The Queen’s Gambit, Batman, and the Fantasy of the Human Instrument

The Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit, at least in the first couple of episodes, seems to me to be a bit like Batman. An orphan is lost and alone and finds meaning in the wholehearted dedication to a single purpose. Whether it’s fighting crime or playing chess, both seem to be a dramatic illustration of Viktor Frankl’s principle “one who has a why to life can endure any how”.

Frankl’s proposition seems particularly compelling in environments where a person is deprived of “everything else” (a bit of a stretch for Bruce Wayne, I know). It is their total deprivation that allows them to become an instrument, in the sense of having a single purpose.

I don’t know where the show is going. For example, I don’t know whether the single purpose will be a jumping board from which the protagonist will grow into a well-rounded person. It could be. But it seems to me now that other interests, namely boys, are portrayed mainly as a threat.

In any case, it seems to me that these heroes are essentially embodiment of modernity’s ideal of specialization and the rationalization of labour. We all occupy a spectrum from generalist (having many moral commitments and needs requiring a more or less wide variety of knowledge, skills, judgment, and sensitivities to meet) to specialists (excelling in some particular thing that contributes to the larger whole of society in a way which relieves others of requiring any knowledge in the matter).

The people we look to as heroes are generally people who sacrificed a great deal in most of their moral commitments in order to do something exceptional in some one area. I don’t know if there are any films or television shows made about the “great generalists”. Indeed, the people who spend their lives rejecting the specialized nature of modern society (e.g. homesteaders) have themselves really just become just another kind of specialist. This is evidenced by the fact that to accomplish the ideal of self-sufficiency one necessarily has to extricate oneself from the tangled morally compromised web of moral commitments one is born into in society.

What would a film or show about a truly great generalist look like? How can a society produce what is it not even capable of portraying fictionally?

Dewey’s idea of liberal education gets us some way there. (I wish somebody would make a film about his life!) But that remains a masculine generalism of privileged irresponsibillity. Perhaps a film like Mamele might be the answer, except it’s entirely personal in its politics.

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Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again–OR–On Perpetual Crisis and Productive Nostalgia

Before there was the CW series Riverdale, there was the 1990 made-for-TV film “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again“. The film is a hilariously awful and vacuous depiction of the gang in their mid 30s returning to their hometown. Notwithstanding how bad it is, I think it can’t help but teach us something about crisis and the productive potential of nostalgia.

The film begins with Archie and his non-descript yuppie fiancee, Pam. They are getting ready to move to “the city” where Archie will practice law at a big firm. Before he goes, however, he must attend a Riverdale High reunion weekend. Jughead, a divorced, single dad psychiatrist, will also be there, as will, you guessed it, Betty and Veronica. Betty has her own non-descript scumbag boyfriend (aptly named “Bob Miller” thank you very much) and Veronica has been through countless fiancees and 3-4 marriages. They’re all unhappy in this post Riverdale future.

High jinks ensues. They save Pop’s diner from being bull-dozed. Betty and Veronica throw themselves at Archie, who sort of resists them. Jughead tells Archie his inability to choose is due to a retrogressive fixation on the past. When Archie suggests he’s moving on, Jughead tells him he’ll miss the old Archie. When Archie points out Jughead is contradicting himself, Jughead assures him that’s what psychiatrists do. Ultimately, Pam leaves Archies and Betty leaves Bob, and everyone decides to stay in Riverdale. When Betty and Veronica tell Archie he has to choose, Jughead’s kid conveniently interrupts and the movie happily ends.

At first glance, it seems like “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” is a film about not choosing. It’s about not giving up on the past while acknowledging it has inevitably changed. It’s about preferring, over a definite “city-life”, a teenage fantasy of perpetual indecision because it “knows us better”. They choose to live in a history that may have never been.

However, this so-called “indecision”, it seems to me, remains profoundly alluring political choice for many and is in this way a choice of its own.

If crisis is about social contradictions manifesting in ways that make business as usual or any kind of moving forward impossible, this is a movie about choosing to dwell on history and live in perpetual crisis over the bland uncaring promise of progress. The “city” is about the only thing decisively rejected in the film. Why do the characters make this choice?

