Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

Imagine that you are at a party. As parties go, it is nothing particularly out of the ordinary – there is music, there are beverages of various kinds, some of the attendees are known to you, others not, the usual processes of clustering  and semi-spontaneous interaction are in place. For most intents and purposes, this is a party, with all accompanying prospects and pitfalls.

Thing is. You have to write a paper, due tomorrow, with a respectable attention to detail and a healthy number of references. And you have to write it whilst also attending the party, chatting, interacting, possibly imbibing a non-trivial amount of the aforementioned beverages. It would not do to let your social responsibilities slip; it also would not do to turn in that paper any later than it already is.

Truly, this is quite a predicament.

Taken metaphorically, this predicament is akin to how Byung-Chul Han would describe contemporary society. We are all having to write a paper, but we also have to attend to our social duties. Only, writ large: we are always connected to the swarm chattering of social media, and always have to respond to it in this way or that. Something happens – we have to know what it is and how to relate to it. Someone says something to us – we have to respond, lest we are rude. Someone says something problematic – we are called upon to join in the chorus of those denouncing it. Albeit with varying degrees of intensity, there is always something going on, some aspect of the party requiring that we attend, paying our attention and social dues.

Of course, Byung-Chul Han would object to this specific metaphor, on the grounds that real life physical parties no longer happen in the way implied by the description given. Rather than being discrete, isolated events unto themselves, parties are increasingly mediated through the swarm connectivity. You are at a party, and you are at the same time live-reporting from said party, uploading images and sharing whatever impressions might be relevant to your peers. Something happens, and rather than being an event in the physical, it is an event mediated by the swarm; the vent becomes an opportunity for a great Instagram photo, our followers are going to love it. The metaphor of the party breaks down – parties themselves have been deconstructed by the very swarm propensity I endeavored to exemplify. The process has always-already taken place.

You still have to write that paper, though. And you are no less distracted for it.

Leaving the party metaphor aside, we are left with the constant distractions. There is indeed always something going on, some new story, some new controversy, something – and the constant attention we pay to these things amount to a whole lot of attention, with little to show for it in terms of tangible insights. The most brutal example would be those tuned into the constant news item that is Trump: there is always something going on (ever with an unreciprocated level of emotional intensity), yet the constant constancy gives scant reward in terms of received or accumulated wisdom. Despite the many names, facts and intricate turns of events to keep track of, the end result of being constantly attuned is a constant state of being tired and emotionally drained.

And that paper is no closer to being written.

The paper is also a metaphor. It might be a literal paper, but it might also be any project that demands a non-trivial amount of time sitting down paying close, undivided attention. Long-form writing is a prime example of this – nothing about writing happens by itself, and the only way to get it done is to power through it, alone, undisturbed. It is a common enough trope that authors engage in isolation to eventually emerge with a social artifact – paper, book, article, poem – but it is also a fact of writing as a practical activity. All tomorrow’s parties might already be here, but that does not make them a productive writing environment.

For Byung-Chul Han the concept of isolation is a very real. Isolation is, paradoxically, a side-effect of the swarm: by being in constant communication with the swarm, something is lost when it comes to communicating with those not in it. They are not in the loop, they do not know the news or the memes; the lack of shared frames of reference makes it hard to strike up a conversation. Yet, at the same time, the conversations with the swarm are not conversations at all – they consist almost exclusively of references to news and memes, a performance of being in the loop and knowing the current words. The connection is also an isolation. The others in the swarm only know you through your performance, just as you only know them through their. Should you meet them in an everyday random encounter, you would not know their faces or their stories.

Towards the end of the short book, a question is raised: who is the political subject in a situation where everyone is a personal brand? Who, in the age of constant representation of individuals, are we? To be sure, the performance of reacting to the latest news story or presidential mishap might feel like a communal effort. But what kind of community is that? What political capital can be leveraged from a mass of hyperconnected individuals whose attention constantly flitters from one disconnected story to the next? Would they stop for a moment to read your blog posts or poems about something as untimely as watching the clouds?

In the swarm, readers are discursive anomalies.

Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

Jacobus: Romantic Things

What does it mean to look at clouds? To look at them and just look, letting the impression sink in and the thoughts amble as they please? To sit, stand or lie for a moment, not doing anything in particular, not thinking in any particular direction, just – in the broadest sense of the word – looking?

