nanotechnology, or vice versa. Nobody can absorb all the latest scientific discoveries, nobody can predict how the global economy will look in ten years, and nobody has a clue where we are heading in such a rush. Since no one understands the system any more, no one can stop it."

Ch. 3, section heading "Beyond Sex and Violence"
"These theories may work well on chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and small hunter-gatherer bands. They also work well in the lab, where you test them on small groups of people. Yet once you observe the behaviour of human masses you discover a completely different reality. Most human kingdoms and empires were extremely unequal, yet many of them were surprisingly stable and efficient. ...Why did the Egyptian peasants and Prussian soldiers act so differently than we would have expected on the basis of the Ultimatum Game and [Frans De Waal's] capuchin monkeys experiment? Because large numbers of people behave in a fundamentally different way than do small numbers."