Behold the Camden Bench. This pale, amorphous lump of sculpted concrete is designed to resist almost everything in a city that it might come into contact with. Named for the London authority that commissioned it, the Camden Bench has a special coating which makes it impervious to graffiti and vandalism. The squat, featureless surface gives drug dealers nowhere to hide their secret caches. The angled sides repel skateboarders and flyposters, litter and rain. The cambered top throws off rough sleepers. In fact, it is specially crafted to make sure that it is not used as anything except a bench. This makes it a strange artifact, defined far more by what it is not than what it is.
The Camden Bench is a concerted effort to create a non-object.
As such, the Camden Bench is a strange kind of architectural null point. A piece of the city that by design will not interact with it in any way. It is a bench by the slimmest of margins — hardly comfortable, affording none of the qualities that would make it more than simply a place to sit. This is the bench’s sole concession to being part of the city, and it does it with the least conviction possible.
I’d like to see what the Camden Bench would look like if it didn’t have to be a bench — if that final design constraint was removed, what would it become? Just some nebulous lump of concrete? Would it shrink or grow? Would it even be visible, or would it exist as a space hidden behind a physical wrinkle in the map? The Camden non-Bench would be like a hard pearl in the mouth of an oyster, of the city but not part of the city, just an inert lump…
Am I wrong or doesn’t most of downtown KC look like this?
If you boil the strange soup of contemporary right-wing ideology down to a sort of bouillon cube, you find the idea that things are not connected to other things, that people are not connected to other people, and that they are all better off unconnected. The core values are individual freedom and individual responsibility: yourself for yourself on your own. Out of this Glorious Disconnect comes all sorts of illogical thinking. Taken to its conclusion, this worldview dictates that even facts are freestanding items that the self-made man can manufacture for use as he sees fit.
This is the modern ideology we still call conservative, though it is really a sort of loopy libertarianism that inverts some of the milder propositions of earlier conservative thinkers. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher said in 1987. The rest of her famous remark is less frequently quoted:
“There is [a] living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
Throughout that interview with Woman’s Own magazine, Thatcher walked the line between old-school conservatism — we are all connected in a delicate tapestry that too much government meddling might tear — and the newer version: “Too many children and people have been given to understand, ‘I have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it.’ ” At some point in the decades since, the balance tipped definitively from “government aid should not replace social connections” to “to hell with others and their problems.” Or as the cowboy sings to the calf, “It’s your misfortune / And none of my own.”
The cowboy is the American embodiment of this ideology of isolation, though the archetype of the self-reliant individual — like the contemporary right-wing obsession with guns — has its roots less in actual American history than in the imagined history of Cold War–era westerns. The American West was indigenous land given to settlers by the U.S. government and cleared for them by the U.S. Army, crisscrossed by government-subsidized railroads and full of water projects and other enormous cooperative enterprises. All this has very little to do with Shane and the sheriff in High Noon and the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western trilogy. But never mind that, because a cowboy silhouetted against a sunset looks so good, whether he’s Ronald Reagan or the Marlboro Man. The loner taketh not, nor does he give; he scorneth the social and relies on himself alone.
Hello, everyone. My presentation today is about the harm that PowerPoint presentations are doing to the way we think and speak. To illustrate the danger, this warning is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.
Next slide, please.
For nearly two millennia, from Isocrates and Cicero to the 19th century, the art of rhetoric was at the center of the Western tradition of liberal education. The liberally educated citizen was taught to reason logically and to express thoughts in a way calculated to inform and, when necessary, to motivate an audience.
Next slide, please.
Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin, who developed a program originally called Presenter for the software company Forethought, Inc., did not realize, when Microsoft purchased the rights to PowerPoint in 1987, that they were inadvertently bringing about the collapse of Western civilization.
Next slide, please…
MICHEL FOUCAULT: A Maoist once said to me: “I can easily understand Sartre’s purpose in siding with us; I can understand his goals and his involvement in politics; I can partially understand your position, since you’ve always been concerned with the problem of confinement. But Deleuze is an enigma.” I was shocked by this statement because your position has always seemed particularly clear to me.
GILLES DELEUZE: Possibly we’re in the process of experiencing a new relationship between theory and practice. At one time, practice was considered an application of theory, a consequence; at other times, it bad an opposite sense and it was thought to inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms. In any event, their relationship was understood in terms of a process of totalisation. For us, however, the question is seen in a different light. The relationships between theory and practice are far more partial and fragmentary. on one side, a theory is always local and related to a limited field, and it is applied in another sphere, more or less distant from it. The relationship which holds in the application of a theory is never one of resemblance. Moreover, from the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles, walls, and blockages which require its relay by another type of discourse (it is through this other discourse that it eventually passes to a different domain). Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall. For example, your work began in the theoretical analysis of the context of confinement, specifically with respect to the psychiatric asylum within a capitalist society in the nineteenth century. Then you became aware of the necessity for confined individuals to speak for themselves, to create a relay (it’s possible, on the contrary, that your function was already that of a relay in relation to them); and this group is found in prisons — these individuals are imprisoned. It was on this basis that You organised the information group for prisons (G.I.P.)(1), the object being to create conditions that permit the prisoners themselves to speak. It would be absolutely false to say, as the Maoist implied, that in moving to this practice you were applying your theories. This was not an application; nor was it a project for initiating reforms or an enquiry in the traditional sense. The emphasis was altogether different: a system of relays within a larger sphere, within a multiplicity of parts that are both theoretical and practical. A theorising intellectual, for us, is no longer a subject, a representing or representative consciousness. Those who act and struggle are no longer represented, either by a group or a union that appropriates the right to stand as their conscience. Who speaks and acts? It is always a multiplicity, even within the person who speaks and acts. All of us are “groupuscules.”(2) Representation no longer exists; there’s only action-theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks.
FOUCAULT: It seems to me that the political involvement of the intellectual was traditionally the product of two different aspects of his activity: his position as an intellectual in bourgeois society, in the system of capitalist production and within the ideology it produces or imposes (his exploitation, poverty, rejection, persecution, the accusations of subversive activity, immorality, etc); and his proper discourse to the extent that it revealed a particular truth, that it disclosed political relationships where they were unsuspected. These two forms of politicisation did not exclude each other, but, being of a different order, neither did they coincide. Some were classed as “outcasts” and others as “socialists.” During moments of violent reaction on the part of the authorities, these two positions were readily fused: after 1848, after the Commune, after 1940. The intellectual was rejected and persecuted at the precise moment when the facts became incontrovertible, when it was forbidden to say that the emperor had no clothes. The intellectual spoke the truth to those who had yet to see it, in the name of those who were forbidden to speak the truth: he was conscience, consciousness, and eloquence. In the most recent upheaval (3) the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves. But there exists a system of power which blocks, prohibits, and invalidates this discourse and this knowledge, a power not only found in the manifest authority of censorship, but one that profoundly and subtly penetrates an entire societal network. Intellectuals are themselves agents of this system of power-the idea of their responsibility for “consciousness” and discourse forms part of the system. The intellectual’s role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge,” “truth,” “consciousness,” and “discourse. “(4)
In this sense theory does not express, translate, or serve to apply practice: it is practice. But it is local and regional, as you said, and not totalising. This is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious. It is not to “awaken consciousness” that we struggle (the masses have been aware for some time that consciousness is a form of knowledge; and consciousness as the basis of subjectivity is a prerogative of the bourgeoisie), but to sap power, to take power; it is an activity conducted alongside those who struggle for power, and not their illumination from a safe distance. A “theory ” is the regional system of this struggle.
DELEUZE: Precisely. A theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate. We don’t revise a theory, but construct new ones; we have no choice but to make others. It is strange that it was Proust, an author thought to be a pure intellectual, who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don’t suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument, which is necessarily an investment for combat. A theory does not totalise; it is an instrument for multiplication and it also multiplies itself. It is in the nature of power to totalise and it is your position. and one I fully agree with, that theory is by nature opposed to power. As soon as a theory is enmeshed in a particular point, we realise that it will never possess the slightest practical importance unless it can erupt in a totally different area. This is why the notion of reform is so stupid and hypocritical. Either reforms are designed by people who claim to be representative, who make a profession of speaking for others, and they lead to a division of power, to a distribution of this new power which is consequently increased by a double repression; or they arise from the complaints and demands of those concerned. This latter instance is no longer a reform but revolutionary action that questions (expressing the full force of its partiality) the totality of power and the hierarchy that maintains it. This is surely evident in prisons: the smallest and most insignificant of the prisoners’ demands can puncture Pleven’s pseudoreform (5). If the protests of children were heard in kindergarten, if their questions were attended to, it would be enough to explode the entire educational system. There is no denying that our social system is totally without tolerance; this accounts for its extreme fragility in all its aspects and also its need for a global form of repression. In my opinion, you were the first-in your books and in the practical sphere-to teach us something absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others. Pe ridiculed representation and said it was finished, but we failed to draw the consequences of this “theoretical” conversion-to appreciate the theoretical fact that only those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on their own behalf.