Similarly: what does it mean to spend time in the company of trees? What do they say with their rustlings and murmurations? What do they whisper as we walk past them, sit under them or touch them?

On that note: what stories do rocks tell us, about things on timescales human and geological? What secret histories can be gleaned from these inanimate – yet enduring – objects, were we just to pay attention?

Jacobus’ book is a very specific book about very unspecific things. To be sure, the subtitle a tree, a rock, a cloud mentions three specific things, but the book is not about these things. It is about the unspecific processes that takes place when we as human subjects behold and confront these things – looking at the sky, listening to the wind, prepondering a giant rock. The subtle sense of self on the one hand and the world at large on the other, and the sublime dialectic between the two.

We all feel this to some extent, sometimes more than others. On particularly shitty days, when things just seem to keep on piling up, it is all we can do: just look at the clouds for a moment and process, until we have recovered enough momentum to carry on. On less stressful days, we might slip into a spell of introspective musings, looking upwards and inwards at the same time. Some days we might even – time permitting – set aside for just being under the sky, doing nothing in particular.

These shared experiences are very much nothing out of the ordinary. Though, these experiences are shared only in the sense that they occur to each and every one of us. They are seldom talked about; indeed, it would be met with mild incomprehension to openly say that the next thing on the agenda is to watch the clouds or listen to trees. For being shared experiences, they are notoriously difficult to share.

Not least in the light of the fact that there is always something else going on; the demands of capitalism and/or the immediate social situation impose themselves, prompting our attention and participation. There always tends to be something more immediate to concern. No time standing around doing nothing.

Jacobus manages to write about these things in very specific ways. Trees, rocks, clouds; these things stand in as representations of the process of subjectively experiencing. In relating to these things, we relate to ourselves. The process wherein we do so is not mechanical or neutral, but rather a subtle web of relating, relationships and associations which eventually find themselves reflected in who we (think we) are. Things never just are; there is always someone in relation.

Traditionally, these things have been the domain of poets, painters and philosophers, and thus it is no surprise that Jacobus draws upon these discourses in her discussions, primarily Wordsworth and Derrida. The gift Jacobus presents to us in the form of this book is a way to relate subjective experience with the thoughts found on paper or canvas. Looking at clouds becomes connected to the world of art and philosophy, like we always knew and suspected it was; and here, in this short book, we can see the connections made plain, available for further ponderance. And further discussion.

It is quite an accomplishment.

Jacobus: Romantic Things

Benson: Another shooting in cowtown

Another Shooting in Cowtown does not end up where you would think it would end up. Of course, where you think it would end up depends on where you encounter this strange text. If you, like me, encountered it in a reader (this strange word for a book of texts; who is the reader?) on rhetorical criticism, you might reasonably expect it has something to do with the pandemic of mass shootings that have plagued the US over the last decades.

The text does not cover mass shootings, however relevant such a title would be for contemporary discursive and rhetorical practices employed by media actors and politicians. It is tempting to say that there is another text bearing the same title, brutally implied but not yet realized.

The text at hand, though, is about media actors and politicians. Specifically, about how they intersect to create the messages average citizens are confronted with on a daily basis (more often in election times). Even more specifically, about that one time an academic scholar of political communication was invited to partake in the creation of the political communication of a particular political candidate in the late 70s. The titular cowtown is just that – a small burg in the middle of the vast American nowhere; the shooting refers to the creation of political television ads.

The driving question behind the text is this specific intersection: what happens when an academic confronts the thing he has spent so much time reading and writing about? Or, phrased another way: what happens when the process of making sausages is laid bare?

Of course, Benson, being a proper academic, questions whether it is ethical to join the production of political advertisement for a particular political candidate in an ongoing election. On the one hand, such participation might be construed as an endorsement – especially if he happens to be proficient at it. On the other hand, nothing is more informative than direct access to the empirical data, and gaining insight into the process of political communication is relevant to a scholar of political communication.

On the third hand, if he did not go, they would just hire someone else; it is the nature of modern division of labor that individuals are replaceable and interchangeable.

He joins.

