Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The present ‘world dis-order’

Bernard Stiegler, referring to the battle for the attention of (particularly young) users of technical devices such as smartphones, writes about the ‘dis-attention’ that results from this. What he has in mind is the manner in which capitalism, not wasting any opportunity for marketing, uses these mnemo-technical devices to disrupt the flow of attention on the part of their users to re-direct it towards products and services. I the process, the potential learning that could have occurred through a process of what Stiegler calls ‘critical intensification’, made possible by these very devices, is squandered, and the attention of consumers captured for marketing purposes.

‘Critical intensification’ is intimately related to knowledge which, in turn, is more than a mere accumulation of so-called ‘facts’. (Ever wonder what a ‘fact’ is? It is an agreed-upon interpretation of an event or a ‘state of affairs’, in Wittgensteinian terms.) ‘Knowledge’, as opposed to information, always entails a cognitive relationship, which can be articulated in language. To be sure, there is also something called ‘intuitive knowledge’, such as that which artists employ in the creation of artworks, but to be able to grasp how this functions, one has to resort, once again, to concepts expressed linguistically.

To use smartphones, laptops and tablets for ‘critical intensification’, therefore, means to gain access to, and understanding of, the vast archive of historically accumulated information available to us – which is not only available in electronic format, but in book-format, too – and in the process of appropriating such information transform it into ‘knowledge’. But be forewarned: true knowledge acquisition in this age of exchanging one’s own ability to think, and to memorise, for external memory devices is not easy. It requires nothing less than learning to think, and to remember, again.

There was good reason for Alexander Pope, writing in the 18th century, stating: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain; And drinking largely sobers us again”. One notices the symptoms of ‘shallow draughts’ all around one today. Unless one embarks on the path of knowledge, which is not easy, you are bound to remain prone to the ideological fantasies of the present world (dis-)order, which underpins the unscrupulous capturing of people’s attention by marketing agencies through the means of electronically mediating devices.

By analogy with Stiegler’s notion of ‘dis-attention’ (the capturing of attention by marketing ploys, through the use of electronic devices), one might talk of the ‘world dis-order’ of the present era. Just as attention becomes ‘dis-attention’ when hijacked by the monodimensional gaze of of the ubiquitous marketing apparatus, so, too, ‘world order’ becomes ‘world dis-order’ when the ideology in which this apparatus is rooted, is left unchallenged. And to challenge it, knowledge (in the sense described earlier) is indispensable – knowledge of what constitutes knowledge (as opposed to information) in the first place, secondly of the homogenising effects of the market (appearances to the contrary notwithstanding), and lastly of the threat of concomitant destruction of cultural differences by such homogenisation.

This is what is meant by ‘world dis-order’ – the way in which the hegemonic capitalist system is disrupting the historically constructed diversity of cultures, tending towards – but never quite attaining – the establishment of a capitalist monoculture in the place of a rich tapestry of heterogeneous cultures. Why ‘never quite attaining’? Because, as globalisation studies have shown, the impact of homogenising capitalist culture on local cultures tends to lead to various appropriations of this culture that produce ‘hybrid’ cultures – a kind of mix of the globalising culture and the local.

Why ‘dis-order’ and not ‘order’, then? Because of the destructive effects of an economic system that reduces everything to the principle of exchange, or what Deleuze and Guattari think of as the quantitative axiomatic of capital, which is incapable of registering the irreducible lifeworld qualities of different cultures, and even less the singular cultural appropriations, within these cultures, by groups and individuals. The point is that ‘value’ in capitalist terms can only be articulated in terms of quantity – that is, as money – while the fundamental experience of value is ineluctably qualitative, as ‘something’ (an experience, an artifact) that is valuable.

Who can express the worth of a healthy life in strictly capitalist terms? Just as an example: a life lived in clean mountain air – as in the case of myself and my partner, and of many other people all over the world – that constitutes ‘wealth’ of a qualitative kind that cannot be assimilated to the narrow category of ‘financial wealth’, and in fact far surpasses it. The same goes for traditional communities across the world, where age-old customs are the source of intrinsic value. But the more the world is colonised by the Midas touch of capital, the more these pockets of value are disrupted by it, and the value systems that have governed social life in them displaced by homogenising capital.

To illustrate further what I mean, in his magnificent study, ‘The Enemy of Nature’ (2002; 2007) Joel Kovel relates the story of travelling down the Amazon river in a dugout canoe as a graduate student around the middle of the 20th century, and visiting indigenous communities living along the banks of the river. He describes these communities as flourishing, with subsistence hunter-gatherer economies, living healthy, culturally rich lives in huts decorated with traditional motifs. To be sure, there was nothing ‘modern’ about these peoples’ lives, but they were patently contented, with no signs of malnutrition or other ailments. A few decades later he repeated the journey, and was aghast at what he found; in the interim mining companies had moved into the area, and had recruited young indigenous men for work in the mines. The indigenous communities had largely disintegrated, and alcoholism was conspicuous. As Kovel points out, these communities’ fate was sealed when (the virus of) money had been introduced, and these people had emblematically been exposed to ‘the real thing’, Coca-Cola. This is a tangible example of what I mean by the ‘dis-order’ of capital.

There are many other manifestations of it, not all of them negative. For example, Manuel Castells, in the second volume of his trilogy, ‘The Information Age’, titled ‘The Power of Identity’ (2010), observes that the present era is witness to a different process of identity construction than the modern age, which is coming to an end. Of the three forms of identity construction that he distinguishes (2010: 8-10), namely, “legitimising identity” (which is dependent upon dominant social institutions such as religion and education), “project identity” (that is attached to the utilisation of cultural material by social agents for the construction of novel, socially redefining identities, for instance feminism) and “resistance identity” (which emerges in the course of resistance against processes of exclusion and alienation), it is the latter (“resistance identity”) which is probably the most important type of identity construction for present society. This is evident from the appearance of collective resistance against what is widely experienced as contemporary forces of oppression, specifically of identities that have clearly been determined by cultural, historical and/or geographical developments and forces.

Among the “key processes” that contribute to the construction of collective identities today, Castells (2010: 12) lists religious fundamentalism (Christian and Moslem), as well as nationalism, ethnic and territorial identities. This comprises, according to Castells, processes of communal resistance to the dominant social structure which he has famously called the “network society” – another name for contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, too, draw attention to the manner in which the force of what they term Empire, provokes (sometimes violent) resistance from traditional societies. These are manifestations of what I have here characterised as ‘world dis-order’, brought about by the imposition of neoliberalism on societies across the world, and which ought to be resisted in creative ways by everyone who values a life that escapes the dreary monoculture of capitalism.

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