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Troy Davis, or Lawrence Brewer

We have lost sight of the key lesson of all politics, which is that origins of political order are either insupportable, mysterious, or both. To know everything about the US Supreme court, the Georgia Supreme Court, the Butts County Superior Court, the Georgia Pardons Board, prosecutors and protesters, is to still know nothing about why the state should ever have a monopoloy on the unpunished use of lethal violence.

after Mark Kingwell.

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Meme Theory

Unfortunately, it’s easy for all this higher-order meme-talk to fall into self-parody or self-indulgence. The Internet acts as a fertile new breeding ground for ideas, a huge throbbing brain that hastens the process of memetic infection — usually for ill, or at least for banality. The memetic warriors of my own acquaintance—media critics and culture jammers and techno-anarchists of various kinds—spend an awful lot of time writing elaborate e-mails but not much time actually changing the world. 

Confidence in memes, though laudable, cannot be squared with global cultural software that is more and more in favor of profit-taking, resource delpetion, and blithe acceptance of yawning gaps between a prosperous few and an impoverished many. Spreading new memes is harder than it seems, because the other aspects of materialism, like who collects the profits in a consumer economy, are much harder to change than a dance move. 

Mark Kingwell (in 1999) for Harper’s, review of Cultural Software, J.M. Balkin

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"Consciousness is like the light trapped in the greenhouse of language."

— Mark Kingwell

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You’re Paying for the Design

The self as we experience it is like the graphic user interface developed by those proto-Macintosh visionaries at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, a comforting and simplistic piece of make-believe that presents a friendly visage, the familiar illusion of the desktop, masking the intricacies of machine code buzzing away below, all those marching zeros and ones. The conscious self is no more the whole organism than the interface is the whole computational system.

Mark Kingwell (1999)

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Three Stages of Capitalism: Stage Three

Suppose for a moment that there are three clear stages of capitalism, defined minimally as the dominance of markets by money.

The third stage, postmodern capitalism (for lack of a better label), is with us still. We witness both the cultivation and the manufacture of desire—and the wild proliferation of it. The market engine is still producing consumption, but now it is consumption of the self in the form of the consumer. We’re no longer interested in stuff, or even in the satisfaction that stuff promises; now we chase a certain idea of ourselves, as cool or fashionable or self-actualized. Thus the arrival of what we ought to call erotic capital, the most spectral form. I, with all my carefully constructed preferences for Pink shirts or Lululemon sweats, become the most desirable consumer product in the economy of taste. To paraphrase Slavoj Zižek, the superego is no longer a form of restraining conscience—Don’t do that!—but instead expresses the imperative of smarmy waiters everywhere: Enjoy! Consumption is both intimate and relentless: brand-conscious consumers cannibalize themselves, feeding on their jumble of layered identities.

Exemplary fiction: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Mark Kingwell

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Three Stages of Capitalism: Stage Two

Suppose for a moment that there are three clear stages of capitalism, defined minimally as the dominance of markets by money.

The second stage, late capitalism, is what caught the Frankfurt School’s gimlet eye in the middle of the last century. Now the engine of the system is the production not of goods and services but of consumption itself. That is, rather than merely cultivating longstanding desires in new aspirants, the mechanisms of economic growth must manufacture ever-novel desires using the feedback loops of the emergent advertising industry. Capital is reproduced, not merely accumulated: the shadowy shills of the culture industry want us to spend our way to wealth and happiness. Down on the ground, the individual experiences fractured selves, or multiple consumption identities, even while yearning for wholeness.

Exemplary fiction: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.

Mark Kingwell

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Three Stage of Capitalism: Stage One

Suppose for a moment that there are three clear stages of capitalism, defined minimally as the dominance of markets by money.

The first, classical capitalism, defines the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, more or less the moment that Veblen analyzed. The engine at this stage of development is the straightforward production of goods and services. In order to clear the markets of these goods and services, the system works to cultivate desire. Accumulated capital—in its most basic form, primitive hoarding—is spent on conspicuous demonstrations of waste in the form of leisure. From the individual point of view, the central goal is a self defined by the demonstration of good taste.

Exemplary fiction of the age: Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

Mark Kingwell

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Sunglasses Etiquette

There are those who have become obsessive about sunglasses in a way that comes close to high-functioning autism. These are people who expect you to know that their specially made frames come from the same Italian workshop that made the pair that Steve McQueen wears in The Getaway, before they take you seriously.

Deyan Sudjic, quoted by Mark Kingwell

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Democratic citizens

There is a simple reason why most contemporary democratic systems focus their energy, and their discourse, on how social services are delivered in exchange for taxes.

Democratic citizens, with their well-stoked individual interests and the priority placed on their own families, need not possess any conception of civic virtue. They need not participate with vigor in public life; they need not even vote. Systems of fining people for not exercising their franchise, as in Australia and eleven other democracies around the world, confess a basic futility. Such fines are just taxation by other means, a price I am willing to pay to be left alone. They are the equivalent of a parking ticket whose cost I will shoulder as a tolerable contract expense, not as punishment for a genuine violation.

The reduction of all fines to prices and all obligations to tax burdens shows just how comprehensive is the transactional contamination of democracy. If citizens are really consumers, forever negotiating the shoals of tax evasion, then it is rational to game the system. Smarter players will take the contest up a level and realize that you can game the system’s dominant myths as well as its material realities. From this vantage, the American Dream is the biggest long con in the history of politics, and the ultimate form of regulatory capture is not buying out a watchdog agency or taming a subcommittee chairman; it lies in keeping the narratives of democratic legitimacy and economic opportunity alive even when all the facts are ranged against them.

Mark Kingwell

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Big Bang Theory

We have lost sight of the key lesson of all politics, which is that origins of political order are either insupportable, mysterious, or both. To know everything about the  [Chinese] legal system, for example….is to still know nothing about why the state should ever have a monopoloy on the unpunished use of lethal violence.

Sooner or later all politics is realpolitik. And here, as Derrida said, discourse “meets its limit,” because there is “a silence walled up in the violent structure of the founding act.”

Mark Kingwell