Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Production of Stupidity: Or, Steps Toward an Ecology of the Mind

Illustration by Ben Gibson, from The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

On Wednesday I stepped out of my little world for the first time in a while. It is not the first time that I had traveled in awhile; I went to SPEP a few weeks ago, and traveled to Montreal last weekend. It was, however, the first time I had left my little world, the world made up of academia, friends, and leftist politics. We could say that is the first time I left my ecosystem, not my ecosystem per se, even if it is conduce for my survival, but the ecosystem in which my ideas survive.

Let me explain, in using the word "ecosystem" I am following Hasana Sharp in her piece "The Force of Ideas in Spinoza" (recenlty published in Political Theory). (I should also point out that I am only making an oblique reference to Gregory Bateson, who, I must admit, I have yet to read.) Sharp's piece takes her bearings from the first proposition of part IV of the Ethics: "Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true."(A statement which is perhaps as devastating to the "spontaneous ideology" of philosophers of our time, as Deus sive Natura was to the philosophers in Spinoza's time). As Sharp argues, this means that ideas, like anyhing else, have to be understood as finite things struggling to find the conditions for their realization: conditions which include other ideas, affects, and practices, which reinforce and repeat the ideas in question.

This leads Sharp to refer to an "ecological" understanding of ideas; ideas cannot be considered in isolation, but must be viewed as part of the community of ideas and actions that make them possible. This metaphor of an ecosystem stuck with me over the holiday weekend, as I departed my own little ecosystem. It occurred to me how much the world actively produces stupidity. I do not mean stupidity in terms of the malicious and downright idiotic content of the reigning ideologies, but stupidity in terms of the form of thought itself. I happened to spend several hours waiting at an airport where the presence of CNN was unavoidable. It struck me how the overwhelming form of the network was that of an echo chamber: the most banal facts were repeated and reiterated by various “talking heads” who quickly categorized them into the prevailing narratives and ideologies. The central message is that “There is nothing to think about here,” the world is made up of recognizable villains and victims, the terrorists, Chinese, and the assorted missing white people.

It seems to me that we will fail to comprehend the present if we do not take serious this production of stupidity. Oddly enough, Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the flows of knowledge and information in Anti-Oedipus originally attempted to thematize this production. As they write with respect to the “scientific worker,” “Although he has mastered a flow of knowledge, information, and training, he is so absorbed in capital that the reflux of organized, axiomatized stupidity coincides with him, so that, when he goes home in the evening, he rediscovers his little desiring-machines by tinkering with the television set—O despair.”(It should be noted that Deleuze and Guattari takes as their emblematic example the career of Gregory Bateson). I understand their idea of “axioms of stupidity” to be a particularly odd restaging of forces/relations of production. Only it is not a matter of the forces, in terms of technology, confronting the fetters of the relations, in terms of laws, but of the way in which capital produces an immense capacity for thought that it restricts by way of gossip magazines, scandals, and idiotic pundits.

Finally, on this last point I have to recommend The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders, a not altogether subtle but funny study of the production of stupidity. I know that Saunders develops this idea of the way the media produces stupidity in his essay "The Brain Dead Megaphone," but I have not read that yet, but have heard him talk about it.

No comments: