Posts Tagged ‘theory’

Raw notes on the subject of Critical Mass

August 19, 2009

I’ve been participating in a couple online debates about Critical Mass. (one and the other)  I’ll do something with these raw notes a little later…

There’s a difference between making your world a better place and making the world a better place. Critical Mass, and really is developing community, connecting with real human riders only a selfish indulgence? Are the car driver stuck in traffic, who get angry, and not all the drivers get angry, happy in the current transportation system? Is it possible that cyclists are scapegoats of drivers and planners trapped in an inefficient, and frustrating system? Road Rage is a cultural phenomenon that has nothing to do with cyclists. Is the desire to shift traffic patterns, and create transportation alternatives selfish?

I read Luke’s post and think Critical Manners is more than somewhat open to interpretation. And fixed thinking, fixed meaning, the lack of open ability to interpret is, and I’m using this word with an understanding of the full possibility that you’ll recoil in smug indifference, fascist. I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure freedom of movement is a human right. I’d like to decide for myself, in community (read democratically) what that means, not have it decided for me by a self-legitimating power, or sycophants who ally themselves with that power.

One concern seems to be that this democratic expression (Critical Mass Ride) violates the rights of others. Are “freedom from delay” or “freedom from inconvenience” rights? I think it’s a stretch to call Critical Mass a violation of others’ rights.

Another concern is the flouting of law. Law is an institution of power, which in this case is confronted by a democratic multitude. But even this concern is weak. Critical Mass is a procession, like a parade or a funeral, a celebration of cycling in the city and as such it stays together. I don’t think the maintenance of a procession is too far outside accepted social behaviour.

We’re working with different definitions and not really understand each other.

Darren wrote:
“Just to be clear, you’re saying that if I choose to “ally myself with” a democratically-elected power, I’m a fascist? Does that make every citizen who voted for a government in power a fascist? That’s a peculiar point of view, particularly given the definitions of ‘democracy’ and ‘facism’.”

The definition of democracy on wikipedia includes this: “Even though there is no specific, universally accepted definition of ‘democracy’, there are two principles that any definition of democracy includes, equality and freedom. These principles are reflected by all citizens being equal before the law, and have equal access to power.”

By the standards in this definition we do not live in a democracy, and I’ve noticed over the past month that most of the people opposing Critical Mass are arguing under the assumption that we do live in a democracy or under a democratic government, when it would be more referent to our reality to speak of living in an oligarchy or under a pastoral government. I think it’s this confusion of definitions that places Critical Mass outside the notion of democracy in public perception (a confused public that also erroneously perceives itself as democratic.)

I wrote “allying yourself with power against those confronting power is” fascist. I said nothing of a democratically-elected power, because the terms cancel each other out. The creation of a hierarchy is the end result of elections, and hierarchic power structures are not democratic (by definition which requires equality) I’ll try to be more clear this time around because I think these definitions are very important for bridging the gap in perception that has been expressed in this thread.

Because of the difference in power between those who rule and those who are ruled, this can be seen when thousands of people are systematically excluded from the decision making process, (don’t confuse an exclusive decision making process with democracy, it’s an oligarchy, let’s call things by their name) the excluded are confronted with a decision making power, a power that must be contested.

The contestability of freedoms written or desired is the basis of confrontational politics. So you can check any list you want but when a multitude appears on bicycles exercising that freedom you’ve got your reality.

This debate was started by a police warning and monopoly capitalist media sensationalism. How are these institutions of power democratically elected? How then is public perception important to consider if it has been manipulated by these powers? We often see what we know, and we know how power informs us. Why do the people who ride in critical mass have such a different perception of the meaning of the event than those who read the Province or the Sun? (or who side with the police force?) Critical Mass is definitely confronting institutional and capitalist power. Things are not the way they are for no reason. To try to change things is to confront those reasons.

Those reasons concern the systems of money and power; systems which in no way can be referred to as democratic. These systems have criminalized dissent/protest. So yes, Critical Mass operates outside the system, democratically mobilizing in public.

My point of view may be peculiar to liberal capitalists who’ve accepted the misnomer of democracy, but there is a huge body of work called Critical Theory written by Jews who fled from Nazi Germany, this stuff is definitely the point of view of outsiders. And the link I put to the guide to a non-fascist life is definitely worth reading. And then there’s Noam Chomsky, he’s also written extensively on the illusion of democracy. Point is, if we called things what they are and restarted this conversation, which I’ll say it again, was started by the institutional powers of the police and capitalist media, Critical Mass would be the democratic expression, opposed by non-democratic, oligarchical, capitalist, armed power.
Which side are you on?

Do you see that we are at odds in our terms?

There are two clear, reasonably well written posts preceding, but are in no way addressed by your question. I tried to express earlier the communal and democratic appeal of Critical Mass, which you constantly reduce to “personal enjoyment” and then even the term “entitled” is anti-democratic.

You say there are “infinite ways to find personal fulfillment” and you’re totally right on the mark with that. What’s missing are ways to find free communal fulfillment. Critical Mass is a rare free communal event. In a democracy access to power is equal, there is no need to produce a title. Critical Mass is an expression of this social alternative, and in our current totalizing system, an alternative can only be confrontational. I think it’s necessary for democracy to create the ability to say, “We are here.” Critical Mass presents an alternative. And I think the issue you have is with the alternative. There are people in our social body who think differently, and in our representational system, they don’t really exist, but for a few hours once a month, the last Friday of every month to be specific, Downtown, between the hours of 5:30 and 8 or so. Would you like to pretend that difference doesn’t exist? And that the difference will not sometimes express itself in blocked flows?

Critical Mass is about more than traffic, it’s an alternative form of social organizing, free and democratic, which just happens to get in the way of law and order.

I think liberal capitalists need to understand that their order impinges on the enjoyment, more the full development of life of a multitude that desires that full development. This desirous multitude is without access to media of power and money(capital/resources) towards the process of communal and human development, and every once in a while, through different channels, this multitude will make itself known. This is the world we live in for now.

There is a major bias or false foundation in all the arguments against CM here. (except Morten who doesn’t express the bias at all. He clearly sees our reality.)

I’m talking about the uncritical acceptance of a democratic society.

Raul starts with this statement: “One of the most powerful manifestations of a democratic society is the ability of citizens to raise their voices wanting to be heard on policy issues.”

Is this really one of a democratic society’s most powerful manifestations? That’s it? …the ability to raise your voice wanting to be heard? How do you define democracy? How do you define what is not? One problem with empirical research lies in its inability to discover the unrealized possible. I’d contend that democracy is a Utopian notion worth creating, and that the society in which we’ve found ourselves (selves created and socialized, prior to that discovery (I’m just saying..)) is not democratic.

It, that we don’t live democratically, comes through in what Victoria writes: “I’m fully for having mobility options versus vehicle usage, but when mobs like Critical Mass take to the streets it seems that far fewer influential ears are prepared to actually listen to our cry.” We live in a society where a larger number of bodies are classed ‘mobs’ and where a lesser number of bodies are classed ‘influential’. And it is through obedience to this smaller influential class that our cries will be answered. This is not democratic, but pastoral society.

The expression of desire by the multitude in a pastoral society will logically lead to conflict. but Victoria writes: “Critical Mass has no place in civilized, logical protest.” And in a confused society, one that names things what they are not, maybe protest can be civilized, whatever that means to you, but in our world, where civilization is an imposition, sometimes called colonization, and to be civilized is to be obedient, protest can never be that.

The society in which we’ve found ourselves and its institutions are not democratic. (Morten gives a good example to show this. And then he writes: “the utopian and unrealistic notion that the masses are better equipped to do the right thing than people in power. (sometimes called democracy!) It’s a nice thought but fundamentally flawed because most people are not equipped to actually make decisions that are for the betterment of everyone – in the end we are all pretty selfish!” Morten doesn’t believe in the possibility of democracy!!) That we believe society and it’s institutions to be democratic confuses our perception of nascent democratic (self-determining) practices like Critical Mass. Do you know what democracy looks like?

Riding in Critical Mass I feel democratic.

