Conversational Maps

The hardening of modern political discourse and its dichotomous elements (establishment vs the people, remain vs leave, left vs right) suggest that our modern political institutions are unable to map the conversational nexus that increasingly fragments and recombines before it. The arenas of political discourse are discohered as their foundational axioms are themselves brought to question, turned upside down as alien norms that no longer structure our social institutions. “The rules are now part of the divisions themselves and thus no longer represent a structured, binding worldview. Axioms are being liquefied and institutions don’t have an answer to it”[1].

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The culture wars pit conservative ideologues vs liberal leftists in shows of force that descend into farce, whether these be Charlottesville, Portland or other American cities where nonsensical protests erupt into chaos. The irony here is that these conservatives aren’t particularly conservative, conserving nothing and aiming instead toward Randian utopias or ethno-enclaves. And liberal-leftists aim toward the de-institutionalisation of the West itself, favouring minoritarian discourses to predominate over white, male privilege. Brexit pits a business-trade ontology against a postmodern cultural populism, with both failing to understand each other. Here conflictual institutionality is produced, where the very foundations are torn up in favour of a situation where both sides coexist, but neither acknowledges the existence of the other. The conversations they have go right past each other, creating artificial walls between discourses and producing ever-thicker echo chambers. Social media simply exacerbates the situation, as it favours algorithmic connections that are related to one’s initial ideologies and proclivities. “Thought leaders and influencers thus gain importance on similar levels to campaign managers and staff. The closed Facebook groups and Twitter feeds led to conversations that moved beyond mainstream narratives, for good or bad”[2].

Bratton’s description of city structures provides a useful metaphor for these dichotomous situations. “One is a city of partitions, permanent centers, and enveloped populations, and the other a city of movement expressed through nomadic landscapes, shifting perspectives, and impermanent networks. For the latter City, the line is an angle of flight, a vector and trajectory. For the former, as it is for Schmitt, the line fixes and differentiates between inside and outside, a distinct boundary membrane that holds together a contiguous polity under voluntary siege, enforcing and naturalizing that polity’s lived experience of place”[3]. The first city is one defined by the definition of its outside, those who are immigrants, cosmopolitans or the elite. The second city is that of urban flows of people, wealth, capital and information. Both exist in equal measure but with their backs turned away. The geographic distance is minimal, yet the social distance is vast. Here our conversational mapping has failed, as tribality (both ethnic and ideological) and enclaving develop. The city or nation as viewed as a permanent, settled system goes against a cosmopolitan perspective that favours the transparent and the contingent, where land masses are viewed as one among many rather than having any parochial significance. Open vs closed dichotomies begin to cohere and harden, whether in general culture wars or in specific events with the rise of nationalist populism through Salvini, Orban, Le Pen, Brexit and Trump.

The modern political situation has become an incoherent mess. The traditional British parties are continuing to lose support amongst their bases and wider electorates, and parties such as Change UK and the Brexit Party are developing higher levels of coverage despite neither having any real policies. The US presidential election is now dominated by emotive responses that favour not a Democrat who is necessarily principled or policy driven, but simply one who has a possibility of beating Trump in 2020. “Language begins to produce clinamenetic stirrings as different ideational frameworks and linguistic centres develop liquid borders and porous rapprochements that exist within the prevailing social structure”[4]. The conversational nexus of political discourse begins to spiral out of control as institutions are unable to map the prevailing ideological circuits. When we talk about the coarsening of discourse, it is due to a lack of a map that allows institutions and their constituents to understand where the line is. The recent debate between Ben Shapiro and Andrew Neil encapsulates this, as they speak at cross purposes the entire time, with Shapiro believing that the adversarial interview was a subversive attempt to catch him out from the left. A similar thing happened during the debate between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson, where both spoke at cross purposes as Peterson attempted to belittle Marx and Zizek spoke of the postmodern condition. Peterson’s treatment of Marx was criminally limited[5], yet the most interesting part of the debate was during the post-speech conversation, where both found similarities regarding the rise of identity politics. A formal debate between opposing poles collapsed into a menagerie of random points of agreement.

The ironic thing is that as these borders between conversation and discourse harden and thicken, they at the same time become increasingly illegible to either side as well as internally. “The left are both monist and dualist. Monist in the sense that they are happy to accept all degenerate ideologies and alternative lifestyles, blurring the lines between civility and stupidity in the aim of increasing tribal power. Dualist in the sense of clearly presenting their enemy as the border they cannot go beyond. The right have maintained an internal dualism, developing their own progressive narratives that endlessly celebrate capitalism and believe anything opposing this Whiggishness is beyond the pale. Their monism is clear in the way they allow culture to go leftward so long as economics remain liberalised”[6]. There is a failure to truly delineate where ideologies intersect, thus similarities and differences get caught in the same chaotic mix. This leads to situations where viable political parties can seriously offer no policies during elections, or where debates between poles represent minimal divergence.

