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Cultural Studies

The Culture of the “As If”

by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

Though both Wolfgang Kraushaar’s The Revolt of the Educated (Hamburg 2012) and Roland Gori’s The Impostor Factory (Paris 2013) analyze recent cultural phenomena by devoting particular attention to the recent financial crisis, the respective fields of research that are covered, as well as the authors’ approaches, differ very much. Kraushaar is a German political scientist and historian well known in Germany as a chronicler of the 1968 student revolution. In The Revolt of the Educated he provides an almost minute–by–minute report of recent protests like the Arab Spring as well as other protest movements from all corners of the world. Gori is a French psychoanalyst best known in France for his 2008 petition and massive collection of signatures from health professionals who opposed the standardization of their profession through – among other things – systematic evaluations. Still there is an element connecting the two books. Both detect the ‘culture of the “as if”’ as a phenomenon occurring in societies dominated by a formal and instrumental style of rationality in which the appearance can too easily become reality.

Protests in Algeria, January 2011 (Photo: D. Boussouh; released under Wikimedia Creative Commons License)

As a psychoanalyst, Gori analyzes human beings, societies and economies that base their procedures on a precarious “as if”. Kraushaar, on the other hand, has the approach of an empiricist historian, which makes his book mainly descriptive, entirely so for the first hundred pages. Kraushaar pays attention to details and literal documentations: a whole manifesto is quoted over three pages in small print. Because he refers mainly to newspaper articles, his observations are not impressive as such; what impresses is rather the range of his observations. Kraushaar knows as much about the “Chilean Winter” as he does about the position of Chinese academics, often called “ant tribes” in China because most of them have been jobless and live in poor conditions (p. 117). In the end, Kraushaar manages to draw a picture of the “new global protester” as an educated person, which becomes plausible also with regard to the Arab cases. Gradually the patient reader comes to understand that the world’s recent protest movements have two common denominators. First, there is the search for “genuine democracy” (whatever this is supposed to mean in the various cases). Second, there is the classical anti-capitalist refusal of objectification of human beings who want to be seen neither as products nor as mere consumers of products. In this sense, there is little difference between the American Occupy movement and the Arab Spring except for the fact that, according to an Arab protest organizer, in the Arab world protesters want to obtain new fundamental rights while the American movement attempts to correct and improve an already existing system.

The purpose of Gori’s book is to reveal a culture that uses all sorts of technical devices in order to produce a ‘fake’ reality. Gori’s pet topics are Kafkaesque evaluations (mainly in health institutions), the establishment of rigid norms that Max Weber had already recognized as a typical feature of capitalism, an economy in which money is virtual, and a reality that is “produced” by machines and computers which have begun to “think” in the place of humans. Gori writes: “In many areas of our existence, the absurd decisions and disasters are due to a too strict application of formal procedures, to the conformist submission to official protocols and to instructions that disrespect any down-to-earth experience” (p. 34). Gori sees humanist culture being eroded by the culture of statistics and invites politicians to read more Shakespeare and fewer manuals from the Chicago School. The culture of “normalization” creates a system of surveillance demanding “never ceasing visibility, permanent classification, hierarchization, evaluation, delimitation and constant diagnosis of the environment until all individuals have interiorized “the norm.” Administrations are busy fabricating files on practically everything. In this “informational capitalism” the human has been transformed into a neuro-economic entity which cannot (and does not need to) think because she spends most of her energy on grasping the displayed information.

Whose fault is it? Normally it is always the fault of those who are in power, but here the masters of the system are abstract because the system seemingly administers itself: “Everything unfolds as if the power is not so much detained by an identified and identifiable master but confiscated by master-networks that condition our existence” (p. 23). The present state of affairs is actually not to the result of an authoritarian regime but rather of a crisis of authority in public life. The mere desire for smooth functioning justifies the existence of functional systems – without questioning what those systems are actually intended to establish. Gori speaks from his experience as a clinician where the “obsession with ‘knowing in order to prevent’ has escalated to the point that new ethical problems as well as secondary effects of this politics of health security have become visible” (p. 69). In particular, we are dealing with a fake technicality through which the impostor legitimates the imposition of norms in questions of health, society, justice, police, education, and research. Gori identifies all this as a large system of impostures of which the financial crisis is only the most visible consequence.

Where is the link with Kraushaar’s descriptions of the “revolt of the educated”? One can understand the parallel only if one considers a premise that Gori spells out quite clearly. In the present culture of impostures we can no longer reliably distinguish between victims and villains. Instead everybody is a victim and a villain at the same time. This culture concerns all of us as we participate in it on a daily basis. Gori knows this from pathological cases on which he and his colleagues have been working: “For certain clinicians the ‘victims’ consent, though against their will, to suffering an imposture. They make an unconscious pact with their abusers” (p. 14).

Occupy Houston Flyer (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the case of the Occupy movement, the “revolt of the educated” had, from the beginning, the characteristics of an imposture. Where was the knowledge, where were the arguments, where were the masses of people in outside the banks and stock exchanges? The origin of Occupy is an internet network and not the real world; to be sure, the network became concrete once people could come together in the streets but its virtual character subsisted. A further feature of the culture of the impostor is excessive functionalism, which Gori constantly highlights as the malaise of the “normalized” society. It also occurs within the Occupy movement’s culture and is described by Kraushaar as such: “Nobody seems to have feared the danger of over-organization of the often not more than a hundred demonstrators” (p. 99) as they organized tent construction teams, first aid teams, catering through kitchen tents, music and games, garbage collections, laundry services, night watches, a web-based help desk, an internet radio… Hyperactivism and the establishment of formal networks that are not synchronized with real conditions are clear indicators of an “as if” culture.

