Scientific introspection and the analytical advantage of average people

When you have thoughts and feelings and drives, note them and try to understand which variables about yourself cause them. The best way to do this is to compare yourself to others, and the best way to do that is by learning where you fall within empirical distributions.

This is a rare context in which average people may enjoy an analytical advantage over “superior” people. For when they note in themselves a particular thought or feeling, they can be relatively confident that many others have similar thoughts and feelings. The introspective data of exceptional people are much less reliable for generating hypotheses or inferences about sociological phenomena.

Rap is not art but it’s cool

Rap is not art, it’s stylized abjection. Same with punk. Indeed, this is one reason why it has been possible for rap and punk to merge today, musically and sociologically. Who ever would have predicted this from first musical principles? In rap and punk, sounds primarily have social effects, not musical significances or aesthetic qualities such as beauty (as singers with beautiful voices optimize for beautiful singing, and are appreciated for this reason). Rap and punk are forms of low-conscientiousness signaling, which are enjoyable and attractive because the artist does not care about optimizing for admirable qualities such as beauty. Paradoxically, we admire people who can afford to not be admired. We infer, correctly, that they must be quite powerful in some way that’s not obvious. The popular name for this hidden, mysterious power is “cool.” Rap and punk are not beautiful art, and they never have been. But they are cool, and cool is at least as valuable and important as beauty. Genuinely cool artists make us feel, or rather they make us know — through the incontrovertible proof of their own life — that no matter how imperfect we might be, and no matter how undervalued or even hated we might be, it is always still possible to be great.

The Second Problem of Being Perceptible Is Motivational Highjacking (Becoming Imperceptible III)

Another problem with being perceptible is easy to understand in our current digital context. It is a problem we might summarize as the motivational problem. Being perceived triggers dopamine, and dopamine hits train you to do more of whatever got you the dopamine. The more your motivation relies on dopamine via perceivability, the more surely you are not creating original and longer-term projects, because such projects require long periods of zero perceivability. When Deleuze and Guatarri say "bring something incomprehensible into the world," this is what they are saying. They're not saying that any old nonsense should be brought into the world, or that ideas or artworks should be impenetrable by design. Deleuze and Guattari are saying that nothing worth thinking, saying, or making will pre-fit the perceptual schemas of others, in advance. All worthy creative projects are incomprehensible at first, when they are brought into the world. Any project that is immediately comprehensible is the product of someone opportunistically filling currently existing schemas of perceptions. That is the opposite of creation, that type of work is taking orders from arbitrary social opinion dynamics (and guess where those opinions are most likely to come from, guess the higher function those opinions are most likely to serve). They are not railing against clear communication or transparent self-presentation; they are railing against anyone who creates in order to be valued from within already existing schemas of perception. Perfectly normal communication and self-presentation can totally scramble perceptions, and the most esoteric, anonymous, scrambled communications can be slavishly pre-fit to pre-exisisting perceptions.

If one is not creating on the fuel provided by immediate recognition, how is the work of creation motivated in the period of zero perceivability? To create anything other than reproductions of the status quo requires a different kind of motivational system. Lo and behold, Deleuze and Guattari offer one, which at every point is contrasted to capture by perceivability. In their language, they advise one to rather construct a plane of immanence (a "DGAF" gesture of creative violence, which is intrinsically self-rewarding) and then working on it as a labor of love. "The secret always has to do with love" (ATP 97). But this is no cliché; while half of their analyses are about the mechanisms of domination, the other is dedicated to modeling in exquisite detail what the labor of love involves, and how to do it. If you can't access such a state, it is because you are captured, if not by perceptibility then by some other trap ("Is it good? Is it worth it?" Questions which usually veil a "What will people think?"). Thus, becoming imperceptible is about constituting a different kind of project, on a different motivational system — a system of immanent, intrinsically self-motivating creative productivity, rather than a mediated, extrinsic, alienated toil, the satisfaction of which is always out of reach even if temporary recognitions are won.

To make an irresistible reference back to the Twitter Deleuzians with which we began, it is some vindication of my contention here that the digital masks of these individuals do not seem to help in the slightest with this problem of capture by perceivability. For many of these people are prolific with short bursts of creative possibility, so long as they receive a perceptual payment of dopamine; but very rarely can these individuals bring such creative bursts to the constitution of a plane of immanence. This is because, as we will see, the mask is the face.

So the problem of being perceived is capture, susceptibility to manipulation, and losing the ability to create and execute works of substance.

The First Problem of Being Perceptible Is Being Manipulated (Becoming Imperceptible 2)

This is the second post in a series, on the concept of "becoming imperceptible" in Deleuze and Guattari. The first one is here.

For obvious reasons, we have strong inclinations to be understood by others. There is a problem here because, to the degree we wish to be perceptible to others, we are conditioning our own expressions on contingent social and political variables. In an ideal community, this might not be a problem. If technological or other contextual variables veer off in a way that biases and malforms popular perceptions, then thinking and speaking to be perceptible can easily lock one into a life of inescapable confusion, suffering, and reproduction of precisely what one despises. This is the problem of perceptibility, in a nutshell.

Note that perception refers to sense data. Perceptibility therefore has pre-conscious connotations. You might think of perception as kind of like "understanding,"but the latter is misleading because it connotes conscious intellection. It's worth clarifying this point because the problem here is not the prospect of being correctly understood intellectually. We will seek to be understood, but only by those who can understand. Seeking to be perceptible means catering to the initial and cheapest pieces of others' psychological and behavioral equipment.

To be perceptible means that institutions, and their human trustees, know how to manipulate you. Being perceptible means you are easily pigeonholed, and what's worse is that often you are correctly pigeonholed. If you optimize for how you are perceived, and especially if you build a life on how you are perceived (i.e., anyone who's income is based on status in an institutional hierarchy), then your thoughts, words, and actions are easily controlled by anyone above you in the institutional hierarchy. For by definition their edicts have greater influence on the perceptions of everyone attuned to the hierarchy than anything you might say or do, thus pleasing one's status-superiors is a necessity for those who wish to be perceived well. (This matter is greatly complicated in contexts of institutional breakdown and fragmentation, as we are currently observing, so we will need to treat the matter in greater detail later; but for now, most of us are still maneuvering lives overwhelmingly characterized by the inertia of mass institutions, so even if institutions break down rapidly over the course of the next few generations, the general lessons here will suffice for most people for quite some time.)

Becoming Imperceptible (1)

Deleuze and Guattari repeatedly stress the importance of becoming imperceptible, but the idea remains poorly understood.

When this phrase gets tossed around today, especially on the internet, it's often to glorify obscurity. Deleuze and Guattari are used to justify a certain kind of hiding. Consider, for instance, the number of anonymous Twitter accounts emitting Deleuzian takes with esoteric usernames and illegible digital avatars. I take no issue with such stylistic preferences, and there are often good reasons for them, but they don't follow from a Deleuzo-Guattarian politics of imperceptibility. In fact, as I'll explain below, Deleuze and Guattari are clear that a characteristic of becoming imperceptible is having no need for masks and nothing to hide. This is only one example of how the notion of becoming imperceptible is widely misunderstood.

More importantly, though, I should begin with why becoming imperceptible is such an important and attractive idea. Not for Deleuze and Guattari, or even for their audience, but for everyone — including readers and listeners here who perhaps have no interest in — or possibly a deep skepticism or even contempt with respect to — French poststructuralism. The way I see it — and I must admit I am introducing some idiosyncratic elements already, but I will try to make good on them — for Deleuze and Guattari, becoming imperceptible names the peak experience of an agent in a process of liberation. It is the pinnacle stage of escape or releasement, to borrow a Heideggerian phrase, from everything that seems so good at dominating, confusing, and capturing our potential energy and capacities.

These forces of domination are called by many names in the Deleuzo-Guattarian register: the molar, the rigid segments, the strata, etc., among others. One of the reasons why the models of Deleuze and Guattari are so difficult to understand is that they seek to pinpoint the operation of these forces at a very fine resolution, but in the most general and abstract terms they can find — to capture a lot of conditional variances without getting lost in the weeds, remaining maximally applicable to diverse situations. The cost, of course, is an infamous cornucopia of unwieldy terms.

For shorthand, I prefer to call these various mechanisms of domination, as a set, the institutions. Everywhere we look today, we see perverse institutions, often ancient institutions in path-dependent zombie modes; these institutions are often characterized by obvious and extreme deceptions, internal and external; they often malfunction regularly in predictable ways, in ways that are easily solvable, and yet structurally prohibited by the very functioning of the institutions at some higher level.

Schools, criminal justice systems, pathological families, corporations, universities, media, etc.: all of these institutions are molar aggregates that require our participation and capture our possibilities, in ways that appear increasingly insane and undesirable to increasing numbers of people (if for extremely different reasons, or rather reasons stated in extremely different languages). For instance, a leftist may say the primary institutional culprits are labor markets and "institutionalized" racism and so on, whereas conservatives may point to the university, labor unions, etc. One of the reasons for the bizarre vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari is, I believe, to sidestep these ideologically conditional forking paths — not in some wish to be bipartisan but simply because these are institutionally captured pathways which foreclose access to the very problem we would like to solve.

At stake here is figuring out how to live under the weight of increasingly complex institutions that are increasingly good at reproducing themselves — to understand them not just philosophically but empirically — in order that we may outsmart them and maneuver with increasingly greater freedom. Something like this is what I mean when I use the term "liberation." In my own view, the scientifically valid identification of the mechanisms of liberation, and their diffusion throughout a culture, is all that "revolutionary politics" could ever mean. And while Deleuze and Guattari are somewhat coy about their ultimate stances on what a successful revolutionary politics would look like, I remain convinced that their theoretical project is essentially to map and model the mechanisms of what I would call liberation. In any event, no matter what register one might prefer today, almost everybody is interested in some kind of escape, exit, or liberation from some kind of opaque institutional pathology.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, becoming imperceptible is the crucial final stage of any genuine escape path. Not final in the sense that everything is completed once and for all, but final in the sense that it's the zenith of a particular, repeatable mechanism — the famous "line of flight." If they are correct, then everybody should be interested in what it means to become imperceptible. Indeed, if you wish to live at all today, rather than merely survive, increasingly you must become imperceptible. So we would do well to get this right...

In an upcoming post, I will explain the problem with being perceptible. After that, I'll move onto explaining how becoming imperceptible works, and what it looks like.

Student debt is worse than a bubble

I've often thought about higher education today as a kind of economic bubble, though I've always wondered if that's quite right. It seems to have the traits of a bubble: It seems overpriced, herd behavior and social conformity appear operative, and there's good data suggesting it doesn't do what it claims to do. But "bubble" is a fancy word easily deployed to describe anything that looks or feels vaguely unsustainable, so its informal usage as a term probably tends to overstate the economic significance of many phenomena. Student debt kind of feels like a bubble, but it's probably not quite that bad, right?

Well, I've recently learned that "bubble" is not quite the right way to understand the higher education problem. It understates the severity of the problem.

One problem for applying the bubble term to higher education is that you can't sell off student debt. The boom-and-bust pattern of the bubble phenomenon, requires that at the unsustainable breaking point of the boom, people realize the thing is overvalued and ditch it. Once this starts, others start selling off as they fear a continued collapse of the price, and they will sell at a loss if necessary (in the bust period, taking a loss now is at least better than taking a loss tomorrow).

I got this from Marshall Steinbaum of the Roosevelt Institute, who recently made this point in a Vice interview. Vice paraphrasing Steinbaum:

"…student debt couldn't explode in a traditional "bubble" because it tends to be unsecured… That piece of paper might become worth way less than you paid for it, but ultimately you're stuck with it."

So it's not that "bubble" is a naïve and fear-mongering metaphor for the problem of higher education: It's an overly generous and insufficiently alarmist metaphor for the problem of higher education.

The second reason higher education is not a bubble is that there is no path to relief for student debt. You can't default or go bankrupt from student debt, so even if nobody can pay their student debts, there is no mechanism for this to translate into a market crisis. The basic problems can be every bit as severe as a bubble, but we may never learn this like we ultimately do with bubbles because, ultimately, everything is held together by the US government. Though the US government is not holding this all together by absorbing losses, it's holding it all together by law enforcement on college graduates.

"You're not going to see the entire market bottom out, I don't think, like we did in the foreclosure crisis, because you won't see everyone default and then the bank is left holding the bag… Here, everyone defaults and the government just takes their wages, tax refunds, or Social Security benefits."

Persis Yu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center

There's a sad irony here. People want the US government to provide financial aid for higher education in order to spread opportunity among young people, but the US government's involvement is precisely one of the reasons why the student debt catastrophe is an inescapable nightmare for so many young people, rather than just a bubble that might have popped long ago.

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