Of course to some degree, language and conversational acts are always heteroglossic i.e. they are naturally subjective, contingent and therefore difficult to verify and fully understand. But previously states and civil societies through various layers were able to partially codify and place linguistic acts into their respective spheres. Trade unions, political parties, industry and other organisational loci articulated collective demands that scaled up from the shop-floor to parliamentary debate. Within each layer particular conversational nexuses were mapped and delineated through policies and representation. Further, through the ubiquity of television and radio, there was a further segmentation of conversation as media gatekeepers decided programming. This gave way to “multichannel TV – drizzle TV – now itself rapidly being supplanted by the infinite echo chamber of the internet, where everybody is talking (or at least “sharing”) but nobody seems to be listening. This endless sea of chatter, comment, opinion and gossip is the unanticipated outcome of what Brecht, 85 years ago, called for when he asked that radio be made “two-sided”, a shift from “distribution to communication”, or what we now call interactive media”[7]. In other words, the complexity of information sharing and conversational output has increased beyond the limits of televisual media and one way communication formats. News begins to mix with opinion, and opposition to media takes the amorphous form of opposing the MSM. New forms have developed with the rise of social media and the blogosphere. “We now have Facebook and Twitter – debate in 140 characters – engineered in untransparent ways likely to limit rather than expand discourse, and so unsurprisingly leading to brutal reprisals to anything outside a specific space or experience”[8].

As with other situations facing existing institutions and their place in modern flows of information and capital, the increasing complexity involved in codifying and understanding it is stretching them to their limits, if not outstripping them altogether. As politics turned postmodern from the 80s onwards, conceiving of a separation between life and economy through a rollback of the state and a change toward life politics over collective demands, a multi-public set of spheres and arenas have developed, failing to cohere or layer between and amongst each other. As the personal became the political, the political became personal as political parties transformed into demand factories and single issue platforms through which a generic middle ground could be formulated. But as these layers and arenas grew, that middle ground failed to hold, particularly in the light of the 2008 financial crisis where remaining institutional trust dissipated. The maps for the social-conversational nexus were redrawn outside institutional lines of sight, as tribal configurations and conflictual polarities split into multimedia lines of flight that modern nation-states and other institutions are unable to understand or appreciate.

“Language in this sense is the basis of exit and control, producing wide variations depending on context, speech patterns, cultural background and surrounding socio-political structures. It allows for the subversion of widely held beliefs, and for the processual development of conceptual alternatives that can exist beneath and through the prevailing system”[9]. These subversions and processual developments are both potentially beneficial, questioning the norms of existing institutions where before they were ossified or derelict. But equally the ability for networked tribalism and technological fundamentalisms present significant challenges that any institutional configuration must deal with if it aims to understand the ideologies, polarities and groupings that surround, inhabit and infiltrate it. Thus it becomes a matter of creating maps and cartographic methods that can understand, cohere and provision for these inhabitant forms, creating arenas and vectors for conversational nexuses that are negotiatory and transparent, rather than exclusive and enclaved. It is about cohering a combined vision of Bratton’s city, one between pure flows and flattened borders.

One such way of doing this is viewing governance as a flexible strategic venture rather than a series of plans. “Strategy is the language an organisation uses to realise its competitive potential”[10]. If you replace competitive with governing, you can see a pathway that creates more flexible modes of governing relations and influencing their courses. “The organisation’s purpose defines the nature of the language. A set of strategic principles ensure that what the organisation does always aligns coherently with its purpose while allowing it to constantly interact with customers and innovate in the services it engages them with”[11]. Governance structures would then be more able to map conversational nexuses along its strategic purposes, allowing both flexibility in interpretation and bordering, while also steering speech acts in particular directions. One can see this already in modern government, where nudge strategies and incentive structures are placed within legal boundaries, thereby influencing behaviour as much as enforcing legislation. Governance here is more open-ended, able to track conversational modalities as they evolve and grow, whether these be political demands, networked tribes, social movements or at its most extreme technologically-based fundamentalisms and online paramilitary groups.