I’d define democracy, like sustainability, not as a concept, but as a practice. I also see the Critical Mass ride as a democratic practice/act. This democratic practice has been called “illegal” and a “criminal act” by the monopoly capitalist media in Vancouver (see this and this ) What researcher of social movements would miss the trend towards the criminalization of dissent? (And in the history of social movements tyranny hasn’t quieted democratic voices. Voices don’t cry out to be heard because some form of government allows it. And if it is grudgingly “allowed” today it is only because we cannot be stopped.)

Are you open to being convinced of your bias, or that we do not live in a democratic society? If you define democracy as rule by anyone or everyone, then the descriptions of our society by Morten and Victoria showing us (the mob) being ruled by the few should be enough to convince you that we are not ruled/governed democratically. What’s interesting is that both Morten and Victoria are opposed to Critical Mass in much the same way, but Morten clearly opposes democracy in favor of a rule by those in power (the entitled few) while Victoria sees the same thing, the same way and understands it as democracy.

I wonder if I could convince you of your bias… I also called it a false foundation. I could also call it a presupposition. If you desired a democratic society, that would be idealistic. Believing that we live in a democracy is false, not idealistic. A false belief, is paradigm shifting, and a bias is clearly expressed in your conclusion: “I asked online – “when is the tipping point? when does disruption become unruly social order?”. I think Critical Mass creators and their proponents should re-think this and their strategies. A democratic society is a collaborative society, not a confrontational one.” Raul, you show a bias toward social order, an order you falsely believe to be a democratic society. Our contemporary social order is heavily mediated by money and power. It is exclusive, unequal, and hierarchical. In our society where the titled expect compliance, the untitled voices/democratic voices can be nothing other than confrontational. If you re-think your foundational paradigm, that a collaborative society is a society of equals is a democratic society, not a confrontational one, you’ll hopefully recognize your error. We are not a society of equals and as such the political order of the day is confrontational. We must assert our voices, against an oligarchical regime of money and power who call us “illegal”. Our voices are untitled and deemed illegitimate. This regime must be confronted until every and any voice is legitimate, until democracy.

What do we want? When do we want it?

December 18, 2007

In response to Clive Thompson’s A War of Words, in which he argues for scientists to begin speaking of theory as law, I write of the fascism in expediting social evolution through authority. I begin by reminding the reader and myself that evolution takes time. I finish with a call for more theory. (While sourcing some of the material, I read the article Thompson based his piece. (At least I think I read the source article.) Helen Quinn is far more measured in her argument and doesn’t make the suggestion Thompson relays. He links Quinn’s argument with evolution, but I think Quinn had in mind “the potential dangers of anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system.” Regardless, the Quinn “controversy” is worth reading.)

At Long Last

“At long last the search of knowledge will reach out for its due; it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!” (Nietzsche)

Darwin held back the publication of On the Origin of Species fourteen years. According to Joseph Carroll (2003) this was a good thing.

“What then, if anything, did Darwin gain through waiting for fourteen years before writing the final version of his work? There are three main forms of gain: (1) vastly more detail both in apt illustration and in considered inference, (2) an extended compositional process that resulted in an extraordinary density, coherence, and clarity in the exposition; and (3) one new idea, or at least a latent idea rendered explicit and available for development.” (p.39)

I mention this first as a sort of mental massage. Seriously, take it easy. Breathe. We’re getting there. What follows, an unfocussed post on theory, most of it anyway, was set in motion by Clive Thompson (2007), but he can’t take all the blame. We live in fast times. Or we think we do. Darwin’s theory, or the theory of evolution bubbled up out of social consciousness over 150 years ago and we’re still dealing with it, and we’ll be dealing with it for a long time to come. There’s no need to get into a panic. Hofstadter’s Law is a law for our times. It states that everything takes longer than expected, even when you take the law into consideration. I’m presenting this as much as self-help as advice. I too, live in a city, drink coffee and move about in a perpetual state of anxiety, a whole lot slower than desire. So to me and you, a little perspective.