What follows is a shooting. Surprisingly, it is not unlike a high school shooting, in that the film crew runs into unexpected difficulties and overcome them by means of deadline-inspired improvisation. The process is much more ad hoc than the finalized product would indicate, and at some point during the proceedings Benson realizes that this does not matter. Or, to phrase it in slightly more informative jargon: the detailed study of result is not as useful as an a priori understanding of process, through which a better study of the result might follow.

The production team is divided into three overlapping parts: the technical crew, the bureaucrats and the person who ostensibly runs the show. The technical crew are those who hold the cameras, adjusts the mics, and in every sense of the word gets things done. The bureaucrats hold the money, and the meetings, and the documents – everything that goes into getting the message (only the one message, mind) out. The person who ostensibly runs the show is also the least important character in the story: it is his face and voice that is to be broadcasted across the mediascape, and his input into the production process is optimally minimal.

Or, phrased from the point of view of the politician: people come, they record the thing, they leave.

This state of things has implications for rhetorical criticism. And, indeed, for our understanding of political communication in general. While the finished ads are designed to make it appear that the politician does and says things, these things are determined by persons who are not him. Some of these things are determined by what the party bureaucrats want: positions, catchphrases, concerns about image. Some are determined by production factors on the day of recording; if something goes wrong, the improvised solution is what gets included in the final version. And if the bureaucrats and the crew disagree on something, this has far more impact on the messaging than the candidate’s opinions.

What does it mean for political communication that the politician is only barely involved with the communicative process, outside the need to be the person caught on tape?


Benson: Another shooting in cowtown


If you spend any time at all in spaces where discourse (or, if you prefer, Discourse) takes place, then odds are that you will encounter the word ‘intersectionality’. It is a strange word, which manages to attract both too much and too little attention, both at once. This anomalous state of things deserves some more discourse headed its way.

First, the word itself. Intersectionality is frequently used as a noun, but it does better as an adverb or adjective. Treating intersectionality like a noun, a thing, does strange things to the mental categories we bring to bear when grappling with it. There is no such thing as “an intersectionality”. There are, however, plenty of things that are intersectional. And it is possible to apply an intersectional approach.

This might seem like a subtle point, and it is. It is so subtle, in fact, that bringing it up would be a waste of words and online space, were it not for the peculiar fact that this is so often misunderstood. Verbosely misunderstood, at length.

To say that something is intersectional is to say that it tries to take many factors into account at once. For example: an intersectional analysis of a book could discuss aspects of race, gender, class and international supply chains, all at once, and relate these aspects to each other. The point of discussing all these aspects is that each have an impact on the book in question, and they all have to be considered in order to understand the book.

That’s it. If you can read and understand the above paragraph, you have understood everything you need to know about intersectional approaches. Everything else written about it is just an aid in getting used to the idea.

This raises two questions. The first: it cannot possibly that simple, can it? The second: hold on, did you just say international supply chains?

It can possibly be that simple. Do not be fooled by the length of the word – it is only slighter longer than an intersection. Moreover, do not be taken in by those who have seen the word used by women that are feminists and thus oppose it on reflex. You have it within your power to understand this word, and I have complete faith that you will choose to do so.

As to the international supply chains: yes, I did say that. ‘Looking at many aspects of something’ is an empty concept unless you bring along your own aspects, and international supply chains could be one such aspect. You are, by and large, free to choose whichever aspects you want – there is nothing that says you have to pick this or that aspect by default. Whichever you choose is up to you, and up to which ones are appropriate and/or applicable to the analysis you are trying to make.

By virtue of tradition and general applicability, the most frequently chosen aspects are gender, race, class, sexuality and a few others. These tend to be universally important, and thus relevant to many cases. Leaving them out would mean important insights are missed, which is not optimal. Thus, many intersectional analysis you encounter are likely to include these; it would, given the assumption of a shared physical universe, be strange were this not the case.

At this point, a third question might arise, as to whether or not all aspects chosen for a particular analysis are of equal importance. If an analysis looks at gender and race and class – does that mean these are all equally important?

The short answer is that no, it does not. The slightly longer answer is that it depends on what you are trying to do. If you, for instance, are writing an intersectional analysis of Martin Luther King, you will most likely find that there are interesting things to say about the gender and class dimensions, but that race was kind of a bigger deal. The point is not to enforce some sort of false equivalency between the categories of analysis, but to find out what interesting things can be said when they are all considered together, all at the same time.