One telling scene is when Pam comes to visit Archie in Riverdale. After getting in his car, she throws an old bottle out. Archie picked up the bottle in an earlier scene from the Riverdale dump while he and Jughead sifted through deeply nostalgic trash (including inexplicably an old sock). Pam doesn’t understand any of it. He tries to explain to her why he cares so much about saving Pop’s, basically saying “Because it was ours.”

That seems to encapsulate the film’s answer. The city is profoundly dislocating and dispossessing, but even garbage is special if it is yours.

Ultimately, the writers were not so lazy as to leave things simply in a state of crisis. Betty is able to confront her lack of romantic fulfillment which spurs her to succeed in her dream of being a writer, as a romance writer. Veronica is finally pushed to speak to her father about something other than money. Jughead connects with his son.

The CW series aside, Archie has long represented a nostalgia for a bygone era that probably never existed anywhere and is therefore dangerous especially in our current absurdly nostalgic times. Yet “Archie: to Riverdale and Back Again” in having the characters confront their own nostalgia for their younger selves may unwittingly teach us a lesson about productive nostalgia. That is, in not simply accepting the “inevitability” of a certain kind of progress, and thereby being willing to live in crisis, we create the possibility for actively questioning why that revered past that was “ours” was taken from us in the first place. In so doing, we may not get back the world we think we had but instead find a much better one.

For more on the politics of inevitability, see this blog post on the caring labour of political action.

New Forms of Power: Reflecting on Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is a popular anime part of a sub-genre in which a protagonist, disempowered in the real world, enters another world (e.g. video game, time traveling, fantasy world, etc.) and often becomes a powerful and central figure in that world.

On one level, this sub-genre is simply about escapism. On another level, people’s tendency to create worlds in which their particular talents and skills are valued actively reshapes this “real” world. So, for example, while a few generations ago the particular mix of skills and personality traits that make up a successful film maker, rap artist, YouTuber, or gamer didn’t necessarily translate to any real-world clout, it is now a means by which thousands of others may listen to particular person.

Furthermore, once established, these worlds tend to be self-perpetuating as others seek to attain the success modeled by those who have shown what the world. Though, they may also pass out of fashion, as for example military leadership which once (and still in some societies does) played a central role in a political power has been overtaken by skills once upon a time unheard of (e.g. social medial campaigning).

It may be observed that escapist tendency to create bubbles, to the extent that it preserves the overarching structure of power, is really just shuffling around chairs. But there are material consequences to creating worlds in which some skills and not others are valued. There are also material consequences to creating worlds in which some vices are tolerated or encouraged. This is not only true because people get sucked into these bubbles, but because inevitably they are not air tight and those who rise to the top of them may gain the means to have a much wider impact.

The irony therefore is that the escapist may get exactly what they want. We must therefore be careful in our fantasizing.

Corporate Culture-A Work of Legal Fiction

It was once a land of great prosperity. Even then, though, it was a land of extremes. Or at least that’s what the history books say. It’s been hundreds of years since government dysfunction, natural disasters, and internal conflicts turned it into the greatest quagmire of human suffering. Little is known of the people that remain there now as they are physically cut off from each other and the world and are suspicious of strangers besides. Still, those few brave souls that have managed to make the trip and come back alive have brought strange rumours of what goes on. I suppose it is only natural that a society pulled apart by extremes, if left alone without even the checks and balances of others would only get stranger.

I was just a young anthropologist when I first heard the story from one such traveler. In almost a whisper, he told me of a large and apparently flourishing community far inland that worshipped a corporation. I was both intrigued and aghast. We had long ago done away with these “legal fictions” when they became far too powerful. Yet here was a society in the midst of utter chaos that not only kept them but deified one! And they managed to flourish?

I had to see it for myself, whatever the risk or cost. Was there some secret that we, in our rush to be rid of the old ways, had missed? At the very least, it would make a fascinating series of articles and a monograph on a fresh topic.

Naturally, it took months to get the funding, proper approvals, and arrange the passage, but this was somewhat expedited due to my urgent plea that this odd community could be swallowed up at any moment by the natural or political instability of the continent.