Everything is constantly evolving, but evolution is so difficult to understand because the timeline is beyond anything we can easily comprehend. The evolutionary timescale, the universe, or the multiverse, the limits of space, the realization that every star in the night sky is a solar system; you can think these things but they are a little big, a little intimidating. But that doesn’t stop you thinking. Only death stops thinking. The perfect example:

In Jesus Camp there’s a scene, a wavy blond-haired boy is sitting on the stage, (this is how I remember it) he’s surrounded by all the other kids, the camera is on him, and you can see him thinking and he says something like, “Sometimes I don’t know if I believe it.” All the kids look at him, I don’t want to read too much into it, but he stops talking and that’s the end of that scene and line of inquiry. Even in that environment you can’t stop curiosity completely. Even in that environment of conformism and information control there’s variation, and where there’s variation, there’s evolution, or, at the least, divergence. This process takes time.

happy in the knowledge that a constantly changing vision has been replaced by a fixed pole.
There is a war going on between the Jesus camp and the Science camp. On the one side they’re fighting for God or absolute social certainty in politics and the other’s interest is political funding and free pursuit of inquiry. There’s a very real conflict of interests here. So Thompson writes, A war of words: Science will triumph only when theory becomes law. The piece was “inspired” by a recent essay in Physics Today by the physicist Helen Quinn, who suggests (according to Thompson) that scientists stop using the word theory (and believe) and refer to evolution as law, because the public understands the authority of law. Thompson makes clear this difference of meaning for scientists and people. He writes:

“While it’s true that scientists refer to evolution as a theory, in science the word theory means an explanation of how the world works that has stood up to repeated, rigorous testing.”

“But for most people, theory means a haphazard guess. It’s an insult, really a glib way to dismiss a point of view: “Ah, well, that’s just your theory.””

Quinn, and Thompson through her authority, suggest that to people who “understand that law is a rule that holds true and must be obeyed,” scientist should refer to their findings with certainty as law.

Clive Thompson is not a fascist. In no way am I implying that Clive Thompson is a fascist. I say this because I want to use the word. I could say euphemistically that he errs on the side of expediency when he writes, “Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle – in no uncertain terms.” And I could choose to see the play on words, the wit of “no uncertain terms” in the context of the article, but I choose, at this moment, to point out the fascism of those words in the social context. It’s probably best to refer you to Foucault’s Guide to a non fascist life. It’s a little too long to quote, but a very short manual for living, so I’ve typed it out in full here (not yet).

Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life

This art of living counter to all forms of fascism, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles which I would summarize as follows if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide to everyday life:

  • Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.
  • Develop action, thought and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.
  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
  • Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even thought the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
  • Do not use thought to ground political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
  • Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but constant generator of de-individualization.
  • Do not become enamored of power.

Thompson has crossed the line into fascism. (About retiring words, Thompson’s article suggests
theory and believe, and fascism is a word that’s been socially retired, I’d suggest, obviously that we bring it back, not in the sense of Hitler, but as Foucault writes “The fascism in all of us.” We need the word to confront the tendency. Theory, again obviously I like the word, and concept, I keep wondering if the suggestion is satirical, if I am missing the play, or the wit. But believe, I’ve worked it out of my vocabulary. “if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” (p30 Portable Nietzsche). This brings up meaning. Believe as used by science and believers, and theory used by science and believers. Weiner has a good line about two different uses of language.

Leave the dictates and decrees to the government and church. Scientists when speaking to the public, should speak as philosophers and educators. Norbert Weiner (1950) writes, “The functional part of any science cannot escape considering uncertainty and the contingency of events.” This view of the world and facts as moving targets has had social impacts, but is far from a world view. What Thompson suggests is counter to the educative quality of science. It’s science and theory and the masses educated in contingency that have been taking on the absolutist state and church so far. What’s needed for theory to set us free (my interest in theory is a little different from institutional scientists) is not that it become authoritative and law, but more theory.

When Thompson writes that the best result of changing theory to law is the linguistic jujitsu performed, he misrepresents theory, misapplies the martial art and underestimates the opposition. If, and it won’t happen, the scientific community were to speak of evolution as a law, creationists would say “I believe in one law: God’s Law.” There’s nothing gentle in changing an inviting and unfinished process of theory building into an authoritative infallible law.