FOUCAULT: And when the prisoners began to speak, they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents-and not a theory about delinquency. The problem of prisons is local and marginal: not more than 100,000 people pass through prisons in a year. In France at present, between 300,000 and 400,000 have been to prison. Yet this marginal problem seems to disturb everyone. I was surprised that so many who had not been to prison could become interested in its problems, surprised that all those who bad never heard the discourse of inmates could so easily understand them. How do we explain this? Isn’t it because, in a general way, the penal system is the form in which power is most obviously seen as power? To place someone in prison, to confine him to deprive him of food and heat, to prevent him from leaving, making love, etc.-this is certainly the most frenzied manifestation of power imaginable. The other day I was speaking to a woman who bad been in prison and she was saying: “Imagine, that at the age of forty, I was punished one day with a meal of dry bread.” What is striking about this story is not the childishness of the exercise of power but the cynicism with which power is exercised as power, in the most archaic, puerile, infantile manner. As children we learn what it means to be reduced to bread and water. Prison is the only place where power is manifested in its naked state, in its most excessive form, and where it is justified as moral force. “I am within my rights to punish you because you know that it is criminal to rob and kill . . . … What is fascinating about prisons is that, for once, power doesn’t hide or mask itself; it reveals itself as tyranny pursued into the tiniest details; it is cynical and at the same time pure and entirely “justified,” because its practice can be totally formulated within the framework of morality. Its brutal tyranny consequently appears as the serene domination of Good over Evil, of order over disorder…
Where, then, does this leave us? The ultimate postmodern irony is today’s strange exchange between the West and the East. At the very moment when, at the level of ‘economic infrastructure,’ Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of ‘ideological superstructure,’ the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age ‘Asiatic’ thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from ‘Western Buddhism’ to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics–by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace–it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.
Consider the phenomenon of “future shock”–the popular term for how people today can no longer psychologically cope with the dazzling rhythm of technological development and the accompanying social change. Before one can become accustomed to the newest invention, another arrives to take its place, so that increasingly one lacks the most elementary “cognitive mapping.” Eastern thought offers a way out that is far superior to the desperate attempt to escape into old traditions. The way to cope with this dizzying change, such wisdom suggests, is to renounce any attempts to retain control over what goes on, rejecting such efforts as expressions of the modern logic of domination. Instead, one should “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of the accelerated process. Such distance is based on the insight that all of the upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being.
Once again McSweeny’s anticipates the really big questions, this time surrounding Kansas City’s soon to be (somewhat) working fancy new street-car: 1
The Meta-Ethical Problem:
There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards Immanuel Kant. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits Jeremy Bentham instead. Jeremy Bentham clutches the only existing copy of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Kant holds the only existing copy of Bentham’s The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Both of them are shouting at you that they have recently started to reconsider their ethical stances.
The Cancer Caper:
There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. Three of them are cannibalistic serial killers. One of them is a brilliant cancer researcher. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. She is a brilliant cannibalistic serial killing cancer researcher who only kills lesser cancer researchers. 14% of these researchers are Nazi-sympathizers, and 25% don’t use turning signals when they drive. Speaking of which, in this world, Hitler is still alive, but he’s dying of cancer.
The Ethics Teacher:
There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. You are on your way to teach an ethics class and this accident will make you extremely late. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. This will make you slightly less late to your class.
The Surrealist Version:
There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. You have the ability to pull off your head and turn it into a Chinese lantern. Your head floats into the sky until it takes the place of the sun. You look down upon the planet. It is as small as the eye of a moth. The moth flies away….
SMI²LE —a phrase coined by Tim Leary in the 1970s— stands for Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension, and was his recipe for a working future.
RAW focused much of Cosmic Trigger on the SMI²LE formula, predicting that by the end of the 20th century humanity would be living in off-world O’Neill colonies, with greatly enhanced cognitive ability and lifespans extended by centuries or even indefinitely.
None of these predictions came true within Leary or Wilson’s lifetimes—both men died, without any immortality pill in sight, in a post-Challenger era in which the US space program had wilted, and humanity was acting stupider than ever.
But 2014 is a different story. Although the same old “let’s party like it’s 1099” Crusader script keeps getting remade over and over, with better special effects each time, we’re also starting to actually see some of the SMI²LE future show up.