Getting there was no small task. When I finally arrived at the place the traveller had indicated on the map, I was a little disappointed to see a rather ordinary town. Of course, an ordinary town amidst what I had seen elsewhere was odd in itself, just not the kind of oddity I had hoped for. When I came into town, a woman in uniform came out to greet me. On her shirt was simply written “K Corp”. I explained who I was and what I was doing there. Without any apprehension, the woman said, “You’ll want to speak to someone from public relations. They’ll be able to answer your questions.” With that, she handed me a glossy print-out of the map of the town and pointed to a building simply named PR.

After a short walk, I stood in the hall of the PR building where a man greeted me with an eerily friendly smile. “You must be famished from your travels. Why don’t you come into Meeting Room 1 with me and we’ll have some lunch.”

“Thank you,” I said, and followed. After a sufficient lunch of mediocre egg salad sandwiches and juice, I took out my recording device.

Before I had a chance to ask anything, he began, “I understand you have some questions about our way of life. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. We are in a growth phase and we believe there are a lot of opportunities for personal investment here. You’re aware of the problems with our domestic situation no doubt, so foreign direct investment is welcome.”

“Thank you, that’s very generous of you. I will certainly share what I learn as widely as I can,” I said truthfully. This seemed to please him and he began in earnest with an enthusiasm I can’t remember ever seeing in a person.

“As you know, the Great Divide tore apart our world long ago. All around us, many died from war, famine, disease, and other disasters. Our ancestors, however, survived. A great leader, an entrepreneur, saw in all the chaos a business opportunity. Our ancestors, his employees, understood his great vision and followed him. In exchange, he took care of them. As long as they served the bottom line, their interests were his interests. As the chaos grew, so did the company. More and more sought security among its ranks. A steady paycheque, a warm office, family benefits… these were the difference between life and death. And for a while it worked, but all natural persons are flawed. You have that saying where you’re from, right?” I nodded, not wanting to offend. “And even our great Founder, may his name be preserved in our Minute Book forever, began to err. As he grew more successful, he invested less and less back into the company. He spent more on himself. He spent less time making decisions and the products suffered… the people suffered. It was almost as if the bottom line and the people’s interests were not the same, may it never be so resolved!” He shuddered, but with an audible relief, he continued. As he did, I marvelled at how, though it seemed to be well rehearsed, he looked as though he was giving it over for the first time.

“But you see the bottom line did eventually begin to suffer. The Corporation itself punished the Founder and he soon died in an earthquake. Though he could not see it, his accomplishment could not be undone. He had given birth to the Corporation, but there was no heir. Without a natural person to pervert its vision, the Board and Officers could carry out its will unmediated. Their task was an awesome one and though they faltered at first, unanimity soon reigned. The Founder, after all, had selected them carefully. The Corporation alone has protected us ever since. We are all only accountable to The Bottom Line. Our interest is its interest, and as you see, we are very comfortable.”

The whole thing was quite astonishing, but I wondered what it all meant in practice.

“A people lives by its calendar, and we are no different. Not only does each individual have their own personal holidays according to their place in the Corporation, but we all come together several times a year. Once every five years, in April, the Board goes on a Retreat wherein they must be completely secluded and purified so that they may determine the Corporation’s Strategic Plan. Each year, they Retreat again to ensure they are on track to meet the Corporation’s Goals and Metrics, by which we all live. This is a period of great anticipation and anxiety for us all, since it is not revealed to us until the Annual Staff Meeting in May. April, in general, is a time of self-reflection for us as each must take stock of their accounts and see how they have contributed to The Bottom Line. Performance evaluations determine who will be promoted and who must be… let go.” The pain in his voice told me all I needed to about what that might mean and so I didn’t ask.

I asked if they had any belief in an after-life. “Of course! At the age of 18, all employees have the opportunity to incorporate. It is only then that they receive their true name. Mine for instance is 1795643677 Inc. We believe that life before incorporation is inherently temporary. You are merely a natural person, cut off from your fellows. You may wish with all your heart to serve the Bottom Line, but ultimately, your pay is alienated from the Corporation. Once you become an incorporated employee all that changes. You can become a wholly-owned child of the Corporation, a subsidiary, whose whole purpose is to serve it. Your bottom line is its bottom line, and though you may have your own balance sheet and your own annual report, you can become truly part of the Great Annual Report. In exchange, you are granted perpetual existence. Indeed, we have a Department dedicated to maintaining the corporations of our ancestors.”

While my own society was far more technically advanced than this one, they seemed to be in touch with a dimension of existence we had totally lost touch with. The idea of being so devoted to something greater was at once monstrous and seductive. With all my training, I should have known how to extricate myself, but I simply could not.

“And does everyone get incorporated?”

“Well there is a fee involved with the process but for those who cannot afford it, the Corporation has set up a foundation.”

Potato Soup

The chef herself came out and, quite pleased, laid the soup out before customer.

He took one look at it and said, “What is this? I ordered potato soup!”

The chef, undeterred, replied, “Yes, I did try to include some potato in it. In fact, to complement the potato, there’s also dill, onion, and garlic.”

The customer’s look became steely and his voice began to rise, “I ordered potato soup. There should be more potato! You can’t get potato soup anywhere in town and we both know why. It’s not right. There should be more potato.”

The chef’s looked a bit impatient. There were, after all, many more meals to prepare. “I hear what you’re saying. I’m aware of the issue and we’ve been making an effort in the kitchen lately to add more potato but we have many customers to feed and they’re looking for different things…”

“Yeah, and who are your customers?” The customer interrupted.

But the chef continued, “and besides which, we have nutritional targets we need to hit. You need a balanced soup.”

What seemed like common sense to the chef certainly wasn’t to the customer. “Your nutritional advisors thought potatoes were poison until two weeks ago! How can you talk to me about balance? Last week you included kale in all your salads until we all woke up and realized it causes head explosions.”

The chef knew where this all led. She had been involved in many such conversations. It was part of the job and yet the kitchen depended on her moving on. “We were as surprised as everyone else about the kale. We have learnt the lessons and changed our recipes.”

The customer looked indignant, “The dangers were all known! Don’t tell me you didn’t know.”

The chef suddenly looked tired. “Look, I got into culinary school because I like making things for people not because I’m a scientist. People come, they order, I barely get home before midnight much less have the time to sort through all the science. I wouldn’t understand it if I did. Enough people enjoy the soup to keep the restaurant open. That’s my job. I am sorry if you don’t like the soup.”

The customer had much more to say, but just then someone called from another table, “Excuse me, Chef, but this soup needs more onion.”

Polarization, Aggregation, and the False Anti-Democratic Promise of Microtargeting

“…it has always been no less dangerous to discover new ways and methods than to set off in search of new seas and unknown lands…”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

Politics is not only unpleasant but difficult. It requires bridging the infinite gulfs between people’s metaphysically irreconcilable worldviews and conflicting desires. Out of the rock of these apparent islands, the politician is tasked with building the bridges on which most people must travel.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could just order in? If the goods we all want could just show up on our island one day like an Amazon package (perhaps by drone)?

That is the false promise of microtargeting, which is the practice of communicating distinct messages to increasingly narrowly defined segments of the population (e.g. through Facebook ads).

Why go to the trouble of writing a speech, law, or policy that weaves together all the disparate views into a coalition capable of propelling the politician forward, when you can merely aggregate the support you need one micro-constituency at a time by giving each some discrete good or promise? While they’re busy at home, you can remold or neglect the landscape as you please.

But make no mistake, it’s a false promise. People may be able to draw their blinds and eat their piece of the pie at home alone or with family and friends for a while, but eventually they will look outside. It may be that every time they looks the weather is a bit worse encouraging them to stay in a bit longer, but sooner or later the banks of the river will overflow and the flood will force them out.

When they do, they will notice the crumbling bridges, the broken sinews of the body politic.  Something will happen and they will recall why it was people first drew together in common life (or at least so the story goes). But they will be cut off and what could only be accomplished together will simply not be possible.

But necessity is the mother of all invention. And when the political technology of aggregation is revealed for what it really is, something new, or perhaps something old, will have to come.