Not Enough Theory
The argument that a frustrated theory needs more theory is more than 200 years old. Kant (1793) writes that impractical theory may simply be incomplete and “in such cases it was not the fault of theory if it was little use in practice, but rather of there having been not enough theory, which the man in question should have learned from experience and which is true theory even if he is not in a position to state it himself and, as a teacher, set it forth systematically in general propositions.” In his descriptively named essay On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice, Kant argues that “no one can pretend to be practically proficient in a science and yet scorn theory without declaring that he is an ignoramus in his field, inasmuch as he believes that by groping about in experiments and experiences, without putting together certain principles (which really constitute what is called theory) and without having thought out some whole relevant to his business (which, if one proceeds methodically in it, is called a system), he can get further than theory could take him.”

Quinn’s article is worth reading. An awareness of meaning is necessary for anyone interested in moving ideas around. The scientific idea of theory as practical or physical, the result of experience, the product of hypotheses, and Kant’s idea of theory a priori, of desire or metaphysical are both opposed to theory as an untestable whim. We can do without belief, at this point we could do without the word, but to take advantage of the meaning behind religious belief and substitute Law for theory is to trade on a notion of authority that the liberating power of theory and science has been subverting for only a few centuries now.


Thompson, Clive. (2007) A war of words: Science will triumph only when theory becomes law. Wired 15.11 p.102 November

Quinn, Helen. (2007) Belief and knowledge — a plea about language. Physics Today.
January 2007, page 8

Letters Language of science I: Theories and laws

July 2007, page 8

Letters Language of science II: Degrees of knowing

July 2007, page 11

Technorati Tags:: Clive Thompson theory language science evolution

Chapter 5: The Problem of Agency

March 16, 2007

I hadn’t read Chapter 7: Critical Theories of Technology, when Kant was recommended to me. In Chapter 7 Feenberg asks the question: “what can we learn from Marcuse and Habermas assuming that we are neither metaphysicians nor instrumentalists, that we reject both a romantic critique of science and the neutrality of technology?” Of course he goes on to answer that question for us. Now, One Dimensional Man is on my reading list, and I’m thinking about something by Niklas Luhmann, but I’ll have to ask around. What can we learn, and how can we use it to build the grand theory?

I’ve got the feeling that these quotes/ideas are going to be useful:

As in the factory or hospital or school, urban centers, media, even unions are reconstructed around the paradigm of technical administration. Expertise legitimates power in society at large, and “citizenship” consists in the recognition of its claims and conscientious performance in mindless subordinate roles. The public sphere withers; a literal silence is instituted as one-way communication replaces dialogue throughout society. (p.101)

The resulting weakness of democratic intervention into technology is symptomatic. (p.101)

The politics of sexual and racial identity returns agency to the individual but at a level that leaves basic technocratic structures untouched. (p.102)

Despite diminishing educational and cultural inequalities, social evolution continues on an authoritarian track. (p.103)

What we have learned is that even if no totalizing approach makes sense, the tensions in the individual system can be grasped on a local basis from “within,” by individuals immediately engaged in technically mediated activities and able to actualize ambivalent potentialities suppressed by the prevailing technological rationality. (p.105)

Social groups constituted by technology will reflexively turn on it.??????

It is this sort of agency that holds the promise of a democratization of technology. Technical politics foreshadows a world in which technology, as a kind of social “legislation” affecting every aspect of our lives, will emerge from these new types of public consultations. (p.105)

The problem is still the struggle against technocracy and its claim to an exclusive monopoly on rationality. But the solution now is to find radical political resources immanent to technologically advanced societies. (p.108)

Change in the system can destabilize its power structure.

“A thousand ways of playing/outplaying the other’s game, that is to say, the space that others have instituted, characterize the subtle, tenacious, resistant activity of groups which, for lack of a base, must maneuver in a network of established forces and representations.” From de Certeau

What de Certeau calls “exorbitant” practices are the equivalent of dominant language. Everyone must speak it, but marginal practices, like local slang, can give it a special twist. (p.113)

Where excluded members mobilize, political movements of a new type emerge that promise to create a lively technical public sphere.

Formulating local knowledge in a technical language that has legitimacy in the public sphere.