Sometimes the manifestos of Occupy read like impostures in their purest form: “We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. (…) You have no idea what we are capable of.” (p. 141) Kraushaar is right in asking whether a movement that attempts to establish more transparency in the obscure world of finance should really hide behind the mask of Guy Fawkes (who was a terrorist). Of course, as Kraushaar recognizes, all classical protest movements lack the power to sanction systems; more often than not they lack the power to do real things, which is why they take to the streets. In the case of Occupy, however, the protest remains on a symbolic level that can appear extreme: ‘If we could, we would occupy Wall Street’. This is the revolution as an “as if.” Apart from that, the existence of the protesters is not firmly anchored in reality either: “Most activists lack a CV that could grant them a safe position. Economically and socially, they are literally hanging in the air” (p. 206).

Of course, all of this is not their fault: they have no real power, they cannot occupy factories and paralyze production facilities. But to shift the entire protest towards the virtual is also problematic. Occupy does not seem to be aware that they are joining the same imposture culture they are trying to combat. Or perhaps they are aware of it but have no choice. By adopting the technique of their abusers, they remain powerless but at least legitimate – though as an imposture. The lengthy procedure of participating in elections and making one’s way through parliamentary institutions (of which country?) does not appear tempting. And is “fake democracy” not also one of the items that Occupy is trying to combat?

Gori analyzes this phenomenon in his capacity as a psychologist: “How could this exposed and vulnerable worker who is forced to bear more than he can, not be tempted by the appearance, by the fetish, by political imposture?” (p. 28) In the end, everything will be dealt with in the form of an appearance. We evaluate the form and not what is hidden behind the form. Gori calls this the “conformity of references” to which he opposes the “culture of reliability” (p. 221).

Hand signals for use at Occupy assemblies: What's the sign for 'impostor'? (Source: Wikimedia Commons; released under CC Share Alike 3.0 License)

How does all this pan out for the Arab Spring? Here, too, Kraushaar laments the protesters’ inertia: “They prefer to tweet about grievances instead of repairing them. Because they get mainly organized through the internet instead of building in parallel organizational structures in social reality, they should have practically no chance against the Muslim Brothers. Mobilizing the masses is one thing, having political influence on the democratic process and shaping the future is another thing” (p. 195). Gori makes an identical remark about the culture of impostors: “The promise of social emancipation does not mix well with the imposture, they do not partake in the same kind of illusions” (p. 31). By contrast, the Muslim Brothers were “real” as they went into the poor areas of Cairo and Alexandria and organized charity-based social structures.

Gori’s book is often off-focus because the lengthy technical (!) descriptions of psychoanalytical matters read as if they have been added in order to ‘pad out’ the book to a certain length. Kraushaar’s book, too, is often not the most exciting read, because of his excessive fascination with details, but it displays an impressive esprit de synthèse through which contemporary phenomena become clearer. Both items, (1) the assessment culture of constant evaluations and the tendency to capture everything (including humans) in the form of data bases or biometric profiles, and (2) the ongoing international protests sparked by an often vague sense of dissatisfaction, are the events that dominate contemporary culture like perhaps nothing else. To locate links between them is important. The obsessional instances of suspicion, control andnormalization that Gori describes, create a vertigo that tends to blur the reasonable interactions of the everyday lives of normal people rooted in real places. Gori contrasts this sterile procedure with the work, in the medical profession, of the experienced ‘artisan’ who uses his practical reason; the “real person” does not calculate but judges (“apprécie”).

Experience has shown that the culture of the “as if” does not work in the long run. In the realm of economics, the “financialized” world of numbers simply collapsed in spite of the experts’ professed ambition to be, first of all, precise and to take precautions. What is interesting is that, even in those recent social uprisings that speak out against the ‘fake’ economy of the “as if”, one can feel the vertigo of the virtual. When subjective and objective reality lose contact with each other, the result is necessarily a culture of the “as if.”  What follows from this realization is that we should try to exercise judgment within an appropriate topos instead of depending on universal and abstract calculations (as increasingly happens through the use of computer programs). Both Occupy people and champions of ‘assessment culture’ will probably immediately  object by claiming that “topical structures” are relativist and lead to corruption. However, what we need to realize is that the purely formal, ‘context-free’ rationality is just as corrupt. Gori makes this point forcefully clear by listing some “statistical lies” that have led to disasters from the Vietnam War to the present crisis in Greece. Once reality is expressed by “experts” through numbers it can be manipulated even more easily.

Wolfgang Kraushaar: Der Aufruhr der Ausgebildeten. Vom Arabischen Fühling zur Occupy Bewegung
(The Revolt of the Educated: From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement)
ISBN: 9783868542462
Price: EUR12.00
Hamburg, Hamburger Edition, 2012, 253pp.

Roland Gori: La Fabrique des Imposteurs (The Impostor Factory).
ISBN: 9791020900296
Price: EUR21.50
Paris, Les Liens Qui Libèrent, 2013, 314pp.

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait. He is the author of Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, Wong Kar-wai (2007) and has written a number of books on topics ranging from intercultural aesthetics to the philosophy of architecture.

(c) 2013 The Berlin Review of Books.

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