Individual in Relation to Collective Legal Need

Law is the embodiment of the attempt to balance conflicting demands on our shared lives. This follows from what I have said about democratic listening and political knowledge. Some of these demands will be grounded in legal needs. By legal needs, I mean normative needs that only law can meet (see chapter 4 of my MA thesis). These laws will in turn make demands of individuals and will thereby create legal needs in the sense of need from legal services to cope with the demands of the law. For example, a nonprofit corporation may have to make annual filings for the sake of transparency, which is a legal need insofar as it is an important step to preserve healthy democratic institutions.

Consequently, a legal demand may arise from a problem that someone else has and particularly in cases of mass non-compliance, surveying individuals will not accurately capture the existence of this unmet need.

Even if all the people would be scribes: An epistemic foundation for universal democracy and its limits

“And Rava bar Meḥasseya said that Rav Ḥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: Even if all the seas would be ink, and the reeds that grow near swamps would be quills, and the heavens would be parchment upon which the words would be written, and all the people would be scribes; all of these are insufficient to write the unquantifiable space of governmental authority.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 11a)

The passage above is classically interpreted as impressing upon a lay audience, to whom the decisions of government must often seem inscrutable, if not simply irrational, how much the decision-maker must consider with every decision that the external audience doesn’t see.

This may seem at first glance to be apologia for any given regime who can always use this line to justify itself against its critics. And yet, in it lies precisely the democratic rebuttal against any such elitist excuses. That is, it imagines a world in which “all the people would be scribes”. It setting out the expansiveness of what government considers, it also, seems to me, to empower each individual to set forth the legitimate criticism that “you did not consider me.” Of course, it is open to government to say that they did and that this does not necessarily mean that particularly interest or perspective will be satisfied, but it must be given its due weight.

Furthermore, in imagining each individual as a scribe, it seems to me to express a certain theory about the “data” which governments must deal with. That is, the natural world offers the source of people’s experiences which they take in, and in response, people express themselves on the parchment of the heavens (i.e. pure potentiality, the reach beyond our grasp to mix metaphors, which is what politics consists in). People must not be considered as mere passive facts, but as authors. Note that, understood this way, this passage perfectly reflects and deepens the division of epistemic labour between people and politicians that discussed here and here.

Universal democracy is achieved “when all the people are scribes”. The franchise is merely one narrow aspect of people in their capacity as scribes. However, this passage cleverly articulates how even if universal democracy were achieved it would not exhaust the scope of what governments ought to consider in their decision-making. There are concerns beyond people’s views which necessarily may bear on any given decision.

Nonprofit Disruptive Economics

“Necessity is the mother of all invention.” so goes the proverb. In a way, this is the opposite of what Austrian economist, Friedrich Von Hayek teaches. Hayek, building on an economic tradition that long left behind the concept of “need” argues that inequality in the economy benefits everyone, because the rich will demand things no one else can afford. As the market meets these demands, they’ll naturally seek greater efficiencies and make those products ever more cheaply until most people can benefit from things we never imagined we needed. It’s a pretty compelling argument and can be seen in everything from computers to billion dollar drugs.

Disruptive economics, on the other hand, works in the exact opposite way. By catering to a segment of the market that has been left behind, it is forced to develop creative solutions that are as cheap as possible and builds on them later to attract consumers with greater income. At first, disruptive economics seems much more egalitarian. Yet these platforms, once they scale with the help of investments by existing finances become sources of inequality themselves.

Is there any way we can get the best of both models of innovation without the inequality?

At the beginning of his masterpiece, Discourses on Livy, Niccolo Machiavelli asks whether it is better to found a city in a place that is rich with resources or has scarce resources. The advantages of a resource rich city are obvious but he contends this leads to social ills. The disadvantage of a city with scarce resources is obvious but he argues it creates sturdier citizens. He concludes the way to get the best of both worlds is through the artificial necessity of law and taxation. How does this apply to modern economic development?

Every day, public benefit nonprofits meet the needs of those who the market have left behind. In so doing, they develop solutions that have the possibility to not only improve the lives of their constituencies but others too. For instance, creative urban farming, artistic and civic education models, co-operative housing, and much more. Where government support allows these projects to scale, it enables these solutions to spread without creating the inequality that for-profit provision does. This is because of the artificial necessity imposed by laws that prevent the distribution of profits.