This can be understood as cloud-based governance, whereby states create cloud-based governing strategies such as incentive structures and nudges, as well as “the prosaic gathering and reportage of information to its citizens, on the one hand, to the clandestine hoarding of massive troves of data about its citizens (and other countries’ citizens), on the other”[12]. Understanding information about citizen movements becomes the strategic objective for successful governance. Equally, cloud platforms developed state-like qualities as well. The “cloud polis is populated by hybrid new geographies, new governmentalities, awkward jurisdictions, new regimes of interfaciality, and so new (and old) imaginary communities, group allegiances, ad hoc patriotisms, and inviolable brand loyalties will inevitably follow. Some of these may be archaic fundamentalisms now given a new mission; others are more novel and progressive, or soupy mixtures both futuristic and atavistic at once”[13]. Platforms as governance mechanisms rewrite how citizenship is configured, cohering new identities and re-codifying old ones into postmodern structures. These are growing as social media delaminates the political landscape, allowing for emotive politics, artificial dichotomies and conversational outputs that are pseudonymous and potentially subversive. The Brexit Party and Change UK are parties built for social media interaction, as they proffer no policies but instead offer an unquantifiable kind of political transformation that mixes rallies with Twitter feeds and hashtags.

In this landscape platforms appear to be a potentially successful governing strategy for beginning to map this multiplicitous conversational nexus. Platforms in their imaginative processes of reorganisation have “a bottom-up strategy of transformation, given that it enables us to experiment with many quite far-flung possibilities, which are nonetheless anchored in the unique profile of a set of existing conditions”[14]. However, platform companies are not close to this yet. While Facebook and Twitter have certainly cohered new imaginary communities that produce their own conversational lines and linguistic forms, they have failed in any sense to map and understand their contiguities and crossing points. They specifically curate a symbolic “presentation of self-identity”[15] through a general sense of outgroup and in-group. Instead they are either mired in data scandals and fake news, or are too happy to police their platforms through simplistic blocks and bans. Neither increase political understanding and instead harden the borders within dichotomies of elite vs the people or left vs right, as Twitter mobs led by blue checkmarks encourage petty behaviours and tribal outpourings. To go further, platforms may need to develop into a kind of linguistic meta-Twitter that can begin both to group technological communities and then see where they intersect and meet, thus inculcating both where the differences are and how they can be bridged through shared conversational outputs.

With regards to one-way communication televisual media, the general trajectory for news programmes and debate forums has been to shorten every element of dialogue to snippets, limiting conversational output as everything is reduced to what is said in seconds rather than minutes. Comparably social media also compresses the conversational nexus, as one’s self-presentation is strained through character limits and attention spans shorten so that everyone is required to summarise their thoughts in easy-to-digest packets. Amongst in-group communications this may work, but when it comes to cross-community conversations legibility is extremely limited. “In the course of digital communication’s rapid development it is becoming clear that we have reached a societal inflection point in which we must now demand and envision much more of our digital platforms. Piecemeal offerings of reform like Twitter’s proposal to remove the favourite button to better incentivise ‘healthy debate’ are demonstrative of an institutional lack in both creativity and ambition”[16]. The rise of the intellectual dark web presents something of an alternative to this inflection point that goes beyond “high-velocity boasts”[17] as the long-form conversationalism that the IDW engenders seeks “an understanding of the process by which we can meet (approaching challenges in the public forum)”[18] that go beyond basic antagonisms.

However how far such an approach reaches appears limited, as many of the debates the IDW engages in seem to fall into a simplistic dichotomy of left vs right, where the latter hold the ability to destroy or eliminate their opponents (mostly because these opponents are primarily college students or moron journalists). The IDW, for all its talk of breaching the gaps in political discourse, far too often falls into the same trap of us vs them culture wars. This isn’t so much mapping the conversational nexus as it is thickening the borders that muddy and blur this nexus in the first place.

What comes out of this issue is that the conversational nexus as a delineable coherent structure which layers political demands within scaled institutions is no longer a true representation of what there is. With social media “democratising” the conversational-political landscape, everyone’s opinion can be heard which means a sea of noise and informatic junk. There are no gatekeepers anymore as states and media organisations are distrusted, with political consolation found in social media echo chambers. The conversational map has accelerated past the view of modern institutions, producing semi-autonomous cladistics that appear cypherpolitical “where one should be able to move from form to form on the techno-sphere of political and economic projects, living in “indeterminacy and greyness” and allowing for one to have one foot out of the system. It allows for the development of enclaves and overlapping spatiality, creating a bricoler set of walls and fences, easily constructed and deconstructed, variegating space in its most esoteric of forms and positions”[19]. The pseudonymity and production of self that social media inheres creates post-systemic modalities that current institutional forms barely recognise.