History does not deal with counterfactuals – things happened the way they happened. But an intersectional approach would open up for asking interesting questions and learn something useful out of attempting to answer them. Interesting questions such as: what if, ceteris paribus, there was a Martina Luther King?

The statement “but that’s not what happened” is true. And rather uninteresting.

All things considered.


Rational Atheists vs the Bible

It is a common enough refrain these days to hear someone burst into spontaneous anti-religious rants every now and again. It happens, especially to self-proclaimed rationally thinking atheists whose critical prowess is thus put on display in these extemporaneous discourses. Indeed, it is at this point as much liturgy as anything else, the point of such extensive expoundings being more to foster a sense of community among those who agree than anything else. Or, perhaps, to spark arguments with those who disagree, for similar performative reasons.

In either case, more and more of these self-styled atheists have come to a point where they have to make a choice. It is in all aspects a crisis of faith, and the choice stands between this style of loudmouthed atheism – or perhaps more properly Atheism – and the professed virtue of critical thinking. The two come to a head, and it is uncertain whether either will win out over the other. It could, like all crises of faith, go either way.

Truly, a discursive anomaly if there ever was one.

One flashpoint of this crisis of faith is the Bible. Focusing on it is natural enough from a capital-a Atheist point of view – given its status as the revealed truth of the dominant religions of the English-speaking world, it would be somewhat of a stretch to focus on other religious works. Focusing on far-off religious writings of distant religions wouldn’t have quite the same sting as battling the behemoth at home; at best, it would be an attempt to show off one’s familiarity with the big books of the world, at worst, it would be an attempt to pander to some manner of latent xenophobia and suspicion of unfamiliar things. No, to be a proper Atheist, only the strongest opponent will do, lest it all comes to empty gesturing.

The thing about the Bible, though, is that it is necessary to have read and understood it in order to understand the history of Western civilization. Trying to grapple with the trends and forces at work over the last centuries without understanding the influence of biblical teachings and metaphors will inevitably run into a brick wall. Not only will the motivations of many of the important actors remain inscrutable and opaque; the very language they use will be impossible to decipher, clad as it is in biblical imagery and allusion. Whether it be 16th century English parliamentary sessions or the 20th century speeches of Martin Luther King, any attempt at understanding will lack a necessary component, and thus fail in an undignified manner.

The challenge is obvious. If there is some well-defined contextual understanding necessary to make sense of past events, then not attaining this understanding leads to a deficient view of both the past and the present. Given the self-proclaimed adherence to rational and critical thinking, embarking on a quest that is doomed to fail is a self-contradiction of the highest order. Rationality demands that the proper tools be applied to the task at hand, and any critical approach that insist on failing by design is not critical enough. Indeed, willingly denying yourself the tools you need is the explicit opposite of the critical and rational method proclaimed to be preferred. Which is the crux of the matter and contradiction: a too dogmatic adherence to the Atheist creed that the Bible is Bad leads to a deficiency in the very values espoused by this very creed.

The way in which someone deals with this challenge reveals important aspects of their character. And, more so, the character of their beliefs. If they acknowledge the inherent historical significance of the bible as a text, and develop an understanding of it in historical context, then they have made a significant stride towards radically critical thinking. If they, on the other hand, stick to their Atheist guns and denounce the Bible out of hand, then they have chosen creed over critical and/or rational thinking, and should be approached accordingly.

Thus is the nature of this particular crisis of faith. The Bible is not the only flashpoint for this contradiction, but it is one of the most obvious. There are other issues where this dynamic comes to bear, to be sure, but the general pattern is that “rationality” and “critical thinking” become mere talking points. Whether you are a believer, agnostic or a lower-case atheist, this is not a development which aligns with your interests. Too much is at stake to leave these concepts to those who shout about them the most and apply them the least.

Rational Atheists vs the Bible

Booth: the Company We Keep

What is the point of writing? Moreover, what is the point of writing about what others have written? Even more over, what is the point of reading these metatexts?

There are a number of answers to these questions, and most of them begin with the words “it depends”. It depends on the text, why it is read/written, and what result is expected to be gained from going through the motions. There is no one mode of writing, or reading, or metareading; there are as many as there are writers and readers, and it all depends.

