The Aesthetics of Authority

This post grows so directly out of my daily Google Chat conversations with Brad that it is essentially co-authored.

Yesterday, Brad was telling me about a David Graeber lecture that he attended and suggested that the reason so many academics tend to favor the Marxist left over the anarchist left is our desire to have the right answer, which I generalized to a latent (and sometimes not so latent) authoritarianism of academics. I know that I’m certainly guilty of this. Though I’m very happy to be involved in a democratic, discussion-based pedagogical model, I do find something seductive about the idea of the great lecturer — or, even more, the European-style seminar where the great thinker holds forth on whatever he [sic] happens to be researching, and the students just try to keep up.

There’s something more aesthetically pleasing about coming up with just the right formulation of the most perspicuous idea and then directly transmitting it to an audience. Yet as beautiful as the idea is, it doesn’t really work that way. It seems that it’s been more or less conclusively demonstrated that the passive reception of information does not change the deeper habits of thought — for instance, students can get an A in a lecture-based physics class but go immediately back to “common sense” errors in other contexts. A discussion model is not a guarantee that those changes of habit will take place, but it at least lays the groundwork in forcing students to grapple actively with the text or idea at hand.

One could say the same thing on the political level. While it sounds great to have an informed elite come up with the right answer and then implement it come hell or high water, it doesn’t ever seem to actually work out that way. Authoritarian approaches do “get things done” more easily, but there seems to be a general pattern where the things that get done tend not to be very good. Democratic consensus-building is much less aesthetically pleasing and much less likely to produce decisive results — but the requirement that everyone be involved in decision-making at least provides some baseline protection against various forms of throat-ramming, etc.

This line of reflection brought me back to another conversation I had with Brad shortly after reading Infinite Jest. We came around to the conclusion that DFW was basically acknowledging that the 12-step program is the only viable way to deal with addiction — yet as an extremely smart and self-reflective guy, there was also something within him that rebelled against that. One detects an undertone of incredulity: “This is the answer? This hokey, cliche-ridden, tedious approach is really all we have to work with?” It’s more beautiful to think that a smart person can put the addiction aside through sheer force of will — but it doesn’t seem to actually work that way.

What seems to me to be at stake here is the gap between thought and life. An authoritarian approach proceeds on the assumption that bridging that gap should be relatively unproblematic — with sufficient application of force, life can be brought in line. Yet as Whitehead points out, it takes a long time for ideas to make their influence felt. Or shifting it to a less optimistic register, surely Foucault shows us that ideas are at their most powerful when they proceed via unexpected and insidious paths. When ideas are transmitted by force, it may be that the only idea that is really transmitted is that of force itself.

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10 Responses to “The Aesthetics of Authority”

  1. Ben B Says:

    Thank you.

    I have not finished Infinite Jest because I am a drunk rebelling against the 12-steps. Which means my attention span is too short (or impaired) to sustain the read. That being said, I don’t think the 12-step model is the only way. The steps rely on an ontology of transendence and the requisite force. They work because the authoritarian approach forcloses difference. The 12-steps are not a model of healing but of exclusion and mitigation. You are what you are, but here are the ways you can become more like us. You will always be an alcoholic, but we can bring you in line with the order of things.

    Healing is only possible through the anarchic position. It is the only posture that allows the drunk to be fully honest. Narrative need to be shaped, but not forced. The AA tradition defines the primary sin as pride, and falls into all of the traps of White Male theology. It does not allow for nuance, or the self-building that feminist theology calls for.

    In conclusion, I agree. The democratic, discussion-based model is unsexy. But I have to believe it can work.

    Sorry to make this response so personal. It is where I am at, and I hope it helps.

  2. Dominic Says:

    “…it sounds great to have an informed elite come up with the right answer and then implement it come hell or high water”, and then of course it turns out not to be; but it seems to me that the radically anarcho-democratic approach is formed in the image of this failure: let’s be uninformed (free of received opinion, reinventing our terms and objects of argument from scratch), let’s have no specialisation of function or knowledge (unconvivial!), let’s suspend entirely the question of what a right answer might look like (Platonism, yuck!), let’s forswear all coercion in pursuing our goals (since that leads straight to gulags!), whatever they might happen to be…

    All of which puts me in mind of the following famous hacker koan:

    In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
    “What are you doing?”, asked Minsky.
    “I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe”, Sussman replied.
    “Why is the net wired randomly?”, asked Minsky.
    “I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play”, Sussman said.
    Minsky then shut his eyes.
    “Why do you close your eyes?” Sussman asked his teacher.
    “So that the room will be empty.”
    At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’d prefer not to have a generalized discussion of anarchism. Let’s just say that Marxism and anarchism, as used in the opening paragraph of this post, stand for the polarity of authoritarian and democratic visions of leftist political practice, respectively.

  4. david cl driedger Says:

    Can you clarify how you read DFW’s concept of AA and how it is positioned in this post? DFW says that Boston AA’s ‘take on itself is that it’s a benign anarchy’. And then at the end of his analysis Gately sees it as ‘classically authoritarian, maybe even proto-facist’. As I read your post it seems you could place it either end of the spectrum (depending on understanding), is that intentional or do you see it positioned particularly in this conversation?

  5. david cl driedger Says:

    . . . not trying to lead that into a ‘general’ discussion on anarchy. Just wanting some clarity.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My intended point of analogy was solely DFW’s resistence to the idea that something so unappealling could be “the answer.” I don’t have any strong opinion about the nature of 12-step programs.

  7. A few things I’ve been looking at « The Great Whatsit Says:

    […] a Maid”. Mormonism dealing with the internet. “The Aesthetics of Authority”. A Szymborska poem, complete with cat and link to an alternate translation. “Kim Jong Un […]

  8. Dominic Says:

    It seems as if the real question in this post is that of “passive assimilation” versus “active appropriation” (of knowledge or of political goals).

    The political/pragmatic argument is then that “authoritarian” models of transmission (of will or of knowledge) promise efficiency, but diminish creative engagement: the passive recipient of my teaching. or executor of my will, need not hold either for their own, and may consequently become morally disengaged from the enterprise into which they have been conscripted. The authoritarian model places the servant’s powers of comprehension and action at the master’s disposal; but not their full powers, which can only flourish when exercised with a degree of autonomous consent. Hence, things “get done”, but in a surly, half-assed fashion.

    I think this is most likely to be true when the “servant” really is a conscript, e.g. when they have no autonomous will to serve. Quite a lot of students are in more or less this position: nothing intrinsically motivates them to take the classes they find themselves in, and they have no reason to respond to the authority of a teacher with anything other than indifference, doing the bare minimum necessary to get by. For such students, a highly “democratic” style of class discussion will give them something they can own and care about – but at the cost of boring the tits off anyone who wants to know, specifically, what and how the teacher (as an assumed expert in the subject) thinks. It is possible to be wholly disengaged in the middle of a whole-class discussion – again, doing the bare minimum necessary to get by – because the very thing one came to class in the hope of actively appropriating is largely absent.

    The militants of C20th Marxist parties and movements were by and large *willing* conscripts, people with a powerful intrinsic desire to serve the cause of proletarian liberation. It’s possible to accept and act in accordance with a hierarchical distribution of executive authority without taking on the subject position of a surly slave; indeed, many people have considered the ability to do so when necessary to be an index of maturity (specifically, of a shift from egocentricity towards a broader appreciation of the collective good, together with a willingness to make personal sacrifices for that good). The difference between a leader and a master is that the former must solicit and maintain consent, must be seen to exercise their executive function in accordance with an agreed common good.

    It seems to me that both fascist and anarchist models of authority essentially collapse this distinction. The fascist simply declares that what the leader wants *is* good, because the leader wants it: the fascist leader is thus a master haloed with a personality cult. The anarchist asserts that no-one could possibly authentically want for themselves what a leader wants, and so anyone who appears to do so must be going along with it because of an unfortunate predisposition towards servility, a slumber of the will from which they, the anarchist, have happily awakened. The value of discipleship is perverted by the one, and denigrated by the other.

  9. bob mcmanus Says:

    Let’s just say that Marxism and anarchism, as used in the opening paragraph of this post, stand for the polarity of authoritarian and democratic visions of leftist political practice, respectively.

    I would much rather not say this, since I don’t believe it’s true. Are you commanding me to stipulate it, on the basis of some kind of authority like academic credentials or erudition?

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Bob, I was trying to avoid distracting conversations on the inherent nature of Marxism or anarchism by pointing out the way I was using the terms in the post. That use may have been objectively wrong, but it seemed to me that clarifying the stakes could help keep the conversation focused on the core issue I was trying to get at. I’m not trying to determine the definition of Marxism or anarchism for all time, so just calm down.


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