Going back to the post-political scene that informs Western political institutions, the development of parties without policy and postmodern populisms that are good at articulating an amorphous, indefinable enemy (or set of enemies) suggests the current methods of party politics and politics-in-general are not functioning as traditionally thought. The very scales through which we measure our governing plans are themselves incoherent and messy. Territory (“the development of logistical capacities to extend control”[20]) is being wrought open by new governing strategies like platforms, supranational entities like the EU and corporate-business ontologies that make logistical control international and liquid. Place (the “site of face-to-face relationships”[21]) is being made ephemeral as internet-based public spheres question the basis of our social relationships, changing conversational patterns and ways we define ourselves, our nationalities and our citizenships. Scale (the “nested hierarchy of bounded spaces of differing size, e.g., local, regional, national, global”[22]) is de-containerised as nation-states cede sovereign power upwards, downwards and across these scales. Different hierarchical layers skip around each other, with municipalities directly interacting with international issues like climate change and transportation infrastructure and global trade bodies and ISDS courts influencing international trade flows. The nation-state as the traditional vector for political demands has been transformed and transferred power across these scales. Networks (“the forms of interconnectivity and differentiation that exist among subjects/members/participants in systemic configurations”[23]) have obviously added to the conversational nexus as unheard voices gain representative power, adding complexity that institutions must take on board when producing policy and distributing goods and services.

The institutional configurations that previously understood the traditional roles of territory, place, scale and network are now fumbling in the dark for some coherence. The conversational maps of political demands and global flows of discourse and information have accelerated past this onticity, producing new cladistics that were never easy to map. Platforms and long-conversationalist debate point toward new directions through which the complexity of this picture and the dialogues, monologues and glossaries it produces can begin to be mapped. They suggest the need for a meta-systemic view, one that recognises the ephemeral nature of online identities and their transitory forms, treating ideologies more as skins to be shed and reworn at will than as unifying communities of fate. But as “complexity eats through stages of adaptivity”[24] with increasing velocity, and computational capacity increases, normalising socio-political platforms and engendering new algorithmic possibilities, governmentalities will always be wrought apart and turned inside out. “The increasing ‘use’ of algorithms to generate texts functions as a variety of autoexcision calculated to minimize the intentionality of the human author, consequently opening onto an abyss of previously unavailable formal potential particularly in terms of permutational extravagance, intricacy and evolution, and the ability to rapidly and effortlessly produce unprecedented magnitudes of textual material”[25]. This textual material will grow and grow, further complexifying any governing format.

From these new textual and conversational modalities alternative governmentalities and modes of living are grown. Constant adaptivity in meta-systemic frameworks will be necessary to cogently understand where these modes are and where they are going. Governing then will turn from a plan into an open-ended strategy, as the conversational nexus incubates new lines and borders which require mapping and cohering. Our conversational cartography is turning into a conversational logistics, where speed of thought and word grows beyond the ability of institutions to fully comprehend their movements. So whatever maps are created will always remain contingent as institutional controls are outpaced.

[1] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2019/03/28/battlegrounds-of-axioms-and-totalities/

[2] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/networked-tribalism/

[3] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack

[4] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/05/30/the-decentring-periphery-language-and-exit/

[5] https://quillette.com/2019/04/24/marx-deserves-better-critics/

[6] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/networked-tribalism/

[7] https://wias.ac.uk/after-dark-and-the-future-of-public-debate/

[8] https://wias.ac.uk/after-dark-and-the-future-of-public-debate/

[9] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/05/30/the-decentring-periphery-language-and-exit/

[10] https://medium.com/thehumanlayer/modern-strategy-is-a-language-not-a-plan-570fa3d70519

[11] https://medium.com/thehumanlayer/modern-strategy-is-a-language-not-a-plan-570fa3d70519

[12] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack

[13] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack

[14] https://medium.com/@Rivalstrategy/platform-design-part-i-db26d08a947d

[15] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack

[16] https://conatusnews.com/intellectual-dark-web-prelude-future-dialogue/

[17] https://wias.ac.uk/after-dark-and-the-future-of-public-debate/

[18] https://conatusnews.com/intellectual-dark-web-prelude-future-dialogue/

[19] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/nomads-and-the-esoteric/

[20] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/10/26/policy-positions-and-political-imaginaries-framing-basic-income/

[24] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/05/21/decay-as-background/

[25] https://www.urbanomic.com/document/poememenon/

5 thoughts on “Conversational Maps

  1. At least in the United States the major left-right difference remains mutually incompatible, due to the matter of confiscatory redistribution. The perspectives of both sides are rooted in first principles and the conflict between the two is now effectively zero sum.

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