Tutelary Gods

Culture, Justice, Media

Two commenters on my last post make the reasonable claim that in eulogizing Aaron Swartz yesterday I was guilty of reifying genius. That may be so. I do believe in genius. I listen to a lot of Bach, so it’s hard not to. And maybe you want to argue the point, or say that since genius also leads to The Bomb it’s an inherently suspect category, morally speaking. Maybe you think that just using the word implies an undue hierarchy of human worth, which is fair enough; there’s certainly historical evidence to suggest that it’s true, although I tend to believe that, on balance, more of humanity’s great creative minds and beings have been trampled down in their lifetimes and, if elevated, only posthumously, and only in service of something very much other than their selves and essences and all that. But when I said that Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death were an example of “a society intent on destroying its genius,” I self-advisedly did not say “destroying its geniuses.” Because that’s not what I meant.

I meant, rather, that our culture is uniquely cruel and unforgiving of creativity and difference. (I happen to believe that the former flows from the latter). I would just as soon make the same argument about the young girl who was punished for writing poetry that sympathized with the young man who killed all of those people in Newtown. The capacity to think intuitively or to feel empathically is held deeply suspect, particularly by the powerful forces of government and finance which, for all their talk of “creating” wealth and value, in fact view wealth and value as purely extractive. For all the supposed sophistication of our vast, computer-controlled, post-capitalist financial system, in effect we live in a period in which all worth is commodity value, which is to say, based fundamentally on supposedly natural scarcity. Aaron Swartz was not being prosecuted and made an example of because he “stole” some journal articles. No one gives a fuck about journal articles, and the few billions of dollars in the academic rights management industry are less than rounding errors in the global economy. What he represented, rather—and what many other internet “pirates” and such represent, from great programmers to college kids with bittorrent—is the extraordinary and dangerous idea that information is not a commodity, and that its scarcity is just a construct. How, after all, do you monetize something of which there is an effectively infinite supply?

But back to genius. I’m not going to claim that I was intentionally using the word entirely in its 14th-century definition, but I do believe in its sense of each person’s wit and talent and esprit and generative power. All people have genius, and when I say that our society is antithetical to genius, I don’t want you to imagine a skein of Van Goghs dying penurious with their work only getting noticed after death. Instead, I want you to remember middle school and the last time you felt depressed.

12 thoughts on “Tutelary Gods

  1. Good reply, even if it wasn’t Bernhardesque.
    I don’t want seem like I’m trying to make the author’s argument for him (or read words (or plurals) into his text), but a society’s genius is destroyed not only when it goes under-appreciated, unacknowledged, ignored, or ridiculed, but also when it is exploited for untoward purposes. Of course, that’s just my value judgment–as is my suspicion that Swartz was indeed a genius.

  2. on the other hand, there are sometimes good reasons for society to be “uniquely cruel and unforgiving of creativity and difference”.

      1. well, if we only treat “creativity” and “difference” to mean “ideas that improve”, then it’s hard to see good reasons for society to be so diversification-averse.

        but if we understand there to be “creative” and “different” ideas/ways of thinking that are actually harmful to society, then it’s easier to see justifications for intolerance.

        i hedge by admitting that, clearly, it’s not so easy to determine what’s good/bad.

      2. i kinda see where you’re coming from, but are you talking about harm suffered by the people that make up the society, or harm to “society”–an idea?

        on the security side of the equation, the harmful creativity within seems to be ever co-opted by the state and turned outward. an externalizing of risk, similar to how corporations externalize costs to improve profits. this just doesn’t fly, depending on one’s thoughts on equality.

        as for preserving the idea, or the ideals of a society, i’m even more skeptical. excessively large groups of people seem pretty bad at coming up with good ideas–ideas worth shunning for.

        admittedly, a society that values the ideal of security and embraces, even fetishizes, inequality, has a sort of perfect logic to it.

      3. i’d be arguing that it’s bad for the people who make up the society (not sure what society is apart from that–but not sure if it’s necessary to distinguish for purposes here).

        i can understand your skepticism. i guess i am as skeptical of the individual as i am of large groups.

        i just wonder: long-standing cultural traditions are long-standing because… what?

        my suggestion is that it’s because these traditions “work”. (at the very least, members of the society find the result tolerable.) i think this is particularly true in the case of large, thriving, and old societies.

        it’s really a matter of (unintentional? accidental?) empirics.

        the very existence of such a society is prima facie evidence that the society’s traditions are suited to human existence. that is, “withstanding the test of time” is really shorthand for practices that have been tested rigorously–across a large sample, over multiple multiples of iterations. (we may not know how or why the traditions are beneficial, but that’s sorta unnecessary information.) (it only becomes necessary if there is a fundamental shift in the kinds of adversities facing the society.)

        in contrast, the new/creative/different idea is, almost definitionally, one that hasn’t been tested–which suggests that the chances that a new/creative/different approach will “work” are slim. (we can only come up with so many variables to address in our creativity. there will always be the one [or one thousand] fatal variables that we don’t think of.) it’s in this sense that skepticism of the “new”, the “creative”, the “different” makes a lot of sense.

      4. i can understand your skepticism. i guess i am as skeptical of the individual as i am of large groups.

        seems to me the creative/different individual does not have much power to alter norms or traditions, he or she can only–insofar as they are willing to express their opinions and act freely–add a drop of influence to the ocean that is mob behavior.

        on the other hand, the uniform(ed) individual who is empowered, legitimized and backed by the mob. has a great deal of influence over the aberrant individuals they persecute/prosecute.

        this applies whether either individual’s acts are positive or negative. i know how i would strive to react in an unfolding terrorist situation, i have no idea what i would do, faced with a cop in uniform committing a brutality in front of me.

        the very existence of such a society is prima facie evidence that the society’s traditions are suited to human existence.

        like biological success? people have been around, what, a quarter of a million years? and societies? 2-3% of that time? humans are wily, so i could be wrong, but looks like this civilization thing might flare out in the next few hundred years. not sure how well that track record would speak for the notion. too early to tell, i should think.

        i do suppose ‘might makes right,’ in measuring which societies thrive while others flounder. that’s what it always comes down to for me: exercises of power, especially “uniquely cruel and unforgiving” ones, and the excuses We, society, makes for them.

  3. I would also argue that the ‘scarcity of information’ is not the only ‘scarcity construct’ of capitalism. ‘Scarcity’ itself is the construct that has been manipulated throughout history to reify hierarchy despite the fact that there need be no scarcity. And when I say that, I’m not implying that somehow there are infinite resources & we can all have a pool & a mansion and feast on fine caviar all day. Rather, we have always purposely poorly distributed the necessities of human life in order to privilege the few and enslave the many. Capitalism is merely the, as yet, highest expression of that purposive wastefulness whereby we expend 90% or our time and resources doing pointless things so that we can eat, when in reality there is plenty of food for everyone.

  4. you’re reminding me of a wee star of bethlehem (I’ve forgotten the latin for it ..other than something like leucan ……) … unfurling its blossom amidst the snow melting around it.

    I’ve forgotten what precise month they appeared, …poked so stunningly out of that ice, … as a child born in the horrifyingly corrupted by $Bling$ …… city of magnificent rivers, ….. but given that the lovely blue green planet has been shifting its axis …perhaps a few …are boldly blossoming now ….

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