This makes for awkward discussions with regard to why writing or reading happens – for any one answer that comes along, there are any number of other possible answers that are equally legitimate for other circumstances, different or similar. Trying to agree on one singular answer or – more dramatically – settle the issue once and for all would most likely only end in dissent or conflict. As one answer comes along, another equally good answer accompanies it, and choosing one over the other becomes a matter of circumstance.

It becomes very much akin to choosing which book to read during a non-hurried moment: a question of taste and what readings happen to be at hand. Or, phrased another way: which company we keep.

Booth uses the metaphor of company throughout the Company We Keep. Books are friends, which we keep around because they make for good company whenever we want or need them. In the act of reading, we are in the company of the text and the motions it performs during its course. In the act of writing, we provide company for someone else as they (eventually, maybe) read our words and take in what we have to say. The point of writing thus, at some level, becomes to provide good company, and the point of writing about what others have written is to become a part of this company of friends. And, perhaps, to shed light on what it is these texts do that make them such good company.

Being in someone’s company is to be in relation to them. Your presence affects the other, and their presence affect you. What you say and how you act has consequences, and the same goes the other way around. There is an ethical dimension to being in someone’s company, and Booth reiterates this ethical dimension again and again. Reading certain books will affect you in some way, and writing certain books will affect your readers in some similar way. You are in the company, and you are the company; thus is the dual nature of reading and writing.

Booth stresses that this ethical dimension has significance for the act and art of criticism. Indeed, the quality of company a particular piece of writing brings is one of the main aspects to critically evaluate. Not merely if the text depicts its subject matter accurately (although that is an important part of it), or if it provides all the facts needed to properly understand said subject (which is important too), or even if it is well written in a technical sense (which, again, is also important). These qualities can be either excellent or lacking, and a proper critique will have to take them into account, but they are secondary to the overall quality of the company the text provides. A critic asks: what manner of friend is this text I describe?

Somewhat counterintuitively, this is more important when it comes to writing a positive critique than a negative one. The purpose of a positive critique is to provide the knowledge needed to appreciate the good parts of something (and to draw attention to these same parts). To do this, it is necessary to convey why and how the good parts do what they do, and to gently introduce the context at hand. It is akin to standing next to a statue or a monument and pointing to different parts, explaining what they are and why they matter. The point of the extended expounding is to, when all is said and done, have a shared understanding of the present situation. A critic is not merely providing a technical description, but also the patient company of a knowing party who wants you to know, too.

A negative critique may or may not share this same ambition. If it is well written, it does. But, in this day and age, it might also just want to point out and emphasize that something is bad, in general. This is an easier task, which requires less attention to detail and nuance. It is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition, but we are willing to trust the opinions of our present company when they proclaim something to be bad; the fact that they proclaim it with such emphasis and pathos means there must be something to it.

For this reason, it is more common to see critics tear things down than bring praise. It is an easier thing to do, and listening to someone go on about something with confidence lets us borrow from this sentiment and feel confident as well. In uncertain times, being in the company of someone who can proclaim which things are bad is a comfort, and more than one critic has made their name by virtue of projected confidence alone.

Booth does not object to giving negative critiques, or of tearing something down should it be necessary. But he asks us to consider what manner of company we provide when we are doing what we do, and what insights our discoursing brings to our readers. If the only thing we are able to bring to the table are reasons why everything sucks, it might very well be that we are not being a positive influence on our peers, who enrich their understanding of what they see, read and feel. We might not be as good or constructive company as we think we are.

This extends to the topics we choose to write about. Every text is an introduction of the thing it depicts, and as good companions it behooves us to make good introductions to our friends. If, on reflection, we discover that we have only written about bad things and why they are bad, then those who have partaken of our company have been introduced to many a bad thing, and the company we have kept have been exclusively with these bad things. Whether or not it was our intention, the result is that our readers are now more familiar with the bad than the good. Our friends listen to what we have to say, and if all we have to say is to expound endlessly on the evil things in this world –

Why, we might not be the company we want to be. Or company worth keeping. Or reading.

Booth: the Company We Keep

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

Being in the world is a counterintuitive process. On the one hand, all the parts are already in place, and the only thing to do is to react to them. On the other hand, merely reacting to things as they are is no way to be. To be sure, most of life is navigating the tension between these two poles, with the focus shifting from one time period to another. At some times, life is 100% crisis management mode, where making sure that the situation is under control is of paramount importance. At other times, life happens at a more indirect pace, where the task at hand is to – if you’ll pardon the wordplay – build a life for yourself.

This second part is no less dramatic for being indirect. More often than not, the only difference in terms of drama is that it takes more effort to appraise the situation. The paradigmatic example being someone’s school performance. From a direct point of view, it may appear that everything is going fine and according to plan; arriving on time, doing the work, getting the grades. From an indirect point of view, though, the feat of going through the motions may lay the groundwork for unhealthy or unsustainable habits later in life. This may or may not be readily apparent at the time, and may or may not be possible to alleviate if given proper attention, but in terms of building a life, it is hard to say whether the one is more important than the other.

Hyde is a rhetorician, and as such focused on the strategic aspects of intentional communication. In the introduction to the anthology The Ethos of Rhetoric, he naturally discusses the nature of the concept of ethos. Ethos in the context of rhetoric, as you might be aware, relates to a person’s character: their presentation, their force of personality, the personal aspects of them in particular that makes them persuasive. Just as communication in general is always tied to someone doing the communicating, ethos is always tied to the person holding the mic or the pen. Ethos is personal – it relates to the qualities of the person and the aspects of their discourse affected by these qualities. In a sense, ethos is a being in the world.

Hyde takes hold of this sense, and expands on it. For Hyde, ethos is not just a quality of some immediate discourse (a direct quality), but also a feature visible in more indirect ways. While a person’s character is undoubtedly visible in their immediate communication, it is also visible in other ways: the topics they choose to discuss, the manner in which these discussions take form, the recurring tropes therein, etc. Moreover, it is visible in such indirect aspects as architecture, decoration and aesthetics. Ethos, for Hyde, is not just a one-off affair: it encompasses all the things.

Attentive readers will note the use of the words “being in the world” and their Heideggerian connotations. This is no accident; Hyde is very explicitly taking off from Heidegger in his discussion of ethos. Ethos is a way of dwelling in the circumstances we find ourselves in, the ways in which we carve a piece of the world for ourselves and in our image. As humans, we may find ourselves thrown unbidden into the world and forced to confront it head on as is, but while we are here, we might as well leave an imprint on the parts we have control over. Our imprint.

This is, to be sure, a very general notion of ethos, more akin to its modern day incarnation of branding than its Aristotelian guise of arête. Which is both a point and the point. As a point, it serves as a reminder not to get stuck in the technicalities of neo-Aristotelian terminology, and to be open for other ways of looking at discourse in general. (This point is especially addressed to practitioners of rhetorical criticism, a group who gets their own chapter in the anthology.) As the point, however, it strikes closer to home, even to non-rhetoricians: we have it in our limited power the capability to affect our being in the world, and upon becoming aware of this, an imperative to do so in a responsible and reflected manner.

This, then, returns us to the starting point of the counterintuitive nature of building a life for oneself. On the one hand, we are faced with a myriad of choices every day: what to wear, what to eat, where to go, who to interact with, what to say. The immediate tactical tactility of everyday life. But we are also faced with the indirect choices of how to shape the way we live, the spaces we inhabit and the possibilities of our future selves. The one begets the other, both ways, and it becomes an ethical imperative to ensure that they work in tandem to take us where we want to be. Moreover: it becomes a responsibility to help others find ways to harmonize the two, and find a sustainable way of being in the world.

Hyde, being a rhetorician, mainly discusses the ways we do this in discourse. By discussing some things and not others, and by discussing them in some particular way rather than some other way, we give our readers and fellow humans a way of looking at the world. When they read our words, they are dwelling in a particular viewpoint, and get to try it on for size. Here, again, the ethical imperative returns: to provide others with the means they need to successfully navigate the tension between what is, what could be, and what should be. Our words are not ethically neutral, and upon being aware of this, we are compelled to ethical action. To do good and, if possible, better.

The point of writing is to give others words to live by. It is, at once, a comforting and terrifying thought.

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric